Remote Working: Better for the Environment? Part 1

By Eve Loveman

With companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook recently announcing new ‘hybrid working’ policies, the shift towards working from home looks set to be a lasting impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as many employees will continue to have the option to work from home at least part-time [1]. Remote-working has brought significant benefits to many people, particularly those with disability-related needs that previously were not being met in the workplace [2]. However, some recent news reports have suggested that remote working will not always result in a net reduction in fossil fuel emissions [1,3]. This is the first in a series of three articles examining these claims and focuses on emissions related to commuting. The second article in this series will consider emissions arising from heating and electricity consumption and the third will examine other potential health-related benefits of remote-working.

Commuting

By eliminating the daily commute, remote working presents the opportunity to reduce transport-related emissions [4]. A study carried out by Greenpeace Germany found that, in Germany, if 22% of employees worked from home for an extra day per week following the pandemic, this would save 1.6 million tonnes CO2e per year (taking into account average emissions from different modes of transport) [5]. In an optimistic scenario, with 40% of individuals able to work from home, each employee working an additional day from home rather than the office could save 2.8 million tonnes CO2e per year, which accounts for around 9% of annual commuting emissions in Germany [5]. The Carbon Trust has estimated that, in the UK, by working from home two days per week, an individual worker can save on average 390 kg CO2e per year on transport emissions [6]. 

Whilst these figures represent a notable decline in emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) explains that the possible reduction in emissions from commuter transport as a result of remote working is small when compared with the reductions needed to put the world on track to meet key sustainability goals [8]. For instance, a reduction of 2.8 million tonnes CO2e per year accounts for only around 2% of transport emissions in Germany [5]. Therefore, the opportunity to reduce emissions from the daily commute is significant, and could be more so in countries with higher rates of private car use, but we should not think that switching to remote working will solve all the problems of transport-related emissions. Nevertheless, the IEA remarks that a ‘significant and sustained shift’ towards working from home could have important effects in other areas, for example, by reducing demand for office space (discussed later in this series) [8]. 

The literature also notes the risk of transport-related ‘rebound effects’, the idea being that remote working may lead to additional trips being carried out during the day that could otherwise have been combined with the daily commute, or lead to increased leisure trips [5]. However, the evidence on this is somewhat uncertain and would need to be investigated further [5]. For instance, some studies have suggested that working from home encourages people to reduce the distance they travel to non-work destinations [5]. Concerns about rebound effects highlight the need for sustainable behaviour change to be underpinned by a shift in societal values, so that individuals avoiding the daily commute also avoid other unnecessary trips in order to benefit the environment [7].

Conclusion on Commuting

Working from home has the potential to reduce emissions arising from commuter transport and remote working policies could be one part of a package of changes used to reduce transport emissions. In the next article in this series, we weigh up this reduction in transport-related emissions with the increase in domestic-related emissions that may occur as a result of working from home, to determine whether remote working is likely to be better for the environment overall.

References:

[1] Amanda Schupak, “Is remote working better for the environment? Not necessarily”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/02/is-remote-working-better-for-the-environment-not-necessarily (accessed 26/08/2021)
[2] Frances Ryan, “Remote working has been life-changing for disabled people, don’t take it away now”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/02/remote-working-disabled-people-back-to-normal-disability-inclusion (accessed 26/08/2021)
[3] Meredith Turits, “Zero commute, no office energy consumption – working from home seems the most sustainable solution. But the answer to impact isn’t that simple.”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200218-why-working-from-home-might-be-less-sustainable (accessed 26/08/2021)
[4] Clinch et al., 2012, Environmental policy implications of working from home: Modelling the impacts of land-use, infrastructure and socio-demographics, Energy Policy, Volume 47, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2012.05.014
[5] Breitkreuz et al., 2020, Arbeiten nach Corona: Warum Homeoffice gut fürs Kima ist, Greenpeace Germany, ISBN 978-3-941374-19-5 
[6] Stephens et al., 2014 Homeworking: helping businesses cut costs and reduce their carbon footprint, The Carbon Trust, https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/homeworking-helping-businesses-cut-costs-and-reduce-their-carbon-footprint
[7] Newell et al., 2021, Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, Cambridge University Press, (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/global-sustainability/cambridge-sustainability-commissions/changing-our-ways
[8] Daniel Crow et al., “Working from home can save energy and reduce emissions. But how much?”, International Energy Agency, https://www.iea.org/commentaries/working-from-home-can-save-energy-and-reduce-emissions-but-how-much (accessed 26/08/2021)
Categories Energy

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