文章 Articles

Low-carbon living begins at work

Environmental challenges -- including power consumption, electronic waste, radiation, noise and gases -- share our workspaces. It’s time for an office revolution, writes Huo Weiya.

Article image

One of the comments on my earlier article for chinadialogue, “The high cost of low carbon”, said that while low-carbon living is expensive for individuals, low-carbon working for organisations – companies, social groups, government – is more feasible and worthy of consideration.

I agree. Unlike individuals, the actions of government, companies and universities enjoy efficiencies of scale, providing a larger environmental benefit for a lower cost than individuals can hope to match. This is, therefore, a more affordable and practical approach.

The most promising area in which to make changes is office working. Office productivity already has rocketed thanks to the introduction of information technology (IT). This revolution has been characterised by cuts in paper use, which also are used to show the organisation’s environmental credentials. This year Chinese National People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) handed out 2,500 laptop computers to delegates, saving huge quantities of paper. Many people regarded this as a pro-environment move.

Paperless working is good for the environment – it reduces the felling of trees and the pollution created by papermaking. But it also brings new issues. IT products increase energy consumption, become sources of office pollution and ultimately become electronic waste.

At a forum on energy saving and emissions reduction in the IT field held in April 2008, Zhang Xiaochong, head of the National Development and Reform Commission’s International Cooperation Center, said that every year the Chinese government spends 80 billion yuan – US$11.7 billion -- on energy consumption, 50% of which is used to power IT products. In recent years, the energy consumed by IT products has been rising by 8% to 10% annually. It is estimated that in 2007 IT products in China used between 30 billion and 50 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity – nearly as much as the Three Gorges Dam produced.

Figures from Greenpeace International’s website put annual production of electronic waste at between 20 million and 50 million tonnes. The discarding of items such as computers and printers in China is at an all-time high, and cannot be ignored. According to experts, says China Daily, Beijing will produce 158,300 tonnes of electronic waste in 2010. And although the Basel Convention, which attempts to control and punish the cross-border movement of dangerous waste, came into effect in 1992, huge quantities of electronic waste still are being imported illegally into China.

On a visit to Guiyu, a town in Guangzhou known worldwide for this trade, I saw that the bulk of the products being processed were from overseas, with domestic waste already “dealt with” and left around the processing sites. The processing itself is extremely primitive, with removal of useful or metal parts resulting in lead, mercury and cadmium pollution – a major threat to the local environment and human health.

Besides issues of power consumption and electronic waste, IT products also create pollution within the office – radiation, noise and waste gases. These impact on employees’ health and are of no benefit to productivity.

We need an office revolution to combat these environmental challenges. Green offices will retain or improve on current levels of productivity, but use less energy and create less pollution.

Many manufacturers already are using the “green office” concept as a selling point for their products. Some organisations are setting themselves goals for environmentally friendly office working, despite there being no actual professional standards set for this new idea.

At the start of the year, Dell China announced it was to assist the Beijing Energy Saving and Environmental Protection Center in minimising the energy and space usage of its data center by upgrading equipment, using high-density design and virtualisation technology. Shell’s handbook entitled “The Challenges of Energy Saving in the Workplace” calls for the use of teleconferencing, public transport and car sharing to reduce work-related greenhouse-gas emissions.

In November 2008, the Beijing office of the global youth network Roots and Shoots held a green office evaluation event, with the consultancy group Environmental Resources Management (ERM) arranging for Chinese students to visit offices, survey employees and interview managers. They evaluated lighting, heating and cooling, office equipment, greenery and employee behaviour in a number of companies and other organisations. The students then produced reports and suggestions, and will conduct follow-up visits in a year. (Roots and Shoots in Shanghai has evaluated 120 offices; so far, the Beijing office has covered 17.)

On March 19, the project examined Cisco Systems’ Beijing office. Project coordinator Guo Tingting was impressed by the company’s use of distance working. According to a report from the Beijing statistics bureau, the capital’s inhabitants spend an average of 70 minutes every day travelling to work. Distance working saves time for employees, reduces traffic emissions and cuts a company’s office expenses.

Asked if any companies were outsourcing maintenance of office equipment to specialised firms, or simply leasing rather than purchasing their office equipment, Guo said only two or three were outsourcing. Many were not aware that it was an option, believing that companies had to own their own equipment.

Actually, many companies do now rent equipment and management services from external providers. This increases utilisation of the equipment and reduces the number of products needed.

I also have noted that some of the 17 organisations surveyed in Beijing are in the environmental industry, and so already are concerned with “green working”. And, interestingly, it was agreed that the results of the evaluations would not be published.

Office working practices will change out of a sense of social responsibility or a desire to cut costs. But without public demands, this will be done quietly. Relying on voluntary changes will not be adequate – the government should set green working standards, covering energy use, indoor waste gas, noise, radiation and the handling of electronic waste. Policy can be used to change office culture and promote a new office revolution, with the market ultimately providing the necessary services.

