Flexible work: A new weapon in the fight against climate change

As the Green Future Index proves, new modes of work are not just more convenient. They can meaningfully address climate change.

ARTICLE | 6m read
April 20, 2021

For many, climate change is the defining issue of our time. According to a special report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity needs to dramatically curb its production of carbon dioxide in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—an increase that may allow for more manageable changes to life on Earth. While this work is proceeding in fits and starts with efforts like the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, countries need to do more.

The Green Future Index, conducted by MIT Technology Review Insights and co-sponsored by Citrix, ranks 76 leading nations and territories based on their progress and commitment toward building a low-carbon future, factoring in five areas: carbon emissions, energy transition, green society, clean innovation, and climate policy. It lays bare which countries are doing well (spoiler alert: the Nordics) and which ones lag behind in the fight to stem the warming tide.

As noted by the study authors, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many things—not least of which the shift to remote work. As remarkable improvements in air quality around the globe since March 2020 have proven, the knock-on environmental benefits of flexible work models are hard to deny. According to Global Workplace Analytics, office equipment energy consumption can be up to twice that of home office equipment. Traffic jams in the US idle away almost three billion gallons of gas and accounts for 26 million extra tons of greenhouse gases. Technology platforms that enable flexible work can address these environmental costs. By creating a work-from-anywhere experience that actually works, a company can strengthen itself, while helping strengthen climate resiliency.

The future of work and the future of the planet are inextricably tied. Fieldwork by Citrix sought to understand these trends, and learn what clues the Green Future Index may hold for the near and mid-term. Here are our takeaways.


Office equipment energy consumption can be up to twice that of home office equipment.

Working toward climate resiliency

The index frames the rise of remote work as a promising development that could lead to a sustained decrease in carbon emissions. Flexible work means less commuting, which means lower carbon emissions, more efficient use of compute power, and other energy-saving benefits. The pandemic accelerated the feasibility of flexible work models, and the C-suite is on board. According to Gartner, 82 percent of leaders plan to allow employees to work remotely some of the time. Additionally, according to one study, 70 percent of people are more likely to work for a company that prioritizes sustainability. It’s clear that what’s good for the planet can also be good for an organization's recruitment efforts—and its bottom line.


Percentage of leaders who plan to allow employees to work remotely some of the time.

Leaders and laggards

European nations dominate the Green Future Index, claiming 15 of the top 20 positions. While curbing emissions was important before the pandemic, it's only become more so during lockdowns, with the European Union committing over €200 billion in green economy investments, and Germany being labeled by the index’s authors as the world’s "pandemic green leader," spending over one-third of its recovery stimulus on climate recovery. These carbon reduction initiatives will serve as cornerstones in the EU’s strategy to make Europe the world’s first carbon-neutral continent.

Elsewhere in Europe, Iceland, Denmark, and Norway—ranking first, second, and third, respectively—have gone about progress in different ways. Iceland is banking on its ample geothermal and hydropower resources to achieve its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040, while Denmark, as the largest producer of hydrocarbons in Europe, pledged in late 2020 to stop issuing new oil and gas exploration licenses. Meanwhile, Norway plans to use a mix of methods and technologies to decouple its economy from the fossil fuel industry. 

Decarbonizing beyond Europe

Further afield, Costa Rica (seventh) and New Zealand (eighth) demonstrate how smaller countries can put forward world-leading decarbonization agendas. The Central American country is aiming to generate electricity entirely through renewable sources by 2021, while the South Pacific island nation boasts a bold and transformational climate policy, enacting legislation to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Eco-tourism plays an outsize role in the economy of both countries, one reason why a responsible climate agenda is so vital for securing their futures.

Some of the largest carbon-emitting countries are lagging their European counterparts, but improving. The United States ranks 40th, but has reduced emissions over recent years, and is responsible for nearly one-fifth of the world’s green patents. Still, the U.S. economy remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels. India (21st), on the other hand, is adopting renewable energy and has the world’s largest vegetarian population, while continuing to be the world’s largest dairy producer and third-largest carbon-emitting country.

Room to grow

The Green Future Index demonstrates how economies can benefit from forward-thinking climate agendas. The opposite, unfortunately, also holds true.

The UAE (42nd) and Nigeria (53rd) are the third- and fifth-largest exporters of crude oil, while Indonesia (57th), Vietnam (49th), and South Africa (47th) are top coal exporters. Decarbonization presents an existential threat to these countries’ economic health. But without a concerted effort to pivot to renewables and alternate sources not only of energy, but of income, these and other low-ranking countries risk falling behind.

In its introductory year, the Green Future Index has highlighted the countries that are taking the most direct action to tackle climate change. Yet for all the one-upmanship that the index could invite, this isn’t a localized issue. The burden must be managed by all nations and people. Businesses and citizens alike must do their part to reduce emissions.

And while economists may belabor the difficulty of maintaining a sustainable model, optimists point to the silver lining: those who realize—and act on—the insight that environmental sustainability is inextricable from business sustainability will gain an insurmountable advantage.


Percentage of people who are more likely to work for a company that prioritizes sustainability.