In the midst of the controversy surrounding the arrival of 5G technology in France, the government welcomed the publication of a report excluding any health risk linked to frequencies. But if the debate around dangerousness seems closed, many questions remain about the many ecological issues. France 24 takes stock.

Since the publication in the JDD, Sunday, September 13, of the forum of around sixty left-wing elected officials calling for a moratorium on 5G, the reactions fuse. After Emmanuel Macron who had laughed, Monday, the signatories and their “amish model”, the Minister of the Ecological Transition went up to the front, Wednesday, September 16, affirming that there was “no health risk” related to 5G frequencies.

The publication on Tuesday of a study concluding the absence of “adverse effects” represents a victory for the government, just days before the start of the auction to allocate frequencies to mobile operators.

For the executive, the message is clear: 5G is an essential technological advance for the competitiveness of France. However, the debate continues around environmental issues. From pollution risks to potential ecological gains, France 24 provides an overview of the arguments.

• Fear of the rebound effect

Energy consumption is one of the major ecological problems posed by digital technology. In France, these technologies represent “the first item of electricity consumption in the office and the second at home”, underlines ADEME (the government’s ecological transition agency) in its November 2019 report.

Advocates of 5G highlight its improved energy efficiency, which would also increase speed tenfold and considerably reduce charging times. For equal traffic therefore, 5G would allow significant energy savings.

>>> On the same subject : 5G, the industry of the third millennium

However, the arrival of this new technology raises fears about the explosion of data consumption and therefore electricity; this is called the “rebound effect”.

“The question is not the energy saving allowed by this new technology, but what we will do with this energy gain”, estimates Alma Dufour, overproduction campaign manager and specialist in digital products for the NGO Friends of the Earth. “However, whenever there is a technological advance, the progress is used to produce more. 5G offers greater speed and new possibilities for individuals and businesses, which will lead to an explosion in consumption. of energy far greater than savings “.

• An explosion of digital pollution?

Today, the digital sector represents around 3% of greenhouse gas production in France. Pollution much lower than that of other sectors, such as construction or transport, but which is growing exponentially.

However, while 5G enables progress in energy consumption, its infrastructures pose several problems. Not only do 5G antennas consume more energy than 4G antennas (around 3% additional consumption), but they have lower radiation: “5G requires infrastructures installed closer to users”, explains Vincent Courboulay, teacher-researcher specialist. digital technology at the University of La Rochelle. “We will therefore have to install more antennas than for 4G. Furthermore, 5G does not replace 4G, it is added to it and represents an important ecological issue in terms of pollution, but also of land use planning” . For its part, the French Telecoms Federation assures us that this problem is not topical: “Initially, 5G will use the existing 4G infrastructure, then will gradually replace it. The new antennas will be installed in several years’ time. depending on changing needs “.

Another cause for concern is the pollution that will be caused by the renewal of laptops with 5G. The number of telephones used in France is estimated at over 60 million. However, very few are compatible with 5G. “Hardware renewal is therefore going to be a big problem, as the manufacturing of digital hardware accounts for about 40% of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, this will not happen overnight, but there is has a real incentive effect with 5G “, explains Alma Dufour. “Mobile telephony is a particularly polluting sector, because recycling is completely non-existent. No rare earth is reused for the manufacture of smartphones. Recycling takes time and research. It is now cheaper by extract rare earths, because it has become an ultra competitive sector, even if it is extremely polluting, “she laments.

• Operators who want to be reassuring

While it now seems certain that the arrival of 5G will greatly increase digital uses in France, some consider that this situation will on the contrary reduce the overall environmental impact.

“Today you have on the one hand telecoms companies which make commitments to reduce their energy footprint and on the other an advanced technology which represents major energy gains, with, for example, teleworking like us. observed during the Covid crisis, “said Nicolas Guérin, president of the French Telecoms Federation.

In its 2019 report, Arcep (Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority) goes in this direction, stressing that digital technology “has the potential to decarbonise several sectors of activity”, citing as an example “the intelligent adaptation of thermal energy in buildings or even the detection and measurement of losses on energy networks “.

Contacted by France 24, the Ministry of Ecological Transition nevertheless considers that it is too early to assess the potential gains of 5G: “Several experiments are underway, in particular on smart watering which assesses the needs with sensors, as well. only on teleworking, but we cannot say at this time that 5G will have a positive impact on the environment “.

The first elements of the report on the environmental impact commissioned by the State are expected in mid-November, two weeks after the launch of the auction to allocate frequencies. For the final conclusions, it will take several months.

“It has not escaped you that we have a government of technophiles,” says one at the Ministry of Ecological Transition. “Ecology is a parameter to be taken into account; our job is to limit the impact on the environment as much as possible. But 5G is a political decision of our government. We already know that this project will not be interrupted for ecological issues, whatever the conclusions of the report “.

The auction for the allocation of 5G frequencies will begin on September 29 and should bring the state more than 2 billion euros.

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