January 26, 2023
I have spent considerable time in this space describing what pundits are over-fond of calling the “new normal,” the post-Covid acceleration towards remote work and hybrid or virtual events. What remains unclear is the long-term impact of this on carbon emissions, climate change, and environmental sustainability.
An obvious impact of the Covid lockdown was reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Hours of commuting by millions of people is a clear source of air pollutants. Even carpooling or the use of public transportation only curbs, not removes the effect. Global Workplace Analytics calculated that if even half the employees who conceivably could work from home did so, it would reduce greenhouse gases by fifty-four million tons. If workers’ growing preference for remote work prevails, such a change could become permanent.
The shift can also reduce plastic pollution. While it is more difficult to measure than atmospheric pollution, evidence suggests that those who stay at home are less likely to create plastic waste, and companies generally use less plastic and other such environmentally wasteful items with fewer employees to manage in person. A Brita survey shows that since working at home, many have become much more aware and responsible about plastic use.
Another benefit is increased remote work will eventually result in a reduction of office building use. While this at first glance might seem like a minor thing, the construction, renovation, and use of buildings consumes an inordinate quantity of natural resources. An article by U.K. builder Saint-Gobain noted that buildings produce almost 40% of global carbon emissions. While the shift to remote work and events will not instantly reduce that figure, it will change how much we use them and reduce the need to build more.
The picture is much the same when it comes to events. Pre-covid (and pre-virtual events), air travel was a significant budgetary factor in holding large, live events. Given the fact that air travel is also a rapidly growing contributor to the carbon emissions problem, accounting for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. By reducing the need for air travel to live events and making more regional hybrid events possible, virtual events can not only save companies money but also significantly lower their carbon footprint.
Of course, the shift is not a perfect net positive. Working and attending events from home means running computers for longer periods, along with lights and air conditioning. This results in a higher energy consumption among homeowners. While it’s difficult to calculate the exact amount, this shifts the numbers due to energy also being saved because of power not being used at the office. According to CBS, home utility bills for remote workers clearly have risen, which must be factored into overall environmental calculations.
In all, the shift to virtual meetings and events appears to be a net positive for the environment, as well as a measurable move towards a company’s environmental sustainability goals. While savvy businesses can’t make their carbon footprint their only concern, they must consider it as high on the list. With these considerations made, the benefits of remote work continue to come to light, to the benefit of all concerned.
In Part 2, we will explore the environmental cost of going virtual, both for daily work and especially for hybrid and virtual events. The carbon cost of virtual is not zero, but there are practical ways to reduce that cost, while also improving the effectiveness of these vital events.
Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions (www.letstrainonline.com), a leading producer of virtual and hybrid events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also the co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and directly from Amplify Publishing.