Saturday, February 24, 2007

Carbon Footprint

Imagine a world where your daily commute to work is just an elevator ride or a bike ride or a small walk on tree-lined avenue away. Sadly, this is a dream especially if your work address is in a urban setting or repute and might anywhere across the world. Not only is it financially exhausting to travel to work for both the employer and the employees, it is sadly bad for productivity and the mental well being of the commuters. To alleviate the problem there has been very high developmental activity in the segment of remote collaboration tools like video conferencing, PC accessibility and connectivity, etc. But that has still left us with a lot to be desired. Moreover, there are times when remote collaboration just doesn't cut it nice and clear. There's nothing as of yet to match the magic of human touch and face-to-face interactions. If that doesn't make you feel bad let me burden you with the harm that these commuters have done to the environment bellowing CO2 in the enviroment. One third of the CO2 emmissions are from the transportation sector alone in the United States.

Does that mean that as professionals, work-from-home is not going to give us the 100% we desire at work and the commute is going to get us all baked to ashes? Actually, in short that is the sad reality we are faced with today. As a civilization we are at the cross roads where we have to now start balancing the needs of civilization with the needs of the environment. Sadly enough you may not be able to leave this decision to your children as it may be too late by then.

Car Pool
One of the practices that I have been most impressed with so far is Car-Pooling. This is probably the best model of environmental optimization to date. Personal benefits like saving on fuel costs, lower wear and tear and hence maintenance, improved longevity, less stressful commute, etc. have driven people to share rides. The overall benefit to the environment is huge at it not only saves on fuel but also reduces congestion. Until a few years ago I used to share rides with my co-workers where the 3-4 of us would drive to work in one car. The other benefit that I derived out of it was that of better time management. Sharing rides made me more disciplined and organized as I had to rearrange my work style to fit with others and I think so did the others. During a six month period in which I kept a track of the miles I drove for work I saved around 250 miles every month, which is about 10 gallons of gasoline and hence about 5000 lbs of CO2 emissions (as per the chart on the right for an OK car). This is what I meant by a good model of optimization; I engaged in an activity that was not only beneficial for me (local/personal optimization) but also to the environment (global optimization).

During the last 2-3 years, however, that situation has changed dramaticallly for me. The nature of my work now take me almost every week of the year to a place that is a few hours flight hop away, at least. I fly out to whereever my client is and return to my home to be, well, at home. While, on one hand it is a good thing that I am sharing a flight with others, on the other it is bad because this is a far cry from the ideal world that I have in mind. As a side note, I have come to realize over discussions with a lot of frequent flyers that they would all prefer to have their own airplanes if they could afford and knew how to fly, which in itself is a disturbing trend.

But let's not digress from the topic. The gist is that now, as a flyer, I am contributing even more to the emissions of CO2 than what I used to as a solo driver. And this is my new carbon footprint - larger than ever and growing fast. As globalizations is spreading and opportunities are beign generated far and wide across the world flying to work is becoming a trend. Flying, in the recent years, has penetrated to the segments of society that it had for years wanted as clients but just couldn't afford to give a cheap ride to. New low cost carriers in countries like India and Malaysia are a testimony to this. And the future looks a little unbelievable. In a little more concrete terms 27,000 airplanes are scheduled to enter service in the next 10 years.

Proposed Model
So, what can I do about it? Well, there are several ways out of it. From the imprudent, which is to change the nature of my job, to the pragmatic which is to reduce flying if I can. The latter is now starting to catch attention of responsible employers and employees. It is time we get a little innovative and come up with synergistic pricing models for the services provided by the travelling consultants like me.

So, how can this be done. It won't be a bad start if instead of coming back to my home every weekend, I am allowed to come back every alternate week. Big deal, do it! Actually, it is. The question now becomes - who'll pay for my stay over in Gotham, United
States where the hotel prices are through the roof and food and entertainment is far more expensive than Smallville. Questions like these are not new anymore. People like me raise them almost every day and discuss it and, that's it. It's a good fodder for discussion in bar and has recently become what whether used be. Yes, you read it right - you know, everyone talks about how bad the weather is but can't do anything about it. That's how conversations are usually bootstrapped. But here's some good news. We are now in a position where we can do something about our own Carbon Footprints - indvidually as well as collectively. So, the few models that I have either come across and/or have been thinking of lately are:
  1. Client agrees and pays for my stay over in Gotham. This can be a little burden for the client because they'll have to foot my bills over the weekend.

  2. Client agrees for and contributes to environmental sustaining and building efforts in order to engage me. What does this mean? It can be as simle a thing as planting a tree for every 10 roundtrips that I make to my clients office in Gotham or replacing one lightbulb with an energy saving long-life incandescent bulbs for each of my roundtrip. Turns out that this is the easiest and cheapest thing to do since it'll cost the client about $10 to do so per week.

  3. Other option for the client is to match my travelling expenses in contributions and committments towards investment into alternative energy sources like Photo Voltaic (Solar).

  4. For a certain number of miles travelled by their consultants the clients should sponsor a rooftop garden and foliage at one of their facilities.
There are very many other ways that I as a traveling consultant should be able to make my clients feel responsible and contribute to lowering my carbon footprint. Overall, the theme I am suggesting is to start sharing the responsibility of protecting and sustaining our enviroment. It is time now that this effort moves beyond just the individual level to the organization level in the industry, where companies negotiate their services/products and its pricing treating our natural environment as much as a partner in the play as others. It is the responsibility of people who travel and organizations that sustain themselves on the model of providing services which include frequent flyers to start charging their client and contributing that revenue to saving the environment by planting trees and reducing travel as much as possible.