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AT&T sustainability boss on meeting its net-zero targets

AT&T has pledged to help businesses cut a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from their operations by 2035. Head of environment Charles Herget explains how the company hopes to achieve this ambitious climate goal

Every 1000 gigatons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere raises global temperatures by 0.45 degrees, according to estimates from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This figure highlights the importance of drastically reducing global CO2 emissions if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

US telecommunications giant AT&T is looking to tackle this challenge head-on by committing to cut a gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), alongside its business partners and customers, by 2035. To put this figure in perspective, it would represent 3% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions released last year or the equivalent emissions of 1.1bn flights from London to New York.

The company’s global environmental and sustainability lead Charles Herget says: “We have set a very ambitious goal but when you look at COP26 and the urgency of the IPCC report, it encourages stakeholders to demand more from companies.”

Herget believes that now is the time to act on climate change, stating that the IPCC’s warning of “code red” for humanity “couldn’t be much stronger”. He adds: “It’s a dire situation and so it calls for us all to take action, at the individual level, at the corporate level and at the governmental level.”

How to cut a gigaton of CO2 emissions

In order to reach this target AT&T has established the Connected Climate Initiative, which will see companies including Microsoft, Equinix and Duke Energy collaborate with the telecoms company in its emissions reduction efforts. The hope is that, by transitioning to more efficient connectivity solutions, the company and its customers can collectively cut a billion tons of CO2e from being released into the atmosphere.

As AT&T also moves to reduce its own carbon footprint, most of its efforts will go towards driving efficiencies across core business operations. “Whether you’re running a 5g network or fibre network, these are very energy-intensive projects,” says Herget. “There’s no question that improving the efficiency of network operations represents the largest piece of the equation, by far.”

It’s a dire situation and it calls for us all to take action

Previous calculations from UK non-profit Carbon Trust helped to inform the new climate goal. Between 2018 and 2020, the company estimated that AT&T’s connectivity solutions helped its customers reduce its CO2e emissions by 72m tons. Herget explains that this “represented very good progress but we knew that we could get to a much bigger goal.” 

Implementation of IoT sensors and AI analysis to monitor the efficiency of lighting, heating and air conditioning within buildings is another way AT&T and its technology partners have yielded energy efficiency gains, according to Herget. 

Other efforts include partnering with digital infrastructure company Equinix to reduce the energy demands of its network infrastructure; working with the Universities of Missouri and Texas A&M to explore ways 5G can help cut emissions and a new fleet routing software to help the company’s 80,000 strong fleet avoid traffic delays to make their journeys more efficient.

“Our gigaton goal is focused on product enablement, so the more companies that are having this awakening and creating new environmental goals, the more they’re going to need to search for solutions,” Herget adds. “It’s good for the business because it’s good for the bottom line, but it’s saving energy as well as money, so it’s also good for the environment too.”

Climate resilience

One of the key areas of discussion at COP26 is the issue of climate resilience and making sure key infrastructure and communities are protected from potential impacts of climate change. It is also a priority for AT&T which cites “any climate-related risk that has the potential to impact our network reliability or performance, or our ability to service customers” as a “substantive financial risk” in its CDP reporting.

It is an area that AT&T has been active in since 2016 and is crucial for a company whose network spans such large areas. Herget says: “We noticed that the city of Houston was experiencing flooding levels, which previously occurred every 100 years, were happening on a more frequent basis. You can see weather patterns are changing and utilising historical flood maps is proving to be less effective.”

AT&T teamed up with the Argonne National Laboratory to improve the available data on severe weather events. Initially four maps were produced, showing the risks of coastal flooding, inland flooding and high intensity winds associated with hurricanes across the states of Georgia, Florida and North and South Carolina. 

This data has helped AT&T in its decision-making, in particular when choosing the location for new network assets and identifying existing ones that need to be made more resilient. There is also a hope that municipalities and other organisations will make use of the open source data.

“We now have flood data that is down to the granularity of 200 metres by 200 metres,” Herget says. “It allows us to look at a street and see where the best place to put your asset is, or which buildings we need to make more resilient.”

Data is now being collected for the entirety of the US, with wildfire and drought risks also being highlighted. 

Progress on 2035 net zero goal

Herget recognises that there are many areas of the business where there is still work to be done. AT&T was given an A minus rating by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in 2020 for its efforts to cut its emissions and Herget remains confident that AT&T can achieve its ambition to become net zero by 2035.

The cleanest electron is the one you don’t use, so efficiency efforts and optimisation are best

One of the most significant contributors to emissions at AT&T is its energy usage. Transitioning to more renewable sources of energy is one of the areas where the telecoms company can make its biggest emission reductions, according to Herget. The company currently has 1.5 gigawatts of contracted capacity with renewable energy providers.

Herget adds: “We have to make the grid greener and we want to be a catalyst in that effort but it won’t be 100%. The cleanest electron is the one you don’t use, so efficiency efforts and optimisation are best. If we just can reduce our footprint organically, that’s the best option, and then we can let renewable energy help to reduce our remaining emissions.”

Herget hopes that global events like COP26 will be the catalyst for organisations to bring forward their own emissions targets. “We’re looking to COP26 which is highlighting the urgency of the situation. That then fuels the stakeholders to demand more action from companies. I think action can happen quick enough [to address the climate crisis] and I think it’s gonna take events like COP26 to do it.”