COP26: Why Vodafone believes technology is crucial in the fight against climate change

Vodafone is at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Here UK CEO Ahmed Essam reflects on how far the company has come on its journey towards ‘net zero’ and what he hopes COP26 will achieve.

I’m excited to be going to COP26 in Glasgow because I know we have a good story to tell. We’ve come a long way already in the race to reduce our carbon footprint – and that of our customers – and I’m looking forward to sharing just how we’ve done it with the world.

We still have a long way to go, of course, but what we’ve achieved so far gives me confidence that we can reverse the effects of climate change on our planet if we all work together making the most of the technologies and know-how at our disposal today.

The story so far

Sustainable thinking isn’t new for us, it’s woven into our purpose as a business – we launched our first sustainability report back in 2001. Now Vodafone UK has committed to reaching net zero operations by 2027 – a really ambitious target. Group-wide the target is by 2040.

And we’re looking to reduce the carbon emissions produced by our suppliers, too. Our target is to half emissions from our supply chain by 2030.

Across Europe, including in the UK, we’re now powered by 100% renewable electricity from certifiable sources – we already have power purchase agreements with two UK windfarms.

That last point about certifiability is important – our green claims and net zero commitments are credible because they’ve been developed in partnership with The Carbon Trust and endorsed by the Science Based Targets Initiative.

They’re stretching but achievable, even in a world where the demand for our voice, data and IoT services is rising every day.

Energy efficiency, energy generation

We spend millions upgrading our network, and when we do, we make sure we use the most energy-efficient equipment.

Switching to Lithium-Ion batteries; using low-energy LED lighting; and cooling our substations and data centres with IoT-managed natural, rather than mechanical, cooling systems, are just a few examples of how we’re trying to minimise our energy usage.

One recent trial of a new Ericsson 5G radio found that it used 43% less energy on average each day. We plan to roll out 1,500 such low-power 5G units over the coming year.

We’re also looking to increase on-site generation using a range of renewable energy sources, from solar panels to wind turbines, and we’re ‘greening’ our fleet – about 60% of our vehicles are now either fully electric or plug-in hybrid electric.

Waste not, want not

We’ve also been bearing down ruthlessly on waste in the UK: reusing, recycling or reselling 100% of our redundant network equipment. Globally, we’ll achieve this goal by 2025.

We’re also trying to encourage longer device life through repair and reuse programmes, and we’ve donated more than 7,500 devices to families in need through our charity partner, Barnardo’s.

From April 2022, we’ll be rolling out Eco-SIMs throughout the UK – SIM cards made from 100% recycled plastic – and we already support digital eSIMs for a growing number of compatible devices.

Helping customers, too

As you can see, we’re doing a lot to reduce our own carbon footprint. But we want to help our customers reduce their carbon footprints, too. We’re all in this together.

And we believe our technologies can play a vital role in this.

Our business customers have already been benefiting from our Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and connections. More than half our 123 million IoT connections directly enable customers to reduce their emissions.

For example, Our Smart Building product enables customers to optimise heat, light and cooling systems in their buildings, bringing down costs and reducing energy usage by up to 30%.

Telematics enables fleet managers to shorten delivery routes, cut idling times and reduce fuel consumption through intelligent route planning.

And our 5G connectivity is helping UK Power Networks trial smart substations, which will enable the energy distribution company to integrate more renewable energy providers into their network and reduce costs.

We’ve pledged to help our business customers reduce their carbon emissions by 350 million tonnes by 2030 (from a 2020 baseline).

This isn’t fantasy, it’s real and achievable. Our recent report, Connecting for Net Zero, found tech such as IoT and 5G in agriculture, manufacturing and transport could help reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 4% – every year.

Monitoring the impact

Our technologies don’t just help us and our customers reduce carbon emissions, they also help monitor the impacts of climate change.

For example, our IoT Forest project – in partnership with Defra and Forest Research – is monitoring tree growth and researching the role trees play in tackling climate change.

We help the Environment Agency monitor flood hotspots and set up emergency communications in disaster areas.

And our IoT sensors are now measuring coastal erosion on the Jurassic Coast as part of the Government-backed 5GRuralDorset project.

My hopes for COP26

We need to address climate change urgently – that much is clear. Time is running out.

So I hope COP26 is a turning point; a moment when we see leaders from all walks of life commit to much more ambitious climate action.

And I hope COP26 will highlight that improving efficiency through the use of digital technologies is also a fantastic opportunity, because what makes good environmental sense often makes good business sense, too.

I’m really looking forward to speaking with business leaders, politicians – and anyone else who’ll listen! – to spread our message.

Together, we really can make a difference and heal our planet for future generations to enjoy.

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