Insights and Analysis

Why Go Carbon Neutral? Aren’t We Too Small to Make a Difference?

May 17, 2023

By Todd Wassel

The Asia Foundation staff composting in Laos. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

The scorching air of Laos’s hot season hung heavy as I cycled my way through traffic to the office. Despite the heat, a mask gripped my face, not to stave off the waning pandemic, but to protect me from the choking pollution. The air quality index stood at a dangerous 400-plus. The biohazard icon on my phone’s air quality app conjured images of a post-apocalyptic movie, rather than the relaxed Southeast Asian capital of Vientiane, sitting on the banks of the mighty Mekong. It was the middle of April and the height of the burning season, when farmers across the country slash and burn their overgrown fields to clear them for planting before the monsoon season.

The air quality is always bad during the burning season, but this year felt different. Drought had parched the jungles, and small fires were growing out of hand, consuming protected forest lands. It was also my first year commuting to work by bicycle, no longer protected from the environment in my air-conditioned car. It was at once a confirmation that we all must act to save the world from a climate disaster, and a hopeless moment as I wondered if my small contribution was worth it.

No one forced our office in Laos to go carbon neutral. Rather, our team was collectively driven by our own values to try to make the world a better place, even in ways that may seem small or insignificant in comparison to the challenges. The fact that we could each see the world changing for the worse before our eyes confirmed our commitment, but with just 35 staff and no one around us doing anything similar, would our effort and sacrifice make any difference? Many of our friends and colleagues questioned our path. It was complicated, it cost money, and some people even told us to leave it to the big companies where reductions would make a real difference.

This blog post is the beginning of an answer to those who told us to save our effort, that the problem was too big for a small office to tackle, our impact too small to matter. We are supporters of the opposite proposition, that we can’t wait for others to lead us, that we must start to make changes ourselves. If all the small houses, businesses, and organizations take action, we will be in a better position to set the pace for society at large. By accepting the challenge of going carbon neutral, we have not only affirmed that things need to change, but we have learned that they can change in ways that are better, easier, and cheaper than most people think.

The three main steps that anyone can take to go carbon neutral are simple:

  1. Conduct a greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory to measure your current emissions.
  2. Choose a carbon neutral strategy and an emissions reduction target to determine how fast you will reduce.
  3. Develop an action plan and start reducing your GHG emissions.

As simple as this sounds, each step does require some specialized knowledge and advice. The best way to navigate this is to seek out someone who has done it and can guide you through the process. For an overview of what needs to be done, you can get started with our quick guide to the process, Going Carbon Neutral in Laos. Many of the basics are applicable everywhere.

The important thing is to act. Read the quick guide, then start planning your GHG inventory. Once you understand how much you emit, you can decide what will work to reduce your emissions and on what timeline. This is not something that you have to solve in one or two years. It will take time, but this is the way the world is going. Either you will happen to the world, or the world will happen to you.

Solar panels on The Asia Foundation office in Laos. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

Our own GHG audit showed that our rate of emissions per employee—our GHG intensity—was 3.09 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per employee in 2019, 1.19 tons in 2020, and 1.5 tons in 2021. This drop had more to do with Covid restrictions than our own efforts, but the yearly changes showed us what was possible, and by 2022 we were at 1.6 tons CO2e per employee even after returning to full operations. This is a reduction of almost half from pre-pandemic levels, and well below the average for Laos of 2.6 tons per person per year. By making just a few changes, our office is keeping over 50 tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere each year. Our goal is eventually to reach 1.1 tons CO2e per employee.

Here are the most important things we did that made the biggest difference right away:

  • Installed solar panels.
  • Prevented air conditioning gas leaks, and increased efficiency, through regular preventive maintenance; set the thermostat a little higher and increased the use of fans; and replaced old air conditioners with new, high-efficiency units.
  • Replaced fluorescent lights with LEDs, removed unneeded lights, and switched to solar-powered security lights.
  • Reduced the amount of garbage sent to landfill by using cotton bags instead of plastic and using less plastic overall.
  • Carpooling, cycling to work, and using low-emissions transportation such as public transit, trains, or buses instead of airplanes when traveling; and traveling less by holding virtual meetings when possible.

While many of these steps required an initial investment, we are now enjoying 50 percent lower electricity bills and 20 percent lower travel costs. Within eight years, when our new electric office vehicle is paid off, our recurring electrical and local transportation costs, now provided by solar, will be essentially zero.

We won’t achieve all our planned emissions reductions until 2030, but that is comparatively fast. And we still struggle to decide the right amount of air travel. But our reductions everywhere else have convinced us that we’re on the right track, and we have the data—and the higher bank balances—to prove it. In the meantime, we are purchasing high-quality, locally sourced carbon credits to offset our current GHG emissions even as we work to reduce our own emissions further each year. In that way we can say today that The Asia Foundation in Laos is now formally carbon neutral, which has changed the way all of us feel about the hopelessness of climate change.

Country Representative Todd Wassel biking to work in Laos. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

As my bicycle reached the office, the air seemed to clear a bit. The haze was still thick, but my staff were walking lightly, laughing, busily churning the compost pile, and planning for shared lunches with no single-use plastics. Are we improving the current air quality? The honest answer is, not visibly. But we are doing what we can and helping each other along the path. We are showing that sustainable is possible. We are all happier and healthier from the current change, and we plan to keep improving our lives and the communities we serve. All it took was some attention to detail, some reorganization of our budget, and extra showers for our new bicycle commuters.

This is the first in a series of posts exploring how our carbon neutral office strategy goes far beyond the office. In subsequent posts we will explore the market for carbon offsets in Laos, how carbon credits can contribute to development impacts locally, and the ripple effect that one office’s carbon experiment has had on the whole organization.

Todd Wassel is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Lao PDR. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Laos


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