While lockdowns were in place around the globe, we relied even more heavily on technology to live our lives. The demand for faster and more reliable internet access, especially as many of us continue to work and learn from home, had led to increased pressure for the introduction of 5G. Before we get too excited (or worried), let’s take a look at what this could mean for society and for our environment.
In the last 12 months, we met colleagues in virtual meeting rooms, we took online yoga classes, we had Zoom quizzes and dinners with our loved ones, kids attended virtual classrooms, e-commerce was our go-to for anything and everything we needed (and a lot we didn’t need), we tuned into live-streamed music, comedy and spent a LOT of time on Netflix. According to carbon transition think tank, The Shift Project, the energy consumption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is already increasing by 9% every year. So why are we investing in 5G?
5G is now available in some form or other in over 30 countries and some of the US’s biggest mobile providers, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, are on board. The widespread rollout is still expected to be a couple of years away, mainly due to the need to manufacture 5G compatible devices. So, before we get too excited (or worried), let’s take a look at what this could mean for society and for our environment.
First, what even is 5G?
5G means ‘fifth generation’. 1G was the first iteration of wireless technology and was the tech we used for the first mobile phones which had only voice call capability. 2G went from analogue to digital and brought us text messaging. Then 3G made mobile internet access possible which brought about the smartphone revolution. 4G upped the ante, bringing us video conference and gaming to our mobile devices.
5G will supposedly be 100 times faster than 4G! We won’t get too much into the science as that could be a whole piece by itself but in an article by Renee Cho for Columbia Climate School, Cho summarises it well “beyond speed and connectivity, 5G also has ultra-low latency–latency is any delay in communications–and 1,000 times more capacity because it is expanding into new frequencies of the spectrum. This will eventually make wireless Internet possible everywhere, from smart cars to the Internet of Things (IoT), which can connect all kinds of devices and sensors through the Internet and allow them to communicate without human involvement.” In real terms, this means that with 5G, we will be able to download data that would now take hours, almost instantly.
Concerns and conspiracies
We seem to have reached peak ‘conspiracy theory‘ in the 2020s with more springing up online every day. From Beyoncé being part of the Illuminati to Sandy Hook Deniers to QAnon, you don’t need to look too hard to find outrageous hypotheses on the web. The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to countless of its own, including coronavirus being a hoax or that it has been caused by 5G. One UK Facebook Group, Stop 5G UK, has over 20,000 members and shares the belief that coronavirus originated in Wuhan China just after 5G was introduced and that the pandemic is a coverup for 5G related illnesses. While we were all on stay at home orders and social media usage skyrocketed, these ideas spread like wildfire and even prompted one group in France to set some 5G towers ablaze.
There are also considerable groups who have major health concerns. These stem from the fact that 5G, like it’s predecessors, gives off electromagnetic radiation which they believe causes cancer. While there is a small number of doctors who share the concerns that 5G levels will significantly increase the health risks, the general consensus, as shared in a BCC reality check article, is still that “although some of the research suggests a statistical possibility of increased cancer risks for heavy users, the evidence to date for a causal relation is not sufficiently convincing to suggest the need for precautionary action”.
The biggest but much less publicised concern is, of course, the environmental impact. The goal for this wireless technology leap is to allow for more devices to be used and at faster rates than ever. This will naturally create an increase in demand for and production of devices and in energy usage for both production and usage.
Pros and cons
As a species, we have the incredible ability to imagine and when scientific development enables us to make some of our wildest dreams come true it is awe-inspiring. 5G coupled with AI (Artificial Intelligence) and IoT(Internet of Things) offers an abundance of opportunities and is one of the most impressive developments in technology since space travel.
But as we have talked about here at GITNB, the earth has intelligence beyond our comprehension and was operating harmoniously for millennia before human intervention threw things out of sync. A fair and just transition into a world after the pandemic must prioritise supporting natural cycles to be restored. While 5G could help us achieve our climate goals faster and more efficiently, there are risks involved as well and we should proceed with caution.
