Mobile Tech Is the Underappreciated Carbon Emissions Killer

Cell phone networks aren’t just for groaning over when your call drops — it’s becoming increasingly clear that mobile technology in general is one of the quieter, yet surprisingly substantial, ways to reduce carbon emissions. According to cell phone behemoth Vodafone (s VOD), mobile technology — for wireless sensor and control networks as well as wireless broadband — will save Europeans €43 billion ($61.12 billion) per year on energy bills. That’s the equivalent of 2.4 percent of the greenhouse gases that are expected to be emitted by the EU in 2020.

While there will be an estimated 250 million wireless broadband subscribers in the world by the end of 2009, only 20 percent of the carbon reductions from Europe’s mobile networks are expected to come from wireless broadband. The other 80 percent of the carbon cutting opportunities for mobile technology lie in “machine-to-machine” networks, which use wireless sensors and software to automatically monitor and manage energy consumption of systems. Machine-to-machine (M2M) systems include smart grid tech, and wireless networks for logistics and manufacturing.

In addition to their potential to reduce carbon emissions, M2M services are also starting to be a big money-maker for the phone companies. Telcos like AT&T (s T), which have already spent billions of dollars building out near-ubiquitous wireless networks, are increasingly turning to M2M sales (functions include bringing smart meter data back to utilities). Vodafone says it also recently launched a global M2M service platform which will help companies kick off and manage wireless M2M projects including “smart metering” and “connected cars.”

Consumers can be fickle, with churn and continuous upkeep. By contrast, a smart grid utility deal is relatively low maintenance. Phone companies’ networks are also offering a popular service for utilities. According to GigaOM Pro and Pike Research (subscription required) cellular networks will eventually take the lead role as the wide area network of choice for the smart grid, at the meter level, neighborhood level and for mobile work force management.

But the carbon reduction potential of mobile networks stems from more than machines. According to Vodafone’s data, 20 percent of the carbon reduction potential comes from “dematerialisation,” — in other words replacing physical goods and processes with virtual ones, with wireless broadband enabling services like e-commerce and video conferencing. It’s the same argument for the Internet as a tool for reducing carbon emissions: instead of driving to the store to buy a book you buy it on Amazon (s AMZN). We’re not sure how Vodafone arrived at that 20 percent figure, but we’re waiting to hear more about their methodology.

Ultimately Vodafone says that these potential carbon reductions won’t be realized unless “industry and governments collaborate.” The giant phone company doesn’t expand on that but it sounds like it wants incentives or stimulus money, etc. And of course Vodafone makes money off of wireless technology, so its research is partly about jockeying for market share — and worth taking with a grain of salt. The final question that I would like to see answered is how does mobile tech’s carbon reductions compare to the carbon emitted from the energy consumed by mobile networks and devices. In other words: is mobile tech carbon neutral, negative, or does it have a substantial carbon footprint?

Image courtesy of Flickr, creative commons.