By now, you’ve probably heard the following claim: Video conferencing, when done right, can offer companies significant benefits when it comes to travel. By eliminating the need to send employees to on-site meetings, companies can cut both the cost and the nasty carbon emissions bill associated with such journeys.
That’s the message used to help market next-best-thing-to-real-life video conferencing services like Cisco’s TelePresence and HP’s Halo, and even Nortel’s web.alive virtual collaboration service — that virtual meetings can save both money and the planet. But look beyond the headlines and the soundbites, and you’re likely to find a somewhat less verdant tale.
The good side of the story
According to its advocates, the environmental benefits from video conferencing could be substantial: One Australian study pegs its national impact at about 2.4 million metric tons of emissions. Closer to home, ClimateBiz notes that a 2008 report from the Boston Consulting Group and The Climate Group estimated that IT-optimized workplaces in the U.S. (which includes “smart buildings,” substituting virtual meetings for business travel, and allowing employees to work remotely) could eliminate nearly 500 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year and save up to $170 billion. Globally, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that by the year 2030, telecommuting and virtual meetings could cut nearly 1 billion tons of emissions annually.
Digging into the data
Those may sound like some big numbers, but if you look at the actual research, not just the press releases and marketing tie-ins, they start to shrink. The study from Australia? It goes on to say that those 2.4 million metric tons of emissions are just 0.43 percent — less than half a percent — of the country’s total. (To be fair, GreenBiz also notes this fact.)
The impact of video conferencing in the BCG/Climate Group study was equally lukewarm, if not more so. Emissions reductions from “dematerialization,” the category under which teleworking and video conferencing fall, account for just 0.9 percent of the total potential emissions reduction in its scenario, while video conferencing on its own accounts for just 0.15 percent of the total potential.
What’s more, the actual travel-replacement effects of video conferencing aren’t exactly carved in stone. According to the WWF study, some research indicates that video conferencing may actually have a neutral or negative impact on employee travel, because travel time and budgets associated with internal meetings are shifted to strategic meetings with contacts outside the organization. That may be good for business, but it doesn’t do much for the polar ice caps.
Tackle what matters
The lesson in all of this isn’t, however, that companies should abandon video conferencing, but that they should remember the lesson of the “charismatic megafauna.” For companies that are serious about making a difference for the environment, video conferencing should be considered a flagship initiative within a more nuanced program.
Last month, EMC announced that it would be looking at its carbon footprint with a wider lens as part of the World Resource Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol Product and Supply Chain Initiative. In a post on GreenBiz, Senior Director of Corporate Sustainability Kathrin Winkler mocks an article headlined “EMC saves earth from its own private jets” as missing the point of its supply-chain efforts. Corporate jets account for just 0.1 percent of product-related Scope 3 emissions, Winkler points out. Focus on that and “it’s kind of like plugging a drafty window when the doors are open and the front wall is missing; a good idea, but maybe not top priority,” she writes.
Good analogy, EMC. But good luck, too. Finding — and fixing — the bigger issues isn’t for sissies.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.