Telstra is expected to be certified as carbon neutral within weeks – well ahead of our initial plan.

In a recent speech on responsible business I said climate change would be the defining challenge of the 2020s. If anything, the lockdown during COVID has strengthened that view, giving many of us the chance to reflect on the fragility and interconnectedness of the planet in a period that has been quieter, cleaner, less frenetic.

Against that background, it was a real pleasure today to be invited to be part of the UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit, a rolling global conversation involving leaders from more than 10,000 businesses and 3,000 non-business organisations in 160 countries. The big question on the table was how can we rebuild a more inclusive society for a low-carbon, climate-resilient world? The more specific question for business was what is our role? Because we do have a very big role. It is impossible today to view business as separate from society and we are rightly held more accountable than ever before for our actions. What we do and how we act matters.

Telstra is one of the largest consumers of power in the country. Powering networks on a continent the size of Australia requires something in the order of 5.9 petajoules of energy each year and last year that resulted in nearly 1.3m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

The challenge we face is trying to significantly reduce those emissions at the same that demand for connectivity and new digital technologies is rising rapidly. That demand saw the volume of data on our network grow by 26% last year alone. It is expected to triple by 2025.

A positive impact

At the same time, this huge increase in data consumption is having its own positive impact on the environment. Increased connectivity, improved efficiency and new behaviours (a simple example being the ability to work or learn from home rather than commuting) meant connected technologies are helping to avoid emissions. Recent GSMA research estimated that in 2018, the enabling impact of mobile communication technologies globally was estimated to be around 2,135 million tonnes of CO2 – similar to the total greenhouse gas emissions emitted by Russia in 2017.

The research said the level of avoided emissions enabled by connected technologies was estimated to be 10 times greater than the global carbon footprint of mobile networks themselves. The majority of these avoided emissions result from a decrease in fuel, electricity and gas. In other words, digitisation, which is expected to disrupt all parts of the economy over the next decade, has the potential to be a key driver of low carbon development.

At Telstra, while we do everything we can to ensure our networks are energy efficient we still have a huge responsibility to do what we can to lessen the impact we have on the environment. In March this year we announced how we would meet our responsibility to reduce our emissions. It had three core elements. To be carbon neutral in our operations from this year. To be renewable leaders by enabling renewable energy generation equivalent to 100% of our consumption by 2025. To reduce our absolute emissions by 50% by 2030.

Telstra carbon neutral

Solar energy farm for renewable sun energy – Townsville, Queensland

When we committed to becoming carbon neutral in our operations this year we expected it would take us much of the year to put in place what we needed for certification. At the same time, we were also conscious that the longer it took, the bigger our impact on the environment. That is why we are very proud to announce that we expect to be certified as carbon neutral by Climate Active in the next few weeks – well ahead of our initial plan.

We are in the final stages of signing agreements with two carbon offset organisations – something we expect to happen in the next few days. In Australia, we will be supporting a project that uses the knowledge of traditional owners and Aboriginal rangers to reduce the Greenhouse gases emitted from savannah fires, which make up 3% of Australia’s total emissions. In India (where Telstra has significant operations) we will also be purchasing offsets from a solar power project with a number of separate solar farms ranging in size. This activity also ties in closely with our Power Purchasing Agreements for wind and solar farms here in Australia and follows our Belong business gaining carbon neutral certification in December last year.

Everybody’s challenge

As an organisation we are proud of the rapid progress we are making on our climate strategy. But changing the current trajectory on climate change – and meeting the defining challenge of the 2020s – will require ongoing, bold and creative action along with decisive leadership of the type on show at the UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit. Climate change is a shared challenge that impacts our economy, our environment, our communities and each of us individually. If ever there was a moment for bolder and more significant action on climate change it is now.