Flexibility Spurs Sustainability

The whole world has been embracing flexible work. This means less commuting, fewer takeout lunches and a lot less stress on the environment, but there's more to the equation to explore. Hear from Paul Dickinson, Executive Chairman of the CDP on how companies need to reconsider how they define sustainability, and how to truly make flexible work a viable option for a long time to come.

PODCAST | 20m
April 14, 2021 | S3:Ep2

Executive summary

  • Learn how flexible work can be a more sustainable option
  • Understand how companies are thinking differently about how energy is produced and consumed
  • Explore the energy consumption behind data centers, and the correlation to flexible work

Featured voices

Paul Dickinson
Executive Chairman
CDP

Melanie Green (host):

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a year of working remotely. I used to be in such a big rush in the morning, running for the bus and heading off to work -- and before that I had a car and I was driving myself to work. Now my commute is literally 30 seconds down the hall to my home office. And this got me thinking, what is the environmental impact of working from home?  I mean, as I retrace my old commute, I realize - I used to spend A LOT of time in traffic. I live in Vancouver and the traffic is terrible. The average commute time is about an hour a day. So if I were trying to figure that out, we’ll say 200 days of work at one hour round trip -- that’s 200 hours of commuting disappeared. And that’s good right? But - and there’s always a but - there’s a bit more to the equation. And that’s what we’re going to drill down into today. I’m Melanie Green.  You’re listening to Remote Works - an original podcast by Citrix. The question today: Just how sustainable is remote work? To answer that, I connected with Paul Dickinson.

Paul Dickinson:

So everything happens quickly.I have to run off this and get a train, which is why I'm kind of like making sure everything is all ready to go.

Melanie Green (host):

Paul Dickinson is the executive chair of CDP - formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project. CDP is a not-for-profit that runs a global disclosure system for investors, companies, and governments.  It helps them figure out their environmental impacts.

Melanie Green (host): 

You mentioned you have to leave soon to catch a train.  I’ve got to ask, where are you off to?

Paul Dickinson: 

I live in London and Brighton and so on Fridays, I go from Brighton to London. So yeah, going off to have dinner with my sister who is in my bubble which is what we have in the UK.

Melanie Green (host):

Of course, Paul Dickinson, Mr. Sustainability, was taking a TRAIN to see his sister.  Before Paul ran off to the station, I used my own personal remote work audit as a way into talking about what every huge company is going through right now….

Melanie Green (host):

I've been thinking about my own environmental responsibility a lot - I'm in Vancouver. I'm no longer commuting to work because I work remotely and I started to think, oh, I'm saving here. And I started composting more and I got my bamboo toothbrush and I'm riding my bike more and I was feeling pretty good about myself. But it did turn out as I shifted some of my behaviors, I noticed that others had a major environmental impact. And I was thinking about this interview and I thought if this was difficult for me to grapple with, what does it mean to grapple with that as a large company?

Paul Dickinson:

It's a great question. Look, here's the thing. Climate change is really, really simple and really, really complicated. Climate change is caused by burning coal oil and gas and cutting down trees and agriculture, that's it. One sentence. The whole of climate change is easily explained. Even children understand it. In fact, children go on strike by the million because they're so worried about climate change. But I think for industry, for businesses, for big businesses for investors, you got to look at this as just the most incredible economic opportunity. You know, climate change is like the internet. It gets bigger every year. Essentially, the businesses that pivoted to take advantage of the internet did very, very well. And the businesses that failed to understand the change that was coming with the internet did very, very badly.

And so I would say to anyone in any large company or small company or medium size company, recognize that we are going to change fundamentally the way we produce and consume energy. Greenhouse gas emissions are going to have to go down to zero by 2050, or, you know, soon after -  notice about 70% of the whole world economy, as agreed, is going to go to net zero by the middle of the century, 2050, or before 2060 in terms of China. That is an absolute revolution in the way we do everything!

Melanie Green (host):

That revolutionary call to action has been sounded by some of the biggest gurus in the business world. Take Bill Gates for example. He has called on companies and governments to tackle global warming.   He’s urging business leaders to invest funds that target climate impact and find ways to reduce their company’s emissions. More than nine thousand companies around the world report to CDP - information on climate change, deforestation and water security.  Paul Dickinson says many companies are hearing that call to action.

