There was a longstanding joke in the software biz: ‘the remote revolution is just around the corner!’ The irony was that, despite the fact that remote work was tailor-made for the industry, the software business was the last place such a revolution would ever happen. Managers were very straightforward: they wanted their employees in the office. And of course all of us happily jumped on airplanes whenever we had a chance to attend absolutely essential conferences that somehow always seemed to be located in places like Las Vegas or Honolulu.
For all its horrors, COVID-19 made the impossible, possible. It forced the world to try an experiment that we would never have had the will to do otherwise: Let’s see how well we can get along without unnecessary air travel. And of course the answer is clear: Work got done. Conferences were held. Sales were made. The world kept right on spinning through the magic of the Interwebs.
COVID-19 was like a massive lap band surgery for unnecessary travel by both air and road. Overnight, we shed a whole lot of frankly ugly fat from our environmental output. Our air is measurably healthier than it has been in a long time and we’ve successfully transitioned to doing many things that often work better when done remotely. That’s the key point here: For many, many tasks there was absolutely no pain or sacrifice. It was, in fact, all upside: improving efficiency and saving money.
But to torture the metaphor, instead of benefiting from this once in a lifetime opportunity by maintaining a sensible travel diet, a whole lot of organizations seem to want to rush back to the doughnut aisle of unnecessary travel. Bad habits often die hard. And the fact that there are major industries (and portions of our own government) dedicated to tempting us back towards those bad habits doesn’t help.
Despite that, we’ve been handed an unprecedented opportunity to permanently improve public health and climate change simply by continuing to do the things that work well remotely. In fact, we don’t have to ‘do’ anything. We just need to not go backwards to all the unnecessary air travel. Yes, many of us are still having cravings, but we can get over it. If we really care about the climate and public health (like we say we do) we gotta lay off the unnecessary doughnuts… er air travel.
How to get there
How could we implement this in the real world? First of all, you have to start with a vision. King County is making aviation emissions a part of their Strategic Climate Action Plan (SCAP). That’s a great start. No, they don’t have authority over a major emitter like Sea-Tac Airport, having a starting frameworks matters. Every local government should create their own climate plan and then can encourage all their local businesses to follow suit.
Now to the practical rules and regs:
- All governments have very real HR departments, which can make policies to encourage remote work. If it’s been working well now? Keep doing it. If an employee successfully passed a performance review in 2020 working at home, they should be allowed the opportunity to continue doing so.
- Every government has a travel budget. If a conference or other long distance activity was successfully done remotely in 2020, require employees to try to continue doing things exactly the same way going forward–unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.
For a government the size of King County or Seattle or Bellevue doing just these two painless things would save money, improve productivity, reduce traffic and reduce green house gases.
We can also lobby the State Of Washington to make similar efforts–and they control large and influential institutions like the University Of Washington, which would further expand the program to tens of thousands more people.
At the Federal level, the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus could encourage the government to adopt similar HR policies. That’s millions of military and civil service people continuing to work smarter, saving millions of dollars and thousands of flights every year.
Notice that there’s no ‘stick’ here. It’s all ‘carrot’. Just encourage organizations to keep doing what has proven to work just as well as before. Don’t go back to doing what was unnecessary in the first place.
But to sweeten the deal even further, the government could offer tax credits to businesses that formalize such a program–show how many travel miles your organization saved and get money off your corporate taxes. We do exactly the reverse now with the mileage deduction. Taxing authorities already know how to do this.
The net effect…
One problem with this approach is how boring it sounds. Frankly, Americans sometimes don’t appreciate the power of passive interventions. Not doing something just doesn’t have the pizzazz of a billion dollar wind farm! or cutting edge battery technology! It’s the climate equivalent of Dad asking you to turn off the lights when you leave the room.
But this is real. Think how painless it’s been to dial back on so much of our air travel this past year. And now remember just how much GHG and noise that represents. Given the obvious reductions in costs, noise and pollution is it really worth going back to a system literally based on waste?
By doing nothing, you’re doing more to improve the public health of residents than pretty much any possible ‘active’ intervention. With no obvious sacrifice. And you save money.
I’ll never get to Venice…
There are any number of knee jerk arguments to proposals like this and most of them are either disingenuous or based on some special interest. For example, “You’d deny me my right to see Venice!” Tourism and personal travel accounts for maybe fifteen percent of airline profits. Occasional trips to see your grandchildren or visit foreign lands are not the source of most wasteful air travel. As Rick Steves says, “Keep on traveling.” Just don’t do it for unnecessary work.
The point is this: In the past year we made a significant difference in terms of noise, pollution, climate change, public health! The only trick is to acknowledge that this is a healthy habit we want to keep and not just some ‘temporary sacrifice’. A lot of the travel we used to do was never a great idea and we should not go back to those previous bad habits.