Where are we headed? At the moment, it’s the wrong way

If the United States wants to believe it is an example, then we must lead any effort to curb energy use and environmental impact.

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff January 16, 2009

In this story:* Understand your carbon footprint * Corporate social responsibility * Sustainable operations start at the top * Use technology to improve sustainability * Look at new ways to produce your product that minimize carbon emissions * Encourage staff members to gauge their own environmental impacts * Look everywhere—“God Is in the Details” ALSO: * Sustainability resources and information sources

America has been attempting to improve energy efficiency over the past several decades. One result has been the progressive reduction in the energy needed to produce a given economic output. This is shown below in units of Btus per unit of gross domestic product (a common measurement used by economists). A second (and perhaps surprising) result, also shown below, is that absolute energy use has been constantly rising over the same period, essentially because while energy use is more efficient, its use has become significantly more widespread.

The energy appetite for the rest of the world also is taking off (based on actual use in the recent past and probable use in the near future). The potential picture of the future is far less appealing than today. The figures below show historical and projected energy use for both the United States and the world.

A key conclusion from the above is that if the United States wants to believe it is an example, then we must lead any effort to curb energy use and environmental impact. One also cannot escape the conclusion (shown in the second, per capita graph) that much of the world sees America as very wasteful of energy. One cannot lose sight that the rest of the world is developing at a tremendously fast pace and uses the United States as the model for their development; much of the world seeks our lifestyle.

Another key conclusion is that this steadily upward trend must reverse, and very quickly. The complacency of inaction is not an appealing option when facing potential outcomes.

Understand your carbon footprint

At the beginning of any carbon review, you must understand where carbon is generated in firm operations. From this information, the relative importance of various issues and resulting strategies will become apparent. This may be the most tedious of the steps, but will be the most rewarding because it shows exactly where carbon is “used” in the organization. It will help identify areas of greatest impact and prioritize reduction strategies.

In assessing your carbon footprint, you must account for direct and indirect impacts on business operation, including at least:

* Business energy use* Indirect energy “lost” by a utility in generation, transmission, and distribution of the useful energy* Carbon imbedded in products of service (drawings, specifications, copies, faxes, phone, etc.)* Carbon imbedded in materials and products used in your operations* Indirect energy used in transportation and delivery of products of service* Energy used in waste disposal attribute to your operations* Travel via company-owned vehicles* Business commuting/travel* Air travel (both project and firm related)* Taxis (both project and firm related)* Trains (both project and firm related)* Hotels* The carbon footprint of consultants you retain (this opens an added dimension, for the “advanced” user).

Your carbon footprint is tricky to quantify, and establishing its operational boundary involves more questions than appear at first blush. Your utility provider also has differing carbon profiles based on its generating mix (nuclear vs. hydroelectricity vs. coal vs. natural gas, etc.) in comparison to other utilities. Outside advisers and/or peer review are suggested, and refining this calculation may take several years of work, so don’t get discouraged. Keep after this and regularly update your work. Several Internet resources may be of help:

www.ghgprotocol.org www.safeclimate.net www.seattle.gov/climate/SCPresources.htm

It is not too hard to envision how important it is to know your business’s carbon footprint and seriously address improvements to avoid running the risk of turning away potential business relationships. Additionally, companies may likely not need to know just the impact of their operations, but also the carbon footprint of the design services they deliver so these can be factored into client carbon calculations.

Corporate social responsibility

The link between competitive advantage and corporate social responsibility has been identified by academics. Their finding is that the more closely tied a social issue is to a company’s business, the greater the opportunity to leverage the firm’s resources—and benefit society. This energy/environmental relationship is your link. This issue is significant in your firm’s positioning in the marketplace. You can be an example for others to follow and leverage your practice.

Organizations and people need to make energy and environmental choices in everything they do, while they still have choices available. These are decisions that all of us must make. These issues have become a social imperative.

Most talk about sustainability is just that—talk. It is time to walk the talk. Below, we include the action items, along with examples and ideas/tips you can use.

Sustainable operations start at the top

Commit the firm to take meaningful actions and set an overall goal. Make the goal very clear and strong.

Such a goal might be:* “Reduce carbon emissions from direct and indirect operations by 50% compared to xxxx (pick a reference point) within five years.”OR* “Reduce carbon emissions to be 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050” (the current California mandate and a long-term goal used by others).

Here is an example of a firm’s goal statement:

“We recognize the critical importance of addressing sustainability. The word‘sustainability’ is much overused and often applied in an almost meaningless fashion, but the core value is an imperative. In addition to our professional role in leading clients through this issue, we believe that our internal actions/operations must be included. We have a related goal to demonstrate leadership (through action) to clients, employees, competitors, and suppliers on this crucial issue and encourage their participation.”

