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6 Lessons from Measuring Our Carbon Footprint

October 26, 2021 blog-post climate-action carbon-footprint emissions environment business development

When Thinking Machines recently committed to taking climate action, one of the first steps we considered was to measure and reduce our carbon emissions. After all, companies around the world — including tech giants like Google, consulting firms like McKinsey, and even local industry leaders like Ayala and Globe — are promising to bring their emissions down to “net-zero” 1 by the year 2050 or earlier.

Of course, we’re much smaller than most companies making these pledges. Though we’re a growing and healthy business, we are a technology company with fewer than 200 employees. We make no physical products and have an entirely remote workforce. Would measuring and reducing our carbon footprint really make a difference? We decided to find out.

Here’s what we learned along the way:

Lesson 1: Prioritize progress and actionability over precision.

If you’re a large company required by the government or investors to measure your emissions, then you probably need to invest in the time, tools, and talent needed to do a proper carbon accounting. The most widely used carbon accounting standard is the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, while the Science-Based Targets Initiative helps companies align their emission reduction targets with climate science.

But, if you’re a small company like us that is doing this voluntarily, these approaches might feel like overkill. We’ll be real — we’re not ready to spend a lot on our carbon measurement efforts. One resource we did find helpful was Magelan.tech, a French consultancy that helps tech startups develop climate strategies. Magelan’s founder Thomas Rialan encouraged us to just get a rough estimate of our emissions, and focus on educating our colleagues about the climate crisis.

Ultimately, we prioritized speed over precision since our goal was to learn and produce actionable information. It took three people from our Operations and Project Delivery teams around 30 hours to gather, clean, process, and visualize the data on our electricity use, cloud usage, and transportation since 2020.

Lesson 2: Our work-from-home electricity use is our biggest source of emissions — and the hardest to reduce.

Our team has been working remotely 2 since March 2020, so as expected, electricity use is our top driver of emissions 3. Of course, we can’t ask our employees to work without their lights on or work fewer hours. The problem isn’t that we’re using electricity — it’s how that electricity is generated. In the Philippines, 60% of electricity is generated from coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. If our utilities sourced more electricity from renewables, that would literally solve most of the problem.

We could reduce our work from home emissions if more of our team had rooftop solar panels, but this poses several challenges. Although rooftop solar panels can reduce your monthly electricity expenses and emissions, they do require an up-front cost that takes four to seven years to recoup. We are exploring the feasibility of providing solar panel financing support to employees, but this would depend on several factors including cash flows and tax mechanisms. Something to study in 2022!

Lesson 3: Your office building can source its electricity from renewable sources through the Green Energy Option Program (GEOP) — and it’s cheaper, too.

Although our office electricity consumption fell by almost 80% compared to before the pandemic, it’s still currently our second-biggest source of emissions. Luckily, our office building in Taguig will start running on clean power this December, through the government’s Green Energy Option Program (GEOP) 4, which enables businesses to effectively bypass their distribution utility (in our case, Meralco) and directly source power from renewables through a retail electricity supplier. This is not only more environmentally friendly but also more cost-effective since the program offers cheaper electricity rates than Meralco. If your business is interested in GEOP, call these retail electricity suppliers for a quotation.

Lesson 4: Business travel used to be a huge contributor to our emissions — but the pandemic showed us that our business can grow even without it.

Before the pandemic, business travel contributed around 28% of our emissions. In February 2020, sending just two employees on round-trip flights from Manila to Singapore produced the same emissions as fifteen employees working from home for an entire month! Since then, however, video conferencing has proven that we can serve our clients without meeting them in person. As the pandemic wanes, we might resume some business travel, but we’ll definitely be more conscious about the outsized impact that each flight has on our carbon emissions.

Lesson 5: Putting your data in the cloud keeps emissions out of the sky.

Our third-largest source of emissions is our cloud compute usage, which we monitor using Thoughtworks’ open-source cloud carbon measurement tool. It even shows a map of which data centers--whether Google Cloud Platform, Amazon Web Services, or Azure-- are “greener” than others.

Carbon Intensity Map for GCP servers from Thoughtworks’ Cloud Carbon Footprint tool

Moving your data and servers to the cloud is already “greener” than storing data on-premise, and we are big advocates of that. Whenever possible, we use Google cloud servers running on renewables for all our projects. While some of their data centers still run on fossil fuels, Google has pledged to run carbon-free at all times by 2030.

Lesson 6: Reducing your carbon footprint should be just one step in a long-term sustainability journey.

Measuring our carbon footprint helped validate the fact that our emissions are relatively low. But even if our emission reduction potential is limited, there are other great reasons for doing a carbon assessment. It’s a way of aligning your company’s actions with its values and showing employees and external stakeholders that your sustainability commitment is more than lip service. It’s also a great project to energize cross-team collaboration and conversations around sustainability.

Finally, and perhaps ironically, the exercise confirmed our hunch that emission reduction is a narrow way of thinking about our role in the climate fight. Our power to make positive change shouldn’t be limited by the kilograms of carbon we can stop producing. We have our skills, resources, and influence to bring to the table! Above all, we think our biggest impact will come from leveraging our data expertise to empower organizations to make climate-smart decisions. If your organization is looking for just that, email us at [email protected]!

What you can do

Is your company looking to go beyond emission reduction to make a climate impact? We highly recommend the Climate Solutions at Work framework provided by Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource on climate solutions. The guide offers ambitious ways that employees can drive action from within their company — such as through innovating new products and business models, lobbying for climate policy, making climate-smart investments, and more.

FOOTNOTES
1 ‘What is the difference between carbon-neutral, net-zero and climate positive?’, Plan A Academy [web blog], 08 June 2021, https://plana.earth/academy/what-is-difference-between-carbon-neutral-net-zero-climate-positive/
2 Greenhouse Gas Protocol, ‘Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Accounting and Reporting Standard’, Greenhouse Gas Protocol, 2011, p. 46, https://ghgprotocol.org/sites/default/files/standards/Corporate-Value-Chain-Accounting-Reporing-Standard_041613_2.pdf
3 We measured this by surveying our employees about the wattage of their home office equipment and multiplying this by their working hours and the estimated amount of CO2 emitted per kilowatt hour of electricity generated in the Philippine grid, also known as the emissions factor. It’s also possible that working from home still produces fewer emissions than going to the office, since employees no longer have to commute daily. We currently don’t have data to back this up, since we have not yet surveyed our team about their pre-pandemic commute habits, but it could be something we look into in the future.
4 R. W. Domingo, ‘ERC issues rules on green energy option scheme’, Inquirer.net, 19 August 2021, https://business.inquirer.net/329199/erc-issues-rules-on-green-energy-option-scheme

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