The pandemic work-from-home regime imposed on many white-collar workers might have come across as a boon to the climate. Less travel, fewer cars on the road, fewer lights on in offices, and less heating and air conditioning. It seemed like a big win.
Now, not so much. Paresh Dave, technology journalist at Reuters, reflected on how companies have strengthened their green credentials over the years. They have, for example, retrofitted offices to reduce their emissions and carbon footprint, and they have purchased carbon credits and planted or preserved trees as compensation. But now that most companies have at least partially converted to remote working, he wonders, how do companies maintain these climate standards?
After all, just because a worker works from home doesn’t mean they don’t emit carbon. They may not be commuting, but they’re still turning on lights, typing on keyboards, surfing the web, turning on the heat or air conditioning, and brewing endless cups of coffee. And their employer is still responsible for the carbon they emit doing these things during work time, right? So Paresh and his team asked 20 major companies, including Salesforce, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta, Fidelity, and REI, what they thought and did about remote work and carbon emissions.
“Ten of the companies had this problem,” he said. “The other ten hadn’t counted the shows…and hadn’t really thought about it, a lot of them, from what I could tell.”
Paresh said the companies that counted emissions all found, to varying degrees, that they produced less carbon during the pandemic than before, as workers traveled less and offices went unused. But they also found that the home setups popularized by the pandemic were eroding some of the climate benefits of abandoned commutes.
There was no single approach to the process that led them to this conclusion. Some companies, like Salesforce, surveyed their employees, asking about their energy bills and the equipment they used. Microsoft, for example, based its calculation on the finding that remote staff work eight-hour days using a laptop, two screens, and three light bulbs. Others, like the German company Siemens, made estimates based on government statistics on the evolution of energy consumption in the residential areas where their workers lived.
Certain factors were not taken into account by any of the companies involved. For example, the way people heat and cool their homes means that a worker controlling the climate in their workspace will likely heat or cool their entire home. Also the fact that there’s a significant climate cost to creating all these new workspaces: all those monitors and chairs and standing desks and laptop stands that people have been buying during the pandemic. Not to mention the emissions from all the container ships, locomotives and trucks that bring it all to our doorsteps.
In other words, it is difficult to measure the carbon footprint created by remote work. It doesn’t help that there isn’t just one set of measures to follow. One of the companies that hasn’t measured those emissions, REI, said it was waiting for uniform industry standards to account for remote working. Fair enough. But it might take some time. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the most common accounting tool, has offered guidance on telework counting since 2011, but it has never specified how to calculate these emissions, so there is not much hope that it will set a standard for remote work anytime soon.
This is a problem, because if the emissions generated by remote workers are not properly accounted for, we could end up producing more carbon in the future, as we move to a hybrid work situation, employees sharing their working hours between their and air-conditioned homes and their equally well-equipped and air-conditioned offices. Reuters noted in its report that at least five research analyzes studying remote working, including one from the International Energy Agency, have generally warned that emissions could rise as companies continue to power offices traditional ones to provide flexibility and that some workers make longer, albeit less frequent, trips. .
“In the worst case, a future of hybrid work could create a world where buildings and homes are used inefficiently with a transportation system unable to keep up with changing demand and potentially more cars on the roads. “said British consultancy Carbon. Trust wrote in a 2021 report on remote work.
the Reuters Team conclusion: While there are climate benefits to millions of employees not traveling while working from home, remote work is not a simple solution to reduce corporate emissions. Paresh’s prediction: Companies that haven’t realized the need to track remote worker emissions soon will. Because there is a lot at stake. The climate credentials of companies play a role in the ability to attract and hire. “People are looking for corporate environmental stewardship; they are looking for corporate social responsibility,” says Paresh. And customers do the same. “Up and down the supply chain, there are companies measuring what their suppliers are doing on the environment.”
And if nudges from employees and customers aren’t enough to convince companies to act on the issue of remote work emissions, there’s always government to rely on. Paresh says there is a real threat of regulation on this issue. He says companies will definitely want to get ahead of that.
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