Fundamentally, sustainability is threatened by:* Climate change (judged highly likely, with 90% certainty, to be man-made)* The piquing of petroleum production followed by its necessary decline—leading to greater costs, conflict, and greater environmental impact—at a time of increasing world demand.* The security of our nation, resulting from a majority of current energy sources imported from countries not aligned with the United States.

The firm recognizes that there are several actions we can take to improve the sustainability relative to our operations and propose the following targets (using carbon as a metric):* Short-term: decrease our carbon use by 20% within three years, compared to current (2008) use.* Establish an intermediate target of emissions reductions of 35%, compared to current use, by 2020.* Achieve an 80% percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

We understand the role of science in guiding this discussion. The latest consensus assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change—and minimize human-induced impacts—we need to meet/exceed such similar targets.

We believe the firm has a moral and ethical responsibility to energetically address this issue.

Communicate your commitment and goal.* Make public statements (and put them in writing) as to your specific commitment(s).* Make these statements very visible and repeat them often.* Show action to back up the rhetoric—“walk the walk.”* Transparency and accountability can be powerful tools to promote change.* Publish your commitment via e-mail.

Appoint environmental operations champion(s) within a firm’s top management level/board to lead these environmental efforts, and clearly announce who this is.* This appointment should recognize project workload commitment to allow this person to dedicate significant time to this effort.* Performance measurement should focus on proven results.* Consider the title of Chief Carbon Officer (you may already have a CEO, CFO, and COO—make this a new addition).* Introduce this role to the firm’s staff.* Announce this role to clients and suppliers.* Consider a sustainability steering committee to review this leader’s actions.

Adopt a rating system to measure your carbon performance and a verification system to ensure accuracy:

* Measure impacts of all appropriate greenhouse gases, not exclusively CO2.* Establish all the necessary systems to measure environmental impact against best practices of other firms; benchmark your performance* Make carbon reporting an agenda item at each senior management/board meeting. Your attention to carbon performance should be as much a priority as attention to financial performance.* Report actual results achieved—in both carbon terms and financial terms.* Track the projections of future carbon reductions (similar to tracking future marketing prospects).

Actively participate in public policy discussions and push for action on the part of others.* Contact your local professional societies.* Contact your USGBC chapters.* Talk to your governmental representatives* Write.* Speak intelligently to all using their “language” (you are more than an engineer here).

Make an internal financial commitment to support climate change efforts for the organization.* Target your donations/charities for their sustainability efforts.* Instead of cash contributions make a targeted gift. For example, “donate” Renewable Energy Credits in lieu of a check.* Make sustainability an integral part of your firm mission statement.* Integrate sustainability into the firm’s strategy.* Embed sustainability into the strategic and business planning of the organization.* Make your firm an example for all your clients to see—to minimize the environmental impacts of your business.* Market your commitment and achievements!* Invite your clients to join this effort (seek them out).* Collaborate/partner with others on this challenge.

Identify additional opportunities, problems, and solutions, with specific, measurable action plans.* Develop a quarterly phased implementation plan.* Prioritize options.

Incorporate a sustainable corporate real estate strategy.* Set design and operational goals for all new and existing properties.* Use the U.S. Green Building Council LEED program as a metric.* Commit to goals and measure performance.

The business cliche “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” establishes an imperative to function by:* Publish an annual sustainability report, with quarterly updates, on results and track your goals.* Be honest in your assessment of your actions and admit your “learning” lessons.* Be open and transparent.* Freely distribute this document to clients and employees.* Prepare a narrative that lists your actions to reduce carbon along with measured results.* Post your firm carbon footprint assessment and carbon reduction efforts (at the water cooler, for example).* Publish this list via e-mail to clients and suppliers.

A firm can strengthen its commitment and confirm environmental performance through a recognized certification process.* ISO 14001 is an applicable European environmental certification.* Help clients in the certification process.* Publish this effort via e-mail to clients and suppliers.

Publish carbon estimates monthly in an unaudited version and annually in an audited version.* Use an independent source to verify your performance results.* Publish your performance on your Web site.* Publish this effort via e-mail to clients and suppliers.

Every significant firm publication should document examples of work and efforts within the firm to reduce carbon emissions.* All actions should be tracked through regular summaries to demonstrate how you have reduced or eliminated carbon.* Publish on your Website; consider a blog commentary.* Every piece of correspondence or e-mail leaving the office should direct the reader to your Web site.

