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Report: How spectrum policy can help to tackle climate change

A report by Plum Consulting, commissioned by the UK SPF, makes several recommendations to government including giving Ofcom environmental impact responsibilities

Policy makers must put green issues at the heart of their radio spectrum policies. This is the overarching theme of the recommendations that arose from a study by Plum Consulting for the UK Spectrum Policy Forum (UK SPF).

The report The role of spectrum policy in tackling the climate change issue, first examines the two-fold role played by the communications sector when it comes to climate change:

  • As a means to reduce carbons emissions: The “enablement effect” could be due to a change in behaviours (for example, through reduced travel, or through more efficient working practices), or due to the use of digital technologies in different sectors (industry 4.0, smart grids, transport…).
  • As a potential carbon emissions emitter: Emissions mainly result from electricity consumption at the user end, though there is an environmental cost through network deployment and operation.

The report focuses on spectrum policies and shows that even if spectrum is not a major contributor to climate change when compared to IT issues (software, data centres) and consumer devices (e-waste and energy consumption), there are ways in which spectrum policies can have a significant positive environmental impact – although these have not yet been underpinned by quantitative data.

Recommendations in the report from Plum Consulting include:

  • The regulator must have environmental impact responsibilities. Currently regulators in the UK must take into account economic and social welfare concerns, but not environmental impacts. A more systematic approach is needed for a broader view that will enable the communications sector to tackle the climate issue.
  • A measurement and monitoring regime is required to help with regulation, as currently there is a lack of data and of quantitative research on the net environmental footprint of the communications sector.
  • Spectrum used for scientific services must be protected due to the critical role of weather forecasting, climate monitoring and earth observation.
  • Spectrum users should routinely use green sources of energy unless there are overwhelming reasons not to. Both binding and advisory regulatory guidelines should be considered.
  • Legacy networks should be updated as soon as practicable, as the latest mobile technologies are expected to be more energy efficient.
  • Suitable spectrum for use by the energy sector should be identified to improve the efficiency of distribution - this does not necessarily mean reserving specific spectrum for the energy sector.
  • Sufficient spectrum should be made available by the regulator to reduce the number of mobile sites as far as possible.
  • Spectrum should be awarded in contiguous blocks wherever possible, as non-contiguous blocks can be less efficient in terms of both cost and environmental impact.

The report underlines that, before considering how different spectrum policies may impact climate change, it is crucial to understand how any policies may be implemented. The National Infrastructure Commission recommended that Ofcom, Ofgem and Ofwat should have new duties to “promote the achievement of net zero by 2050 and improve resilience”. It is clear such a recommendation is needed if Ofcom is to be able to act on the issues raised in this report. Also, before committing to policy, governments must carry out a full regulatory impact assessment.

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