China’s Data Centers, 5G Network Causing its Carbon Emissions to Double by 2035


China’s digital sector is on track to almost triple its energy consumption by 2035, according to a new report released on Friday by environmental charity Greenpeace.

Electricity demand from China’s internet infrastructure is expected to rise 289 % by the middle of the next decade, putting pressure on the country’s pledge to go carbon neutral by 2060.

China, the world’s biggest producer of CO2 emissions

5G is one of the fastest growing sources of internet sector emissions in China. Power consumption from 5G in China is on track to skyrocket 488% by 2035, reaching 297 billion kWh by 2035, roughly equivalent to Sichuan’s total electricity consumption in 2020.

According to Greenpeace, emissions from China’s digital sector are expected to rise through 2035. By contrast, traditional big polluters like the steel and concrete industry are expected to hit peak carbon in 2025.

“Without urgent action to increase clean energy use, the Internet sector’s contribution to China’s carbon footprint will continue to grow,” said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Ye Ruiqi , “If Internet giants, including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, work to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030, they would play a critical role in catalyzing China’s low-carbon transition.”

Renewables getting cheaper

However, few of China’s internet giants have committed to going carbon neutral. According to Greenpeace, only two major Chinese data centre operators – Chindata and AtHub – have committed to using 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

In many parts of China, solar and wind power generate power at a cost that’s the same or less than traditional fossil fuels.

The cost of renewables is forecast to keep going down, meaning China’s digital sector – as well as those in other parts of the world – won’t find the transition to renewables prohibitively expensive.

Can you upgrade to 5G without boosting energy use?

A report published by Swedish telecoms company Ericsson in March last year warned that the switch to 5G would “dramatically” increase energy consumption if it were done in the same way that the rollouts of 3G and 4G were.

“Some communications service providers have even estimated a doubling of their energy consumption to meet increasing traffic demands while improving their network and rolling out 5G. This is not sustainable from a cost or environmental perspective,” wrote Erik Ekudden, head of group function technology at the company.

A crucial step would be “breaking the energy curve,” Ericsson said, severing the link between more data and more electricity.

How do you break the curve?

According to the 2020 Ericsson report, 5G operators should prepare by upgrading network hardware, use software with energy-saving features, build networks more precisely to minimise duplication, and use AI to allow their infrastructure to respond proactively to demand.