Low-carbon living begins at work

Environmental challenges -- including power consumption, electronic waste, radiation, noise and gases -- share our workspaces. It’s time for an office revolution, writes Huo Weiya.

One of the comments on my earlier article for chinadialogue, “The high cost of low carbon”, said that while low-carbon living is expensive for individuals, low-carbon working for organisations – companies, social groups, government – is more feasible and worthy of consideration.

I agree. Unlike individuals, the actions of government, companies and universities enjoy efficiencies of scale, providing a larger environmental benefit for a lower cost than individuals can hope to match. This is, therefore, a more affordable and practical approach.

The most promising area in which to make changes is office working. Office productivity already has rocketed thanks to the introduction of information technology (IT). This revolution has been characterised by cuts in paper use, which also are used to show the organisation’s environmental credentials. This year Chinese National People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) handed out 2,500 laptop computers to delegates, saving huge quantities of paper. Many people regarded this as a pro-environment move.

Paperless working is good for the environment – it reduces the felling of trees and the pollution created by papermaking. But it also brings new issues. IT products increase energy consumption, become sources of office pollution and ultimately become electronic waste.

At a forum on energy saving and emissions reduction in the IT field held in April 2008, Zhang Xiaochong, head of the National Development and Reform Commission’s International Cooperation Center, said that every year the Chinese government spends 80 billion yuan – US$11.7 billion — on energy consumption, 50% of which is used to power IT products. In recent years, the energy consumed by IT products has been rising by 8% to 10% annually. It is estimated that in 2007 IT products in China used between 30 billion and 50 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity – nearly as much as the Three Gorges Dam produced.

Figures from Greenpeace International’s website put annual production of electronic waste at between 20 million and 50 million tonnes. The discarding of items such as computers and printers in China is at an all-time high, and cannot be ignored. According to experts, says China Daily, Beijing will produce 158,300 tonnes of electronic waste in 2010. And although the Basel Convention, which attempts to control and punish the cross-border movement of dangerous waste, came into effect in 1992, huge quantities of electronic waste still are being imported illegally into China.

On a visit to Guiyu, a town in Guangzhou known worldwide for this trade, I saw that the bulk of the products being processed were from overseas, with domestic waste already “dealt with” and left around the processing sites. The processing itself is extremely primitive, with removal of useful or metal parts resulting in lead, mercury and cadmium pollution – a major threat to the local environment and human health.

Besides issues of power consumption and electronic waste, IT products also create pollution within the office – radiation, noise and waste gases. These impact on employees’ health and are of no benefit to productivity.

We need an office revolution to combat these environmental challenges. Green offices will retain or improve on current levels of productivity, but use less energy and create less pollution.

Many manufacturers already are using the “green office” concept as a selling point for their products. Some organisations are setting themselves goals for environmentally friendly office working, despite there being no actual professional standards set for this new idea.

At the start of the year, Dell China announced it was to assist the Beijing Energy Saving and Environmental Protection Center in minimising the energy and space usage of its data center by upgrading equipment, using high-density design and virtualisation technology. Shell’s handbook entitled “The Challenges of Energy Saving in the Workplace” calls for the use of teleconferencing, public transport and car sharing to reduce work-related greenhouse-gas emissions.

In November 2008, the Beijing office of the global youth network Roots and Shoots held a green office evaluation event, with the consultancy group Environmental Resources Management (ERM) arranging for Chinese students to visit offices, survey employees and interview managers. They evaluated lighting, heating and cooling, office equipment, greenery and employee behaviour in a number of companies and other organisations. The students then produced reports and suggestions, and will conduct follow-up visits in a year. (Roots and Shoots in Shanghai has evaluated 120 offices; so far, the Beijing office has covered 17.)

On March 19, the project examined Cisco Systems’ Beijing office. Project coordinator Guo Tingting was impressed by the company’s use of distance working. According to a report from the Beijing statistics bureau, the capital’s inhabitants spend an average of 70 minutes every day travelling to work. Distance working saves time for employees, reduces traffic emissions and cuts a company’s office expenses.

Asked if any companies were outsourcing maintenance of office equipment to specialised firms, or simply leasing rather than purchasing their office equipment, Guo said only two or three were outsourcing. Many were not aware that it was an option, believing that companies had to own their own equipment.

Actually, many companies do now rent equipment and management services from external providers. This increases utilisation of the equipment and reduces the number of products needed.

I also have noted that some of the 17 organisations surveyed in Beijing are in the environmental industry, and so already are concerned with “green working”. And, interestingly, it was agreed that the results of the evaluations would not be published.

Office working practices will change out of a sense of social responsibility or a desire to cut costs. But without public demands, this will be done quietly. Relying on voluntary changes will not be adequate – the government should set green working standards, covering energy use, indoor waste gas, noise, radiation and the handling of electronic waste. Policy can be used to change office culture and promote a new office revolution, with the market ultimately providing the necessary services.

Roots and Shoots is set to launch its project worldwide when the time is right. Innovation by environmental NGOs already is sending a positive signal. Rather than making “secret”, or quiet, changes, the government should make green working a matter of policy — and promote a second office revolution.

What do you think about low-carbon offices? What can be done about the energy consumption costs of electronic equipment? How should electronic waste, pollution and potential health issues be addressed? Can an office really be paperless? Would you work at home if you could? What green working standards would you like to see?

Share your thoughts and experiences on the forum.

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

Homepage photo by ♥ Jaye