"The technologies we need are known…”
— J. Adair Turner, Chairman, Energy Transitions Commission, World Economic Forum
Getting to net-zero carbon emissions will obviously take a multi-pronged approach: numerous technological and economic sectors will have to undergo profound transformations.
Due to the pandemic, some of those transformations have taken place, temporarily at least, in the U.S. transportation and entertainment sectors, which have been largely shut down for the better part of a year. But as I discussed in a recent column, those economic setbacks, unfortunately, had little effect on overall carbon emissions.
Yes, emissions plummeted by eight percent in 2020, but the unaffected 92% of emissions from other sectors rivaled emission totals from the record setting year of 2019. The bottom line is, despite some emissions reductions, a lot more carbon was added to the atmosphere in 2020, raising overall saturation. As a number of observers have noted, pandemics are not a good path to reducing emissions, just to death and economic misery.
Still, as we consider the many, rapid and profound changes we’ll have to make to shift away from today’s dead-end fossil fuel economy toward tomorrow’s “solartopia,” as some have called it, there are lessons we can take from the pandemic we’ve all been suffering through. Indeed, we would do the victims of COVID-19 a disservice if we failed to learn from this cursed plague.
One thing we’ve learned is that we don’t necessarily need to jam our roadways with millions of back-to-back, crawling cars during our morning and evening commutes. We can telecommute; work from home.
The extent to which we’ve been working from home during the pandemic is perhaps unsustainable — and unnecessary once we revolutionize our transportation systems to run almost entirely on electricity. But every little bit counts toward the total transformation of the energy sector, so let’s consider some of the benefits of telecommuting.
The most clear-cut benefit is fewer cars on the road. That is particularly important in the early stages of the transition to electric vehicles. If, as we get the economy up and running in a year or so, we go right back to commuting as usual in our fossil-fuel cars, we will quickly lose even the marginal benefit of the pandemic emissions reductions. But what a great many people, companies and institutions have learned is that we don’t need to return to commuting, or nearly as much commuting, to return to prosperity.
An acquaintance works in the personnel department of a state agency. She used to commute about 60 miles to and from work each day. But soon after the pandemic closed the department’s offices, she and her supervisors found that she could perform her duties of analyzing its personnel needs, advertising open administrative and clerical positions and interviewing and hiring candidates, from home.
It turned out most of the other administrative employees could do their jobs equally well from home, so, shortly after the pandemic shut-down began, the department decided to make telecommuting its permanent, standard mode of employment going forward. Along with offering its employees flexibility in where they live and, to some extent, when they work, the policy has major benefits for the department’s budget and, ultimately, the taxpayers who support it.
So far, one entire office building that was to be rented to house the department’s growing staff has been deemed unnecessary. That’s one less building to heat and maintain, along with, of course, hundreds of thousands fewer miles wear and tear on our public roads, each year.
There are many more benefits, as well as some drawbacks to telecommuting. We’ll consider them in future columns as we continue to learn lessons from the pandemic at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz writes about environmental issues and related topics. Contact him through his blog at Firebird Journal (firebirdjournal.com).