Appoint a sustainability coordinator in the office (each office, if a multiple office practice) to manage, coordinate, and lead various efforts.* This is akin to how a project manager functions on design projects.* Encourage information sharing between offices and other firms.* Establish an operational group focused on carbon management.* Have monthly meetings (at least).* Empower (charge) this group to make change.* Set up routine communications (via e-mail distribution lists for example).* Educate all staff members on their impact/contributions.* Have training programs focus on this (employee assistance outreach).* Use your intranet for training tools.

Ask your staff for more ideas and implement a process of soliciting employee suggestions.* Use an old-fashioned suggestion box.* Encourage network-based e-mails.* Have parties where each employee is requested to contribute an idea for entry.

Set goals for the procurement and use of recycled products.* Review supplier catalogs for options.* Publish purchase suggestions to other offices.* Set up a co-op organization for environmentally preferred products.

Develop an evaluation/decision process in all office product purchases and set minimum selection criteria.

Write a memo to suppliers enlisting their help and advice.Advise vendors that your purchasing selection will now include carbon in the decision process.

Talk to your building landlord about its operations—improve your participation and encourage new programs.* Use green building principles/practices in your operations.* If your facility is leased, consult the property manager.* Establish a strategy for recycling efforts in your office and in your building.

Reduce the use of consumables; reuse them where appropriate.* In your pantry, use biodegradable or reusable utensils, napkins, and cups.* Look into three-stream waste separation/recycling plans.* Educate your employees in their involvement.

Measure your energy use, set reduction targets, and work toward them. Install electrical submeters to graph electrical use profiles and determine your peak use. Analyze this information.

Measure your water use—conduct a water audit and act on the results. Note: Rebates are available for many types of water conservation devices and activities.

* Learn about conserving water in the business environment* Analyze your water use.* Check your system for leaks.* Set a conservation goal.* Involve your employees.* Install low-flow devices.* Install water-efficient equipment if possible.* Monitor your results.

Require action (in the form of reporting) by office suppliers/vendors.* Evaluate vendors/suppliers regarding their energy/environmental efforts and improvements.* Evaluate subconsultants regarding their energy/environmental efforts and improvements.* Work with all suppliers to reduce your supply chain carbon footprint.

Use carbon offsets to counter your carbon footprint related to project/internal firm travel and to counter the energy needs of your business operations.

A controversial issue in any environmental discussion is the use of carbon offsets, used to counter one’s carbon footprint. With a striking similarity to the medieval church practice of selling “indulgences” for the absolution of sins, one can easily argue that the entire practice of carbon offset is misled. On the other hand, one can view the practice as a catalyst for change, with the economics of it helping facilitate improvements that otherwise would not happen. However, as a direct caution, one should see carbon offsets as just one step of a more comprehensive carbon management process:

Carbon reduction strategy:* Reduce environmental/energy needs in all possible areas.* Use minimally impacting environment/energy solutions.* Offset remaining carbon impacts (this is the last step).

When you are judging offset options, consider the following:* Business and project transparency* Offset quality: Make sure you have an additive impact; also confirm the permanence of results.* Project location and offset traceability* Industry leadership* Business model of the offset provider* Investment level actually achieved (how significant are program operating costs?)* Independent evaluation* Education potential* Social benefits

Use technology to improve sustainability

Computers, copiers, and other network/IT systems are the third largest electrical use (after lighting and HVAC) in commercial buildings. Focus on a variety of solutions to reduce this impact:* Automatically turn off unneeded office equipment.* Enable hibernation mode on computers and copiers, for example.* Unplug devices; remember that even if turned off, most electronic devices have a parasitic power draw that requires them to be turned off at the power strip or unplugged.* Use plug strips that automatically turn off with inactivity.* Use less energy-intensive office equipment.

The laptop PC can be a user’s primary office PC, with a docking station/remote keyboard/external monitor and nearly desktop functionality. It is an excellent example of technology promoting sustainability; being optimized for low power, the laptop has built-in power management features along with a power conditioner/UPS. Additionally, the user can take it home nightly or when traveling and have full functionality as if in the office. You can easily justify this approach if you capture just a few hours a year in added billings.Select Energy Star-rated equipment throughout the office.

Improve use of technology for remote travel, in lieu of project travel.* Many firms can justify the costs of improving teleconference capabilities with little difficulty.* Teleconferencing can be an option/tool to electively mange travel (carbon).* Web-based meetings can be an effective solution.* When physical travel is needed, try to select a location based on minimizing carbon.* Talk to your clients about how this can be effectively used on projects.* Use your Web site as a publication resource; it can be a powerful tool.

