Sustainability at MWC 2024: A lack of attention at a critical time

Sustainability was largely overlooked at MWC 2024, eclipsed by the hype surrounding AI and APIs. This article outlines what we saw, and didn’t see, at the biggest mobile industry event of the year.

Sustainability was largely overlooked at MWC 2024

From a sustainability perspective, MWC 2023 was characterised by a drive for efficiency as operators grappled with soaring energy costs. ThereforeThe world is rapidly approaching a tipping point with climate change and, as a recent report launched at COP28 states, it is “fast becoming inevitable” that we overshoot the target of only a 1.5°C increase in global average temperatures, as outlined in the Paris Agreement. Hence, this year I hoped to see our industry take a real lead on sustainability.

To my disappointment however, sustainability appeared largely overlooked at MWC 2024. Now that the global energy crisis has begun to subside, energy efficiency largely lost its place on main stage, and other crucial sustainability topics, such as circularity and diversity, equity and inclusion, still remained very much on the fringes of the conference.

The industry is aware of the issues

As I found space at the back of a packed MWC main stage for Keynote one, it initially felt like a different picture would emerge. Director General of the GSMA, Mats Granryd, emphasised the need for the industry to move towards circular economy business models, followed by José María Álvarez-Pallete, Chairman & CEO of Telefónica, who outlined AI’s substantial appetite for energy, with one AI query using the same amount of power as turning on an LED lightbulb for two hours.

However, whilst these key issues were raised, I left the Fira on Thursday with few answers as to how the industry aims to address them. Almost every booth debuted some form of AI-powered solution, yet there was little discussion as to how the industry will support the growth of AI in a sustainable manner. Likewise, telcos gave little attention to circularity initiatives this year.

Figure 1: Key sustainability issues were raised but we left the Fira without answers

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What sustainability discussion did occur?

This is not to say there were no sustainability-related points of discussion at this year’s conference, with the four key areas illustrated by Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Four key areas of sustainability discussion

  • RAN energy efficiency. Many operators and vendors demonstrated hardware and software that enables more efficient usage of energy in the RAN. Examples include the adoption of precision liquid cooling solutions or the implementation of AI to minimise the power consumption of active and passive RAN equipment.
  • Gen AI for ESG. Fitting in with the main theme of the conference, there were demonstrations of how generative AI can propel companies on their sustainability journey. For example, Fujitsu debuted its Uvance ESG platform which includes their Kozuchi gen AI assistant that can analyse a company’s current sales strategy and recommend new strategies that optimise ESG performance.
  • Pre-owned equipment. Whilst there was a distinct lack of announcements regarding the transition to circular economy business models across the booths of major telcos, it is worth noting the announcement of the GSMA Equipment Marketplace, the first global digital marketplace for sourcing and reselling pre-owned network equipment.
  • Distant technologies. This year’s conference also featured some discussion of how more distant technologies can fuel progress to a net-zero world. For example, digital product passports in Web3.0 can help account for the social and environmental cost of goods/services, and breakthroughs in laser technology have made fusion energy a real possibility in the next decade.

To read our full analysis of the key topics at MWC including sustainability, click here.

What are the key takeaways?

Figure 3: Four key takeaways of sustainability at MWC 2024

1. We cannot afford to take our eyes off the sustainability issue, even if other topics are hot. What we do in tech will permeate across the economy more broadly, therefore as an industry we must lead the way in rallying the net-zero transition. Sustainability is not a nice-to-have, it is an imperative if we are to avoid the existential threat of climate change.

2.Energy efficiency is still very much central to operators’ sustainability strategy; a notion illustrated by the numerous demos of improved energy efficiency, particularly within the RAN, across the conference. However, it must be noted that a lot of the demos within this domain had already made their debut at MWC 2023.

3. Circularity constitutes an area that operators and vendors need to focus on more. For an industry that prides itself on transitioning quickly to new generations of infrastructure and devices, more discussion must be directed towards the progress of circularity initiatives.

4. We are starting to observe real progress in relation to diversity, equity, and inclusion within the industry. Indeed, the GSMA announced that over 40% of the conference speakers were women; although with only 26% female attendees we are still some way from becoming a gender balanced industry.

What next?

STL Partners will continue to explore what telcos must do to achieve their net-zero ambitions. Our upcoming report, ‘Scope 3: A roadmap for telecoms’, addresses how telcos can reduce their scope 3 emissions and transition to more circular economy business models.

George Glanville

George Glanville

George Glanville

Research Analyst

George is an analyst at STL Partners, with experience working across a diverse range of topic areas, including 5G, open RAN, telco enablement and gaming. He specialises in consumer services and network innovation, contributing to reports, articles and tools within both of these practice areas. George joined STL Partners after obtaining a BSc in Economics from Bristol University.

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Sustainability at MWC 2024: A lack of attention at a critical time

Sustainability was largely overlooked at MWC 2024, eclipsed by the hype surrounding AI and APIs. This article outlines what we saw, and didn’t see, at the biggest mobile industry event of the year

Tapping into the energy market: Telco energy propositions from IoT to EV charging

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