Remote Working: Better for the Environment? Part 2

By Eve Loveman

This is the second in a three-part series on whether remote working is better for the environment than office-based working. The first article in the series discussed how remote working could reduce emissions from the daily commute. In this article, we weigh up this reduction in transport-related emissions, and any possible reduction in office-related emissions, with the increase in domestic-related emissions from heating and electricity that occurs as a result of working from home. The studies indicate that, on average, reduced emissions from commuting will outweigh increased domestic-related emissions, making remote working an environmentally friendly step to take [1,2]. However, in certain limited scenarios, travelling to work via less carbon-intensive modes of transport may result in lower emissions overall than working from home [2].

Increased domestic emissions?

Working from home increases domestic energy consumption [1]. For instance, the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that a day of working from home could increase household energy consumption for heating and electrical appliances by between 7% and 23% [1]. However, calculating figures in any individual case involves taking into account many variables such as whether a house is normally occupied during the day anyway, whether the heating will remain on regardless of whether the house is occupied, whether only part of the house needs heating, seasonal variations and the efficiency of the household’s heating and insulation [1,3]. 

Do reductions in transport-related emissions outweigh increases in domestic-related emissions?

Studies show that in most scenarios, reduced emissions from commuting will outweigh an increase in domestic emissions, particularly where private cars are the mode of commuter transport used [1]. The IEA found that, in the European Union, an individual who commutes more than 3 km by car is likely to reduce their emissions overall by working from home, despite the resulting increase in domestic emissions [8]. Given the dominance of the private car as the preferred mode of commuter transport in Europe, with 74% of French commuters and 68% of German commuters travelling by car, and the average European commute of 15 km, reduced emissions from commuting seem likely to outweigh increased domestic emissions for most European commuters.  [1,4,5].

However, there may be some scenarios in which it is more efficient to heat or cool an office building occupied by many workers, than to heat or cool many individual homes [2]. Analysis by the Carbon Trust found that seasonal variations mean that, in some cases, if a less carbon intensive mode of transport is used, workers may reduce their emissions by working from the office rather than at home [9]. For instance, the study estimated that an urban worker in Spain commuting 20 km by train in the summer months would produce 5.78 kg CO2e per day when working from home, owing to the use of air conditioning, compared with a total of 3.79 kg CO2e per day in combined commuting and office emissions if they worked from the office [2]. Comparing energy used for home heating with office heating and transport emissions, the Carbon Trust estimated that a German worker commuting 20 km by train in winter would save 5.85 kg CO2 per day by working from the office [2]. The study assumed that a person working from home in winter would heat their house for an additional 4 hours per day [2]. The calculations took into account average national data across each country to reflect specific fuel sources for heating and cooling but did not take into account different fuels/methods of generating electricity for transport in each country [2]. Further, as noted above, actual figures for particular individuals would depend on a wide range of factors, such as whether a home is likely to be heated regardless of whether it is occupied. For example, the IEA notes that, in China, the widespread use of district heating (which is likely to remain on during the day whether or not a home is occupied) reduces the importance of rebound effects associated with working from home in the winter [1].

Some have expressed concerns that the adoption of a ‘hybrid’ approach, in which employees choose whether to work from home, may leave us with a scenario in which both homes and offices are fully operating and generating emissions [2]. However, a hybrid working model may also result in a reduction in demand for office space and so further reductions in CO2  emissions [1]. 

Conclusion 

Considering emissions arising from transport, heating and electricity, it seems that working from home will result in a reduction in emissions in most cases, particularly where the private car is the mode of commuter transport used. In the final article in this series, we will consider the health and lifestyle-related impacts of remote working and whether remote working policies can be formulated in a way that both protects our planet and promotes wellbeing.

References 

[1] 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)
[2] The Carbon Trust, 2021, “Homeworking report”, https://www.carbontrust.com/resources/the-carbon-savings-potential-of-homeworking-in-europe (see appendices of the report for further details on assumptions made in the study)
[3] 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
[4] Chantal Brutel, Jeanne Pages (Insee), La voiture reste majoritaire pour les déplacements domicile-travail, même pour de courtes distances, Insee, https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/5013868 (accessed 17/09/2021; in French only)
[5] Persons in employment, by status in employment, distance, journey time, and means of transport used to get to work 2020 in %, Destatis, https://www.destatis.de/EN/Themes/Labour/Labour-Market/Employment/Tables/commuter-1.htm (accessed 20/09/21)
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