Greenpeace China 5G and Data Center Carbon Emissions Outlook 2035

Safer Technology Aotearoa New Zealand

June 9, 2021

China is home to the world’s largest 5G network and the world’s second biggest data center industry. With developments such as the Internet of Things, blockchain and 5G, carbon emissions from China’s digital infrastructure are rising fast.
New research from Greenpeace East Asia finds that electricity consumption from digital infrastructure in China is on track to increase an estimated 289% by 2035. Electricity use at 5G base stations in China is rising at an even more dramatic rate and is projected to increase nearly 500% over the same period. In 2020, 61% of electricity that powered China’s digital infrastructure was generated from coal.

China’s government has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and tech companies have begun to take steps to reduce their own carbon footprint. However, to date, only two major Chinese data center companies, Chindata and AtHub, have committed to achieve 100% clean energy by 2030, a key step in bringing down the sector’s emissions. Without urgent action to increase clean energy use, the internet sector’s contribution to China’s carbon footprint will continue to grow. By contrast, if internet giants, including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, work to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030, they would
play a critical role in catalyzing China’s low-carbon transition.

In 2020, China’s data center and 5G sectors consumed 201 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity, roughly equivalent to the total electricity consumption of Beijing and Shenzhen combined. The same year, carbon emissions from China’s digital infrastructure reached an estimated 123 million tonnes. Power consumption from digital infrastructure in China is on track to shoot up 289% between 2020 and 2035. By 2035, electricity consumption from China’s digital infrastructure is projected to reach 782 billion kWh, more than the total power consumption of any single Chinese province in 2020.

By 2035, digital infrastructure is projected to account for 5-7% of China’s total power consumption, compared to just
2.7% in 2020.

Carbon emissions from digital infrastructure in China are projected to reach 310 million tonnes by 2035. Emissions from China’s digital infrastructure are forecast to continue to rise through 2035, long after emissions from other sectors in the country peak. By contrast, heavy emitting sectors, such as steel, non-ferrous metal, and cement, are expected to peak emissions around 2025. China’s government has pledged to peak national emissions before 2030, though many analysts believe the peak will come earlier.

5G is one of the fastest growing sources of internet sector emissions in China. Power consumption from 5G in China is on track to skyrocket 488% by 2035, reaching 297 billion kWh by 2035, roughly equivalent to Sichuan’s total electricity consumption in 2020.

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