This op-ed was originally published in International Business Times on January 5, 2020, By Dr. Devra Davis
The ravaging fires of Australia’s drought-riddled bush provide a global warning. Amidst the largest mass evacuation in its history with no relief in sight, thousands of Australians are now forced to shelter-in-place, while others are crammed into seashores where they await rescue by naval ships. Their only hope is to wait till much-needed rains quench the extraordinary raging blazes erupting amidst the hottest and driest year on record.
Uncontrolled burning of coal and other fossil fuels has left the past decade the warmest in modern recorded history, scorching an area down under that is larger than the size of Denmark, and rendering the air of Canberra the worst in the world. Millions are at the mercy of searing temperatures and wicked winds. Ecologists estimate half a billion animals have been killed since the bushfires started in September.
Sadly, much of this was predicted by United Nations experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in which I was honored to participate. In 1997, I presented an analysis showing that airborne coal soot from fossil fuels globally would result in 700,000 avoidable deaths every single year and the death toll would rise to about 8 million by 2020. However, that study never imagined the devastating and heartbreaking impact of fires like now sweeping through Australia.
Among the numerous missed stories of last year, was a report by a climate think tank on the environmental impact of our digital revolution calling for urgent action to reduce our use of cell phones, digital devices and the internet of things (IOT). In short, experts warn that the phenomenal growth of interconnected wireless devices, data centers and networks central to the digital revolution contributes to global warming more than it helps to prevent it. It turns out that the highly touted next-generation 5G wireless technology has serious climate impacts.
The expansion of 5G small cells being pushed in Australia now will require thousands of new multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antennas to support the carefully cultivated explosion of 50 billion new wireless devices at the core of the Internet of Things (IOT). If this proceeds as planned, 5G is poised to become what some industry experts have deemed an energy vampire.
Unperturbed and unconcerned with that reality, numerous electromagnetic innovations presume limitless reliable consumption of energy. Telecom industry insiders fear that the full economic and environmental price of 5G will prove far worse than its promise. Purportedly capable of delivering up to 1,000 times as much data as today’s networks, 5G could consume up to 1,000 times as much energy.
In fact, much of what’s been promised about 5G speeds turns out to be more hype than reality. South Korea, home of the first 5G phones and network, recently reported that their patchy 5G system only works with pricey new devices and has failed to deliver either the promised speeds or the cool apps. Plus, dazzling 5G download rates achieved in laboratories have not materialized in the real world, disappointing hard-core early adopters. In the U.S., the best Verizon hopes to achieve are doubled speeds using a system that is called 5G, but relies on much slower frequencies.
Despite thrilling advertising campaigns promising a revolution is at hand, the basic facts of chemistry and electricity cannot be changed. Recognizing this reality, Huawei engineer Anders Andrea cautioned that given the massive energy needed to support 5G might approach that of the yogabyte. That amount is 10 followed by 24 zeros. This is a number that cannot even be named, let alone imagined.
Adding more fuel to that fire, so to speak, are industry reports that 5G base stations and 5G phones will be power-guzzlers, consuming 3 to 4 times more energy than 4G. One expert group projects that with a move to conserving practices, growth could be limited to 1.5% a year, rather than the 9% underway currently. But the reality is that no matter how efficient devices may become, the surge in projected demand will outweigh these gains.
While Americans and Australians may ponder why their nation lags behind other high-tech nations in commitments to energy efficiency, climate impacts of telecommunications now and in the near future provide an especially ominous issue. It turns out that the highly touted next generation in wireless technology constitutes a menacing energy hog.
Among the many uncertainties we face now are decisions about how 5G networks should encode wireless signals. The simple story is that there are no 5G voice transmissions in the foreseeable future. Instead, the foundation for voice will rest on a fancy-variant on the current 4G system called orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM).
Adding to the energy pressures, antennas for 5G will need more power and will suck more battery life from phones and devices that link to them. There is no question that wireless 5G will require far more base stations to deliver service. Director of marketing for Radio Frequency at National Instruments, James Kimery, famously said “5G is going to come with a price, and that price is battery consumption.”
Even worse, the 5G network lacks design and testing specifications, or even adequate machines and metrics for testing exposures. All these are to be created only after the system has been built and tried out through a series of experiments in selected cities.
That’s a pretty massive problem.
Right now, America faces some epic choices. Do we allow the government to subsidize billions for the industry to continue to consume publicly funded resources like phone and utility poles to build a massive 5G network that is without precedent? Do we wait for testing devices and protocols to be developed only after 5G is in operation? Do we plunk down big money for the latest devices now hoping they live up to their hype? Or do we follow the advice of many experts to reduce our own exposure and consumption of energy? Those who will benefit from these industries are not the same as those who are suffering the consequences of their policies.
With thousands awaiting evacuation now huddled on the shores of Mallacoota or along other parts of a 135-mile seacoast in eastern Australia, when it comes to climate or telecommunications policy, clearly there is no free lunch.
Dr. Devra Davis is President of Environmental Health Trust, who served in the Clinton administration from 1993-1997 and was a member of the team of IPCC scientists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with Al Gore.