Roots and Shoots is set to launch its project worldwide when the time is right. Innovation by environmental NGOs already is sending a positive signal. Rather than making “secret”, or quiet, changes, the government should make green working a matter of policy -- and promote a second office revolution.

What do you think about low-carbon offices? What can be done about the energy consumption costs of electronic equipment? How should electronic waste, pollution and potential health issues be addressed? Can an office really be paperless? Would you work at home if you could? What green working standards would you like to see?

Share your thoughts and experiences on the forum.

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

Homepage photo by
♥ Jaye

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






Computers replacing paper - a pro-environment move?

"This year Chinese National People’s Political Consultative Conference (NPPCC) handed out 2,500 laptop computers to delegates, saving huge quantities of paper. Many people regarded this as a pro-environment move."

I think this so-called "pro-environment move" is likely to stoke a great deal of controversy. The energy wasted through excessive power consumption by office equipment is very probably much worse than just wasting paper (the author also points out the importance of dealing effectively with electronic waste). What's more, there is no evidence whatsoever that the NPPCC delegates who have been handed laptops have the skills necessary to use them. Are they going to make effective use of them, or are they just going to end up printing the relevant documents out anyway? We have no way of knowing.

I also doubt the premise that "work done at home is low-carbon work." I'd be grateful if someone out there could give me a more detailed explanation of this? I think the precise definition of "low carbon work" needs a bit more research - is the "paperless office" necessarily a low-carbon workplace? What criteria are we using?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Low-carbon living is a combination of technology and free-will

Technology is changing our lives. Companies like Google, Dell, and Cisco are trying to use scientific products to change the way energy is used. It is also important, however, to take into account personal will. If we only practise "green work" but not "green life", low-carbon living will still not be realized. Therefore, I think on the one hand, we need the technological advancement; on the other, we also need to change our life style. yfy

(translated by xiulu)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Companies which take the initiative to reform their style at work should be encouraged and supported by the society. Thus other companies will be motivated as well. To cut the cost at work, many companies only have pretty tiny work spaces, and it is really painful to work surrounded by machines.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Reply to comment 1

It seems that we cannot see the relationship between low-carbon working and paperless working. Working at home saves you both time spent on transport and therefore resources, which is obviously beneficial.

Translated by Renate

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Try SOHO Technology 3.0

Low-carbon living must cover both aspects of "Office-in-Every-Home" and "Home-in-Every-Office" as described and proposed in the document available at www.sohominium.blogspot.com. with expertise / experience relevant to the Chinese context / environments.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Comment about the number 4

I don’t think that we can simply compare the work in office and at home, and neither is it definitely better for saving energy. For example, by working from home, you can conserve the energy used for transportation, but if everyone used their house as an office, they would all have to use their air conditioning, even if they only set their air conditioning unit to 26 degrees (of course there will be also be other sources of consumption). So, this kind of energy consumption over multiple locations will also add up. Thus, making a simple comparison doesn't have any meaning. YFy This comment is translated by Tingting Xia

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






the number 6 is reasonable

Although we often talk about environmental protection as starting from small actions, but when you are talking about a concept such as the low carbon office, small things don’t make such a lot of difference. A general standardisation is important. I believe that most people would like to work at home, but because it is not easy to implement this on a large scale as it would impact on the work content, quality and efficiency. Neither a company nor an individual can bear making a sacrifice in work efficiency and quality for the sake of saving transportation consumption costs, and in the long term, it will not be conducive to the development of the environment or resources. I firmly believe that environmental issues cannot be a singled out and be discussed separately. Outside the context of human living and the social development, the meaning of talking about environmental protection disappears. --Vegeball Translated by Tingting Xia

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Besieged cities: Low-carbon countryside, high-carbon cities

Every farmer longs for a high-carbon lifestyle, whereas city individuals hope for a low-carbon lifestyle. It makes me think of the character in the film Dream Factory who yearned for a farmer's lifestyle. On top of eating his uncle's family chicken, he quickly forgot his original far-reaching ambition.

Translated by Nathalie Thorne

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Comprehensive comparison

Concerning whether one should work at home or in the office, the point comment 6 makes is true: it is not possible to use a single standard to make a comparison. To find which work method actually is the most low-carbon and environmentally friendly needs a comprehensive standard for comparison. A possible outcome is that the most environmentally friendly low carbon work place is different for different professions.

Translated by Nathalie Thorne

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Reply to No. 7

"I think a majority of people would be very happy working from home. But for reasons of work content, quality and efficiency, it's not something that is widely practiced."

This is absolutely spot on. One can't assume that savings on time and energy alone automatically means that working from home is universally applicable across every profession. Working from home has certain limits to its application. It would be easy for an interested social institution to produce a comprehensive comparison between working from home and working in the office based on the requirements each profession. This would provide people with a standard against which to make their choice.

However, I disagree over the issue of whether environment issues can be debated in isolation. Sheeding other factors and discussing a concept in simple terms has its uses - it provides a much more convenient background for debate. You can always clarify the concept later according to its specific context - this is a fairly standard way of researching problems.