NCIe to Meet You: Introducing the Network Carbon Intensity Energy Indicator

ByAndrew Williamson

November 29, 2022

Andrew Williamson

Lord Kelvin (one of the world’s greatest ever scientists) remarked that “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”

It is for the Kelvin Scale however – absolute temperatures are stated in units of Kelvin in his honour – for which Lord Kelvin is arguably best known for. But the importance of our ability to quantify and measure the impacts of our actions in an agreed and cross-comparative way has never been greater.

Climate change is pushing global average temperatures ever upwards. The last eight years are likely to have been the hottest ever recorded, according to a new report released by the World Meteorological Society at COP 27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh, which I attended on behalf of Huawei.

Figure 1 – Warming stripes; data visualisation representing trend of average global temperature rise (red exceeds average; blue below average).
Source: Berkley Earth, Wikimedia Commons

Many of the discussions here at COP 27 ultimately loop back to how we can best measure progress and setbacks in the battle against climate change. Most of us are familiar with the Carbon Footprint. This is commonly defined as the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organization, or community. The concept and name of the carbon footprint was derived from the ecological footprint developed by William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel in the 1990s at the University of British Columbia.

Average individual carbon footprints vary widely across the world by country, mostly as a function of economic development. Figure 2 shows this variation and the progress made in lowering them (or not) between 2000 and 2019 for the G20 nations (data for 2020-21 are considered non-representative given the impacts of economic shutdowns during the pandemic). We concentrate here on carbon footprints created from individual consumption (removing the distortion of production where many products may be exported overseas by a country for final consumption elsewhere). While some improvement can be seen across several countries over the twenty years, continued consumption at current US levels for everybody for example, is clearly unsustainable.

Figure 2 – Annual Consumption-Based CO2 emissions tonnes per capita 2000-2019
Source: OurWorldinData, Oxford University.

More recently, the Carbon Handprint has been popularized. This is a corollary measure that aims to showcase the positive effect one’s actions can have on the environment, especially in respect to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. It goes back to the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and was first officially presented at the 4th UNESCO International Conference on Environmental Education. My colleague, Dr Rene Arnold goes into more detail on the concept in another recent blog article: Digital Technology’s Hidden Handprint.

Information Communications Technologies’ (ICT) Carbon Handprint isestimated to be sizeable. Anders Andrae at Huawei’s 2012 Labs estimates that the emissions-savings associated with digitalization are roughly 11x larger than the technology’s direct carbon footprint. Their deployment and use will be vital in the world’s struggle against climate change.

While the Carbon Handprint explains how ICTs will help us mitigate the impacts of our increasing energy usage, the exponential growth of ICTs and their associated infrastructure (such as data centers) has been a climate change concern. Indeed, only a few years back there were forecasts suggesting that the growth in the digital economy could become a serious impediment to climate change mitigation. Based on research by the International Energy Agency (IEA) the data centers and data transmission networks that underpin digitalization accounted for around 300 Mt CO2-equivalent in 2020 (including embodied emissions), equal to 0.9% of all energy-related GHG emissions. Close to that of the entire airline industry.

Anything that can be done therefore to reduce the GHG emissions of data centers will be crucial to climate change mitigation efforts. Huawei remains at the vanguard of these efforts. Our innovative computing center solution uses a modular steel prefabricated design, which marks a big step towards green and low-carbon data center construction and operations.

This solution uses much less concrete than conventional building for data centers, offsetting carbon emissions in the construction phase by more than 90%.

Powering up with PUE

The Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) is our next measure of energy efficiency. Specifically, the PUE has become an ICT industry standard for measuring the energy efficiency of an individual data center. PUE evaluates the energy performance of a data center by calculating the ratio of the energy used as a whole as compared with the energy used by just the IT equipment alone.

Huawei’s AI cluster solution uses full liquid cooling, bringing the PUE of our data centers down to 1.1. Much lower than when air-cooled clusters are used and well below industry averages.

Related: iCooling: How You Can Cut $ Millions in Data Center Power Bills

Our collective use of mobile and fixed broadband networks also generates GHG emissions. In point of fact, according to Informa Tech data global consumer data traffic from cellular and fixed broadband networks will grow at a 29% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2018 and 2024. This will reach 5.8 million petabytes (PB) of data in 2024 – the equivalent of every person on the planet uploading over 6,700 photos per day – up from around 1.3 million PB in 2018.

It is no surprise to learn then, that governments around the world were looking at potential policy approaches to reduce CO2 emissions by telecoms network operators. In December 2020, the French regulator, ARCEP, launched a proposal to incorporate environmental factors in its telecom network performance indicators in 2021. Guidelines from the ITU and partners in 2020 stated that the ICT industry should reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030 to comply with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Until recently however, there has been no internationally agreed way to measure the relative energy efficiency of different telecoms networks in a standard and comparable manner.

NCIe to meet you

In September 2022, Recommendation ITU-T L.1333 from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was finally published. It introduces and defines a new key performance indicator (KPI) called the Network Carbon Intensity Energy (NCIe) indicator. The NCIe is more applicable to a complete network greenness assessment, considering a network in its totality. Its aim is to not only encourage the reduction of auxiliary electricity consumption, but also promote much greater use of green energy sources and to improving overall energy utilization efficiency. For overall green KPI evaluation and horizontal comparison of the macro network, the NCIe assessment can be intuitive and reliable. Huawei was honoured to be one of several industry partners that helped formulate this new measurement criteria.

Thanks to strong technical progress, the ICT industry has an increasingly sophisticated range of options to meet its growing needs. Using green energy (e.g., solar photovoltaic) often at site, is arguably the biggest opportunity for ICT players to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the telecoms sector is shifting its focus from reducing absolute energy consumption to enhancing energy utilization efficiency – that is, to optimize energy usage so that every bit of energy can be used precisely to support the current digital service demand, thereby reducing CO2 emissions while potentially lowering operating expenses.

At Huawei we call this “more bits, less watts”.

The NCIe will prove to be an invaluable aid to the telecoms sector and other stakeholders in maximizing ICT’s Carbon Handprint while identifying energy savings and efficiencies in telecom network operations. I think Lord Kelvin would have approved.

Learn more about Huawei’s analysis and predictions for how ICT can power a greener world in our Green Development 2030 report.

Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.

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Andrew Williamson

Vice President, Government Affairs and Economic Adviser, Huawei In this role, Andrew is a key aide on global macroeconomic, political and industry trends. His research also involves the contribution ICT makes to economic growth, and society.

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