Life Cycle Assessment of the Mobile Communication System UMTS: Towards Eco-efficient Systems (12 pp)

  • Mireille Faist Emmenegger
  • Rolf FrischknechtEmail author
  • Markus Stutz
  • Michael Guggisberg
  • Res Witschi
  • Tim Otto


Goal, Scope and Background

Goal of this study is an evaluation of the environmental sustainability of the UMTS mobile communication system in Switzerland by means of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). A baseline environmental impact profile across the full life cycle of the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) and its predecessor, the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) is presented. The baseline assessment was a necessary first step to evaluate the environmental impacts of the mobile communication systems use and growth, thus permitting the evaluation of its environmental sustainability.

Main Features

Two functional units are defined: a data set of 1 Gbit (1.000.000 kbit), and the yearly mobile communication of an average customer. In the UMTS, both data packages and calls can be conveyed. In order to be able to standardize the results, an equivalence between these two kinds of transmission is formed. Two different options are defined, which represent different ways of transferring the data: mobile phone to mobile phone, and mobile phone to fixed network. All components of the UMTS network like the mobile phones, base stations, antennae, switching systems and the components of the landline like cable system and switching centers, are assessed. The environmental impacts are assessed taking into account all major life cycle phases like raw material extraction, manufacturing, use, disassembly and disposal of the product and the needed infrastructure. Electronic components like printed wiring boards and integrated circuits are assessed using a simple model based on the size (for IC) or number of layers (for PWB), respectively. Mining of precious metals (gold, silver) is included. The study was carried out by ESU-services, Motorola, Swisscom and Deutsche Telekom. Thanks to the industrial partners it can rely on primary data for the production of mobile phone and base station, and for the operation of the networks. As the UMTS network is still being built, no actual data of network operation is available. Data from the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) were used in case of data gaps.

Results and Conclusions

About 25 kg CO2 are emitted and 800 MJ-eq (non-renewable) primary energy are required for the transfer of 1 Gbit information from mobile phone to mobile phone in the UMTS network. For a transfer from mobile to fixed network, these values are 20 kg CO2 and 640 MJ-eq, respectively. On the other hand, the fixed network requires more resources like copper (0.07 kg for the mobile to mobile option vs. 0.12 kg for mobile to fixed network). From an environmental point of view, the mobile telephone is the most important element of the mobile communication network (UMTS and GSM). The short service life of the mobile phone plays a substantial role. Increasing the utilization period of the mobile phone (e.g. by leasing, re-use, extension of the innovation cycles, etc.) could thus represent a large potential for its improvement. The second most important components are the base stations. In the assessment mainly the use phase proved to be important. The lower environmental impact (per Gbit data transfer) as compared to the mobile phone can be explained by the longer service life (around factor 8). Main impacts are caused by the electricity consumption, in particular the energy needed for cooling the base stations. By choosing an environmentally benign electricity mix and/or by increasing the portion of renewable sources of energy, the network operators have a substantial potential of lower the environmental impacts (in particular the greenhouse gas emissions) of mobile telecommunication. Furthermore, the manufacturing of electronic components, the life time of the appliances and energy consumption are key parameters influencing the environmental profile of the networks most. Given its larger data transfer rate, the UMTS is ecologically more favorable in terms of data transfer rate than its predecessor, the GSM system. The higher energy consumption and the more complex production of the devices in the UMTS system are compensated by the faster data transmission rate. Per customer, the result is inverse, however, since the higher efficiency is compensated by the higher data communication per user in the UMTS system. The UMTS network in its state of 2004 according to the 2001 planning and with the accordingly calculated number of customers and data transfer causes 2.1 times more CO2 emissions and requires 2.4 times more (non-renewable) primary energy per customer than for the GSM system in its current state. It must be noted, however, that the UMTS technology supports other services than the GSM system. The development of the UMTS 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 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. This study provides the necessary information where such improvements are most effective in environmental terms.

mobile phone UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunication System) base station GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) eco-efficiency 


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Copyright information

© Ecomed 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mireille Faist Emmenegger
    • 1
  • Rolf Frischknecht
    • 2
    Email author
  • Markus Stutz
    • 3
  • Michael Guggisberg
    • 4
  • Res Witschi
    • 5
  • Tim Otto
    • 6
  1. 1.Mireille Faist Emmenegger ESU-services environmental consultancy for business and authorities Kanzleistrasse 4 8610 Uster SCHWEIZ  
  2. 2.Dr. Sc. Techn. Rolf Frischknecht ESU-Services Kanzleistrasse 4 8610 Uster SCHWEIZ  
  3. 3.Markus Stutz Motorola GmbH Motorola Advanced Technology Center – Europe 65203 Wiesbaden  
  4. 4.Michael Guggisberg Swisscom AG, Swisscom Innovations Ostermundigenstrasse 93 3006 Bern. SWITZERLAND  
  5. 5.Res Witschi Swisscom Fixnet AG, Environmental Management Ostermundigenstrasse 93 3006 Bern. SWITZERLAND  
  6. 6.Tim Otto Deutsche Telekom AG Central Environmental Affairs Office Am Kavalleriesand 3 64295 Darmstadt  

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