How Video Chat Can Fight Climate Change

One of the best things to happen to video conferencing in recent months wasn’t a technology breakthrough, a business merger or the emergence of a new company. It was the Icelandic volcano, which shut down a good chunk of airline travel for many weeks, prevented the emissions of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, and reminded grounded business travelers that there’s a broadband-based alternative for that transcontinental business meeting.

Will the explosive growth of video conferencing over the next five years — which could rise to 29.6 billion video calls during 2015, according to a new report on the video chat market from GigaOM Pro this morning (subscription required) — mean a significant cut in plane flights? Companies that are selling video conferencing services and gear, along with independent researchers, seem to think so.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2030, telecommuting and virtual meetings could cut nearly 1 billion tons of carbon emissions annually. Cisco (s CSCO), which all but owns the high end of the corporate telepresence business and plans to launch a consumer telepresence product, often touts how its product can help companies reduce travel expenses and related carbon emissions.

However, when compared to the potential emissions reductions from offenders like electricity consumption, the potential reductions of video conferencing are pretty small. The Boston Consulting Group and The Climate Group released a report that found 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. But the report found that video conferencing only accounted for 0.15 percent of that total reduction potential.

Still, while carbon emissions reduction is rarely the main goal for companies — it trails behind saving money on travel expenses — video conferencing is being driven by other technology and social factors. Video chat via mobile phones is one driving force, and the report predicts that the number of mobile video chat users will grow to 29 percent in 2015 from 1 percent in 2010. Apple’s (s AAPL) iPhone 4 unveiled today is touting video chat as one of its flagship features.

To read the complete report on the growth behind the video chat market, check out Report: The Consumer Video Chat Market, 2010-2015.

For an interesting debate over video conferencing and carbon emissions watch this video clip of panelists at Green:Net 2010, Other Lab’s Saul Griffith, Jonathan Koomey of Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Stanford, Greepeace’s IT analyst Casey Harrell,’s Alexis Madrigal and The Climate Group’s Molly Webb.

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Image courtesy of dpstyles™’s photostream.