Can the Future of Work Help Save Our Planet?

Approaching International Earth Day, we are encouraging the appreciation of the beauty of nature and driving positive action to save our planet and life on earth. The natural ecosystem has been considerably impacted by human activity and climate change is a wakeup call to action. However, on a positive note, there are national and international efforts designing eco-friendly and data-driven solutions to mitigate this world issue, such as engagements and goal-setting efforts by the UN Climate Change and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Cutting-edge technologies are proving to be top of mind for driving solutions towards sustainability. Even the monitoring and measurement of the progress of sustainable goals depend on open data access platforms as illustrated by the SDG tracker.

A common denominator for many solutions to lessening climate change is the use of technology. This is undoubtedly shifting bureaucratic workplaces into digital, data-driven, agile and environmentally sustainable ones. Automation, the metaverse, IoT and other technologies, are changing the world of work as we know it. The outburst of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the adoption of new technologies at a faster rate, such as working remotely, relying on e-commerce, virtual schooling, online banking, and telemedicine. This is rapidly changing the skills required in the workplace, lifestyles, transportation and consequently, values—placing more importance in social and environmental global issues.

These changes in the workplace have positive impacts on the environment in several ways:

  1. Remote, hybrid and flexible work from home. As employees can leverage technology to choose flexible work hours from home, there are environmental gains from this new normal. A study by Spain’s Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals found that working from home four days a week can decrease nitrogen dioxide by 10%, which are emissions produced by traffic resulting also in a reduction of air pollution of around 8%. Although using technology doesn’t translate into net zero as data centers use a good amount of energy, the number of emissions emitted are, for instance, with Zoom calls only 0.6%  of carbon emissions generated by commuting to the office. Fewer people commuting to work means that rush hour will not influence our choices in the morning—less jammed subways, congestions on the road and stress, meaning we can enjoy more quiet mornings and cleaner air contributing to improved air and noise pollution.  Many commuters had accommodated their lives around that rush hour. Remote work is possible for a broad range of industries; in the United States alone, a third of workers could accomplish their jobs remotely, lowering greenhouse gas emission as a result and contributing positively to different SDGs, such as SDG 8 Decent Work supporting people with disabilities and parents and SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities.
  2. A Green workforce for a net-zero world. Decarbonization is leading to the creation of new jobs in sustainable industries to help achieve a reduction of global warming by 2 degrees Celsius  As reported by ILO, around 24 million jobs will be created globally in the green economy by 2030. Also, net job losses are expected in the Middle East and Africa due to their reliance on fossil fuel and mining. However, with upskilling strategies for this transition, the same study suggests that 2.5 million jobs will be created in renewable energy counterbalancing job losses in fossil fuel energy sectors. Urbanization plans can also create about 6 million jobs by establishing a circular economy governed by recycling, repairing or/and renting. Also, smart cities focusing on green transportation will create about 53 million jobs by 2030, such as e-mobility.
  3. Sustainable workplace awareness. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies in the workplace are increasingly becoming important for any business leader assessing their performance towards sustainability and good risk management. Also, investors are noticing another trend: there is rising evidence, around 2,000 academic studies, suggesting that ESG practices are correlated with better performance. For instance, a better ESG score results in about 10% lower cost of capital as risks of losing a license to operate are also reduced.  As a result, companies and the workforce are changing their behavior by adopting these ESG policies causing positive implications on the environment, such as waste and energy footprint reduction strategies.

Do you remember the clear and blue water running through the Venice canals and wildlife appearing in unusual places during the lockdowns? Nature has the capacity to recover and humans to adapt. This means that sustainable goals and human economic activities can be aligned by leveraging remote work, developing a greener workforce for the transition to a green economy and designing, business focused ESG policies apart from national and international efforts that can nudge workers behaviors.