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Protocol | Workplace

Working from home might be worse for the environment than commuting

Experts say working from home shifted energy use but did not significantly reduce it. Companies are taking this into consideration as they make plans for returning to the office.

An Android statue wearing a mask on Google's campus

Some tech workers are commuting back to the office. Some are wondering about the environmental impact.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Tech workers are heading back to the office and so are their carbon footprints, but the negative environmental impact won't be as large as some think. Experts found the increase in people working from home during the pandemic shifted environmental woes in the U.S. Some tech companies are taking this into account as they plan their return to the office.

The pandemic transferred the demand and responsibility for resources from commercial markets to the consumer. Much like the demand for consumer goods like toilet paper and coveted grocery items, the amount of electricity and natural gas used by consumers went up as they spent more time at home.

In a white paper about the shift in energy consumption during the pandemic, Steve Cicala, an associate professor of economics at Tufts University who studies environmental and energy policy, wrote that in 2020, about a third of the U.S. workforce shifted to working from home due to the pandemic. Simultaneously, there was an almost 8% increase in residential consumption of electricity and about a 7% and 8% reduction in usage among commercial and industrial buildings, he wrote.

"It's been an increase in residential consumption at the same time that there's been a reduction in industrial and commercial consumption of both natural gas and electricity," Cicala told Protocol about the shift in energy usage.

More people are at home cooking, doing laundry, opening up their refrigerators and heating and cooling their homes. "You're preheating everybody's individual ovens in their homes instead of the cafeteria having everything on the tray," he said.

Also, as more people moved outside of city centers for more space and bigger homes they increased their carbon footprints and will likely expend more energy on longer commutes on the days that they do decide to come to the office. However, Cicala did find that gas consumption for transportation declined about 16% over the past year, bringing down overall energy consumption in the U.S.

Some Bay Area tech companies will restart their employee shuttle services immediately, while others are easing back into offering such services later in the year. Google told Protocol that it restarted its shuttle operations on July 12, the company's first day back in the office. It's starting with a reduced shuttle schedule with plans to ramp back up as more employees come back. Facebook told Protocol that it would likely start running shuttles again later this fall.

When it comes to emissions from plane travel, Cicala told Protocol that he predicts there will be dramatically less coming from business travel after the pandemic. "It's hugely costly, and the alternative has just spent the last 18 months as the universal, default way of doing business," he said.

Some companies, recognizing the shift, have taken steps to offset the difference.

Autodesk, for example, told Protocol that it has balanced its employees' at-home energy consumption by purchasing offsets during the pandemic, and Square Inc. said in its latest corporate social responsibility report that by allowing employees the option of permanently working from home it's helping to reduce commute emissions and the amount of energy used for workplace construction.

Apple, which is also carbon zero for its corporate emissions, is focused on reducing employees' carbon footprints by targeting commutes. While they will enforce a hybrid back-to-work model, only allowing employees to work from home a couple of days a week, the company said in its 2021 Environmental Progress Report it will continue to encourage commute options like mass transit to cut down on emissions.

Last month, some of Apple's employees pushed back on the company's plan for returning to the office. In a letter addressed to Tim Cook, later obtained by The Verge, workers requested insight into the environmental impact of returning to in-person work.

Estimates from Global Workplace Analytics found that if people who have the ability to work from home were to work remotely half of the time, "the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent to taking the entire New York State workforce off the road," the organization states on its site.

There will certainly be some increase in greenhouse gases as the economy recovers, Kenneth Gillingham told Protocol. Gillingham, a professor of environmental and energy economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, cautions that there are much less costly ways of curbing emissions than a global pandemic.

Autodesk has been accounting for its employees' carbon footprints since before the health crisis. The company reached net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 and its employees only account for 5% of the company's carbon footprint, said Stephen Fukuhara, vice president of workplace and travel at Autodesk.

"We consider environmental impacts with all of our workplace and travel decisions," said Fukuhara. "Our offices have been powered by 100% renewable energy since 2016, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we purchased additional renewable energy and carbon offsets to account for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our employees' home office energy consumption. We plan to continue this practice moving forward."

The company chose to go with a flexible workplace program following the pandemic that will allow its workforce to choose from working primarily in the office, a hybrid setup or working completely remote.

"Working from home has benefits but from the environmental perspective work from home is not a panacea," said Gillingham.

Reporter Allison Levitsky contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Steve Cicala's job title. This story was updated on July 13, 2021.

Protocol | Fintech

Amazon wants a crypto play. Its history in payments is not encouraging.

It missed chances to be PayPal, Square and Stripe — so is this its chance to miss being Coinbase, too?

Amazon wants to be a crypto player.

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The news that Amazon was hiring a lead for a new digital currency and blockchain initiative sent the price of bitcoin soaring. But there's another way to look at the news that's less bullish on bitcoin and bearish on Amazon: 13 years after Satoshi Nakamoto's whitepaper appeared on the internet, Amazon is just discovering cryptocurrency?

That may be a bit unkind, but the truth is sometimes unkind. And the reality is that Amazon has a long history of stumbles and missed opportunities in payments, which goes back more than two decades to the company's purchase of internet payments startup Accept.com.

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Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

That's why we've created the Crypto Maturity Model: an iterative roadmap for cryptocurrency product rollout, enabling financial institutions to evaluate market opportunities while addressing compliance requirements.

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Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Enterprise

How Google Cloud plans to kill its ‘Killed By Google’ reputation

Under the new Google Enterprise APIs policy, the company is making a promise that its services will remain available and stable far into the future.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has promised to make the company more customer-friendly.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images 2019

Google Cloud issued a promise Monday to current and potential customers that it's safe to build a business around its core technologies, another step in its transformation from an engineering playground to a true enterprise tech vendor.

Starting Monday, Google will designate a subset of APIs across the company as Google Enterprise APIs, including APIs from Google Cloud, Google Workspace and Google Maps. APIs selected for this category — which will include "a majority" of Google Cloud APIs according to Kripa Krishnan, vice president at Google Cloud — will be subject to strict guidelines regarding any changes that could affect customer software built around those APIs.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is Protocol's enterprise editor, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire, and served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure.

Amazon job opening points to plan to accept crypto payments

The news sparked a rally in the values of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Amazon may be planning to let customers pay for orders with cryptocurrencies.

Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

Amazon is looking to hire a digital currency and blockchain expert suggesting a plan to let customers accept cryptocurrencies as payments.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Policy

Big Tech tried to redefine terrorism online. It got messy fast.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism announced a series of narrow steps it's taking that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

Erin Saltman is GIFCT's director of programming.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Flickr

A little over a month after the Jan. 6 riot, the tech industry's leading anti-terrorism alliance — a group founded by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter — announced it was seeking ideas for how it could expand its definition of terrorism, which had for years been more or less synonymous with Islamic terrorism. The group, called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism or GIFCT, had been considering such a shift for at least a year, but the rising threat of domestic extremism, punctuated by the Capitol uprising, made it all the more clear something needed to change.

But after months of interviewing member companies, months of considering academic proposals and months spent mulling the impact of tech platforms on this and other violent events around the world, the group's policies have barely budged. On Monday, in a 177-page report, GIFCT released the first details of its plan, and, well, a radical rethinking of online extremism it is not. Instead, the report lays out a series of narrow steps that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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