Paul Dickinson:

You know, there is a core definition of marketing, which says marketing is giving people what they want. Nobody wants climate change. So essentially your new innovation design strategy and marketing challenge is to pivot your business towards low carbon or zero carbon. And then you will clean up in the markets of the future.

I'm going to give you one example: the founder of Beyond Meat. He is a climate change person all his career. I think in the year 2000, he started working in hydrogen fuel cells and he was vice president of the hydrogen fuel association of the US and then in 2009, he thought to himself, nope, meat is going to be bigger. And he founded the company, Beyond Meat and they have done sensationally well reaching a 10 billion market cap on NASDAQ, but the point being, he's got 300 food scientists looking down microscopes, doing the opposite of cooking rather than trying to make the same food taste different - we've been doing that for thousands of years - he's trying to make different foods taste the same. That's food science. We’ve never done that before. The Beyond Meat beef burger is made out of, I think, peas or something. It actually tastes better than a beef burger made of cows.

Melanie Green (host):

Huh. Think of all the farmland that would free up.

Paul Dickinson:

And do you know what? You can liberate 90% of farmland. If we can use science to get meat out of people's diets where people actually think this is not just tasting as good as meat it's tasting even better, that can apply to any business. We can pivot any business from the high carbon to the low carbon. And it's those innovators who've got the vision to seize the opportunity to build those businesses. They are going to make so much money, just like internet tycoons made a whole bunch of money out of the internet.

Melanie Green (host):

Innovation, vision, and a desire to do better for the environment.  Those ideas are coming into play a lot these days as companies settle into long term flexible work.  When it comes to the environmental impact - there’s a lot to celebrate.  Working from home has been shown to reduce energy consumption. It also cuts back on our use of fuel. It gets rid of a lot of office waste. Carbon footprints decrease with reduced office energy, less use of paper.  Less business travel.  The list goes on. Think about rush hour traffic in a big city.  That accounts for three billion gallons of fuel and 26 million extra tons of greenhouse gases.  So. In just this one way, the benefits of flexible work seem clear.  But, and I told you that there’s always a but, what about the extra energy we’re using at home? Does that cancel out the benefit? And it’s not just keeping the lights on or the a/c on during the day. There’s other behind-the-scenes energy being used. Some we might not even be aware of. For example, cloud storage is now a big energy consumer.

Travis Wright:

I think on a personal level, people don't really understand that when they're holding their phone and they're taking pictures in high resolution and then uploading them to four different cloud platforms just because it's all free storage and they're taking their videos in 4k instead of standard definition.

Melanie Green (host):

Meet Travis Wright.  He’s VP of sustainability for a data center company called QTS. Travis’ business is closely tied to the way we work. Simply put, data centers power flexible work. And as our need to be online grows, so does the need for data centers. So what is a data centre, exactly? It’s essentially a bunch of massive buildings full of equipment that powers digital- and cloud-based technology.  And how much energy do they use? Well, the US Department of Energy estimates that large data centres may need more than 100 megawatts of power capacity.  That’s enough to power a small city. And as technologies like Artificial Intelligence and machine learning become more sophisticated, companies providing those technologies will need even more data storage. So, Travis Wright sees the need for data centers to reduce their impact on the environment. QTS has been winning awards for sustainability. They’ve committed to provide 100 percent renewable energy across all of its data centres by 2025. And what does that mean? Here’s Travis.

Travis Wright:

We're doing green building certifications. We've actually partnered with Energy Star. We're getting 90% of our facilities, Energy Star rated by the end of 2025. I think that by the end of this year, we'll be most of the way there. We're conserving water. So we do a lot of rooftop water collection that we then end up using either in cooling towers or landscaping watering. Um, and, and we've actually gone a step further than that in designing our new facilities to be water free cooling systems. So it used to be that you'd build these enormous, huge facilities that just generate tons of heat and you'd put in cooling towers and chilling systems, that use an awful lot of water. Well, we've figured out how to do that in a very energy efficient way without using any water. It’s just a pump refrigerant based system.

