Data Centres & 5G: China’s Digital Emissions Set To Increase 289% By 2035, Report Reveals

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According to a new report by non-governmental environmental organization Greenpeace East Asia, the electricity consumption from China’s digital sector, which includes data centres and 5G base stations, is set to soar by a predicted 289% between 2020 and 2035, despite the country’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality.

The report draws attention to the carbon emissions from China’s internet industry that are estimated to continuously rise through 2035, long after the country’s targeted 2030 national emissions peak, which puts it off track in achieving its carbon-neutral goals. In 2020 alone, 61% of the electricity that was used for powering the country’s digital infrastructure was derived from coal, a non-renewable fossil fuel that releases devastating amounts of GHGs which increase the heating and worsen the effects of climate change.

Read: Global Carbon Emissions Set For Largest Rise In A Decade As Coal Rebounds In 2021

This means that by 2035, the digital emissions from China can reach 310 million tonnes which is thrice the amount of its city Guangzhou’s total carbon emissions in 2019.

And this news comes at a time when the country’s steel, non-ferrous metal, and cement industries are predicted to peak emissions around 2025.

In a statement seen by Green Queen, Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Ye Ruiqi said: “Explosive growth in digital infrastructure does not need to mean growth in emissions. Technology companies have the potential to catalyze real emissions reductions via investment in distributed renewables projects and direct purchase of wind and solar energy, among other strategies. But some of the industry’s biggest players, including Alibaba and GDS, have yet to issue 100% renewable energy or carbon neutrality commitments.”

Digital technology should be a solution to the climate crisis, not a growing source of emissions

Ye Ruiqi, climate and energy campaigner, Greenpeace East Asia

The report reveals that among the sources in the internet sector, the 5G one is releasing emissions at the fastest rate and power consumption from this source alone is set to shoot up by 488% by 2035, reaching 297 billion kWh by 2035, a figure that is equivalent to the Chinese province Sichuan’s total electricity consumption last year.

SectorElectricity Consumption
in 2020
Projected Electricity
consumption in 2035
Increase
Data Centers150.7 billion kWh485.5 billion kWh222%
5G50.4 billion kWh296.5 billion kWh488%
Source: Greenpeace East Asia

At the moment, only two large data center operators – Chindata and AtHub have promised to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030. 

In an analysis by financial services provider Credit Suisse, China will have several chances to transition the entire country to renewable energy sources, end its use of foreign fossil fuels and meet its net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2060. Despite importing 74% of its crude oil and 43% of its natural gas, the analysis showed that due to a drop in the pricing of solar and wind energy, these renewable sources have a huge potential to occupy a huge market share in the country.

Hence it is imperative, that digital players like Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and developers of high-performance data centers in the country, GDS take advantage of this and reduce their increasing number of emissions in the atmosphere.

Tech companies have the potential to catalyze real emissions reductions via investment in distributed renewables projects and direct purchase of wind and solar energy. But some of the industry’s biggest players, including Alibaba and GDS, have yet to issue 100% renewable energy or carbon neutrality commitments

Ye Ruiqi, climate and energy campaigner, Greenpeace East Asia

Ruiqi added that to stop the predicted emission from releasing, internet companies in China need to buck up and start making and fulfilling their commitment to meeting 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality across the supply chain by 2030. “At the same time, policymakers can help enable this transition by mandating the use of 100% renewable energy and providing financial incentives for companies to shift to wind and solar. Digital technology should be a solution to the climate crisis, not a growing source of emissions.”

Elsewhere, research revealed the topmost polluting websites on the internet and no surprises that Alibaba tops the list with U.S. website Reddit no.1 on the list as it emits around 13.05 grams of carbon dioxide per visit which is equivalent to 5 kilometers of drive by a car if users click 69 times on the website. Not too far behind are U.S. social media service Pinterest, and video game giant Nintendo, sports channel ESPN and fast-fashion retailer Uniqlo.

In its first-ever “clean energy scorecard” released last year for China’s technology industry, Greenpeace called out companies like Alibaba and Tencent for showing no urgency to develop initiatives for a shift to renewables.

Read: 20 Fossil Fuel Companies Generate One Third Of All Global Emissions

In another report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), findings show that if the world aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, no new coal, oil, and gas developments should be initiated.


Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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