Expert View: A cleaner world demands a new way of working

Just doing an office job could use up all your carbon budget
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Climate Change Bill will oblige the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by hundreds of millions of tons a year. The 60 per cent reduction proposed for 2050 would be the same as all the emissions from electricity generation and from vehicles on the road today.

Most UK companies assume this will barely affect them. Perhaps surprisingly, while the majority have an office-based workforce, this does not mean they have low greenhouse gas emissions. Large service companies are often big polluters and no one seems to recognise that these businesses will have to change dramatically to match the targets the UK will put into law this year.

I use the example of the publisher Reed Elsevier to make this point, not because it is a particularly bad polluter, but because it publishes good data about its own environmental impact. Including an allowance for air travel, the typical Briton emits about 12 tons a year of greenhouse gases. The Climate Bill will cut this to five tons by mid-century. Reed's employees today are each responsible for well over seven tons just from travel on company business and from their 40 hours a week in the office. Their personal output counts as extra.

Reed's buildings use about 5,000 kilowatt hours (or "units") per employee - three times as much electricity as the typical person consumes at home. Electricity alone generates two tons of carbon dioxide for every employee. Reed is not unusual; use of electricity in the office is tending to rise as powerful computers become ubiquitous and big air-cooled servers pump out information to internet users. More computing power means more heat, which needs to be sucked from inside office buildings by highly energy-intensive air conditioning systems.

The heat produced by computers does have the benefit of reducing gas heating requirements in winter. Reed's gas consumption is only 1,500 kilowatt hours per person. Gas produces less CO 2 than electricity, and office heating generates only about a quarter of a ton of pollutants per person.

Paper use is quite low at Reed - unsurprising given the company's role in commercialising electronic data - and adds little more than 50kg of CO 2 a year per person.

Air travel is the real shocker. Reed's 30,000 people take around 150,000 flights a year, an average of five trips per employee. Taking into account the particularly severe effects of emissions at high altitude, each flight generates about four tons of pollutants per person. Like many other companies, Reed is trying to reduce the need for air travel. But its advanced video conferencing suites hosted a mere 418 meetings in the last reported year, or less than a third of 1 per cent of the number of its flights.

Reed does not publish detailed figures on business car travel. However, in similar companies, CO 2 from cars amounts to about a ton per employee.

In total, Reed's emissions are about seven and a half tons per person, or 50 per cent above the Government's 2050 target for all activities. If you work at Reed, just doing your job uses up all your carbon budget, with nothing to spare for heating the house, driving to work or taking the plane on holiday.

Some of Reed's energy-use figures are going down and some are going up. Though the company may be trying hard, there's certainly no sign of a downturn in its carbon emissions.

But if the Government means what it says in the Climate Bill, and if existing measures continue to fail to arrest the growth in emissions, draconian cuts may be required over a period of a few years. Could Reed cope? I suspect it could manage to cut its air travel by 50 per cent with no discernible impact on its productivity. And other companies have shown it is possible to make real dents in electricity use. Nevertheless, if I were a big shareholder of Reed Elsevier I would be asking to see the contingency plan for operating in a world where energy profligacy is no longer allowed.

Chris Goodall is the author of 'How to Live a Low Carbon Life', published by Earthscan at £14.99.