The number of countries, regions and cities committing to a net zero carbon emissions target has grown. According to the latest data, 15 countries, 11 states and at least 23 cities have set targets of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. Together, these regions account for about one-sixth of global gross domestic product (GDP).

Many more countries will need to set targets to be seen as delivering on the Paris Agreement, which commits governments to act to keep the global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to just 1.5°C.

The private sector requirements are similar. More than 30 companies with annual revenues above $1 billion have already set net zero targets. This is encouraging. But what if entire industry sectors – not just single corporations – could also take a lead on setting targets? Could this approach drive positive climate action progress on the scale of a major economy?

This is the goal of the mobile industry. The sector generated 4.6% of GDP globally last year, a contribution equal to about $3.9 trillion – roughly the GDP of Germany.

Mobile industry contribution to GDP
Image: GSMA

This ambition is being realized via a new initiative led by the GSMA, the mobile industry association, which is bringing together mobile operators from around the world to develop a climate action roadmap in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

As a starting point, more than 50 mobile operators – which together account for more than two-thirds of mobile connections globally – are now disclosing their climate footprint, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions via the internationally recognized CDP global disclosure system.

This is an important first step, as it will ensure full transparency for both investors and purchasers. Investors, for example, are increasingly looking at environmental disclosures as they assess the carbon footprint of their portfolios, particularly in jurisdictions where disclosures are not mandated, such as the United States.

Whether these disclosures show companies making strong progress or highlight that more work needs to be done, the scores will be there for all to see and will encourage positive action.

The second phase of the initiative will consider the industry-wide net zero target. Although many mobile operators have already committed to science-based targets, there is not yet an agreed framework for a sector-specific approach under the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi). But we’re working on it.

By next year, we hope to have in place a decarbonization pathway for the mobile industry that will set the parameters for achieving net zero GHG emissions by 2050. Developed in line with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), this pathway will provide a framework for the world’s mobile operators to set their own targets, safe in the knowledge these are in line with science and a global warming trajectory of 1.5°C.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Mobile networks are a small part of the problem but a big part of the solution

More than 5 billion people today are connected to a mobile network, equivalent to roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. This number continues to grow as mobile operators develop solutions to extend affordable service to some of the lowest income and most remote populations.

And yet the power required to run this vast global network – and the emissions that occur as a result – is lower than you might think. It is estimated mobile networks account for approximately 0.6% of the global electricity consumption and 0.2% of global GHG emissions. Add in the emissions attributed to mobile phone use – both via their manufacturer and user – and the GHG emissions contribution doubles to about 0.4%.

The mobile industry is working to reduce these emissions by improving energy efficiency, sourcing renewable energy and working with stakeholders to decrease value chain emissions. Telefonica, for example, claims to have avoided close to 1.3 million tonnes of CO2e emissions since implementing an energy efficiency plan in 2010.

Telefonica’s energy savings attribution in 2018
How Telefonica saved energy in 2018
Image: Telefonica

However, while getting our own house in order is important, mobile’s greatest positive climate impact lies in its potential to enable other sectors of the economy to reduce their own emissions.

This is achieved by providing the connectivity for digital solutions that reduce energy use, reduce travel and transport or otherwise reduce emissions. Examples include connectivity for buildings to support energy management and for vehicle telematics to reduce fuel consumption, as well as the more traditional areas of remote and mobile working, which reduce emissions from travel and commuting.

There’s also significant potential for future emissions reductions in areas such as agriculture, health, the sharing economy and smart cities, all made possible by the coming together of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and Big Data - underpinned by next-generation mobile technology.

The mobile industry will form the backbone of the future economy and therefore has a unique opportunity to drive change across multiple sectors and set ambitious targets. Both the goal of net zero mobile networks and the opportunity to enable emissions reductions across other sectors are best advanced by an industry-wide approach, allowing us to set common goals and show leadership and responsibility in addressing one of the gravest challenges facing our planet.