You need to have a Web site and one that gains interest, so here is your chance to promote sustainability.* Market your achievements and goals.* Every letter and e-mail issued from your office can invite readers to your Web site.

Maximize your office network and make all aspects available remotely.* Make every internal document available electronically.* Facilitate remote access capability.

Make sustainability a decision factor in IT procurement.* Measure the energy use of a device before purchase.* Benchmark best IT practices by other firms as an example for yours.* Encourage your IT vendors to do more and offer you more sustainable options.* Define your sustainability interests to vendors and have them include this consideration in recommendations for equipment procurement.* Advise vendors that your purchasing selection will now include carbon in the decision process.

Rethink how technology can reduce paper flow in the office.* Identify paper uses and options to its use.* Develop an implementation plan.

Look at maximizing the lifetime of technology systems and how systems are recycled at the end of their useful life.* Before you replace an existing system, think about what new features may warrant the replacement.* Recycle responsibly: “e-waste” is often shipped to third-world countries, and your trash is polluting their environment. It’s your responsibility to know how your recycling is handled.

Look at new ways to produce your product that minimize carbon emissions

If you look at your business with a fresh set of eyes, there should be no limit on areas that are candidates for overhauling with a goal to reduce carbon emissions. A few ideas:

Measure paper use in the office and set reduction targets.* Reduce plotting (use smallest reasonable drawing scale, for example).* If prints and plotting are not a reimbursable expense, then se PDF files for final products of service.

Don’t print and plot numerous paper copies of your progress or milestone documents and mail/deliver them. Use electronic PDF documents instead. They are universally readable and scalable to the viewers’ need. The viewer can also electronically file PDF documents with greater ease of future access. With experience in working with PDFs, many users will not ever want a hard copy. Suggest this approach to the entire project/client team.

Require all outside information be provided in searchable digital format.* Vendor equipment data (catalogs)* Equipment construction submittals. Note that review of submittals is a legal part of the design professional’s responsibility, so consider liability concerns.

Make carbon a proposal item—a “reimbursable expense”—to clients. This can start with adding the cost of carbon offsets to other normal reimbursable expenses such as project travel, printing, plotting, or messenger services. Include the assessment of carbon on each employee expense report form. The following is an example of how this might be integrated into proposals:

“We are committed to reducing our environmental impact, and in recognition that our project travel results in significant carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, we will include the cost of carbon offsets for air and automobile travel as a reimbursable expense. This will be specifically identified on each invoice and payable at cost.”OR“We recognize that our business operations result in significant carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and are embarking on steps to reduce this impact. This activity is aimed first at reducing our carbon footprint and second at offsetting the carbon impact that remains. The cost of purchasing these carbon offsets is borne entirely by fees outlined in this proposal.”

Encourage staff members to gauge their own environmental impacts

Advise staff members to act as agents of change, even when they are outside of the workplace.* Convene a group meeting or discuss environmental issues in staffing meetings so that people understand their roles.* Encourage staff to talk to others about this issue; for example, they might participate in outside groups and seek speaking roles.* Provide information to all staff members to encourage them to facilitate improvements in their individual lives.

Various electronic sites are available as a resource to employees.* Start posting ideas on your bulletin board.* Develop analysis and educational resources for employees to assess their individual carbon footprints.* Provide information on your network intranet for employee access.* Have lunch seminars regarding personal sustainability.

Sponsor a staff competition for overall carbon use or home energy performance (a sort of limbo contest).* This can be a fun and friendly competition within an office or firm.* Start with modest goals and ratchet up the competition requirements.* Make this very visible, and announce the winner with great fanfare.

Look everywhere—“God Is in the Details”

Go beyond your operational sphere: An example is daily employee transportation energy use to and from the office. Transportation energy is a significantly larger energy use than energy use in buildings.

The California Energy Commission has concluded that overall, transportation accounts for more than 50% greater carbon emissions in comparison to carbon resulting from the operations of commercial buildings. To achieve any significant carbon reduction goal, then, you must address transportation.* Create incentives for use of alternative transportation (such as free parking for carpoolers, subsidized bus passes, etc.).* Locate your offices in transportation-friendly locations.* Make environmentally friendly office transportation options available for employees using public transportation while at the office.* Promote work that does not involve commuting (such as from home).* Subsidize public transportation and bicycle use instead of employee parking.

Turn off the* Automated systems are mandatory unless you commit to a manual protocol.* Educate your employees—seek their involvement if you have manual implementation.* Post reminders when appropriate* Remember, the most efficient lightbulb is one that is turned off.