27 Nov 2020

Working from home - what's your carbon footprint?

From Checkpoint, 5:18 pm on 27 November 2020

Working from home saw an 8 percent jump in residential energy demand as office life became more digital.

While ditching physical meetings to dial in might mean less cars on the road - is it as virtuous as we think?

Microsoft, Google, Teams, emails, Zoom, phone calls are now our working reality.

Whether working from the office or logging on from home, Covid-19 has made the workplace more digital. There are virtual conferences and meetings have moved from the boardroom to video platforms.

But, does cutting the carbon emissions of travel equate to a greener world? It depends how far you would have travelled and how long you were online for.

Dr Rabih Bashroush from the University of East London worked out a one hour Zoom call between two people on PCs in London had the same carbon footprint as driving a car two kilometres or taking a train 10 kilometres.  

The other sting - our devices rely on energy to operate all the time - and so does the content we create and view.

To put it in perspective, Dr Bashroush told Nine to Noon he had also done some sums on the most watched video on Youtube - the song Despacito, which has been viewed 7 billion times.

"The energy consumed to view that clip was 900 GWh, that's the energy consumption of five African countries."

In New Zealand much of the energy used to power our devices is clean - 84 percent of electric energy comes from renewable sources - but where the data we generate and consume is stored is another story. Most of it is overseas.

For Microsoft programs - a common choice for work places - the closest data centre to us was in Australia, where 80 percent of electricity relies on coal or natural gas.

IT systems analyst and developer Christopher Cookson said location was a significant issue.

"That can actually make a big difference to what their emissions profile is likely to be, if you've got them based in a country that's using fossil fuels to generate their electricity obviously that will be worse than somewhere that's using renewables."

Not all tech companies would allow a choice about where the data generated on a device would go, either.  

Microsoft allows businesses to chose whether or not to use the closest data centre - but that decision was out of the hands of many employees.

Microsoft data soon enough will not have to cross the Tasman - the company has announced plans to build a new data-hosting centre in the North Island in a bid to become carbon negative by 2030.

Meanwhile, for those that used Google, there was no choice as to where your data ended up going, it could be anywhere in the world.

Another downside to working from home is the flurry of emails needed to communicate instead of speaking in person.

Christopher Cookson said emails were a big culprit - and we should think twice before hitting 'reply all'.

"Some server's got to be online the whole time in case someone wants to retrieve that particular email, pictures being worth a thousand words might be worth a million words in terms of how much data's needed, people write up a document and send that as an attachment, they could've just written a message."  

Other ways people can reduce their carbon footprint were using a phone instead of laptop, turning the quality down on videos and putting your screen on snooze while away from your desk.

Auckland University of Technology IT Professor Jairo Gutierrez said going audio-only on video conferences helped too.

"When you are in a zoom conference with 40 people and you're listening to someone speak, shutting down your video while you're listening to the other person will make a huge difference, you're talking about several frames per second while you're just sitting there doing nothing, that cuts down transmissions."

He thought the verdict was still out on whether we should ditch the office and set up at home.

"I don't think we have a final answer as to whether all this working from home offsets the energy that is being used in transportation, because you're actually adding to the energy that's needed to provide all these services."

With our reliance on digital communication set to grow, experts indicated the environmental impact of our online lives might require intervention on a government level.