Emerging from the pandemic with a climate plan

Passenger transport contributes more than 15% of net US national emissions

Working from home could be a starting point for tackling the climate crisis

Kumar Venkat and Susan Cholette

As most of us stay hunkered down at home, we can already see a clearing of the air. There are reports of dramatically lower air pollution and smog around the world. Los Angeles saw a 29% drop in air pollution in March, and the nitrogen dioxide in the air from Boston to Washington is at the lowest level since 2005. The International Energy Agency is projecting an 8% drop in global carbon dioxide emissions this year.

This situation is unlikely to last unless we act. The 2008 financial crisis showed that the rebound in emissions as the economy recovers can far exceed the original decline. Moreover, economic recovery funds could end up reinforcing the old economy rather than promoting green technologies. Against these headwinds, the key to emerging from this pandemic with a climate plan may well be the changes in behavior and awareness that are taking root.

Perhaps the biggest change we have seen during this pandemic is how business is conducted. Anyone dealing with data or information, writing code or designing products, processing loans or advising clients, is now working remotely from home. We have had the technology to support telework for about 20 years now, but even tech companies have been slow to adopt a culture of remote work. Yahoo’s CEO famously sent out a no-work-from-home memo to employees in 2013, and other large corporations reduced or eliminated telecommuting in the past decade.

All this changed in March as many companies switched to remote work, led by tech companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook. Some companies have already told their employees that they can work from home till end of the year. While we have known that employees are more efficient and happier when they have this flexibility, there is another important benefit: remote work can be a key piece of the climate puzzle that we need to solve this decade in order to bend the emissions curve and get on a clear downward trajectory.

Greenhouse gas emissions from passenger cars and air travel add up to more than 15% of net US national emissions. We could put a significant dent in passenger transport emissions if many white collar employees continue to work from home all or part of the time and if businesses replace a large part of air travel with video conferences. For example, if we can reduce the passenger miles driven by 25% and miles flown by 50%, we can cut national emissions by nearly 5%. In an era of steadily increasing emissions, any such reduction would be a big initial step toward taking charge of the climate.

A post-pandemic national project to cut transport emissions voluntarily can be a win-win proposition. Employees would enjoy the flexibility to work from home at least part of the time, while saving money spent on gasoline. Employers would benefit from productivity increases as well as cost savings from eliminating business travel and downsizing office spaces. Communities would see reduced rush-hour traffic and pollution while spending less on road maintenance.

In addition, employers would be able to take credit for all of the avoided emissions from employee commuting and travel. These are part the so-called scope 3 emissions which most companies have found difficult to reduce, so these savings could come in handy as businesses move to more rigorous and widespread carbon accounting this decade.

Individuals, fresh from sheltering at home and appreciating the value of mobility, can take this even further by being thoughtful about where and how they travel. Perhaps a future vacation to Europe could be replaced with a road trip closer to home, resulting in savings of a few tons of carbon emissions per family. We may still need to use air travel occasionally for visiting family members living in another part of the country or when our children travel to and from college in another state, but carefully considering the need to get on an airplane can make a big difference to the emissions that we cause as individuals.

We could have done all this and more without waiting for a life-changing pandemic. But as we come out of this pandemic with an altered business landscape and more awareness of our personal consumption patterns, we have a rare opportunity to make sure that the planet’s climate doesn’t become an even bigger crisis than the one we are battling now. Transport emissions are just the low-hanging fruit that we should go after as a first step.

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Kumar Venkat is president of CleanMetrics 2.0, a climate analytics firm. Susan Cholette is a professor of decision sciences at San Francisco State University.

Making Our Personal Supply Chains Resilient

Susan Cholette and Kumar Venkat

The pandemic has upended supply chains. No doubt many of you, like us, have had to adjust your purchasing habits. Since we study how companies are now re-tooling their business models, we have considered how some practices could translate into consumer behaviors that might serve us better even in normal times.

Supply and demand shocks are showing the importance of supply-chain resiliency. Companies that depend on global sourcing have been unable to get products or parts as Chinese factories have slowed or shut down production. Anyone visiting Amazon recently may have faced similar supply shocks with estimated delivery dates running into June. On the demand side, producers that specialize in fancy farm-to-table foods for high-end restaurants or high-volume production for cafeterias have struggled as their food service clients have stopped ordering.

Diversified supply chains are typically more resilient to shocks than those that rely on producers in a single geographical region or consumers in niche sectors. Many firms are considering using more suppliers, especially those closer to home. As consumers, we can mimic this by diversifying our own purchases. As much of the food we purchase in supermarkets is produced in other parts of the country or overseas, we should add more local sources. One possibility is to subscribe to a CSA, which will deliver fresh produce from local farmers to your home on a weekly basis. Other options include for-profit social enterprises like Imperfect Foods, which sells misshapen or excess produce and helps reduce food waste in the supply chain.

Consumers can take the practice of local sourcing even further up the supply chain by figuring out what nearby food producers may have available to sell. America imports about two-thirds of its seafood, but if you live near a body of water, you might be able to buy some locally caught fish. For instance, San Franciscans can now visit Fisherman’s Wharf to pick up deliveries from Water2Table, which normally wholesales just to restaurants but because of the large number of restaurant closures now sells directly to consumers.

Buying locally has other advantages. When this pandemic recedes, we will want the producers, restaurants, and stores in our communities to remain in business. If your budget allows, consider treating yourself to takeout from the restaurants that are still open.

Consumers should rethink how to manage their personal stock of food and other supplies. Many businesses have traditionally used just-in-time deliveries from manufacturers and wholesalers to keep their inventory costs low, and consumers have similarly relied on short delivery times or on supermarkets being fully stocked and open round-the-clock for spontaneous shopping. This, of course, does not work during a pandemic as demand spikes and consumers tend to purchase more in fewer shopping trips. But stockpiling months of supplies in our homes is not the solution, from either a moral or a practical standpoint, because it creates shortages for other shoppers and exceeds limited refrigerator and freezer space for perishables.

Many stores are now limiting purchases of scarce items such as toilet paper. As consumers, we can help ourselves and other shoppers by becoming smarter inventory managers and smoothing out these demand spikes. We suggest stocking about 2–3 weeks’ worth of supplies and then using a weekly shopping trip to replace what was used in the previous week. Part of an effective inventory management strategy is meal planning and minimizing the food that goes to waste.

Our final suggestion may sound simplistic, but simplifyingis a powerful tool. Consumers can adopt a business practice championed in high-tech manufacturing known as planned postponement, which purposely delays end differentiation of products until market needs are better known. A practical example of this is buying basics such as dried pasta, canned sauces, and other shelf-stable foods that can be used to make a variety of different meals depending on what you are craving on any given day, rather than buying perishable premade meals. Manufacturers often make use of component commonality across products, and savvy cooks can apply the same idea by substituting readily available ingredients when a recipe calls for exotic or out-of-stock ingredients.

Eventually this crisis will abate and many of the conveniences of pre-pandemic life will once again become available, including being able to order just about any product online for speedy home delivery. But hopefully by then we will also have learned the value, both to our pocketbooks and to our communities, of keeping our personal supply chains resilient by sourcing more locally, managing our inventories, and simplifying what we can.

Susan Cholette is a professor of decision sciences at San Francisco State University. Kumar Venkat is president of CleanMetrics 2.0.