In the next month, my carbon footprint has the potential to reach 20 tons. That’s twice the annual average for a UK person, in just 1 month.
Why? I’m travelling from my home base of London to the other side of the world for business.
Not just once, but three times: San Francisco, New York, Mumbai.
Given that I’ve been traveling extensively for work for the last 25 years, why do I suddenly care about this rather extravagant concentration of intercontinental flights?
Three alarm bells have been ringing in close succession:
- The most recent is the UN report positing the extinction of one million species, which makes uncomfortable reading.
- My daughter’s participation in a few of the Extinction Rebellion Friday school strikes in London has gotten my attention. “Please go,” I said, “but don’t get arrested and don’t stop preparing for your exams.”
- Finally, Greta Thunberg’s train journey to Davos made an impression, too.
As a result, I am taking the train to Paris for my sister’s 50th birthday, in between taking my flights to San Francisco and New York. I suppose it makes me feel better. Marginally.
Still, I’m unhappy about those — my very own — 20 tons of CO2. Globally, air transport contributes 2 percent of all human-induced CO2 emissions. Unquestionably, planes are getting more efficient, with fuel efficiency doubling between 1968 and 2014. Yet air travel is predicted to grow, with passenger numbers potentially doubling by 2037 to exceed 8 billion that year. Any efficiency gain, it seems, is simply going to be swallowed by ineluctable demand.
Can IT companies and their leaders do something to help?
I hope the answer to this is yes. From my time overseeing the sustainability program in Fujitsu for a couple of years, I have seen it done in two complementary ways.
The first is sustainability in IT. It is founded on the acknowledgment that the IT industry generates close to 2 percent of the world carbon emissions — the same level as air travel. Yep, all these data centers have to be kept running and kept cool at the same time. Like Fujitsu and all other major IT firms, DXC Technology has a pretty complete environmental plan.
The second way is far more exciting: It’s sustainability by IT. Tech companies can reduce environmental impact by creating innovative solutions that replace travel with fully immersive experiences that enable real collaboration. British Telecom started its own teleworking initiative, called Workabout, in 1990. By 2007, renamed BT Workstyle, the company’s initiative enabled seven out of 10 of its staff to work flexibly. Fully 10 percent were working from home.
BT might have been an early adopter, and it’s clear that telecommuting has continued to rise, with 70 percent of professionals reportedly working remotely at least once a week in 2018. That’s made possible by ubiquitous connectivity, intuitive apps and great devices. Cisco, for example, has at a least a decade-long history of product placements to make that point. In 2009, the movie Avatar was one of the most eye-catching showcases for augmented reality.
Yet, my recent experience of remotely leading a training course with 35 people spread in two locations, Mumbai and London, over 3 days was a harsh reminder of how much more improvement we can look forward to. Those 3 successive days were pretty hard going for everyone involved. And even though this particular client is a leader in global connectivity, the experience felt quite different from what being physically in the room with everyone would have been. Not quite augmented reality, virtual reality or even physical reality.
But it certainly saved me another trip to India, and five extra tons of CO2. And just for that, I am grateful.