Technology concept of agritech
#Connected Devices

How 5G can speed up the shift to a sustainable future

Global Trends
7 Mins.

5G offers a quantum leap in mobile network capabilities. The technology will empower billions of IoT devices to create smarter cities, autonomous transportation, Industry 4.0, precision agriculture, and numerous other transformational changes across business and society. But in doing so, the application of 5G could have a more important effect: it has all the potential to make a positive impact on sustainability.

5G’s footprint continues to expand around the world, with live services now available in over 70 countries. As adoption continues to surge in relevant markets – from China, Japan, and South Korea to the US and Europe – the total number of 5G smartphone connections globally is set to reach 1 billion in 2022 and 2 billion over the following three years.1  

But those numbers only represent smartphone connections. The technology is expected to spawn a large 5G Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, with networks empowering the communications needs of billions of connected devices. Indeed, the GSM Association (GSMA) of mobile operators anticipates that the total number of IoT connections will rise to more than 23 billion by 2025.1

In doing so, the core capabilities of 5G – ultra-low latency of less than 1 millisecond, rapid data transfer of more than 2 Gbps, and support for densities of 1 million devices per km2 – will allow whole industries (and new ones) to reimagine themselves. In sports and entertainment, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, and in countless other spheres, 5G will enable services that were simply not feasible in earlier generations of communications.

Think smart cities where traffic flows are orchestrated using 5G for speed and efficiency; intelligent buildings sown through with sensors so they respond to levels of occupancy and minimize energy use; sports stadiums where tens of thousands of spectators can simultaneously watch live action overlaid with augmented reality; factories where robots communicate with each other in a ballet of production; and farms where data on everything from soil humidity to the ripeness of crops is monitored to dramatically increase yields.

In financial terms alone, the GSMA predicts that by 2030 the innovation, productivity and efficiency gains ushered in by 5G will have added almost a trillion US dollars annually to the global economy.1 However, there is arguably a more profoundly important benefit of 5G: as the world accelerates efforts to fight climate change by reducing carbon emissions, 5G has the potential to move the dial in a highly positive way.

Where can 5G dramatically improve sustainability?

Modeling 5G’s impact in coming years, telecoms consultant STL Partners suggests that more than 1.7 billion metric tons of carbon emissions could be eliminated by 2030 through the application of 5G technologies.2 That is equivalent to the emissions from approximately 64 coal-fired power plants in a single year, or half of all of Canada’s emissions in 2018.

5G can enable a wide variety of use cases that will both directly and indirectly reduce carbon emissions, says Matt Bamforth, Senior Consultant at STL Partners, in a webinar on 5G’s role in reducing carbon emissions.2

Take just two examples: predictive maintenance and asset efficiency.

By embedding hundreds of 5G-connected sensors all over their equipment – from plant machinery and trucks to elevators and wind turbines – organizations will be able to monitor and control the status of these assets in near real-time. That will enable them to know when maintenance is going to be needed and hence reduce unplanned downtime.

In the case of a wind turbine, that application of 5G can result in a win-win, says Bamforth. “By reducing unplanned downtime, not only are you increasing the amount of energy that can be produced, you’re also reducing operations and maintenance costs,” he says.

That stems directly from three of 5G’s key attributes: low latency, to enable the live transmission of status data to an analytics platform; the reliability of 5G connections; and support for a high density of devices – all elements that simply did not exist in previous iterations of mobile networks.

5G will also play a major role in automated asset control. “With hundreds of sensors collecting data that can be fed into analytics platforms, maybe making use of digital twins and AI, we can control assets and automatically alter them to maximize output,” says Bamforth. That could be applied to almost any asset, but in the case of a wind turbine it might mean reacting faster to changing weather conditions by altering the direction of the turbine or the orientation of the blades – something that is only possible because of 5G’s low latency.

But those gains come at price. While 5G may become a pillar of many industries’ sustainability goals, its application will, in itself, have a significant and potentially negative impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions.

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is already responsible for an estimated 3% to 4% of all global carbon emissions. With the huge growth in sensors, devices, base stations, and data processing that will accompany 5G implementations, some analysts suggest that within 20 years ICT could be generating as much of 14% of emissions – unless the sector takes big steps toward lowering its environmental profile.3

On the flip side, the tech industry’s Global e-Sustainability Initiative has calculated that the sector currently abates 1.5 times its own carbon footprint. And in the era of 5G adoption, it suggests that this figure could rise to almost 10 times.4

Harvesting the benefits of 5G

Energy-hungry industries are certainly going to benefit from the 5G adoption. But another area of 5G application is arguably of even greater importance for people and the future of the planet: agriculture.

With the UN predicting that the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 20505, the required growth in food production will need to be accompanied by a revolution in farming practices – and a revolution that will lower agricultural production’s current impact on climate change.

Agri-food systems (including crops and livestock activities and pre- and post-production processes) are responsible for almost 31% of greenhouse gas emissions, UN figures show. That breaks down as 21% of CO2 emissions, 53% of methane emissions, and 78% of nitrous oxide emissions.6 And 5G is ripe with possibilities to reduce that.

