Has the lockdown reduced our CO2 emissions?

Written by Tom Greenwood - May 6, 2020

As a business committed to becoming truly sustainable, we’re always looking for ways to reduce our negative environmental impact, particularly with regard to CO2 emissions. However, over the past couple of years we have struggled to reduce our emissions because we seemed to have run out of ways to reduce them further. Or so we thought!

The COVID-19 restrictions have forced us all to work 100% from home recently. Although we were already a semi-remote team, the switch to being fully remote has helped some of us realise how much time we were spending traveling.

The question that naturally followed from that was:

If we are traveling so much less, has it reduced our CO2 emissions?

To answer this question, I made a copy of our company emissions calculations and compared the data for two scenarios. An estimate for this year’s emissions in a “business as usual” scenario versus an estimate for this year’s emissions in a COVID-19 “lockdown” scenario. Here’s what I learned.

The reduced impact of travel

The impact of travel is quite staggering. Nearly half of our annual company emissions come from travel. Thanks to our no fly policy, our emissions for travel are much lower than they might otherwise be, but we still travel around 120,000km per year! That’s three full trips around the earth. Yes, you read that right.

What’s more, only just over 5% of that is for business trips. The other 95% is commuting. When you consider that we don’t commute 7 days a week even in the business as usual scenario, this is really quite staggering.

When we put this into CO2 emissions, the lockdown scenario reduces travel to zero and therefore saves about 5 tonnes of CO2 per year, or 333kg per person.

The reduced impact of office energy

In the lockdown scenario, I am going to assume that we don’t have any office space in London, as if this was the new normal. Of course in reality, we still have the space, and it will still be using some energy even when we are not there.

So, assuming that our office energy reduces to zero, we save roughly another 2.1 tonnes of CO2 per year, or 140kg per person.

So far, so good.

The increased impact of home energy usage

The lockdown scenario might reduce our office energy, but it also increases the amount of energy that we use at home, for lighting, heating and device power.

Vineeta working on her laptop at home

Vineeta working from home on her solar powered laptop ;-)

Although we calculate office energy differently to account for the other aspects of home usage, we find that in the lockdown scenario we actually increase home energy emissions by 2 tonnes, or 133kg per person, almost the same amount that we would have had from the office emissions.

Note that this is estimated for a full calendar year, so these scenarios are not affected by the unusually warm weather that we have had recently. This is not an exact science because we can’t literally separate “home” electrons from “work” electrons when working from home, but it’s a good estimate and shows that home and office energy roughly cancel each other out.

The increased impact of our digital footprint

I’ve been working on calculations for an updated 2020 model for our website carbon calculator, and digital emissions work out at 282 grams of CO2 per Gigabyte transferred. This includes the full system from data center to end user. It assumes that all electricity used is in the UK and that end user energy at home is 100% renewable, now that our team all have renewable energy at home.

So how much data does a video call use?

Even though we mostly use Google Meet, I’ll use Zoom for this example because it seems to be the flavour of the month. Zoom don’t seem to provide any official data on this and I couldn’t find a rigorously researched answer, but I found one estimate for Zoom’s middle video quality at about 1GB per hour, which is roughly the same as streaming Netflix in standard definition. Of course, Zoom calls have much lower video quality than Netflix, but on Zoom you also have a lot of data used uploading video. Assuming that this estimate is realistic, the emissions are therefore 282 grams of CO2 per hour of zooming.

How much more video calling are we doing?

To make this a fair estimate, I am only looking at the difference between the business as usual and lockdown scenarios. We do a lot of video calls even on a normal day, even when we are in the office. To keep things simple and looking at our calendars, I reckon that at most, we are each averaging about an extra 4 hours of video calls per week. Multiply that up by a year (excluding holidays) and we are doing roughly an extra 184 hours of extra video calls per year per person in the lockdown scenario.

Vineeta and I have been joining our friends at Positive Internet for some morning Zoom yoga

Individually, that’s an extra 52kg of CO2 emissions and scaled to our whole team, that adds up to about 780kg. That is a surprisingly large amount, but it is still a lot less than our usual travel emissions.

Weighing it all up

I found this exercise really eye opening. For the past couple of years, our annual company emissions per person have been about 700kg. In the lockdown scenario, we reduce emissions from travel and office energy use by 473kg, but increase emissions from home energy and digital by 185kg per person.

On balance therefore, the lockdown scenario with 100% home working and zero travel results in carbon emissions of 412kg per person per year, 41% less than our business as usual scenario.

The bigger picture

It’s important to remember that these are estimates based on our own working practices and data, so it will vary for every company, and in fact every individual person.

We should also be mindful that although we are calculating emissions for our activities, some things that we no longer need or use will continue to consume energy despite our absence. Office buildings will not magically be switched off completely, nor will the trains stop running just because we are not on them. Of course, if society made long term changes to the way we live and work then our infrastructure would slowly change in response, but we must be mindful that it doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s also important to remember that this lockdown scenario is an extreme scenario with no travel at all, and is not the same as what most people would consider a typical remote working scenario. Many teams that practice remote working under normal circumstances travel to meetings and team retreats, sometimes on planes that emit a lot of greenhouse gases.

The point is that every scenario is different and we must make sure that we understand the context of our unique situation.

Our carbon emissions in the new normal

It’s interesting to see how much the COVID-19 restrictions are helping our team to reduce our CO2 emissions in the short term, even if not intentionally. Having thought that we had lowered our emissions as much as possible, it turns out that we could potentially reduce them by about another 40%!

At Wholegrain Digital, we talk a lot about the environmental impact of the internet and we’re passionate about helping to reduce that impact, but it’s good to sometimes focus on the environmental benefits of the internet. When it comes to our own business at least, it’s clear that the impact of moving data around is far less than the impact of physically moving humans around.

We haven’t yet figured out what our new normal will look like and we have more to consider than just carbon emissions, but the current lockdown situation has shifted the baseline of what we believe is possible as a low carbon company.