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Plan I.T. for the planet

Justin Sutton-Parker explores how a ‘new normal’ in work styles could support the planet
Plan I.T. for the planet

This article first appeared in our Love issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 09 April 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Just 12 months ago, 2020 was poised to be the year the environment took centre stage.

Climatology had finally shifted from the margins into mainstream media and it felt as though the majority had re-discovered a love for the environment.

At the same time, I had just returned from launching an I.T. sustainability campaign with a global software company. One of the key pillars of success was using information technology to enable remote working and reduce commuting emissions.

Three weeks later the unthinkable happened: Covid-19 brought uncertainty and trauma to people, the planet and our economies. I had hoped an extra 65,000 I.T. users might adopt the remote working concept; I suddenly realised that in fact, as homes around the world became workplaces (and schools), much of the population would.

Both the prevailing scientific data and common sense suggested that this slowing of business travel would have a positive environmental effect.

However, I began to worry about what will happen when we all return to ‘the new normal’. Will we rush to repopulate office space? Or will we remember that work doesn’t need to be a place?

The impact of a commute

As a sustainability researcher I felt compelled to quantify the real-life impact. Focusing on a company with over 800 employees, I assessed and measured the staff body’s weekly ‘business as usual’ commute by every mode of transport before and during the pandemic.

For 13% nothing had changed with respect to travel as they usually worked permanently from home.

What was evident was the fact that over 600 people had stopped driving their combustion engine cars an average of 71km per day to visit the office. In fact, for this one company, a total of 4.3 million commuting miles simply didn’t happen in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Astonishingly, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions equivalent abated was almost 1,600 tCO2e. In tangible terms, we’d need over 2,000 acres of forest to sequester that much pollution from our atmosphere. That translates to almost 2.5 acres per employee, every year.

At this level of pollution, it only takes the commuting of 5,000 similar companies to overwhelm the UK’s available forest coverage and its photosynthesis capacity. Beyond that, we are simply hoping for the best and expecting land beyond our shores to clean up on our behalf.

Considering the UK has 8,000 large companies and a further 35,000 medium-sized companies, it’s not difficult to see why we need to consider a ‘new normal’ when it comes to work.

A roadmap to lighter commutes

Having isolated the impact of commuting in 2019 and the abatement in 2020, I set out some figures that would help the 800 people to consider exactly this.

Within the calculations was a suggestion of two days’ remote working for all employees when restrictions are lifted. I also suggested that, as the average commuting bicycle return journey for staff was 7km and the average walking journey 3.2km, where practically and physically feasible the 12% commuting below this threshold could switch to zero-carbon transport.

I knew the concept might meet resistance, but pointed out that employees collectively noted a ‘7.5’ score when asked, ‘If 10 is the highest importance, how important to you is reducing your carbon footprint?’.

While no accurate gauge of intention, the fact that the results are in the upper quadrant indicates an axiology of positivism towards actions to cut pollution.

But as ever, it was the tangible quantification that gained interest. The suggested changes would result in reducing the 2.5 acres required to sequester commuting emissions down to 1.32 acres per employee in 2021.

When thinking about the new normal, perhaps if we keep in mind the love we found for the planet in 2019 and think about how information technology can enable changes to our behaviour, we may use 2021 to plan I.T. for the planet.

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