Whose carbon footprint is it in a ‘work from home’ world?

About the author : Abel Ariza

President, Malaysia & Singapore

Published on : 6/4/21
  • While employees may avoid carbon-intensive commutes, the “saved” emissions are shifting from the office to the home. This raises questions about the long-term need to track – and curb – emissions in a hybrid working environment.

    This op-ed was first published on The Straits Times

    We have entered a mass experiment for climate change. With remote working and the pandemic quickly squelching economic and social activities across the globe, global emissions have fallen by an estimated 6 to 8 per cent last year – the largest drop in the century. 

    Cleaner air was celebrated across much of the world, the result of fewer buses, cars and trucks on the roads as well as airplanes in the skies – at least for a couple of months before pollution levels rose as economic activity resumed.

    This begs the question – is it too premature to celebrate? 

    While many businesses expect remote working to reduce their carbon footprint by more than 50 per cent, the situation is more complex. Case in point: The more bandwidth your virtual meetings consume, the higher the carbon footprint of the meeting.

    The United Nations has painted a grim picture: Carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching “net zero” around 2050. 

    How will remote work support, or sabotage, this goal? And how can businesses even begin to measure their environmental footprint with mass work from home (WFH) anyway?

    Sustainability of hybrid work 

    Tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have publicly announced that more of their employees will be able to work remotely permanently, and firms across Asia Pacific have mirrored similar plans. 

    This raises questions about the long-term need to track – and curb – emissions in a hybrid working environment. 

    In reality, carbon footprint is likely to increase with the shift to WFH. While employees might no longer be making their carbon-intensive commutes, many of their “saved” emissions are simply shifting from the office to the home.

    In Singapore, domestic consumption of electricity was found to have spiked during the early circuit breaker period, which was pretty much a city lockdown, where people were allowed to be out of the house only for essential business. 

    In Malaysia, too, usage of electricity in the residential sector saw an increase of between 20 per cent and 50 per cent. 

    Research by the International Energy Agency further suggests that WFH lowers a worker’s carbon footprint only if the commute is greater than about 6km; any shorter, and the higher emissions generated from working from home can offset any savings. 

    Many businesses are now looking at how to redefine the sustainability impact of hybrid working practices, where employees split their working week between the office, home and anywhere else. 

    Increasingly, this will mean that their employees’ impact is included in their overall sustainability reporting – and firms will have to find innovative ways to reduce or offset that impact. 

    Offsetting dispersed emissions  

    In the race to achieve net zero carbon footprint, there is an urgent need for businesses to be proactive. Already, these changing work models have come at significant costs to businesses, as a result of underused offices and high average fit-out costs. 

    Unsurprisingly, businesses across the globe are rapidly adopting energy-saving measures to further reduce costs while moving towards carbon net zero status. 

    Businesses are turning to sustainable energy initiatives and data-driven technologies to optimise energy usage. Examples of this include the use of LED lights, and renewable onsite generation coupled with battery storage. These quick win technologies can often be cash-positive investments from day one, as they significantly reduce cost while maximising output.

    Slow, but steady progress

    Work is already under way. In Asia, national-level policy commitments, such as net-zero declarations by China, South Korea and Japan over the past year, have set the tone for Asian corporate decarbonisation. 

    Closer to home, ride-hailing companies Gojek and Grab have both pledged to reduce their carbon emissions. At global food and facilities management company Sodexo, clients are supported with advice on design and implementation of energy management plans to accelerate energy cost savings too. The company is one of around 1,200 businesses that have signed up to the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which helps companies cut their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

    A total of 250 Asian companies have set carbon-cutting targets or are in the process of getting them approved, which is a 57 per cent increase between 2019 and 2020. 

    It is clear then that business leaders have a duty to lead the climate change race, bringing aboard employees and change from the ground-up through various initiatives.

    Good business in a good way 

    Covid-19 has accelerated these changes. While we are all working to crack the new equilibrium between home, office and everywhere in between, now is also an opportune time to reassess the sustainability models of businesses. 

    Some businesses are already leading the way with new models of corporate sustainability, having accepted that they cannot solely delegate their carbon footprint to employees. 

    Having a holistic energy management road map in place will go the distance in balancing budgets with climate needs, while ensuring employee comfort, health and well-being. 

    Bold, ambitious steps are urgently needed in the race against climate change – from managing WFH footprints and employee education, to sustainability reporting. As we mark World Environment Day on Saturday, June 5, let’s put these plans into action and do good business in a good way.  

    This op-ed was first published on The Straits Times

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