Turning on your video camera for Zoom meetings instead of driving to work and meeting in-person has already made a difference in our environmental footprint, but some researchers are wondering if we can do more digitally.
Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently put together a study focusing on what this digital transition could look like.
The team found a number of countries reported at least a 20 per cent increase in internet usage starting in March 2020. Additionally, the study notes the world’s carbon footprint could grow by as high as 34.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions if remote work continued until the end of 2021.
“We are developing these digital habits and digital norms and what if we get used to them and later we realized they’re not sustainable?” said Kaveh Madani, director of the study.
From being aware of how we are using our digital devices to limiting waste at home, experts say there are many ways Canadians can look into reducing their carbon footprint while working at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study also found turning off cameras during video calls can reduce carbon footprints by 96 per cent and streaming content in standard definition as opposed to high definition can cut down carbon dioxide levels of that activity by 86 per cent.
Madani explains carbon footprint is linked to how we use and transfer data online. For instance, energy is required in order to upload or download data from the internet, and when that energy is burned, it, in turn, produces greenhouse gases that contribute to water and land footprints.
He also said while service providers must think proactively about their environmental profit together, there are small actions customers using their services can do, like changing the streaming quality of their videos, deleting unnecessary email or cloud data, unsubscribing from email lists and limiting internet surfing time.
“These are all tiny and if they’re only adopted by one person, it doesn’t have a huge impact on the network,” he said. “But if we scale it up, if there are tens of millions of us doing these sort of things …Then there is an impact.”
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Sharon Coward is the executive director of EnviroCentre, an Ottawa-based organization that focuses on helping individuals, communities and businesses take practical action on climate change, like understanding how they can reduce their carbon emissions and other forms of environmental impact in their day-to-day life.
According to Coward, a couple of factors that have led to an increase in people’s carbon footprint during the pandemic have been residential consumption and waste as well as household heating.
When it comes to residential waste, Coward said to an extent, people have to consider that it’s just a movement of waste from restaurants and other outings people were doing prior to the pandemic.
Similarly, Emily Alfred, waste campaigner at the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), said that waste has not increased but where it’s being created has shifted.
To point to an example, Alfred said a delivery of office supplies and packaging that would normally get sent to an in-person office is now being sent to people’s homes instead.
“As offices and restaurants and shopping malls are closed down, there’s a lot less waste being created by those facilities, and that’s where most waste is created,” she said.
“We’re not actually creating more waste, it’s just different types of wastes in a different location,” said Alfred, adding that by having more people working from home, it has posed an opportunity to reflect on the types of waste being produced and what people can do about it.
Coward also adds that while there has been an increase in waste from home, it’s important to realize that working from home has reduced people’s transportation emissions.
“Another really big part of our carbon footprint is our daily commute, particularly people who drive in cars and drive long distances. And if you’re not doing that anymore, you’re reducing your impact significantly,” she said.
Recently, EnviroCentre launched a program called myGreen Lifestyle where people can take online courses to learn about how to take action in their own lives and reduce their impact.
The impact of taking small steps to reduce your carbon footprint
When it comes to energy use, Coward said the residential sector is a large consumer of energy, from using the internet to machines at home. “Same as you would in your regular office … Make sure you’re switching off printers and devices and your lights when they’re not in use,” she said.
“One great way to do that is to get an automated power bar that you plug all of those office related things into and then you schedule it to shut off at the time of day when you’re finished work.”
Additionally, for reducing electricity usage, Coward said that switching incandescent light bulbs to LEDs is a good approach as they are 75 per cent more efficient.
“There are a lot of little things you can do … You can install a smart thermostat in your home to automate when heat goes up and down and control your temperature,” she said, adding that it is inexpensive and has shown to lower energy usage by as much as 15 per cent.
When it comes to tips and solutions, she said shopping locally will not only lead to a reduced carbon footprint, but also support local jobs and overall long-term environmental impact.
Alfred adds that it’s important to remember that waste materials have a carbon footprint before they even enter someone’s household — like a shirt that was ordered, made through a manufacturing facility, then packaged and then shipped across the world.
“So by reducing waste and preventing waste in the first place, and avoiding buying things that we don’t need, that helps,” she said, adding that there are also zero waste businesses and small restaurants that have made the effort to use reusable material for packaging.
For people that are looking to start making efforts to reduce their waste, Alfred said taking small steps or choosing one or two things to adjust is ideal in order to avoid guilt or stress.
“Slow, steady improvement towards reducing waste is the best thing rather than people feeling like they need to do it all at once, and especially right now,” she said.
One of TEA’s projects, Zero Water High-Rise, works with multi-residential communities to move their buildings towards zero waste.
“By people spending more time at home and these multi-residential communities, there’s actually been this great opportunity for communities to come together and say ‘how can we make our building more sustainable,’” she said.
According to Alfred, initiatives have included: implementing a sharing shelf for food or ingredients like cooking oil and making the waste room accessible for people using wheelchairs.
When it comes to working towards solutions, Madani also said not everyone needs to be forced to adapt to things like eating less meat or biking instead of driving. He said that some people may be more comfortable doing one or the other, so presenting multiple options may be a better step.
The magnitude of the impact of one’s actions might be small, he said, but that behaviour can be seen by someone else and impact their behaviour.
“Your action kind of paves the way for the big changes that we want to happen in this world,” said Madani.
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