5G and the Myth of a Green Transition

Far from absurd conspiracy theories about spreading coronavirus, Jo Baker argues that the rapid and seemingly unstoppable spread of 5G is happening without consultation or due consideration of the economic, environmental and climatic impact of such technologies.

5G infrastructure is currently being rolled out in many of our towns and cities. In Bristol, where I live, there has been a spate of planning applications from telecom companies for 20-metre-high monopoles in just a few weeks. A local campaign has resulted in hundreds of objections and Bristol City Council has so far refused sixteen applications on grounds of unsuitable siting and dominant appearance. There is a sense that something is being imposed from above without consultation or consent.

Bristol is well-known for its status as a ‘green’ and ‘smart’ city. It was the European Green Capital in 2015; in 2017 it overtook London as the leading smart city in the Huawei Smart City index; and it was one of the 100 Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Cities. Bristol was the first city in the UK to declare a climate emergency, followed, earlier this year, by an ecological emergency. And herein lies the conundrum. Can a city be both green and smart? Will wireless technology deliver a green transition or will it push us further towards ecological disaster?

A Fourth Industrial Revolution

According to the World Economic Forum, 5G is a necessary expansion of wireless technologies which will underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It goes far beyond telecommunications – enabling the digitalisation of the global economy, energy systems, manufacturing, health, education, security, food production, and so on. It is expected to add £13.2 trillion to the global economy by 2025. It will pave the way for autonomous vehicles, remote surgery, 3D printing and military applications such as hypersonic weapons and drone targeting.

Although this digital high-tech future is sold to us as a means to a socially just and sustainable world (smart cities, energy efficiency), it is essentially about economic growth and is already having a devastating environmental impact. The fact is that digital technologies demand unprecedented amounts of mineral extraction, create large amounts of toxic waste, and are highly energy intensive. Yet most of us are barely aware of this. The use of digital devices often traps us in a separate reality, disconnected from the physical presence of one another and the earth, and lulls us into a false complacency. The terminology itself can be deliberately misleading. As Philippe Bihouix reminds us, “The world has not become ‘immaterial’ with the Internet: … storage in the Cloud does not make the electricity consumption of the Internet and its connected devices disappear”. Even the word, ‘ecosystem’ has been hijacked to mean digital connection.

Social justice

The market model for 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) is based on consumption driven by planned obsolescence. According to a French think tank, The Shift Project, we are already experiencing over-consumption of digital products in high income countries, while millions of people around the world still have minimal digital access. Not only will this divide increase with the evolution of 5G and IoT, but the environmental price will be paid by those least likely to benefit. In his article Africa’s digitalization and the ecological dilemma, Cedric Leterme describes the impact of digitalisation on Africa from extraction to global warming (resulting from increased greenhouse gas emissions) to toxic waste disposal. He believes, ‘it will be difficult to avoid a radical transformation of the very way digital technologies are manufactured, used and recycled, including in Africa, if we wish to avoid both ecological disaster and the reinforcement of inequalities within and between countries’. A report by War on Want shows how mineral extraction is already having a devastating impact on front line communities in the global south, and, as high tech digital devices contain a complex mix of materials, only a small percentage of these can be recycled. These countries are also major recipients of both legal and illegal exports of toxic electronic waste.

Energy consumption

Although we are told that wireless technologies will help with energy efficiency and are essential to a low carbon transition, the reality is that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry is now the largest growing consumer of energy. According to the Shift Project it currently accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions (more than aviation) and is increasing 9% a year. By 2025 it is estimated that it will use 20% of the world’s electricity. The most energy intensive areas are the increase in video use such as Skype and streaming, and the increased consumption of short life-span devices.

Electromagnetic Pollution and Biodiversity

Over the past few decades there has been an exponential rise in EMF pollution, and the aim of 5G is to have ubiquitous wireless coverage from earth and from space. In 2018, the Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity identified radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs) as an emerging issue which could affect global biodiversity. The concern is that RF-EMFs emitted by mobile phones and other smart devices “may change biological processes such as neurotransmitter functions, cellular metabolism, and gene and protein expression in certain types of cells, even at low intensities.” Some of the world’s most eminent scientists in the field of bio-electromagnetics have set biological safety standards significantly lower than the International Commission for Non-ionising Radiation (ICNIRP ) industry guidelines used by the US and UK, which only consider thermal effects and short-term exposure.

International tensions

The same minerals used in digital devices are also needed for renewable energy systems and are coveted by the military. Access to minerals has become an imperative for governments and transnational corporations. The 5G race is a major source of tension between the US and China in terms of both national security and mineral supply. In April 2020, President Trump signed an executive order giving the United States the right to explore and use resources from outer space.

Telecommunication satellites are also a contentious international issue. There could soon be tens of thousands of 5G satellites orbiting the ionosphere (with a lifespan of only 5-10 years!) connecting to 1 trillion devices. Moreover, there are fears that unregulated rocket launch emissions will have a significant impact on the global atmosphere in addition to adding massively to space debris. Astronomers fear the satellites will seriously impede their work, and meteorologists are concerned that they will interfere with climate monitoring and the ability to accurately predict extreme weather events.

Sobriety

If the ecological emergency we are currently facing has been caused by overconsumption of the earth’s resources, perhaps we should be questioning whether a high-tech, digitalised future based on economic growth could ever be a remedy? The technologies we choose are of vital importance and should help us live lightly on the planet.

So what can we do in cities like Bristol, where there is a genuine desire on the part of most people to create a more socially just and ecologically vibrant world? The Shift Project advises ‘sobriety’, which would mainly consist of “purchasing the least powerful devices possible, and changing them as seldom as possible, while reducing superfluous energy consuming uses (bulky attachments, videos, etc.)”.

Another approach could be a wired alternative, as exemplified in Longmont, Colorado where the council supplies a fast, affordable fibre optic broadband service as a utility. The advantages of this are spelled out in a publication of the US National Institute for Science, Law & Public Policy, Re-Inventing Wires. Benefits include better energy use and efficiency, greater resilience, local rather than corporate control, and no non-ionising radiation emissions. It is even possible to have a wired ‘smart’ city.

Cedric Leterme suggests a form of ‘digital degrowth’ or ‘digital decolonisation’ starting with countries which have benefitted most from these technologies. He suggests “favoring less sophisticated but more widely accessible and more easily repairable or recyclable devices, favoring community and/or shared rather than individual uses, or promoting digital self-determination through decentralized infrastructures and the widespread use of open source software”. 

It is time to call for a pause to 5G and the digital ambitions of the World Economic Forum, and make space for a genuine discussion on how we would like our digital future to look and how we might get there. We will be told that it is too late and that the wireless future has already been decided – but the Earth will definitely be on our side!


Jo Baker writes and campaigns on environmental issues and was formerly coordinator of Child Victims of War.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: pxfuel

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