In such smart agriculture, high sensor density and the low latency of 5G IoT sensors can be used in countless ways to gather data for better (and automated) decision-making. That introduces a level of precision into farming that can dramatically enhance sustainability and reduce the negative impacts of farming practices. And it is not just applicable in larger farms: 5G can be instrumental in helping smaller agricultural holdings as well as so-called vertical farms as a special form of urban agriculture to monitor and automate activities. Some of the use cases include the following:

  • 5G sensors can help prevent food waste by detecting when different crops in different locations are ready for harvesting.
  • Sensors can be embedded in soil to monitor moisture levels, and identify in a much more targeted way when – and which – crops need watering.
  • IoT sensors can gauge the optimal time to apply fertilizers and so only minimize their use.
  • Livestock can be tracked and monitored for different conditions – from identifying when an animal is due to give birth to when it is showing signs of sickness.
  • Drones can be used to monitor the growth of weeds and guide agricultural machines to dose only effected areas, thereby reducing the amount and frequency of spraying. (It is estimated that the use of unmanned automated vehicles for remote sensing and spray application can lead to a 50% decrease in the amount of pesticide applied.7)
  • 5G can enable remote-controlled and automated, connected farm machinery that can perform tasks such as planting and harvesting.

The upshot is hugely encouraging. An analysis by business and technology consulting firm Accenture concluded that improved connectivity and digitalization in agriculture can yield up to 25% increased productivity, 30% decreased inputs, 20% decreased costs, and 15% increased crop yields.8

Given the global dependency on the food supply chain, there is also understandable focus on the need to ensure that the application of 5G networks in agriculture is achieved in a safe, robust, and highly secure way. Devices, systems, and networks will need to be insulated from potential cyberattack, and the data generated will have to be carefully managed and protected. For example, a malicious data breach could lead to the shutting down of an automated watering system or result in the harvesting of a crop before it’s ripe, resulting in a negative rather than positive impact on both food production and sustainability.  

Technology concept of agritech

BayWa: Securing a sustainable food chain

One food and agri-food company leveraging advanced technology to safeguard the integrity of the food supply chain is BayWa Global Produce.

Sourcing fruit and vegetables from its home country of Germany, as well as from all over the world, BayWa puts its focus on sustainable, innovative business models to actively shape stable value chains. In its supply chain, speed and the avoidance of any delays or damage are essential due to perishable nature of the goods. The temperature or other conditions of goods in transit or storage need to be carefully monitored and tracked so they are maintained within specific ranges. Furthermore, as fruit is sourced globally, multiple national and international laws and rules have to be adhered to.

As with other logistics areas, digitalization and goods tracking can help optimize processes. Beyond this, there is a need to provide scalable security and trust in the food transportation industry, especially as there are typically many players involved (from farmers and wholesalers to distributors and supermarkets) and clear identification of the causes of damage to produce is sometimes difficult. Understanding the need for scalable IoT connectivity solutions, G+D acquired Enterprise Network Operator (ENO) Pod Group, providing IoT in a flexible, secure manner.

One blockchain-based track-and-trace solution, from G+D and partners, came into play in a recent BayWa use case. In its test solution, IoT sensors were attached to pallets carrying apples being transported between Belgium and Germany to help measure the temperature of transport, the positioning of the truck, and any damage detected in transit.

A G+D-connected SIGNiT® SIM card on the sensor signed all data values collected during transport and stored them securely on the blockchain. This enabled traceability at all stages of the supply chain, as the data cannot be tampered with. At the same time, the actual data values were sent to a middleware cloud platform, which enabled BayWa to have real-time access to all data reported.

BayWa can share access to such data with all parties in their ecosystem (customers, trading partners, insurers, customs, and others), so if any of them need to check the authenticity of data, they have the option of comparing the actual data from the cloud with the hashed data stored on the blockchain. Its verification service that means G+D acts as the “notary” and trusted party in the ecosystem.

Although the BayWa proof of concept was carried out using LTE-M network technology, it is clear that an evolution to 5G connectivity would open up even more possibilities for ensuring a transparent and trustworthy supply chain. Moreover, in order to meet sustainability requirements, further parameters such as calculated CO2 consumption could also be added to the tracking system, and parameters used to optimize the fruit logistics process could reduce the overall CO2 footprint.

5G’s footprint challenges

The move to 5G is not without its major challenges though. A lack of comprehensive rural broadband, for instance, hinders the development of smart farming in many areas.

And rollout patterns are a global as well as a local concern. Although the take-up of 5G is growing fast in some markets, these are mostly in advanced economies. Even by 2025, only 25% of mobile connections worldwide will go through 5G infrastructure – just five years away from the crucial global emissions reduction targets set for 2030. It’s a situation which leads to calls for an acceleration of the 5G rollout. “State-of-the-art connectivity will be an important enabler of further incremental carbon abatement,” says 5G network equipment maker Ericsson in a recent report. “But it will not be possible to achieve the full potential of these greenhouse gas savings if the rollout of 5G infrastructure with good capacity and performance continues at its current pace.”9

In any case, with 5G still in its early days (the first networks were only operational in 2019), the opportunites for applying the technology so it contributes to a more sustainable future are only just emerging – and many more use cases will emerge in the coming years.

  1. The Mobile Economy 2022, GSMA

  2. 5G’s role in reducing carbon emissions, STL Partners

  3. Putting Sustainability at the Top of the Telco Agenda, Boston Consulting Group

  4. How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity, Nature

  5. Population forecasts, United Nations

  6. The share of agri-food systems in total greenhouse gas emissions, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

  7. Drones manual, CropLife International

  8. The Impact of 5G on the European Economy, Accenture

  9. Connectivity and climate change, Ericsson

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