The grey layers in the skies of Gauteng and other cities in South Africa are not caused by poor weather, but by air pollution.

Although there are government initiatives to reduce air pollution, it’s not a problem that can be eradicated in the short-term.
Instead, businesses and individuals need to take their own measures to reduce the terrible impact of air pollution on their activities and lives. Switching to more flexible working is one such measure, writes Joanne Bushell, Regus VP, Africa and Middle East.
South Africa’s pollution crisis
The two major types of pollution in South Africa are air and marine pollution. South Africa is known to be the largest emitter of pollution in sub-Saharan Africa, because of its 90% dependence on coal for electricity, and is the world’s 13th highest emitter of CO2, with a relatively high per-capita CO2 emissions rating of 8.59 metric-tons.
One of the main culprits of air pollution is the release of carbon monoxide (CO) from the exhaust fumes of cars and trucks into the atmosphere. A person inhaling CO will suffer from headaches, dizziness and tiredness because carbon monoxide combines easily with haemoglobin in the bloodstream.
The effects of air pollution, both direct and indirect, are felt throughout the country, particularly in areas of heavy industrial development such as the South Durban Industrial Basin and the Vaal Triangle, and in areas where households rely on non-electric sources of energy such as kerosene, dung and coal for household energy needs.
Making a difference
The government and numerous international organisations are well aware of this, of course, and there are a host of initiatives to improve the situation. But however successful the initiatives are, they’re not going to make a difference overnight. If South Africans want to see health improvements now, businesses and individuals need to act for themselves.
Many are doing so already. Worldwide, 63% of companies do not yet monitor their energy consumption and 81% of companies globally do not monitor their carbon footprint. However, a global survey by workspace solutions provider Regus found that 31% of South African companies measure their energy consumption and 19% monitor their carbon foot print.
Another important improvement is a third of companies (33%) have a policy to invest in energy efficient equipment.
But there is still a long way to go. The Regus survey found that less than half have invested in low carbon equipment (42%). Running costs were found to be important to 43% of companies, who declared that they would only invest in low carbon equipment if it were cheaper or the same to run as conventional equipment.
80% of SA companies declared that if government offered tax incentives to invest in energy efficient or low-carbon equipment, businesses would significantly accelerate their green investments.
Meanwhile, South Africans who live in the cities continue to inhale unhealthy levels of sulphur dioxide, benzene, ozone and other pollutants. So, what can they and their employers do? And what can they do today, not at some undefined point in the future?
Tackling the traffic
As stated above, traffic emissions are one of the main problems of South Africa’s pollution problem. With an astonishing 9,797,413 registered vehicles in South Africa, congestion has become very problematic. A ten-minute drive can take an hour if commuters are unlucky enough to travel in the rush hour (which of course lasts significantly longer than an hour).
These traffic jams aggravate pollution; they also cause high levels of stress among commuters – as the constant blare of hooters illustrates.
The obvious answer for employers is to try to reduce commuting. One way is to introduce more flexible hours. If employees can travel to work outside peak traffic times, their commuting times may be shorter. There are fewer emissions from cars stuck in traffic jams, and workers waste less time travelling. They are less likely to arrive late, and less likely to suffer stress and its side-effects.
But there’s a more effective way of achieving those benefits – a way that can also substantially cut businesses’ overheads. The solution is to introduce even greater flexibility into employees’ and managers’ working practices.
Cutting the daily commute
Commuting is necessary because people live in one part of a city (such as Johannesburg) and work in another (such as Tswane). But forward-looking businesses are realising that it may not be necessary for white-collar staff to live and work long distances apart. Instead, employers are looking at remote and flexible working, re-thinking the issue of where their staff actually need to be.
For example, whilst some staff may need a permanent desk at a central location, not all of them do. As long as they have the IT and telephony to communicate with their colleagues and contacts, they don’t all have to work in a single building.
Some could work more effectively from home. Some could be mobile, working in different places on different days. Some could do much of their work from a third space: somewhere with business-ready workspace, high-speed Internet and wireless connections, a business lounge where they can network, and a meeting room available if they need it.
Such a facility could be five minutes from their home, rather than 90 minutes’ drive away.
The benefits for business and individuals
This new mindset could have obvious environmental benefits in Gauteng and the other cities in South Africa. Cutting commuting journeys from, say, 15km to 2km – or from five days a week to one – would decrease energy consumption, traffic emissions and congestion. Even if the number of cars increases at the rate forecast, the environmental impact could be controlled if those cars were travelling less.
There are other benefits too. By introducing flexible and mobile working and thereby reducing commuting, employers can help to control air pollution and its terrible health consequences.
Enabling staff to work in a location that suits them can remove the stress of a long daily commute, and all the health consequences that stress can lead to – such as hypertension, musculo-skeletal disorders and mental health problems.
In Regus’s survey, it concluded that 68% of firms in South Africa believe that flexible working costs less than fixed office working.
Employers too could save money. With a workforce freed from the time and health pressures of stressful commuting, absenteeism and sickness rates can be reduced. The commensurate rise in productivity can be considerable. Not only does conserving fuel save money, but it reduces CO2 emissions and pollution and helps to increase safety on the roads.
Employers who move to more flexible working practices – for example, letting employees work at home or in cost-effective third spaces that they only use when they actually need them – can realise substantial savings.