Will working from home help the environment?
No commuting, no large offices to heat. Is it really that simple?
The COVID-19 pandemic saw a huge rise in people working from home. A survey carried out by UK Parliament in April 2020 found 47 per cent of people with jobs in the UK had done at least some work from home that month. Contrast that with a survey the year before where only 30 per cent of workers said they had ever worked from home.
Many now think the numbers of people at the office will never go back to their pre-pandemic levels. In a 2021 YouGov survey, 70 per cent of people polled said they expected workers to never return to offices at the same rate. And 60 per cent said they would prefer to work remotely at least some of the time if they could choose.
It seems like a no-brainer that these changes would be good for the environment, and several studies have come to this conclusion. Working from home can reduce both travel emissions from people’s commutes and save the need to heat, cool, or light offices. Even the European Commission is in on this trick: it announced plans in May 2021 to close half of its 50 office buildings across Brussels, in part to become “more green”.
In an analysis in 2020, the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that for people who commute to work by car more than six kilometres (3.7 miles) one way, teleworking will lead to a reduction of emissions – despite the extra energy consumption due to them staying at home.
The analysis also estimated that around a fifth of all jobs globally could be carried out entirely at home. If all these workers worked from home three days a week, it found, around 80 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced per year – an amount comparable to the entire annual CO2 emissions of Chile.
Working from home is one of the core “behavioural changes” needed to help achieve net zero emissions in 2050, explains Ariane Millot, an energy analyst at the IEA and co-author of the analysis.
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“Teleworking can help to accelerate the reduction of CO2 emissions that is needed to achieve a pathway compatible with a 1.5°C temperature increase,” she says. “The impacts on air pollution are likely to be large and positive.”
But when an even wider scope is used to assess the changes in emissions when working from home, the picture is not always so clear, says Dr Andrew Hook, a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sussex and lead author of a 2020 review of 39 studies on the climate impacts of teleworking.
“We find that the more rigorous studies ... estimate smaller energy savings, with a few studies even suggesting teleworking could actually increase overall energy use,” says Hook.
The reason for this is that these studies take into account the other changes in energy use that come from people working from home. For example, people working from home most of the time may choose to live further away from their office, making their commute longer on the days they do head into the workplace. They may also end up travelling more for leisure than they would if working in an office, or end up using much more energy when they are at home. Moreover, if offices are kept open, they may still be using similar amounts of energy, even if they are mainly empty.
A report published in June 2021 by the UK’s Carbon Trust concluded, for example, that urban German workers who commute by train during the winter tend to have far lower carbon emissions working in the office than at home, due to the energy needed to heat individual homes. However, homeworking did on average save carbon emissions in all six European countries analysed, when looked at over the whole year.
Higher levels of teleworking certainly can lead to reduced energy use and emissions, as well as improved quality of life, says Hook. But to maximise climate gains, steps are needed to minimise these other increases in energy use. This could mean, for instance, better town planning to ensure cafes and shops are accessible by walking, cycling and public transport. Similarly, improving energy efficiency in homes will mean they take less energy and emissions to heat.
Ultimately, the share of homeworking possible will depend on the specific country, its economy and other factors like digital readiness, says Millot. If governments support teleworking in the right way, though, it appears it could make a small but substantial impact on emissions.
- This article first appeared in issue 371 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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