Why We Have to Start Considering Organizational Carbon Emissions

It's vital to start asking why business is emitting so much carbon unnecessarily.

Kendeda Building Atlanta
Kendeda Building, Atlanta.

Lloyd Alter

Lord Aeck Sargent (LAS) is an architecture firm that understands carbon. It was one of the first architectural firms to sign up for the 2030 challenge back in 2007. It is also the firm (in collaboration with The Miller Hull Partnership) behind the Kendeda Building at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The building is the first in Georgia to be certified a Living Building: As part of the Living Building Challenge, you have to measure upfront or embodied carbon and eliminate operating carbon emissions.

LAS has been monitoring the carbon emissions of its office operations since 2007 and has compared its emissions from 2019 to those following the COVID-19 shutdown when all of its offices were closed and business travel was restricted. The firm writes in an eye-opening report titled "Analysis of Carbon Emissions Affected by COVID-19": "The goal of this analysis was to look beyond the typical 'business as usual’ carbon accounting, using this disruption to better understand the key underlying factors driving operational emissions in order to provide data to prioritize improvements as we begin to transition to a post-COVID-19-era ‘new normal.’"

Report author Cristy Fletcher describes the results as surprising. In fact, they are shocking:

"The calculated carbon emissions avoided during the first six months of the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, compared to the same six-month period in 2019, totaled 10,513 metric tons of Carbon Dioxide equivalent emissions. That is the equivalent of more than 26 million miles driven in an average passenger vehicle."
Energy reductions between 2019 and 2020

Whitney Ashley

Fletcher looked at water use, commuting, rental cars, air travel, and energy use. Flying absolutely dominated the emissions, representing 98% of the reduction. But the other numbers are significant as well.

Graph without flying

Whitney Ashley

Here is the graph without flying, which increases the clarity for the other sources of emissions. The biggest is commuting to the office, down from about 155 metric tons of CO2e to about 8. Energy use in the office was down by about two-third, offset slightly by increased energy use in homes, roughly estimated at 6.9%. Fletcher notes in her conclusion:

"Increased working from home appears to yield productivity gains, improvements in employee happiness, potential real estate savings, and significant climate benefits, each organization should take an account of the benefits and identify targets for carbon reduction moving into the future."

What Fletcher and LAS have done here that is so significant is they have put a real number on the carbon cost of the way we do business. The firm managed to work during the shutdown and get things done, without all the flying and commuting. So why are they going back to the office at all? Fletcher tells Treehugger:

"LAS is moving forward carefully and methodically in terms of a return to the office. There is a large contingent within LAS that really wants people back in the office to re-establish our firm's culture."

Corporate culture. This is what appears to be driving so much of the return to the office. It may not be full-time; Fletcher notes: "If we can find a place in the future where we found a way to time our return to the office when you can get the most bang for the buck out of the cultural experience."

She continues: "In terms of the firm culture, my impression is that it is not so much the business of getting architecture done, but the relationships that are built, the opportunity to talk to someone how is not directly working with you without having to do it on a calendar."

Organizational Carbon Emissions

The fundamental problem that this raises is LAS and Fletcher have now put a number to it. In our buildings, we have had the upfront or embodied carbon emissions from creating a building and the operating carbon emissions from running it. Now, we have a number for what might be called the organizational carbon emissions, which are a direct result of how we organize our businesses and the choices we make in how we run them—and it's huge. We are basically learning the carbon footprint of the corporate culture.

Fletcher concludes in the report:

"The building industry as a whole can take the lessons of COVID-19 and apply them to the future. Carbon reduction is not only about what is reduced, it also reaps tangible benefits. Reduced air travel and commuting time can result in increased productivity when implemented correctly for each situation. New policies and priorities can be effectively communicated to clients emphasizing the potential for project cost savings and client convenience. The instant connectivity available through technology can be used to build and maintain, and potentially improve, office culture in a hybrid model. We need to take the time as an industry now to have these discussions and find appropriate targets before we return to business as previously usual from force of habit."
Total emissions LAS

Whitney Ashley

We have to do more than that, and it is not just the building industry, it is every company. We have to go beyond just the embodied and operating emissions but look at the total picture including organizational emissions that come from the way we run our businesses. LAS is probably not that different from most businesses, and they reduced their emissions by 10,513 metric tons in six months, 21,026 per year, or 166 metric tons for each of its 120 employees.

This is an exercise that every company should have to do. It's all very nice to talk about corporate culture or how important it is to meet clients face to face, but we have seen from the pandemic that it is not absolutely necessary and that companies can survive and thrive without it.

And now that we can see the true organizational carbon footprint that comes from the choices that are made about how we run our organizations, we have to face the fact that there can be no return to business as previously usual.

View Article Sources
  1. Fletcher, Cristy, et al. "Analysis of Carbon Emissions Affected by COVID-19." Lord Aeck Sargent.