News Brief

Leveraging the Pandemic to Reduce Carbon—for Good

Lord Aeck Sargent tracked its 2020 carbon footprint. The results were astounding and could be lasting.

chart showing impact of avoided flying in 2020 vs 2019

This chart shows the outsized impact of airline flights.

Source: Lord Aeck Sargent
Did you fly in 2020? Hardly anyone did, and that had a huge impact on the carbon footprints of all kinds of businesses. Architecture firm Lord Aeck Sargent (LAS) tracked six months of 2020 operational carbon emissions compared against six months in 2019, and in a publicly available report, the company has released its findings along with some ideas for permanently reducing its footprint.

26 million avoided miles

“The massive takeaway is: it’s all about flights,” explained Cristy Fletcher, senior associate at LAS and author of the report.

LAS has been measuring and offsetting its operational carbon emissions since 2007. In 2020, because of COVID-19, the offices were closed, hardly any meetings were held in person, and there was virtually no travel for conferences. The carbon savings (after accounting for increased energy use at employees’ homes) from avoided commuting, rental car travel, flying, and office energy use totaled 10,513 metric tons—the equivalent of 26 million miles driven in an average passenger vehicle, according to the firm.

Flying made up 98% of the estimated reductions. “Graphically, flying must be removed from the emissions chart to make the other categories legible,” the white paper notes.

Does Zoom really work?

Although in-person meetings are vital for certain scenarios—and clients are still requiring them at times—virtual meetings can be just as effective, and sometimes more so, argues Fletcher. “In my personal experience, creatively collaborating has gone extraordinarily well,” Fletcher told BuildingGreen.

Jim Nicolow, FAIA, director of sustainability at LAS, said he’s gotten pulled into more meetings on smaller projects that he wouldn’t normally have been included in had they been held in person. “We’re seeing opportunities to draw on more of the team more often,” he said.

And Fletcher noted that interns were able to attend client interviews, which would have been unheard of if everyone were flying to meetings.

“There’s good and bad,” though, said Nicolow. “Zoom fatigue is real.”

Bouncing forward

The reduced 2020 footprint is a boon. The question is, can that success continue after the global pandemic ends?

To “bounce forward” from the pandemic, the white paper recommends a “simplified evaluation policy for air travel approvals to enable informed decision-making about whether a meeting must be done in person.” Carbon impact, income, and other factors could be included in evaluations to create a “strategy for more transparently considering the significant … climate-change emissions associated with air travel.”

Additionally, the report recommends continued working from home for employees since, based on a survey of 200 LAS employees, it appears to increase job satisfaction and have other positive effects. Assuming only half of workers are in the office on any given day, the firm could avoid almost 74 metric tons of carbon emissions from commuting. “That’s seven car trips around the equator,” says the white paper. Additionally, “at an average annual cost of $7,000 per desk, that would suggest $525,000 per year in excess office rent that might be avoided.”

Don’t forget the buildings

Operational emissions from architecture firms can clearly be massive, but ultimately they are dwarfed by the long-term emissions of the buildings those firms are designing. “As impactful as airline travel was, it’s still the decisions we’re making on buildings and building efficiency” that matter most, Nicolow said.

a graphic showing 1,047 avoided trips around the equator

Lord Aeck Sargent reported that it reduced carbon emissions by more than 10,000 metric tons in 2020.

Source: Lord Aeck Sargent

For more information:

Lord Aeck Sargent

Published October 4, 2021

Melton, P. (2021, September 20). Leveraging the Pandemic to Reduce Carbon—for Good. Retrieved from

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October 18, 2021 - 2:25 pm

I thought the line "Fletcher noted that interns were able to attend client interviews, which would have been unheard of if everyone were flying to meetings." The way people worked changed in this pandemic, in many ways for the better. And the carbon savings were just huge, I wonder if they will stick.

October 18, 2021 - 4:44 pm

I appreciate LAS's transparency! And I love getting sustainability director into more meetings.