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Do O2’s Telecommute Savings Add Up?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

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O2 saved 12 tonnes of CO2 emissions by closing its office for a day. Peter Judge asks, is that a big deal?

In February, mobile operator O2 closed its head office in Slough for a day. The idea was to show it was ready for any Olympic travel chaos, but also to prove that flexible working could reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Two months later, the company said it had saved 12.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, which sounds impressive, though my first reaction was sceptical.  It is easy to overstate the benefits of workers staying at home, in terms of the energy they save by not commuting, but had O2 taken into account the extra costs they would have incurred by keeping their home heating on, on a cold February day?

Had O2 done the sums properly, I wondered? And how significant is it for a 2500-strong company to save 12 tonnes of CO2 in one day? Has O2 stumbled on something, and is the elusive solution to global warming for all of us to simply stay at home?

Show your workings

The answer to the first question is: yes, O2 did its sums. The company sent me a document detailing them, including the graph shown below.

The blue bar is the amount of CO2 saved by the commuting that O2 staff avoided. Normally 80 percent of the staff drive to work, many of them sharing cars, with an average journey of 35 to 40 miles.

There were costs to the exercise however. The red bar shows the emissions produced by those staff who couldn’t work at home, and commuted to a local O2 shop or a customer’s office. The staff did have to run heating in their homes, and O2 added this up to give the green bar.

The little purple and light blue bars represent the changes in heating and electricity use  at the head office. The company saved a surprisingly small amount of electricity from computers and so forth, and also burnt a bit more energy in heating, because there weren’t any bodies to heat it.

The actual savings by O2 are the difference between the plus and minus parts of the long bar on the right – a saving of 12 tonnes, about the size of the green bar.

Telecommuting does save

So, flexible working does save, but how big is that saving in context? Well, 12 tonnes sounds like a lot of CO2, and O2 points out this is the equivalent of a car driving 42,000 miles – which is not too surprising, since the savings came from less driving, and 42,000 shared between 2000 staff is about 20 miles.

In other words, a lot of people did a little, and it added up to a lot – but still only made a little difference compared with the overall impact of all those people. We can’t be sure of the overall impact on O2’s energy usage, since we don’t know the total energy it uses in a normal day.

Looked at individually, the energy saved by O2’s staff worked out at 15kWh each (using calculations based on David McKay’s book, Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air), which is about a third of the energy the average person normally uses on driving, and around a tenth of the overall energy a person uses in a day.

So, on its own, telecommuting is very worthwhile, but is not the whole answer. O2 could increase these savings even more if the company made the telecommuting regular, and downsized its office space. Whatever the company is spending on heating and lighting would then go down a lot.

Overall, a good experiment, and well done O2 for publishing real figures about it.

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