Supporters of 5G paint a picture of a tech powered-utopia listing everything from energy efficiency to reduced food waste, which is almost enough to get this tree-hugging optimist completely on-board but before we get swept away by the possibilities we do need to look at the realities.
First, the arguments in favour…
One of the most exciting prospects of upgrading our devices and networks is the ability to dramatically cut energy use. Smart devices will be designed to power on and off as needed and items like kitchen appliances, transportation networks, buildings, factories and street lights will be able to monitor their energy consumption. They will be able use that data to regulate usage. An example of this already working is in the Empire State Building where smart electricity meters were installed, slashing energy costs by 38%. And of course, energy savings means less CO2 emissions.
Improved connectivity will also allow more people to work from home more efficiently (hands up if your home broadband has let you down during an important call or presentation this last year!) which, in turn, will reduce travelling for work, whether that’s a reduction in commuter traffic or business travel overseas.
When we do need to travel, this new tech could have similar effects on cars as it does buildings by monitoring and adjusting fuel consumption. Sensors and cameras can also improve navigation to avoid congestion and time spent in traffic. 5G and smart technology could also transform agriculture by optimising water use, monitoring pests, detecting plant stress and adjusting accordingly. Smart devices will also reduce water waste and improve quality as they identify leaks, pollution and contamination.
And it could be a game-changer for accessibility. Because we are all required to stay home during the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021 the world went digital – with music live streams, family gatherings on Zoom and online comedy shows, thus including people who were unable to leave their houses due to quarantine. Of course, before the pandemic, many people were unable to participate in events due to disability, mental illness or living in remote areas. The same can be said for parents for whom remote working has made juggling work and childcare much easier. 5G could accelerate equality. As part of a fair recovery from the pandemic, a question that we need to be asking ourselves is – how we manage to reduce our environmental impact while keeping the inclusivity and accessibility that technology has built?
..and the opposition
At this stage, you might be feeling seduced by the possibilities and invigorated by the idea of a tech-powered paradise but now it’s time to look at the downsides. As this University of Washington piece points out, “The ability for more devices to be used on the same network creates more incentive for consumers to buy electronics and use them more often. This will have a harmful impact on the environment through increased energy use.” In order to transition to 5G, we need to update our existing hardware to compatible models. The current methods of sourcing materials and producing devices are not sustainable and increased demand, could spell environmental disaster.
The problems start at the mining of precious metals, which are non-renewable resources and have been associated with child labour and modern-day slavery. You may already have heard of the term “conflict minerals” but if not, the European Commission describes the problem on their website. “In politically unstable areas, the minerals trade can be used to finance armed groups, fuel forced labour and other human rights abuses, and support corruption and money laundering. These so-called ‘conflict minerals’ such as tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, also referred to as 3TG, can be used in everyday products such as mobile phones and cars or in jewellery. It is difficult for consumers to know if a product they have bought is funding violence, human rights abuses or other crimes overseas.” In addition to metals, devices also contain plastic, which is created from oil. At a time when 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean every year, prioritising the production of this technology seems like a misstep.
The next phase rife with complication is manufacturing. The world is still reliant on fossil fuels for energy and an increase in manufacturing will mean a spike in energy usage which we simply cannot afford when we are failing to meet our climate goals already. Once the devices are in circulation, we also have to look at the emission of usage. Information and Communication Technology greenhouse gas emissions are rising already and makeup to 3.7% of global emissions. And then there is data storage, which used massive amounts of energy keeping station equipment cool. The final piece of the device lifecycle, when it is no longer used, creates additional e-waste of which we already have an excess.
While it remains unclear whether radiation causes cancer in humans, we have observed several ways in which it affects birds and bees. A study carried out by Punjab University found that “sparrows exposed to cell tower radiation for five to 30 minutes produced disfigured eggs.” Further studies have found the frequencies to interfere with birds’ navigational systems and circadian rhythms which affects their seasonal migration. In yet another study, bees exposed to cell tower radiation suffered colony collapse disorder. This could have catastrophic effects on ecosystems as the effect on bees and ripples out.
