What kind of climate impacts do educational institutions, consultancy firms and insurance companies cause? According to researchers at the University of Jyväskylä, knowledge organisations can control and reduce their carbon footprint, even though it is mainly formed through indirect emissions. The impacts can be reduced most easily if we learn the lessons from the changes imposed by the pandemic.

Carbon footprint refers to the climate impact caused by an activity or service. For knowledge organisations and companies, the footprint may be hard to determine. Whereas the emissions and impacts of the forest industry, mining, or a power plant, for example, arise directly from their own operations, the carbon footprint of knowledge organisations consists mainly of indirect emissions.

In a recently published article, researchers from the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics and the School of Resource Wisdom JYU.Wisdom analysed the carbon footprint of a transnational knowledge organisation.

“The largest portion, nearly 80 percent, of the carbon footprint came from business travel and related activities, which was no surprise. Flights were the biggest individual source of emissions before COVID-19, and they continue to be that in post-pandemic scenarios,” says Doctoral Researcher Sami El Geneidy.

“Other major emission sources were heating as well as procurement of products and services. Virtually all emissions were indirect, meaning they were linked to consumption. The organisation itself causes practically no direct emissions in its own operations.”

Travel still produces the biggest impact

When collecting the research data in 2019, the researchers could not foresee the times ahead. From the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically upset business travel practices, which also altered the research setting. Therefore, the article was expanded with an analysis of how the business travel emissions of the studied organisation would change after the pandemic.

It was found that even after the pandemic, the largest share of the knowledge organisation’s carbon footprint would still come from travel.

“Business travel has been expected to decrease by a fifth, at least, compared to the pre-pandemic era, or even by a third or more,” says Senior Lecturer Stefan Baumeister.

“Despite this, business travel would still be the most significant source of emissions in these organisations, and thus still demands attention.”

Reducing indirect carbon footprints

The researchers emphasise that knowledge organisations can also reduce their emissions and thus their own carbon footprint by adopting a simple model: avoid, reduce, and offset. In concrete terms, this means, where possible, maintaining the practices brought on by the pandemic. These include further specifying the internal travel policies and avoiding air travel.

Although these organisations do not always have full control over their emission sources, and the impact of their emissions is small from a global perspective, this is a golden opportunity to take the lead and set an example. They can also use their expertise and enhance their positive impacts in order to help solve the climate crisis.

“Knowledge organisations have a chance to show their readiness to adapt to the large-scale, bold actions in public policy our planet so urgently needs,” El Geneidy points out.

El Geneidy and Baumeister’s article ‘The carbon footprint of a knowledge organization and emission scenarios for a post-COVID-19 world’ was published in Environmental Impact Assessment Review. In addition to the JYU researchers the project involved researchers Valentino Marini Govigli (University of Bologna), Cleo Orfanidou (European Forest Institute, Aalto University), and Venla Wallius (European Forest Institute, University of Jyväskylä).

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