Can Videoconferencing Save the Earth? In Short: No

By now you've probably heard the following claim: Videoconferencing, 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 videoconferencing 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 sound bites 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 videoconferencing 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. That study from Australia? It goes on to say that those 2.4 million metric tons of emissions are just 0.43% of the country's total. (To be fair, GreenBiz also notes this.)

The impact of videoconferencing in the BCG/Climate Group study was equally lukewarm, if not more so. Emissions reductions from "dematerialization," the category under which teleworking and videoconferencing fall, account for just 0.9% of the total potential emissions reduction in its scenario, while videoconferencing on its own accounts for just 0.15% of the total savings potential.

What's more, the actual travel-replacement effects of videoconferencing aren't exactly carved in stone. According to the WWF study, some research indicates that videoconferencing 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 polar ice caps.

Tackle what matters

The lesson isn't, however, that companies should abandon videoconferencing, but that they should remember the lesson of the "charismatic megafauna." Companies that are serious about making a difference for the environment should consider videoconferencing 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, Kathrin Winkler, EMC's senior director of corporate sustainability, mocks a recent article headlined: "EMC Saves Earth From Its Own Private Jets " as missing the point of the company's supply-chain efforts. Corporate jets account for just 0.1% 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. And good luck. Finding—and fixing—the bigger problems isn't for sissies.

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