Can 5G be sustainable?
Despite promises of energy efficiency and intelligent tech, the nature of manufacturing our continued dependence on fossil fuels could mean 5G is on track to become a major contributor to climate change. In order for tech solutions to be part of a transition to a more stable climate, we have to integrate them in a way that does not fuel our consumerism or keep us from feeling closer to the earth. There are strategies that can and should be employed to lessen the environmental impacts of 5G and make it more sustainable.
If we expedite the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, this will reduce the carbon emission problem we would have in the manufacturing of 5G technology and devices. To further support this, we can reduce the energy need by implementing more efficient cooling technology.
While there are some return and refurbish schemes for electronic devices on the market, there is still far too much e-waste and consumers generally do not know how to safely and sustainably dispose of old devices. Tech manufacturers and retailers will need to close the loop and ensure their products are appropriately disposed of. This will require a degree of consumer behavioural change and education must be a fundamental part of this shift.
The Digital Divide
Our over-reliance on tech often means that we have forgotten that in the Global South, not everyone has access to the internet. In 2018, Americans own an average of 10 digitally connected devices and consume 140 Gigabytes of data per month while in India these ratios are of one device and 2 Gigabytes per month.
There is a real risk of widening the digital divide by investing heavily in 5G before many parts of the world even have reliable 2G and 4G. While we have pivoted education in the Global North to digital lessons during the pandemic, children around the world have missed a year of their education and many of them may never return. In a piece in the Telegraph, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cautioned that school closures as a result of Covid-19 “could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.”
When schools were closed in rural parts of Nepal or Tanzania, children without laptops, smartphones and internet connections relied on analogue solutions like national radio and the most dependable of all – physical books. Could the resources we are going to use to fund the 5G revolution be better invested in a more equitable solution that doesn’t leave communities behind?
This is another area of modern life where both system change and individual action are needed. Governments must put the climate, and marginalised voices front and centre when planning for the 5G expansion and the roll-out must be managed tightly to avoid environmental disaster and exacerbation of inequality. Equally, if we wean ourselves off our increasingly digital lives and use tech sparingly and where it matters most, we can do our part to keep emissions down.
Benefits of sober digital life
A final point to examine is the impact that all of this connectivity is having on our wellbeing. In the digital age, despite all technology allow us to do, we are becoming increasingly lonely and anxious. Some go so far as to call it a ‘loneliness epidemic‘ and there is growing support for greatly reducing our time online.
The Shift Project is calling for a shift towards a ‘sober digital life’ and a prioritisation of ‘Lean ICT’ which they define as “buy the least powerful equipment possible, change them as rarely as possible, and reduce unnecessary energy-intensive uses. This lean approach is a form of ‘digital sobriety’, which is also a source of efficiency for organisations: energy efficiency, human efficiency, financial efficiency.”
Sustainability influencers, Venetia and Max La Manna started their digital detox 48 Hour Challenge where they go offline for the weekend, switching off their smartphones and using old mobiles for friends and family to get in touch. The slogan is “disconnect to reconnect” and both report reduced anxiety and enjoying time with loved ones more with our the interruption of mobile devices. With over 3k followers, any other influencers joining in, the trend seems to be catching on.
Time for a digital detox?
To get you started on your digital detox, we have compiled a list of ideas on how you can reduce your reliance on the internet (and data storage emissions) and simultaneously improve your wellbeing.
> Unsubscribe from emails you don’t want (this will also save you money with a lot less marketing emails coming in!)
> Regularly go through your photos and videos – make sure everything is backed up and stuff you don’t want is deleted
> Have walking meetings outdoors
> In-person meetings where you can, laptop free (capture notes for those who can’t be there in person)
Keeping in touch
> Regular calls (not via whatsapp or other internet apps)
> Send letters in the mail
> Play board games
> Make cocktails together
> Cook together
> Take a bathe
> Read Books
What would you add?
Image by: Maahid Photos from Pexels | Image description: a cell tower on a beach surrounded by palm trees
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