A low carbon career

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The international community made a big promise for the year 2050. Steve Gale wonders what it means for millennials.

You will remember the December 2015 Paris climate change agreement when 195 countries signed up to the idea of reducing carbon emissions. Grown men wept and senior citizens danced in the streets.

Even if you are sceptical, and you should be, there are greater implications for some people than there are for others. A young person just starting out will have a working life which coincides perfectly with the time-line drawn up to reduce greenhouse emissions by the year 2050. The expectations, if they are to be enacted, will dictate the actions and decisions for this new working generation. Without knowing what it looks like, it will be down to millennials to implement the Paris agreement.

The agreement wants to keep global temperature down to 2°C greater than pre-industrial times. There is all-round procrastination and weasel words, but let’s not be downhearted, and consider what it means.

“I have no idea what a gigaton looks like, or how a gas that I breathe can be measured in units for weighing mountains”

Some numbers might help – although maybe not. The science is so complex and contentious that the simplest way scientists can express the challenge is to define a ‘carbon budget’, which is the upper limit of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) that the atmosphere can handle to constrain heating to this level. UN scientists are generally happy with a figure of around 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

I have no idea what a gigaton looks like, or how a gas that I breathe can be measured in units for weighing mountains, but the budget means that we can tolerate this increase in CO2 by the year 2050, starting from a vague pre-industrial date about 150 years ago. More and the temperature will rise higher than the
desired 2°C.

The sting is that we have already used up most of it, and there is only about 300 gigatons in the budget left for us to put out there.

Our industry, which is not obviously gas guzzling, has a big talking part to play in this drama to prevent it morphing into a disaster movie. The end has not been written yet.

Think about the lion’s share of commercial premises – offices. People don’t live over the shop, they need to get there, and that alone creates a wellie boot-sized carbon footprint. My regular commute can be calculated to be an equivalent of 3.5 tons of CO2 each year. This compares to an average total of 7.13 tons for each UK inhabitant, man, woman and child, including everything – car factories, travel, hot baths, going on holiday, cooking dinner, the lot. Just going to work and back is half of my total carbon footprint.

Next, we can reduce energy consumption in the workplace, which needs air-conditioning, heating in the winter, lift access, lighting and electrical power to all the equipment, from PCs and laptops to printers and coffee machines. CO2 emissions from just office buildings alone is estimated to be a staggering 14% of the
UK’s total.

The dry old CIBSE guidance (which speaks for services engineers in the UK) suggests the first priority is to reduce demand, which is as insightful as suggesting we control our body weight by eating less, but no less truthful.

So by staying at home, not only do I save all that energy needed to lug my mass across the land, but I use less energy by not being there, right?

Well possibly. The office will only consume less if we register my absence and plan for it. Let’s assume that some of my energy consumption is now in my den, loft or kitchen table where the coffee and laptop sit – the savings in the office will be achieved by marginally less space to cool and light – but this will only happen if offices are designed to accommodate fewer people at one time.

This simple logic has been tested, a bit, but employers are losing faith in people working any place any time, and believe more that proximity pays dividends in productivity through communication and a committed culture. Yahoo! ordered its people back to the office in 2013 and IBM is now doing the same after being remote working pioneers for 15 years. Many lesser known firms are doing it too, convinced that remote working delivers neither productivity nor the hoped for cost savings.

Two powerful forces are seen to point in opposite directions. Carbon emissions one way, business fundamentals the other. The compromise needed to accommodate these is everyone’s problem, but millennials will definitely carry it up to 2050, and I reckon the problem will climb up their agenda, not sink down.