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  • Writer's pictureCorinne E. Atton

Remote Working is Not as Environmentally Friendly as you Might Think

New Study Shows that Remote Working Has an Environmental Footprint that Must Not be Overlooked

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year, our working lives have changed enormously. One clear example of this is the switch to all-remote video conferencing with the help of applications such as Zoom. This has opened up a new world of connectivity and opportunities, but a new study has found that this is at a cost—we are all underestimating our environmental footprints.

The study reports that while our new digital lifestyle has major environmental benefits, it also has hidden environmental impacts that must not be overlooked. Data storage, Internet transmission, and use, not only have carbon footprints, but also water and land footprints. The study reports that globally, Internet use has a carbon footprint ranging from an equivalent of 28 to 63g of carbon dioxide per gigabyte (GB)—the water and land footprints then range from 0.1 to 35 L/GB and 0.7 to 20 cm2/GB, respectively. This range is mainly attributable to the variation in energy production technologies and efficiencies round the world.

The nature of the Internet and our global access to it, also must not be overlooked—data processing/storage and data transmission do not necessarily occur in the country where the data is being used. There are trade-offs of placing data centers in different corners of the world. There are also transboundary environmental impacts of Internet use.

The numbers recited in this study are astounding. For example, it reports that based on data from “a standard videoconferencing service,” 15 one-hour meetings a week may result in a monthly carbon footprint of 9.4 kg CO2e. But if we turned off our video, monthly emissions would be reduced to 377 g CO2e (equivalent to charging a smart phone each night for over 3 years (1151 days)). If 1 million videoconference users were to make this change, they would collectively reduce emissions by 9023 tonnes of CO2e per month, which is equivalent to the emissions from powering a town of 36,000 people for one month using coal. As to the water footprint, turning off video during conference calls could save 10.7 million L per 100,000 users per month (the water needed to produce approximately 53.5 tonnes of tomatoes).

In short, we must all look at the environmental footprints of our activities in the broadest sense, and identify the individual and collective actions that can and do make a difference. Consider turning off your video during virtual meetings, reducing the quality of your streaming services, and delete unnecessary emails and content on cloud-based storage services. Also, be cognizant of the energy generation sources that power the digital services you use.



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