‘Home Telepresence’ solution launched by Cisco

…and described here. This ought to be an unmitigated good thing, but it would be nice to have some better evidence about the impact of telepresence on travel. Given data just released about record passenger numbers at Heathrow, Telepresence is not reducing emissions from air travel – though I suppose we could argue that it might have increased even more if it were not for telepresence…

Even more about teleworking

An interesting discussion on the BBC Radio 4 program ‘Costing the Earth’, which I listened to as a podcast – get it here. Distinguished by the fact that it wasn’t just boosterism for the telecoms and IT companies, and considered whether the carbon emitted by stay-at-home workers heating their badly insulated Victorian tents outweighed that saved by not commuting.

More worrying research about videoconferencing

As someone who really really doesn’t enjoy business travel, I’d like to believe that videoconferencing is just as effective. This paper from researchers at MIT suggests otherwise – that physical presence actually helps build trust and understanding between participants in a way that virtual presence doesn’t. If the paper looks too daunting, here’s a CNN article that reports on it.

The paper is all the more interesting because it’s written by Mark Mortensen, who has done lots of proper grown-up research on distributed teams and the role of technology in helping to manage task conflict.

Videoconferencing in the UK Government

Tandberg is generally a bit of a booster for videoconferencing as a cost reduction and carbon reduction tool – not surprisingly, since they are one of the companies that make the units that are used for it.

This paper published on the company’s web site ought to give serious pause for thought. Its main finding is that the UK government doesn’t know how much it is spending on flights – it is not being recorded properly or consistently across departments. Without a baseline it’s hard to tell what impact videoconferencing is having – are all those videoconference sessions really replacing flights, or are they just adding to them?

I have another issue, which Tandberg doesn’t raise; does every ticket not bought really amount to a flight not flown, and therefore carbon not emitted? The various systems for calculating your own, or your company’s, emissions all presume so – if I take less flights my carbon footprint goes down. But is less carbon really emitted? How does the airline industry respond to fluctuations in demand? In some countries they do cancel flights, but in others they drop prices to make sure the flights are full. In which case the company has reduced its footprint, but the same amount of carbon is emitted even so.

Stagger the school day start!

There’s lots of research that suggests it’s bad for older kids — especially teenagers — to start the school day as early as we do. Older kids’ brains want to get up later and stay up later. So we are dragging them out of bed and packing them off to school to sit in front of teachers before their brains (the kids’, that is, not the teachers – though come to think of it…) have not really woken up.

And all the school-related traffic is adding to road congestion and peak demand on the public transport infrastructure. There is some slightly tired research from the Institute of Advanced Motorists (an oxymoron, surely?) that suggests the school run does not contribute as much to traffic congestion as is popularly believed. On the other hand, there is an insurance industry report cited by Living Streets which claims that the school run has replaced the work-related rush hour as a major cause of congestion (though to be fair, it’s proved impossible to find the report itself, only the Living Streets comment on it).

Can’t we at least experiment with varying the school start time? What about a pilot somewhere to see what impact it has on traffic congestion? The government has thought about this before, but nothing seems to happen. Can someone please investigate what the barriers are and then sort it out.

Teleshopping vs Local Shopping

No sooner had I said that there’s no research comparing the carbon impact of this than I find some – check out this piece.

Here’s the gist anyway:

Shopping locally may not be as good for the environment as having food delivered, according to new research by the University of Exeter (UK). Published in the journal Food Policy, the study shows that, on average, lower carbon emissions result from delivering a vegetable box than making a trip to a local farm shop.

The researchers compared trips to a local farm shop with deliveries made by companies that distribute organic vegetable boxes to their customers. They study also took into account the carbon emissions produced by cold storage, packing and the transportation of goods to a regional ‘hub’. By bringing this data together, the researchers were able to calculate the total carbon emission.

The study found that if the average car journey made to a farm shop is a round-trip of more than 6.7km, then home delivery was a better option even if the competing farm shop used no lighting, heating or chilling. While a delivery van will travel up to 360km to deliver an organic vegetable box, this trip will cover a large number of addresses so the carbon emissions per customer will be surprisingly low.

David Coley from the Centre for Energy and the Environment at the University of Exeter, lead author on the study, said: “People are becoming familiar with the phrase ‘food miles’, but don’t have a very clear understanding of what it means. We need to look more thoroughly at the many factors that lie behind putting food on our tables, before we can say what is better or worse for the environment.”

The study acknowledges that there are many other factors in addition to ‘food miles’ that concern consumers. For example, issues around local economics and the environmental impact of different food production methods.

David Coley of the University of Exeter adds: “Rather than focus on food miles, it would be more meaningful to look at the carbon emissions behind each food item. While the concept of food miles was useful in getting people to think about the issues around carbon emissions and food transport, it’s time for a more sophisticated approach.”

Although the last decade has seen a massive increase in home delivery, mainly as a result of internet shopping, travel for food and household items still represents 5% of car use.

This study was entitled Local food, food miles and carbon emissions: A comparison of farm shop and mass distribution approaches.

Reducing demand for travel

ICT as a substitute for travel is the industry’s first response to the question of sustainability. This idea has been pushed for several years, particularly as a substitute for traveling to work – often called ‘telecommuting’. Indeed, it’s been advocated since before anyone talked about sustainability or climate change – as a solution to traffic congestion, oil supply, and as a tool of regional policy. There is a great number of specialist companies and consultancies, and other initiatives and alliances like Workwise, which exist to provide support for companies that want to introduce teleworking.

It has spawned a vast literature, some of which actually includes some empirical research, like this chapter in the Department for Transport’s “smarter travel” report.

There is much discussion of videoconferencing as a substitute for air travel, and some companies are at least tracking the impact on their own demand for air travel. It’s worth noting that Cisco, which is a great proponent of this approach, has informally confirmed that videoconferencing uses more energy and produces more emissions than a single person travelling across London from one side to the other.

I’m not aware of much serious analysis of the actual impact on emissions of not travelling to work, though there are lots of guides as to how to do it. Among the factors which would need to be taken into account are:

  • the mode of transport for which ICT is substituting
  • the distances being travelled, the responsiveness of the supply of that mode of transport to changes in demand
  • what happens to the ’empty’ space at work that used to be occupied by the commuting worker
  • how the telecommuter’s home is heated or cooled.

If I used to take the bus in to an office, and the bus still runs, and my desk at work still sits there in its air-conditioned space, and I then heat my badly insulated Victorian terrace with an inefficient boiler, I might not have saved any CO2.

It’s worth looking at this report by the Future Foundation, and this one by the Forum for the Future. I was particularly impressed by some research carried out for Orange, which emphasised the extent to which “flexible working” in the UK was dominated by informal arrangements between staff and their line managers rather than by formal arrangements; this rather suggests that organisations are not using the introduction of flexibility to think again about how they could decarbonise their working arrangements and facilities.

Other aspects of ICT as a substitute for travel don’t seem to have been nearly as well researched, even though Eurostat analysis appears to show that travel to work is only about 20% of travel time in Northern European countries – with travel for leisure accounting for something like twice as much. ICT can make it easier for us to shop without travelling, but I’m not aware of any evidence that this is having any significant impact.

There are a few other curiositites. DFT has paid for some consultancy which led to a report on Synthetic Environments in Transport about the use of things like Second Life to model transport experiences – but nothing about using these as a substitute for travel. And there’s a slightly unusual report about ‘virtual pilgrimages‘ here.