Life Cycle Assessment of the Mobile Communication System UMTS: Towards Eco-efficient Systems
Goal of the project was to evaluate the environmental sustainability of the UMTS mobile communication system in Switzerland by means of a Systems Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA). The project yields in a baseline environmental impact profile across the full life cycle of the UMTS mobile communication system. It shows that mobile telephones and base stations are most important elements in the mobile communication on an environmental point of view. The electricity use for the network operation and therefore the electricity mix is an important parameter with regard to the environmental impacts of the of the mobile communication.
Nowadays mobile communication is a fast growing market. Telecommunication networks develop fast and are mainly driven by economic considerations. Environmental considerations have up to now mainly been restricted to individual problems such as radiation of cellular phones or to electricity consumption of network centers. A more complete picture about the diverse environmental impacts related to mobile communication with the forthcoming UMTS system allows the telecommunication companies to focus their environmental efforts in areas where the largest environmental benefits are to be expected.
Goal of the project was to evaluate the environmental sustainability of the UMTS mobile communication system built up by different companies in Switzerland including mobile phones, antennae, base stations, switching system, cable system and administration. The environmental sustainability is quantified considering the entire life cycle (resource extraction, construction, operation, dismantling and waste treatment) of products and infrastructure required. The baseline assessment is a necessary first step to evaluate the environmental impacts of the UMTS mobile communication systems use and growth and thus evaluating its environmental sustainability. From this baseline scenarios concerning important parameters such as service life span of equipment are evaluated and quantified. The purpose of the improvement strategies is to show ways for an increase in mobile communication while at the same time reducing the overall environmental impacts and thus showing ways towards sustainable (mobile) communication.
Methods and objects of analysis
The study relies on the internationally standardised method of Life Cycle Assessment (ISO 14040ff.). With SLCA the system of mobile communication is evaluated in terms of inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts (like global warming, ecotoxicity etc.) throughout its life cycle (including manufacturing, use and disposal of products and the infrastructure). The main environmental impacts and the main contributors of the UMTS system are identified and quantified using most recent life cycle impact assessment methods.
The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method is rather well developed. However, no life cycle impact assessement method exists which includes potential impacts of non-ionizing radiation on human health. A literature study showed that the impacts of non-ionizing radiation are still to controversial to be able to include them in the Life Cycle Assessment method.
The results of this study can be summarized as follows (Faist Emmenegger 2003, Stutz 2003):
The mobile phone is the most important element in the mobile communication from an environmental point of view. The production system of the telephone and of its components (printed wiring boards, integrated circuits) accounts for the main part (ca. 90%) of the environmental impacts of this device. This is mainly due to the short service life span of the mobile phone. The base station is the second most important element of the network. The operation of base stations accounts for about 80% of their environmental impacts.
Per UMTS user and year a higher data transfer than in the GSM system is to be expected, due to the amount of inquired services. Despite the higher efficiency in the transmission of the data an increase of the entire expenditures and emissions per customer in mobile telecommunication has therefore to be expected. The development of the UMTS system is accompanied with an increased consumption of resources and emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases regarding the entire system for mobile telephone communication. The GSM system is a mature technology, while the UMTS system is still at the beginning of its learning curve. Thus it can be safely assumed that large improvement potentials are still present for the UMTS network components concerning expenditures and emissions both at production and by the use of the devices.
The electricity use for network operation and therefore the electricity mix is an important parameter with regard to the environmental impacts of the mobile communication. Operating the network with german instead of swiss electricity would double the greenhouse gas emissions per Gbit data transfer. The network operators have an important potential to reduce the environmental impacts of the mobile communication through the choice of the electricity mix resp. by augmenting the share of renewable energy sources in the electricity used.
Avoiding “hot spots” of the non-ionizing radiation emissions by developping a network with mostly microcells leads to higher environmental impacts per Gbit data transfer. The possible effects of non-ionizing radiation could however not be included in the study.
This study made it possible to evaluates the environmental impacts of the UMTS mobile communication system and show the most important parameters influencing the environmental impacts. It allows network operators and producers to set priority how to improve the mobile communication with regard to the environmental impacts.
Faist Emmenegger M, Frischknecht R, Stutz M, Guggisberg M, Witschi R, Otto T (2004): LCA of the Mobile Communication System UMTS. Towards Eco-efficient Systems. Int J LCA, OnlineFirst <DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1065/lca2004.12.193>. by courtesy of Int J LCA, ecomed publishers.
Faist Emmenegger, M., Frischknecht, R., Jungbluth, N., Guggisberg, M., Stutz, M., Otto, T., Witschi, R. 2003: ESU-services, Uster. (download)
Faist Emmenegger, M., Frischknecht, R., Stutz, M., Guggisberg, M., Witschi, R., Otto, T. 2004: “Mobilfunknetz UMTS: Ökobilanz deckt Optimierungspotential auf.” In (Nr. 1 - Februar 2004): 35-37.
Stutz, M., Faist Emmenegger, M., Frischknecht, R., Guggisberg, M. Witschi, ROtto, T. 2003: "Life Cycle Assessment of the Mobile Communication System UMTS: Towards Eco-efficient Systems." In . Boston.