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Decarbonization lessons after a month of social distancing

The behavior changes developing from remote work could have a number of positive benefits. Why not act now to ensure these practices become permanent?

Decarbonize placard

Global Youth Climate Strike Rally and March in downtown San Francisco, September 2019.

The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted life around the world, with most people sheltering at home all day. While stay-at-home orders have led to a global economic downturn, reduced CO2-equivalent (CO2-eq) emissions represent a likely side effect.

The behavior changes developing from remote work could have a number of positive benefits, such as lessening our climate impacts. Acting to ensure these practices become permanent is key to ensuring organizations do not go back to their old habits.

Such benefits may outlast the outbreak if organizations continue to incorporate successful COVID-19-inspired practices in the post-pandemic world. For example, companies are learning that effective large-scale videoconferencing significantly reduces the need to travel and thus CO2-eq emissions.  

These trends will play differently depending on economic sector and company culture; here we take Guidehouse’s own emissions as one example from the professional services sector.

Guidehouse’s changing climate impact

As a professional service company, Guidehouse has business travel as one of its largest areas of emissions. Purchased goods and services (relating to subcontractors) and commuting also contribute to the company’s carbon footprint. The impact of our offices all around the globe is low due to efficiency measures and the purchase of green electricity, but this could be different for other professional service companies. Guidehouse’s commuting footprint is 5,260 metric tons, and business travel represents 10,615 metric tons.

It is not surprising that the most significant short-term changes to Guidehouse’s emission footprint include the introduction of a companywide policy banning nonessential business travel and a shift toward teleworking. These policies are expected to reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions by half during the time they remain in place.

The expansion of virtual working into new areas and job roles using videoconferencing and other digital tools is one of the most visible changes.
It is more difficult to quantify the effect on other emissions categories. While the company could reduce its energy-related emissions if fewer employees are working from an office, emissions could be expected to increase at employee homes. There are also secondary effects, such as a potential shift in the load curve and the fuel mix needed to cover peak demand.

Currently, the drop in aggregate load has helped compensate some location issues that could appear due to increasing residential demand. However, with unprecedented numbers of people working from home, if this situation stretches into the summer, it will be necessary to consider the impact of increased air conditioning loads on the distribution system networks. This shift could cause an unprecedented surge in residential demand with a peak that starts at 8 a.m. and ends around 9 p.m.

In the short term, the policies Guidehouse set in place to prevent the spread of disease are expected to reduce emissions by at least 12 percent (3,667 metric tons of CO2-eq) in 2020 compared to 2018. This assumes the policies are in place for 12 weeks prior to a return to previous behavior.

Guidehouse decarbonization graphic

A fad or a long-term behavior change?

Hopefully, the current situation will be eased in a relatively short time. (At the time of writing, governments estimate that some travel flexibility could be achieved in 12 weeks). However, COVID-19 has led to the development of new behaviors that could long outlast it. The expansion of virtual working into new areas and job roles using videoconferencing and other digital tools is one of the most visible changes.

If this becomes business as usual after the COVID-19 crisis, changes in employee commuting and business travel patterns could make a significant difference to corporate emissions. Some employees may work from home more often or clients may realize that virtual workshops are a valid replacement for meetings that otherwise require several colleagues and consultants to travel to their headquarters

If behaviors change and every employee works one day extra a week from home, commuting-related emissions would drop by 20 percent. Similarly, if 50 percent of traditional client engagements are done virtually, business travel emissions would drop by the same amount (50 percent).

If these changes are implemented, Guidehouse could reduce emissions by 20 percent without any effect on its operations and without increasing costs — in fact, it would reduce travel-related costs, with the additional benefit of these reductions repeating year-over-year. These emissions reductions would not come associated with any economic or social costs and could improve the quality of life for employees and the cities where they live.

For new practices to survive, companies should start planning now 

The Guidehouse example can be extrapolated to other professional service firms — consultants, accountants, lawyers and finance — and to corporate units of other businesses. Other business sectors will have their own findings that also could become permanent.

Organizations need to track changes to traditional processes to see if any of them should become the new normal, working with employees to understand and standardize best practices. They can start planning how to ensure the behavioral changes can be permanently implemented once social distancing is eased.

For example, they could survey employees about working from home one day a week. Organizations also should communicate with suppliers and customers to see if the new way of working fits their needs and if continuing them would be acceptable.

If these changes are not planned for now, the most likely result is that companies will go back to their old habits. For this reason, managers should start planning for the day social distancing is eased.

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