Telecommuting can be great. It can also be loaded with many lies, one of which I’m going to partially debunk here: environmental benefits.
Here’s typical imagery of a telecommuter, the kind that can be found from a plethora of presentations and articles about telecommuting (this particular image coming from here):
There are so many things wrong with that picture that it’s hard to know where to start. For example, why does the guy wear pants & a tie? He’s at the beach with nobody else in sight; I can imagine one or two more comfortable outfits. Why doesn’t he have sunglasses on a sunny day? Why is he pretending to work on the laptop, because you wouldn’t be able to do that in bright sunlight anyway? But for the sake of the argument, let’s assume he can get actual work done as a mobile telecommuter at the beach.
What isn’t apparent from the picture is that he’s also likely polluting the environment. A lot. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
This matters, because environmental benefits have been touted as one important benefit of telecommuting at least since 1994 ; yet it turns out that the carbon footprint of mobile data is 34g of CO2 per transmitted megabyte . But just how much is that?
Let me use myself as an example. We have a beach a short bike ride away, so let’s say I decide to work from there instead of taking the 15km train ride to the city. The carbon emissions from electric rail are around 30-100g of CO2 per passenger kilometer [4, 5]; using an estimate of 75g/km the emissions from my normal commute would therefore be about 2,250g, or a little over 2kg of CO2.
I’ve logged my normal network usage during a typical workday, and it’s around 750-1,500 MB/day; say I use a gigabyte per day. To get a conservative estimate, let’s also say the wireless network emissions are “only” 30g/MB instead of the 34g from the above-mentioned paper. Here’s what it looks like, with a commute by car (a regular car with CO2 emissions of 200g/km) thrown in for good measure:
Yes there are a bunch of disclaimers here; 1) there will be emissions from data used at work, too, but the mobile network estimate is only of the mobile leg – not the fixed part, which essentially remains the same so I’ve excluded that, 2) this does not include building maintenance/HVAC/possibly increased electricity usage emissions at the office, 3) telecommuting from a fixed-Internet connection produces a vastly better result and 4) many other things – but I still think it serves as a useful way to highlight the fact that your mobile data is not actually very clean.
So next time you skip the trip to the office and instead work from a beach, a park or a cafe and let your 3G/4G connection scream away freely, keep in mind that you’re not saving the environment. You’re destroying it.
There has recently been considerable chatter about the cleanliness of our ever-growing ICT infrastructure, whether it is NY Times  or Greenpeace  criticizing our cloud infrastructure (and rightly so) or the service providers highlighting every effort (again, rightly so) they make to improve things, from Apple’s solar electricity generation to HP’s net zero energy data centers . The fact, however, remains that pretty much nobody in the industry has cleaned up their business even close to the required levels – especially since demateralization and virtualization enabled by ICT is used as an environmental argument, I think our industry is morally obligated to lead the change into renewables. This applies to all polluters-by-proxy, from global service providers to network providers and everyone in between.
Let me emphasize that I am in no way, shape or form against telecommuting or even mobile telecommuting for that matter. Quite the opposite. I merely want to highlight that until the telecommunication industry cleans up their (our?) act, you should be aware that that gigabyte of data you so easily chew through on your smartphone is creating emissions that can be equivalent to driving hundreds of kilometers.
Time for the industry to clean up their act or stop pretending it’s helping the environment. I would prefer the former, because done properly, we could really become a net-positive-impact industry in an environmental sense as well.
 Schoenen et al: Green communications by demand shaping and user-in-the-loop tariff-based control
 Greenpeace: Clean our Cloud
 Richard Johnson: Ten Advantages to Telecommuting
 Transport Direct
 NSW Transport City Rail: Carbon emissions
 NY Times: Power, Pollution and the Internet