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Measuring the Carbon Impact of Remote Work

An Earth Week 2021 look at how we calculated and offset our 2020 carbon footprint

Photo of wind power turbines with clouds in the background

As we enter the second (and hopefully final) year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies and organizations have successfully made the transition to remote working. While most studies agree that working from home has a smaller carbon footprint than working in a traditional office environment, what is not clear is exactly how much smaller that footprint is, or how companies who have made the transition to remote working should measure the carbon impact of their operations.

This Earth Week, we thought it might be useful to dig a little deeper into these issues and share what we did to calculate and offset our carbon emissions for last year.

How Remote Work Can Reduce Carbon Emissions

The primary way that remote working reduces greenhouse gas emissions by reducing or eliminating the need to commute, which can be a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, especially for those who would otherwise be driving to and from their workplace. 

Exactly how much of an impact this has varies widely based on factors like location, household size and configuration, and availability and usage of clean energy options like wind and solar. Remote working has a greater impact on reducing emissions in places with long commute times and an energy grid that uses more clean energy than it does in places with shorter commute times and a higher reliance on fossil fuels. 

It’s also important to remember that the cloud-based services that enable remote working (such as video conferencing) carry a significant carbon footprint, as does the broadband internet and electrical infrastructure required to deliver those services to individual homes. While the carbon dioxide emissions created by an hour-long Zoom video call (160 grams) are a small fraction of those created by burning a single gallon of gasoline (8,887 grams), the cumulative impact of increased internet usage worldwide during the pandemic is estimated at an annual increase of 3.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

What this means is that companies who care about climate change need to be thinking about the carbon footprint associated with remote work along with the footprint associated with business travel, office space, and commuting. 

The challenge is that this footprint is notoriously difficult to measure. Over the last couple of years, we’ve reached out to various cloud service providers to ask them what they’re doing to reduce their carbon footprint, but few have responded with any meaningful information. And despite much-ballyhooed press releases, major cloud infrastructure providers like Amazon are decades away from achieving carbon neutrality. While increased public awareness has put pressure on more companies to make pledges to reduce their carbon footprint, there’s no way to actually enforce those pledges in the absence of widely agreed-upon standards and meaningful regulation.

Estimating Palantir’s Carbon Footprint

So given all that, what’s a sustainably-minded remote-first small business to do? Without any good ways to more precisely measure our carbon footprint, we essentially made an educated guess based on the size of our team. Based on the research we did and the conversations we had with folks at various carbon offset providers, we started from a baseline estimate of 2-3 metric tons of carbon per team member per year. Working from the high end of that range, we multiplied 3 metric tons of carbon times 35 team members to come up with a total of 105 metric tons, or the rough equivalent of the carbon emissions that would be produced by driving a car around the circumference of the Earth ten times. 

Offsets That Make a Difference

Purchasing carbon offsets is a common way for companies to address the impact of their carbon footprint that cannot be easily reduced through other means. There are legitimate arguments about the effectiveness of carbon offsets as a long-term strategy for combating climate change, but many agree that it is at least useful as a short term tactic. 

While the market for offsets in the United States is largely unregulated, with no official way to measure the legitimacy or effectiveness of carbon reduction projects, there are some emerging international standards, such as Green-e and Gold Standard, which are designed to provide independent verification and accountability for climate carbon offsets. 

To offset Palantir’s estimated carbon footprint for 2020, we ended up purchasing our offsets directly from the Gold Standard marketplace for climate reduction projects that are aligned with the standards framework set by the Paris Agreement as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The credits we purchased supported a variety of clean energy projects in Honduras, Ghana, Chad, Togo, Nepal, India, China, and Turkey. While we did not make much use of our office in 2020, we also continued to use a Green-e certified energy supplier to provide renewable electricity to the space.

Thinking Ahead

While we’re proud of the steps we’ve taken to reduce our carbon footprint, real change will require large companies and organizations that produce and rely on energy derived from fossil fuels to switch to greener alternatives and address the impact of their past carbon emissions. We all need to continue to push for greater transparency and accountability from cloud service providers and hosts, especially as more companies and organizations switch to remote work. That’s how we can help make sure our planet remains a livable place for future generations.  

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