Can working from home save the planet?
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Can working from home save the planet?

Can working from home save the planet?

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact not just on the way we live, but also on the way we work. Around the world, employees are working from home, fundamentally changing a professional standard of physically reporting to an office location, which has been the norm for decades. This seemingly simple shift can pose a potential threat to our environment, but also provides an opportunity to create an even greener tomorrow.

Environmental implications of working from home: the data

Isolation requirements have dampened industrial production and limited air and ground transport, depressing emissions around the world. According to the International Energy Agency, global CO2 emissions should decline by eight percent this year, which would be our best finish since 2010. Even as we roll back restrictions, it seems clear that due to a potential economic recession and lingering concerns about physical contact with others, we’ll continue to experience emission levels trending lower than before.

Carbon emissions are down and working from home has something to do with it | Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
Carbon emissions are down and working from home has something to do with it | Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Many experts point to the fact that a large portion of workers is no longer commuting, which saves on carbon emissions from transportation. However, working from home is not entirely without negative environmental impact, albeit indirect. With more individuals video dialing into calls, sharing documents electronically, and conducting e-commerce from their home offices, the need for data centers has increased dramatically.

Working from home has essentially highlighted and accelerated the need to digitize, and it’s this digital transition that requires increased software, cloud computing, power, and data center spend, which in turn drives energy demand. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that his company has seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in just two months. According to the Cisco Global Cloud Index, overall data center workloads and compute instances will more than double from 2016 to 2021, although much of this may be offset as we move towards hyperscale data centers and broader efficiency technology.

This burgeoning source of electricity consumption demands a clean energy supply, which represents a growth opportunity for businesses operating in the clean economy. We know that renewable energy is already becoming more important. In fact, Google is committed to sourcing 100% of its energy from renewables and it is already the largest corporate buyer of renewable power. Similarly, Amazon Web Services has committed to achieving 100% renewable energy usage for the global infrastructure. We anticipate that this interest in renewables will only continue to grow.

Leveraging government support and business investment

While the zeitgeist of environmental protectionism is strong, especially in Europe and Asia where many countries have signed on the Energy Transition pledge to be carbon neutral by mid-century, it is critical that we put emotions into action.

From a government perspective, the pandemic is an unintended pause that allows oversight officials an opportunity to reset policy compliance and expectations, particularly around renewables and grid enforcement. As government entities ramp up on these initiatives in the months to come, there is an opportunity to better enforce environmental protections where they may have been historically lenient.

In Europe, there has been a push in some circles for a green recovery and fiscal stimulus. For example, Spain has proposed a €200bn investment for its green recovery, with €90bn for renewables, €60bn in network and €80bn in efficiency or electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Even where there are differences in approaches, there is a general agreement that energy transition is important. One area of policy agreement is the European Green Deal, which has been championed by Frans Timmermans, green deal chief at the European Commission, as a “winning strategy.” There needs to be a roadmap to recovery from this pandemic that includes green transition and green transformation.

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Government support can certainly help renewable energy technologies meet the demand that the remote employee poses on businesses with affordable clean energy, however, renewables don’t need to work only with government subsidies. Typically, the most cost-effective form of energy is to simply build. Many utilities are being encouraged to invest in infrastructure and are realizing there are benefits to bringing the grid to the point of stabilization. As an example, Germany is decommissioning nuclear energy in favor of renewables. This puts more pressure on the grid, so we need more investment to support it.

Renewable energy is well-positioned for this acceleration in digital transformation. Implementing storage and small grid solutions are all functional, operational, and cost-effective measures to help move this along. It’s clear that the whole suite within smart energy is economically viable now as a result of the investment in research and development over the last decade, which has put this industry in a position where it is poised to make a difference.

Looking ahead

Working remotely may not be viable in all situations, but it is clear that many have enjoyed the reduction in expenses and flatlined commute. Even after the pandemic subsides, it would be difficult, and perhaps unfeasible, to return as a society to the level of in-office work we had just a few months ago. The implications for city design, public transport, 5G infrastructure, as well as digital services are potentially enormous.

As we come together to shape a new tomorrow, it is critical that we use this opportunity to create a more sustainable workstream. While the need for additional data centers to support remote work may require continued investment, we would be doing the planet a favor if we work towards cutting down our morning and evening commutes for the long-term.

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