China’s leaders are pushing for faster construction of “neo-infrastructure,” to support 5G and smart technology, prompted by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a slowing economy. Last June, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology began issuing 5G licenses and both investment and, subsequently, construction rapidly expanded. According to China Dialogue, the buildout of 5G base stations and data centers will impact energy consumption and the climate, but there are ways to mitigate the blows to the environment.
5G carries more data and requires more base stations than previous networks. In 2019, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, 130,000 5G base stations were installed, and nineteen provinces are prioritizing the construction of 5G networks this year. China Dialogue reported that 550,000 base stations are expected to be operational by the end of 2020, with investments by China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom, plus state-owned China Tower, totaling $28 billion.
The growth of data centers is on the rise with one hundred major projects in development, according to China Dialogue. As of 2019, China already had about 74,000 data centers, which equaled 23 percent of the global total.
As the number of 5G networks and data centers explode throughout China, the energy they consume to run and cool the equipment 24 hours a day will also increase. China’s data centers consumed 161 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2018, according to a 2019 report published by Greenpeace and North China Electric Power University. To put that number in perspective, it’s more energy than the total usage of the city of Shanghai. Data center power consumption is projected to grow 66 percent (to 267 billion kilowatt-hours) over the next three years. The same report estimates that by 2023, China’s data centers will produce 163 million tons of carbon emissions, equivalent to those of a medium-sized country.
Regarding these statistics, China can take steps to ensure it’s neo-infrastructure is “green” (or greener). The long-term effects on the environment with the increased construction of 5G networks could be lessened by using low-carbon construction techniques, focusing on energy efficiency improvements, and shifting to renewable energy. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has a five year plan that focuses on energy saving and emissions reduction in the IT and telecoms sector, reported China Dialogue. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are already enacting power usage effectiveness rules to mitigate climate impact as 5G is built out.