Do You Know What Going to the Office Costs the Planet?

Do you long to telecommute?  Then, 21st Century Office—no, not the 21st Century office carbon emissions calculator screen shotrealty company, rather, an independent project sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation with a grant from Hewlett Packard—has an app for you and it will be available Thursday at the organization’s website that is not yet active. You can even download it to your iPhone.

Get all the details you need to convince your manager how much time and carbon dioxide emissions you could save by working from your home office.

Carbon emissions calculators

This is not the first emissions calculator.  Nature Conservancy has one that is very good at showing how good—or morosely miserable—you are at minimizing your carbon footprint.  Native Energy has one to make you wide-eyed about what your daily travel habits cost the planet. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has one to help offices understand their emissions—especially suited for those who enjoy mucking with spreadsheets.

What 21st Century is trying to do, though, is measure an individual’s carbon footprint only as it relates to working in an office. And, for good reason.

Buildings are responsible for 48 percent of all energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions each year in the U.S., and 76 percent of all power plant-generated electricity is used just to operate those buildings, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So, 21st Century Offices suggests we change the paradigm, to use office buildings as “a service that allows people to work and deliver what they should instead of as a place where employees must spend a certain amount of time.”

Not exactly a novel idea.

But its new app to move us in that direction might be.

How the app works

The app explores your office commuting, office work, meeting, travel and behavior activities.  While not complete, it is a very good first attempt.

Results compare your individual work-related emissions to those of the average application user and to the average urban knowledge-based worker, who, apparently, is assumed to leave a few less footprints behind.

But, the app is not intuitive.  There are no instructions for using it.  Some seemingly single questions have two parts and you have to use a drop-down menu and then a slider along a continuum. There is no option for answering “sometimes” nor is there room to explain how much non-subscription-based digital print you consume.

And that is one of my biggest criticisms of the tool. As a telecommuter, I spend 12 hours a day in front of a computer doing as many as 400 searchers and consuming hundreds of thousands of digital words—an action not without consequence. For instance, a one-hit Google search that takes less than a second produces about 0.2g of carbon dioxide, according to Google, but two more thorough searches that last longer can generate about 7g of CO2 per search, according to an analysis by the London Times.  And 21st Century does not consider that.

That said, I should feel good about my save-the-planet efforts. My annual CO2 emissions are 938 metric tons compared to an average app user at 8,222 metric tons and an average urban knowledge worker at 3.658, according to the calculator.

The app also provides space for users to record their emissions-savings ideas.  Some of the popular ones so far?  Work from home.  Use a folding bicycle if you need take the train and it doesn’t stop at your office door.  Use Wi-Fi enabled public transport.  Reduce travel and share a central meeting room.  Use e-readers in the coffee room.

Not exactly rocket science.

The future of the 21st Century Office app

However, all good ideas and intentions deserve plaudits and the efforts of 21st Century are no exception. The concept is wonderful.  The result, right now, is less than ideal.

But, the organization is in discussions with a number of companies and many are interested in developing versions that are more user friendly,” says Dennis Pamlin, former global policy adviser at the World Wildlife Federation and now project architect and supervisor of the 21st Century project. “The future for the 21st Century Office will depend on user reactions,” he adds. “Depending on what works, we develop this further.”

Pamlin notes that based on initial testing runs of the app, the group may delve “deeper and also allow people to create 21st Century Office-guidebooks based on their profile and how they rank different ideas, [and/or] have a simpler version, where people can get a very rough overview with only a few questions and…examples of guides that other people have developed.”

Jennifer Hicks is a freelance journalist and the lead editor of SmartBrief on Sustainability, a free daily e-newsletter that offers a round up of the day's most important news for businesses and consumers interested in sustainability issues. Her work has appeared on several health, business and political Web sites.

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