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The Next Economy
Could Staying in Remote Work After Coronavirus Help Solve Our Next Crisis?

It is my belief that remote work is part of the solution to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide coordination, and making even the smallest changes, can make significant differences for planetary health.

In recent months, we have seen an economic shake-up of unprecedented levels, as the COVID-19 pandemic has stained our economic system with the fluorescence of vulnerability. As nature takes command, What does this teach us?

I write this article as a remote worker. I made the transition from my traditional, office-based role to working remotely a year ago. At the start of the year, I was in a minority. Thanks to COVID-19, I am now in a majority.

Will this crisis help us solve the next one?

We are in a climate crisis. Just because the impacts haven’t hit with the immediacy of COVID-19, does not suggest they will be any less consequential.

As more companies adopt a virtual business structure, I will evaluate associated reductions in emissions from transport (29 percent) and industry (22 percent), sources that account for half of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from the United States in 2017.

So, how do the climate and COVID crises compare? Climate change includes both natural and man-made causes. Natural cycles occur regardless of human intervention, determining a temperature range within which our planet lies. What we are changing, however, is the composition of our planet's atmosphere to influence the temperature of our planet.

How are we doing this? By short-circuiting the carbon cycle. Fossil fuels take millions of years to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, chiefly by volcanic activity. We are accelerating this carbon-dioxide return by ripping out fossil fuels to power our economies. The chart below illustrates this.

Greenhouse gases Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide have all significantly increased in our atmosphere post the industrial revolution. (Source)

Probing into stored carbon sources that take millions of years to form, we are disrupting a delicate cycle, tilting the balance outside what is known. I ask you: Could the consequences be anything but bad?

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report, two of the top risks are related to human-attributed climate change.

Our safety window is shrinking.

The IPCC asserts that drastic action is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Procrastination threatens our future and the very fabric of our way of life. If we want to reach the recommended 1.5° warming limit, the world has to curb carbon emissions by 49 percent of 2017 levels before 2030.

If we have learned anything in recent months, it is the fragility of our economic system next to the raw power of nature. Judging from recent reports, we continue to fail to address our climate crisis. Economic turbulence is on the horizon as we catch whiffs of what is to come from the fires of Australia and the US, and increased frequency and strength of typhoons and hurricanes in Asia and other parts of the world.

Learning from a crisis to prevent a crisis

As I step out of my house for my one hour of isolated freedom, I notice an absence of cars, of white-streaks scouring the sky, of fixed humming from nearby construction sites. Our frantic world has decelerated; and, despite the financial toll, so far, we have seen environmental wins from COVID-19. In just a few months:

  • Lockdown has reduced GHGs by 25 percent in China.
  • Europe is expected to emit 388.8 million tons less of carbon dioxide than it did before COVID-19.
  • Air pollution halved in the UK on the first day of lockdown.
  • Air pollution levels in New York have halved since the lockdown.

The continuation of remote working could help maintain these reduced emissions.

Without downplaying the crisis, I look at the COVID-19 pandemic with the term “silver linings” in mind. For a long time, the West has been relatively stable, with no real consequences. COVID-19 has made us realize our actions have reactions. What is the rejuvenation of nature telling us? With small changes, we can make a substantial difference for the health of our planet.

I am in no means suggesting indefinite lockdown to the extreme levels we have experienced due to COVID; sustainability does not include widespread job loss and economic slowdown. However, cherry-picking good change from the bad can bring much-needed alterations in the business world — alterations that will address our climate crisis without sacrificing the health of our economy. One such alteration is the continued adoption of virtual business processes where possible.

Software developer Process Street is an example of a virtual business. Process Street provides Business Process Management software and does so without a physical presence. At Process Street …

  • Our team communicates across the globe using platforms such as Slack and Zoom

  • We follow documented processes for training and quality insurance purposes

  • The service provided is stored and accessed in the Cloud

  • Automation is used to streamline business processes improving efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of business operations.

Having worked both in more traditional offices and remotely for a virtual business — I evaluate the question: Can taking a business virtual significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Transportation

As a remote content writer at Process Street, I never commute. Everything I do is online. Relative to my previous, office-based job, my diesel costs for the year at Process Street have more than halved.

If you look at the total US GHGs by economic sector, transportation takes the lead spot, accounting for 29 percent of emissions.

Of those transportation emissions, up to 53 percent can be related to work commutes. According to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan:

  • 41 percent is attributed to passenger car travel

  • 2 percent is associated with rail travel

  • 9 percent is expelled from air travel

  • 1 percent comes from motorcycles and buses.

These emissions will all be reduced by cutting down the daily work commute and business travel, in general — a change that comes with an increase in virtual work.

Industry

The third-largest contributor to GHGs is the industrial sector, accounting for 22 percent of global emissions. For most industrial processes, workers have to be physically present to carry out the task in hand. As a result, the positives of virtual work become less direct — but they are there.

To exemplify, let’s consider how the company Renegard uses Process Street to document business operations in the cloud, adding a system that supports virtual work to its business.

Renegard produces protective coatings for pickup trucks, boats and large-scale industrial equipment, the application of which requires onsite workers. However, certain business operations can be transformed into remote, cloud solutions, reducing work time onsite.

Using Process Street, Renegard was able to streamline its industrial operations, all on one platform that could be accessed virtually, from anywhere. The most illuminating benefit, however, was the significant efficiency increases recorded. Efficiency is all about achieving maximum productivity with minimum use of resources — and human error is reduced as a documented process can be followed more closely. Reductions in error brings greater productivity, and less energy use and waste.

Improving the efficiency of industrial processes can only be a good thing for our planet. Less use of energy and resources means less emissions, helping us to keep within that 1.5° warming limit.

It is my belief that remote work is part of the solution to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide coordination, and making even the smallest changes, can make significant differences.

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