Using tech to go virtual, green and smart in the times of the coronavirus

Home Office by Interior Designer Sanjyt Syngh
The lockdown has been a golden period for environment. The birds are chirping loud and clear, the rivers were never so clean, the AQI levels haven't looked so good in a long while. In short, nature has got time to heal itself for the first time in decades.

A 60 per cent reduction in air pollution levels, especially PM10 and PM2.5, was noted in Delhi-NCR after 18 days of lockdown, according to a study conducted by Dr K K Aggarwal and Dr Anil Kumar of Heart Care Foundation of India (HCFI). After one month of lockdown, the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone throughout India were found within the national ambient air quality standards.

"During this period, there have been days when I'd wake up to AQI readings as low as 13-14," says actor Gul Panag. A B-town eco-warrior who championed the cause of e-mobility and has been using her electric car as her primary vehicle, with a solar charger for the past five years, Panag says technology and saving the environment are intrinsically linked. 

She says without tech, you can’t even begin to ascertain the damage that you want to fix. It helps you track environment data. Else how would you know your air quality levels? The ability to work from home using tech tools has been demonstrated during the lockdown and a lot of folks aren't going to actually start commuting to office again. 

"WFH has taken cars off the road, it has taken the burden off the already stretched public transport system and mass infrastructure. More importantly, it has demonstrated that it isn't a herculean task to live in harmony with nature and clear the air quality for instance," says Panag.

Once you go electric, there’s no going back, says actor Gul Panag who has been using her Mahindra E20 e-car as her main vehicle for the past 5 years and advocates clean, green electric mobility

With technology, less is more

Technology has enabled continuity of work in all aspects of life - instead of work from office, you have work from home; instead of going to school, there is home schooling or virtual learning; virtual shopping instead of mall hopping, virtual fitness instead of visiting gyms, telemedicine instead of in-person consultation with a health specialist, virtual entertainment and streaming movies on OTT platforms instead of chilling out at multiplexes, virtual events instead of attending live concerts. 

The fact is that technology has brought the world to our doorstep, while keeping us confined indoors and also allowing us to do “more with less” resources - something which is at the very core of environmental sustainability.

Remote work Is a greener option

WFH has meant fewer cars on the road, less energy consumption as daily commute is the biggest contributor of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Data compiled by Mahindra Lifespaces points towards the huge saving in office operation costs as well carbon footprint during the two months of April and May, or approximately 60 days. Says Sunita Purushottam, Head-Sustainability, Mahindra Lifespaces, “The reduction in electricity at offices due to WFH has been 78,143 kWh and emission avoided was 64 tCO2e (the unit is Tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). The fuel use avoided due to lockdown was 2,573 litres and emission avoided was 7 tCO2e during this period. Therefore, total emission avoided has been 71 tCO2e. And if we consider 40 per cent associate WFH in future, then the emission avoidance will be 48 tCO2e per year, which is significant.”

WFH sustains on video apps likes Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Zoho, Cisco WebEx, which have ensured that it's business as usual for corporates globally. Says a Microsoft spokesperson, “Our most important contribution to carbon reduction comes by helping customers around the world reduce their carbon footprint through the power of data science, artificial intelligence, and digital technology. Our own target is to become carbon negative by 2030.”

eLearning: Good for our planet

Conducting your studies online is the greenest way to education. It saves gas and there’s less paper and building waste. A year of online education effectively reduces more than 30 million kg of CO2 being emitted, according to a study by upGrad. 

"It's a net positive that online education is getting a boost in the current scenario, as this is the beginning of a virtuous cycle," says Mayank Kumar, Co-founder & MD, upGrad, "If I take into account that this year we will be onboarding 100,000 learners for our programs, who would have to study 10 hours a week (that's what the rigour of an upGrad programme demands), then around  20 million kg of CO2 will be produced on internet usage. If the same set of learners travelled to colleges/universities, given an average distance of 42 km covered by each student per year, the expected CO2 emission is more than 2.5x.”

Climate change & telemedicine

e-Healthcare’s climate footprint is equivalent to 4.4 per cent of global net emissions (2 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent). This was revealed in a new report by Health Care Without Harm in collaboration with Arup Laboratories, a national non-profit and academic reference facility.

In healthcare, technology has allowed doctor-patient consultations to happen remotely through telemedicine. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that telemedicine appointments replacing physical visits decreased carbon emissions 40-70 times over. Moreover, healthcare providers have been able to reduce their unused capacity, enabling patients to receive care at a lower price point.