Melanie Green (host):

That pump-refrigerant system means data centers can tweak their temperatures to the point where they are being cooled efficiently - without using any additional water on site.

Travis Wright:

Then the next thing that we do is we pair that data center up with a hundred percent renewable energy coming from either solar or wind, which has an incredibly small water footprint and now you truly have a water free data center. If you imagine you were using water-based cooling systems and then you were getting your energy from a fossil fuel plant or a nuclear plant that's using tons of water as well your water footprint is huge. This not only eliminates what we would refer to as our scope one, but also our scope two - water consumption.

Melanie Green (host):

Solar energy.  Wind energy.  Using less water.  All ways that data center companies are changing the way they operate - even as our need for computing power increases. I’m understanding better now how data centers connect with my online life - but I wonder how I fit in - as a mere individual.  What can I do?

Travis Wright:

I think people don't really understand that every time they touch their phone there's data that's manipulated on their phone. It sends it to a tower. The tower goes through fiber to a data center. It gets manipulated and sent back. Every single time. And so I think at some point, people are going to start to realize that their personal habits have a carbon footprint and they'll, they'll start to change their habits. And I don't know what that does to the industry or what that does from a sustainability standpoint, but I've got to believe it ends up making a difference, even though it's a hundred million people with a very small change, I think it can make a big difference in the world.

Melanie Green (host):

Ok - I’m inspired.  I’m taking stock of my online footprint now by looking back.  This trip to the coffee shop used to be my daily stop on my way to work.  I truly looked forward to it and even now I’m sort of excited. I gotta say as I’m walking in I’m thinking about this exhibit that I saw maybe two years ago, at a gallery. It was a massive concrete room probably the size of six houses and the artist had collected every single takeout coffee cup he’d consumed over a year. He laminated them and it was a giant and jarring mountain. It led me to wonder how many disposable cups are we all going through? It’s estimated that worldwide, we throw away close to 3-billion disposable cups each year. And in the past year, I’ve eliminated at least 200 cups of takeout coffee from my eco-footprint. 200 throw away cups. 200 plastic lids. 200 wooden stir sticks.

Thinking about myself and just seeing numbers on that scale, my coffee cups alone- it’s easy to understand the calls for companies to innovate and do more. In the two decades that Paul has been with CDP he has seen a change in how companies think about sustainability.  One of the biggest changes Paul says flexible work is bringing about - is a shift in how we think about office use.

Paul Dickinson:

When we can go back to offices, of course, to some extent we will, because it’s great to meet people, great to hang out, but I think we’ve definitely reached peak office. I don’t think any of us are going to see any more office buildings really constructed during our lifetimes. A lot of office space is probably going to be converted into mixed use or residential. And the reason for that is because we’ve grasped that it is quite difficult actually to have a physical meeting with three or four people in a room linking to a remote meeting where there are some people on video, but actually where everyone’s on video, it works really, really well.

Melanie Green (host):

Paul says that to further unpack the environmental benefits of remote working - we should look at HOW we used to GET to work.

Paul Dickinson:

Let’s talk about the climate change benefits of moving towards remote working. Well, the thing is, it kind of depends on your commute. You know, if you live around the corner from your office and you go to your office on a bicycle and your office has got 20 people who were being heated by one heater, and if they all were at home, that would be 20 heaters that might conceivably be a marginal advantage to working from an office in terms of energy. But that’s very, very unusual. For most people, particularly if you’re getting in an automobile, if you’re getting in a car to commute to an office - oh my oh my oh my. I mean, just open up your car bonnet. Have a look at the engine. You have to pump water around that thing, because if you don’t pump water around it, the steel will melt. I mean, internal combustion engines have such chronic wastage of energy. It’s unbelievable. Um, you know, I think a gallon of gas has the energy of like, many sticks of dynamite, right? There is  huge amounts of energy in fossil fuels in gasoline. So if you’re using gasoline to commute to work, that’s just a crazy waste of energy.  And to, you know, even to some extent, if you’re on the bus or the train is still pretty high energy. If you’re flying on airplanes on business, it’s off the charts. So that’s my little picture postcard of how - what we’ve learned from the pandemic about how we can work remotely can have a massive impact in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Melanie Green (host):

Paul says these positive impacts for companies means we will continue to see changes in how we work. And even where we work.

Paul Dickinson:

In terms of this remote working I think that there are huge opportunities to take advantage of increased localization. I mean I don't necessarily want to work at my home all the time, but I could work either my home, some of the time or near my home some of the time in a kind of telly center with some other people, maybe from different organizations.  I think one thing that no one has grasped even in COVID -  is one way to recreate an office is to have an always on device. So for example, with your principal colleague, just have, you know, both of you have whatever you have, Zoom or Teams or whatever you're using for video, just to have it on all day.

Why not? You know, you can hear their telephone calls, they can hear yours or their video calls or whatever, you know, we can recreate offices, um, without necessarily using kind of cement and steel to actually build physical offices. But I mean, the other thing I would encourage companies to do is to seriously divert resources. If you are downsizing your office, spending less money on offices, if you are reducing business air travel, which we all know is expensive, then put those resources into getting fiber optic cable to colleagues' homes. I mean, in the great scheme of things, when you think of how much time we spend on the internet. Think about the amount of time you spend on the internet and the amount of time, the amount of money you're spending on bandwidth or on communications. Let's make a real investment in remote working. Let's make a real investment in bandwidth and having devices. The dream is somebody young wants to rise to the top of their profession globally, but they don't associate that with leaving where they grew up.

Melanie Green (host):

I can hear the passion for the work that you do in your voice. And I want to know where does passion come from?

Paul Dickinson:

Okay. Well I don't want to put a downer on things, because whenever I'm asked why I'm into climate change, I say the same thing, which is I can read a graph. You just want to look at greenhouse gas, emissions and temperature. You know, I was kind of pondering climate change in 1999. I was doing a certain amount of research. There was a paper actually from the White House called the  Kyoto Protocol and the President's Policies to Address Climate Change. And it contained within it, a very famous graph now of temperature records, fossil records, ice, cores. There's lots of different science that allows you to do this, but it shows the temperature and the CO2 over about the last 650,000 years.

And what you see is that the CO2 and the temperature kind of moved together a little bit up and down, um, up until maybe 150 years ago, when the CO2 goes just completely off the charts. What that means is the temperature is going to rise. And the thing is, the world is very big and humans don't really live very long. So, you know, we look at this little window that's like 80 years or 90 years or something. And, you know, I might go to my deathbed and think, Oh, what happened in my life? Well, the Berlin wall fell and the Northern ice cap melted. Those both seem like big events, right? But the thing is the Berlin wall was only up for like 30 or 40 years or something. The Northern ice cap had been there for 2 million years, but through my little lens, through my little lifespan, they kind of looked like similar events. But they're not. And so we have to understand the absolute enormity of the changes that we are implementing with these greenhouse gas emissions. And we have to direct our economies to get those greenhouse gas emissions down to zero really quickly. And that's our responsibility as parents and as fellow citizens and it's kind of deadly serious. But, on a lighter note, we can make a lot of money out of sorting it out.

Melanie Green (host):

Paul Dickinson’s message is pretty clear. The time for bold action is now. And there are big opportunities for saving money - and making money. With investment and innovation, flexible work can lead the way to a sustainable future for business. I’ve learned something about my own stake in all of this.  I AM doing good for the environment working from home.  No trips to the dry cleaner. I no longer have all those takeout cups, fewer fast food containers.  No wasting gas in traffic jams.  I certainly haven’t had any business travel. But I also noticed something - I’m ALWAYS plugged in when I’m at home.  I’m on the internet constantly and have multiple devices going all the time. That’s something I can change.  I’m Melanie Green. You’ve been listening to Remote Works, an original podcast by Citrix.  Citrix dot com slash remote works.  Check out the web site to see the sustainability survey and learn more about how flexible work fits into the picture. Subscribe and come back in two weeks. Next time…moving out of cities - working  where you want, and what it means for companies. Time to unplug.

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