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Climate News - August 2020

Climate Lessons from COVID-19

Caroly Shumway, Ph.D.


"Great crises tend to bring profound social change, for good or ill."


Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker


Pandemics cause enormous transformation in societies: many are bad, such as the tragic loss of life, economic hardships, and personal suffering that we are having during our current pandemic; but others are good. A recent Politico story noted that the plague in Florence, Italy helped usher in the Renaissance and reduced income inequality.


Two good changes for our current times as a result of COVID-19 are the upsurge in virtual conferences and telecommuting.


Consider that for the first time the annual convention of The Association for Behavior Analysts International (ABAI) went virtual. By averaging the estimated travel distances for ABAI's prior two international conventions, using the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) carbon offset calculator, and converting the results to Tons CO2/year/person, I calculate that ABAI saved 1,082 Tons of CO2 emissions as a result of going virtual. This one conference alone saved the equivalent of taking 175cars off the road for an entire year, or of cutting 64 people's CO2 use to zero for an entire year.


Telecommuting is one of the easiest actions we can take to reduce our carbon emissions for those of us who live in an area without convenient public transportation. In addition, telecommuting improves our quality of life, reduces stress (and its concomitant health benefits), and creates cleaner air (which provides health and environmental benefits).


While certain jobs and businesses require in-person work, and full-time telecommuting can cause problems, more workplaces have discovered during the pandemic that remote work is possible. In the U.S., transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions, comprising nearly 30% of our CO2 emissions.


What is the climate benefit from telecommuting at a local level? Six of our staff at Behavior Development Solutions and the Center for Behavior and Climate have been working remotely since March. (Other staff had already been working remotely). Convenient public transportation does not exist in our area.  We calculated that if all six staff continued telecommuting for the year, we would save19.3 metric Tons of CO2 emissions/year. That's like taking over three medium-sized cars out of circulation for a year, or cutting one person's annual CO2 use down to zero for a year. And that's what we'll be doing!


Many workers support an increase in the number of days working remotely. If you telecommute just one day/week (saving 40 miles round-trip, and with a car with 25mpg), you save 1 Ton of C02/year. This is the amount that we each should cut per year to do our part in reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement. The Climate Network's Cool Climate Calculator helps you easily figure out how much you'll save for your own distance and your own car. 


How much of an impact would an increase in telecommuting have for the United States? A precise calculation is complicated.  One has to know whether people normally use a car or public transit (public transport being lower in carbon emissions), what type of electricity a city uses, and whether using more electricity at home would cause an increase in coal use (if the city or region relies on coal). The effect may be more pronounced in some cities than others. Los Angeles, for example, would greatly benefit, as 70% of people drive to work. Overall,  Gillingham et al.(2020) showed a 30% decline in motor gasoline consumption in the U.S. over 4 months,from March to the end of June.


Caveats aside, we can roughly calculate the impact for the U.S. as follows. From 2017 to 2018, only 7-12% of U.S. workers worked from home just one day/month. The U.S. had 164.6 million workers in February, 2020, pre-pandemic. If another 12% of workers worked from home just one day/ week, we would cut 19.75 million tons of CO2/year, or nearly 6% of the reduction we need/year to meet our Paris agreement from this simple change alone. The lead author of a global study of the decline in CO2 emissions through the end of April noted that "our study reveals how responsive surface transportation sectors can be to policy changes and economic shifts." Virtual conferences and telecommuting are an easy way for us to do our part.


P.S. We're so excited....We are gearing up to release our first online course on Behavior Change for Climate Action 101 for environmental practitioners in the next month or so.  Would you like to help beta test the course?  If you have environmental work experience, please email me as soon as possible at


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