Work-out goes sustainable

Exercise has also gone online and the use of fitness apps has helped one strike the balance with nature. Take the case of Fitternity, which has empowered 2,000-plus fitness studios/centres go online, with 85 per cent of the users finding their live stream sessions as good as the physical class. Says Dhara Tanna, Senior Vice President, Fitternity, “The costs involved while setting up an on-ground fitness facility are focussed more towards equipment, hiring experienced trainers, a good working out environment and more. Whereas, virtual fitness training platforms require spending on technical aspects like high-speed internet connection and software/website development to help provide quality services. Hence, the cost of virtual sessions is estimated to be 40 per cent lower than normal in-studio sessions.”

Hosting a carbon-neutral event

Events have gone online, be it cultural, social or economic. Recently Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) held its first virtual fair on handicrafts, fashion jewellery and accessories on Zoom platform, “Carbon footprints are zero on virtual and for exhibitors it is a twentieth of the cost,” says Rakesh Kumar Director General EPCH, “That means the exhibitor is being charged Rs 10,000 per virtual booth, whereas it costs Rs 1 lakh for the smallest physical booth. If you include infrastructure, the total goes up to Rs 2 lakh per booth at a physical on-ground event. Travel and hotel costs are nil for buyers in virtual, while vendors get access to many more customers across time zones.”

However, going virtual in the field of art and culture is tough. Recently Bookmyshow tried to host a paid digital concert with artist Sonu Nigam but later got postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. says Asad Lalljee, SVP, Essar Group, who heads a public programming initiative and creative platform under the Group, and is curator of Mumbai’s iconic theatre, The Royal Opera House, “A live performance has no comparison with a digital one, it’s as good as seeing a museum in person versus on Google Culture. Whereas right now virtual concerts are streamed free of cost, but the future belongs a “hybrid” model where both offline and online events will survive. The onus is on sponsors to make the online events sustainable, and consumers who will have to eventually change their consumption habits.

Webinars versus seminars

In the meantime, the corporate sector is abuzz with webinars and events. Says Praval Singh, VP- Marketing & CX, Zoho, “One of our competitors now is the events industry, apart from aviation. There is no argument about the cost saved, plus the reach is phenomenal.” In terms of travel, even post Covid-19, people will think twice before they travel – within the city and without. Singh adds that there is a possibility certain corporate functions will shift permanently to a remote model – sales, support, customer experience management and marketing - the big shift is already happening and these can be managed remotely through Video, chat, email and telephone calls in the long term.

What happens to your e-Waste?

With this heightened use of technology, the question now is what happens to the electronic waste generated. India churns out six million tonnes of electronic waste, says V Ranganathan, MD, Cerebra Green, one of India’s largest e-waste recycling companies operational in metros, with factories spread over 12 acres in Karnataka. Typically, people either burn electronic waste or destroy it with acid, which is exactly what you should never do. Instead, all e-waste must be given to a licensed recycler who converts it to a powdered form, and gives back 99.9 per cent of the waste to the industry. Says Ranganathan, “From mobile phones weighing a tonne, we get 70 gram of gold and from on old-style television set, we can easily get 1.5 kg of copper. This is then sold back to the industry.” He laments that in the West you pay to discard your waste while in India you get paid for disposing it. There is is a huge infrastructure investment in proper disposal and recycling of e-waste and that needs to be appreciated.

The global production of mobile phones is 20,000 tonnes a year and per set, one gets 250 mg silver, 24 mg gold and nine mg palladium. One computer has 1,000 mg silver, 220 mg gold and 80 mg palladium. The recycled material claim may appear insignificant per unit but when you take into account the multiplier effect, it makes it worth your while to look at proper disposal of electronic waste.

"New normal" lockdown activity Normal activity    %age cost saved per person with new normal  Carbon Footprint Saved (%age of CO2 per person) with new normal
Work from home  Work from office 52% 73%
Telemedicine Hospital 71% 88%
Online education
Offline 43% 64%
Virtual fitness Going to gym 77% 82%
Virtual entertainment  At the multiplex 52% 73%
Virtual shopping  At the Mall 77% 64%
How much carbon footprint will we end up saving using technology? One person using all these technologies can save enough CO2 in a year, equivalent to planting 250 trees

New normal" lockdown activity Normal activity  Cost saved per person/ month with new normal (Rs) Carbon footprint saved (Kg CO2 per person/month)
Work from home  Work from office 3,320 134
Telemedicine Hospital 1,900 121
Online education Offline 1,240 59
Virtual fitness Going to gym 60 38
Virtual entertainment  At the multiplex 480 67
Virtual shopping  At the Mall 60 29
TOTAL   7,060 450
Source: Energy Consultant

Footnote:

In one month, a person doing everything from office work (WFH), learning, fitness, healthcare consult, shopping, entertainment using online over offline will help save 450 kg of CO2 and a cost upwards of Rs 7,000 per month. If this continues for a year, it would lead to cost savings of Rs 84,000 to Rs 1 lakh and a carbon footprint equivalent to planting 250 trees (One tree helps save 22 kg of carbon dioxide emission per year)



Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel