The global response to the coronavirus pandemic has led to significant and sudden drops in carbon emissions. These reductions are due to massive changes in human behavior in response to a crisis like we have never seen before. In China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, experts estimate that emissions over the past month have been about 25 percent lower than normal (Scientific American 2020).
Yet questions abound about whether any of these carbon reductions can or will be made permanent. To a large extent, this depends on whether we revert to our prior behaviors or choose to make some lasting changes. This circumstance presents chief sustainability officers with unique challenges and opportunities for reducing their organization’s footprint. The good news is that organizations have time to work through this process strategically. Maintaining the health and safety of the workforce requires that the transition to a ‘new normal’ be gradual, over the coming months and years.
Any examination of how to improve sustainability outcomes must start with data to understand the biggest areas of opportunity, and in the case of coronavirus, what might be able to be re-thought and locked in permanently from the experience.
For ENGIE Impact, our 2019 carbon emissions reporting demonstrates that our biggest contributors are business travel (mostly international), commuting, buildings and digital. Like businesses around the world, we have had no business travel for over a month, and it could be several more months before we are able to resume. Forty of our approximately 2,000 employees, or about 2 percent of our workforce, provide essential services that must be performed in an office. The remaining 1,960 are successfully working from home. Although we don’t have measurements yet, it is easy to see that our use of digital tools has skyrocketed since transitioning the bulk of our workforce to work from home.
With this in mind, I put the following set of questions to Emma Stewart, Ph.D., Head of Campus & Community Sustainability Solutions for ENGIE Impact. Here is a transcript of our conversation:
Emma: Indeed, this is an era when superlatives are in order, and at times, don’t even do justice to the disruption. In mid-March, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a measure of 30 of the most prominent publicly-traded stocks in the United States, registered its second-worst day of trading in its 124-year history (World Economic Forum COVID Strategic Intelligence 2020). The International Monetary Fund projected the global economy will contract by 3 percent in 2020, far worse than the 2008 financial crisis (IMF World Economic Outlook April 2020). This aligns with depression-era level downturns. Still, the IMF reassures us that economic activity can normalize in 2021 with sufficient fiscal and public policy support.
Businesses need to respond in three phases:
Emma: In looking at the Rebound with respect to ways of working, it’s helpful to divide that new normal into pre-vaccine and post-vaccine timeframes:
By proactively engaging in strategy development now, chief sustainability officers can help businesses take advantage of an immense opportunity to cut costs and carbon emissions while maintaining or growing business productivity in the post-vaccine world. It starts with looking at the sustainability data from pre-coronavirus ways of working. Here are the key questions to ask:
Emma: Due largely to shelter-in-place mandates, weekday personal travel fell by a jaw-dropping 40 percent in the United States the week of March 20-27 (INRIX U.S. National Traffic Volume Synopsis March 27, 2020). The decrease in vehicle miles traveled was particularly acute in passenger travel, the category covering employee commuting.
The first coronavirus hotspot in the U.S., Seattle, happens to also be a technology hub, so these companies were more comfortable than most asking their employees to work remotely – often using their own software products to do so – well before government guidance kicked in. But employers well beyond the tech sector can see this disruption as an opportunity to permanently shift their employee culture to one that embraces the many benefits of telework, from greater productivity, to avoided wear-and-tear, to cost-savings.
I worked at Autodesk during the 2008 financial crisis, and we made a concerted effort to invest into the downtown in high-end teleconferencing systems, which post-recession allowed us to dramatically curtail business travel, especially for internal meetings, and to set an ambitious Science-Based Target that included even our Scope 3 emissions.
There are countless ways to encourage this shift, and one must choose those that align with your organization’s culture in order to ensure adoption. A couple of ideas:
Emma: At first glance, increased work from home would seem to reduce a business’s carbon emission by reducing commuting and the need for real estate. Indeed, The Carbon Trust, one of the most respected voices worldwide on carbon accounting, produced a report back in 2014 concluding that a shift to homeworking (or telework as it is known outside the UK) would result in significant cost and carbon savings for the business sector, specifically net £3 million and 3 million tons of carbon savings per year in the UK alone. It noted that homeworking saw upticks in the 1950s as telephones were introduced into the home, in the 1970s as the oil crisis made energy and commuting more expensive, in the 1980s with the advent of the personal computer, and in the 2000s as employers became more focused on outcomes in lieu of process. But none of these saw the sudden surge in telework that leading economies were forced to embrace this spring when the global pandemic hit.
However, telework has always been a tricky area to GHG accounting. One reason is that location matters. For employers like ENGIE Impact that try to locate our facilities in dense urban cores close to public transit, the commuter footprint for many commuters may be low to begin with. Meanwhile, telework is susceptible to a phenomenon called “rebound effect,” where GHGs increase from heavier reliance on other forms of energy load, such a data centers (the energy intensity of the ICT sector is increasing), or due to knock-on effects (such as employees heating/cooling/lighting home offices less efficiently than those managed by professionals, or employees driving to do errands they would have done while commuting by transit).
To counter these rebound effects, employers should begin to think about workers that shift to permanent telework as extensions of their own facilities. Consumer-friendly tools like Pawprint Eco (UK) or Cool Climate Network (U.S.), which use behavioral science to help individual households reduce their footprints, can then offer further insights, motivation, and “stickiness”.
There will be many more questions as organizations look for opportunities to leverage the learnings and behavioral changes we are experiencing to leapfrog their sustainability targets. ENGIE Impact will continue exploring how different ways of working can catalyze corporate action, including ways to lock in reductions in business-related airline travel and manage the net GHG impacts of digital tools.