The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on how many of us work. Could this provide lessons for a more sustainable future?
The social distancing guidelines enforced in a bid to slow down the spread of the coronavirus have presented many people around the world with major challenges. Most of us have been forced to change our everyday lives in order to juggle work and home life, as well maintain social contacts. At the same time, the collective change in behaviour has had a massive impact on digitalisation and an effect on our environment.
Across the globe, the restrictions put in place to combat Covid-19 has led to a surge in the use of online services, especially in regards to teleconferencing, cloud storage infrastructure and online shopping.
The Remote Working Revolution
A recent study by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, revealed that around 26 percent of employees are now working from home across Europe - up from around 5-15 percent before the pandemic. This figure generally represents the entirety of the sector of workers which can feasibly work from home, such as office workers and some creative industries. For the majority of people, however, remote working is still not feasible, either due to the essential nature of their work or the impracticality of it. These statistics are also not equal across the whole of the EU. For example, Luxembourg has around twice as many workers who can feasibly work from home than Romania does.
This increase, around fivefold in some regions, has naturally led to a surge in demand for internet services and bandwidth. Globally, Microsoft reported a 775 percent increase in cloud storage services in regions with enforced lockdowns, while teleconferencing programs in particular have come under high demand. The use of teleconferencing generally has jumped around 85 percent, while one company - Zoom - has seen use of their product increase 418 percent.
This naturally has led to increased strain being placed upon the internet infrastructure of certain areas. On March 10th in Frankfurt - a major hub of European servers - the highest data throughput ever measured worldwide was recorded at 9.16 Tbit/s. This is equivalent to 2 million HD videos or 2 billion A4 pages of text being transmitted per second. According to the operator DE-CIX, video conferencing (+120 percent) and an increased use of streaming services and cloud gaming (+30 percent) were mainly responsible for this increase.
Once again, the impact of this increase will not be felt equally across the globe, or within Europe. Although some states enjoy fast internet speeds compared to the global average, others rank very low on the scale. For example, France has around a 144.61 Mbps connection on average, while in Italy this number is only 64 Mbps and in Greece 30 Mbps. Old communications infrastructure is often the main reason for this.
This strain led to online video streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon temporarily reducing their video quality in Europe to provide more bandwidth for other services. But of course, this massive increase in data flows also goes hand in hand with a massive increase in energy usage. And this increase will likely cause our digital carbon footprint to grow - resulting in a negative climate impact and increased emissions.
A Sustainable Change?
Working from home does, potentially, however have some direct environmental benefits too, at least in the short term. There has been a significant reduction in passenger traffic - and a massive reduction in air travel as well. Even if in the past the number of flights taken returned to the original growth trend following the financial crisis or the SARS outbreaks, one German study believes that a different scenario is possible this time, since digital possibilities are now much better developed. A study by the Wuppertal Institute suggests that:
"In combination with the significantly higher effects of Covid-19, it is possible that more permanent changes in behaviour will occur. This is what the surveys on expectations for business trips and the increased use of video conferencing suggest".
According to one survey, about a third of those interviewed expected meetings to be replaced by video conferencing in the coming years and that there will be less business travel. The authors of the study therefore assume that total passenger traffic can be reduced by up to 8 percent in the long term if home office and virtual working forms are promoted. Making home office expenses, corporate investments in appropriate infrastructure and training programmes on digital tools more easily tax-deductible could be a good incentive for this. Some offices have already adopted permanent working from home policies.
Another result of the study is the unsurprising growth in online shopping. Surveys have shown a general increase in parcel deliveries and a greater interest in regional products. However, access is still often lacking here. The authors of the same German study therefore see potential in the promotion of regional digital platforms: "Since the beginning of the containment measures, there have been many initiatives by local retailers and producer networks with the aim of opening up new distribution channels via local online platforms. There is a potential here to stabilize investments in regional value chains and to use the momentum for structural change". The promotion of regional products could also have a positive effect from an environmental and climate policy perspective, as well as promoting the resilience and competitiveness of local structures.
The Challenges of Digitalisation
There are multiple approaches we can take to make digitalisation sustainable: we need data centres and communication networks to be powered by renewables, for waste heat to be reused, for data centres to be cooled with less energy and for more efficient hardware and software to be developed.
Some individual providers are already focusing on renewable energies, many tech giants have already implemented a switch to 100 percent renewable energies or are planning to do so in the near future, while cloud services are also available from servers powered by green energy. But we need clear and decisive regulations to be put in place if we are to ensure that the carbon footprint of the digital world does not continue to increase.
The boom in the use of digital services also presents other challenges too - with the possibility that it could worsen the "digital divide" between states and citizens with higher or lower levels of technological access and literacy
Although this is partly generational, with elderly people being less likely to be online, it is also related to income. In the UK, only 51 percent of families earning between 6000 - 10,000 GBP a year have home internet access, compared to 99 percent for those who earn over 40,000 GBP. Those likely to benefit from increased digitalisation and teleworking technologies are usually already relatively young, affluent and educated. If more and more services become digital, there is the danger of some sectors and groups being left behind.
Increased remote working will also likely mean a renegotiation of the contract between employer and employee - especially if it becomes permanent. Turning your home into an office places additional demands on the household - including increased energy and heating costs - as well as disrupting the home-life balance of both individuals and families. The unilateral nature of remote working may also mean abuses of power or employment law within companies may be harder to expose. Increased support from employers and governments may be needed to make the transition smoother.
Additionally, moving more and more of our lives - both personal and professional - online, also presents additional risks in terms of cybersecurity, especially in regards to fraud and cybercrime. DigitalEurope, the leading trade association for digital technologies in Europe, has called for a redrawing of the EU budget to allow for more funds for digitial education and cybersecurity infrastructure.
In terms of the environmental issues, however, there is movement on the matter. In Germany, the country's environmentally-friendly digital agenda is currently being implemented and a virtual meeting of EU environment ministers on this topic is planned for July under the German Council Presidency. This is intended to raise the issue of "digitalisation and sustainability" to the European level.
This article was co-authored by Indra Jungblut.