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The hidden carbon tradeoffs of telecommuting

Working from home might not save as much energy as we wish
May 19, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a sudden and massive shift towards working from home for those whose jobs can be accomplished remotely. Will these changes will stick even after the virus recedes? And if so, might this be a chance to reduce the carbon emissions involved in running offices and commuting to and from work?

A comprehensive new analysis suggests that working from home isn’t always an environmental home run. Many studies of teleworking do suggest this strategy saves energy. But more rigorous studies and more comprehensive ones, that trace the ripple effects of forgoing the commute through people’s daily lives, tend to show smaller benefits or even, in a few cases, a net increase of energy consumption.  

Researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK conducted a systematic review of the field. They sifted through more than 9,000 previously published studies to identify 39 papers published since 1995 that analyzed the impacts of teleworking on energy use.

Nineteen studies took place in the United States, 11 in Europe, a handful in Japan, and one each in Canada, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Iran. Fourteen of the studies used simulations or modeling approaches to project potential impacts from teleworking, 19 analyzed publicly available datasets on transportation and work behavior, and 6 evaluated teleworking pilot studies.    

Two-thirds (26) of the 39 studies reviewed suggested that remote working reduces overall energy use, carbon emissions, or both. Most of the savings come from reductions in vehicle emissions during commuting and reductions in the amount of energy used in offices.

But three studies suggested that teleworking is a wash, energy-wise, and five indicated that it increases energy use. (The remaining five studies yielded unclear results.)

“Differences in the methodology, scope and assumptions of the different studies make it difficult to estimate ‘average’ energy savings,” the researchers write in the journal Environmental Health Letters.

About half of the studies only looked at the impact of remote working on commuter travel. Some of the studies considered a wider range of impacts, including the effects of telecommuting on non-commuting travel, home energy use, or office energy use. (Notably, none of the studies looked at all four categories of impact.)

“As most studies focus more narrowly upon commuter travel and ignore interactions between teleworking practices and non-work travel, it seems likely that they overestimate the energy savings from teleworking,” the researchers write. And in fact, studies with a wider scope, as well as those that the researchers judged more methodologically rigorous, tended to find smaller energy savings from telework.

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There are several ways in which teleworking might, paradoxically, increase travel. If people don’t have to drive to the office every day, they might choose to live farther from work – and wind up driving more commuting miles on the days they do go in to the office. Their non-work travel may increase because they are unable to ‘combine trips’ as part of their commute. Other household members may take advantage of having access to a car during the day and make more trips outside the house. Or the remote worker may head out to the library or café for a change of scenery.

If people telecommute only part of the week, as was most commonly the case in pre-pandemic times, “companies may not down-size their offices or reduce energy consumption,” the researchers write. Meanwhile the remote worker may be using more energy for heating, cooking, and keeping the lights on at home than they would if they were at the office all day. Then there’s the need to buy a duplicate printer and other office equipment to use at home. The increasing reliance on energy-intensive technologies like cloud storage and video streaming could also up the energy footprint of remote work.

Of course, energy use at closed-down offices during the coronavirus pandemic is probably pretty low (let’s just hope someone remembered to turn off the lights and printers before locking up). And not many remote workers are heading out to the local coffee shop to work these days. But the analysis suggests that continuing work-from-home practices after the pandemic ends won’t necessarily be an environmental boon.

“Unless workers and employers fully commit to the working from home model, many of the potential energy savings could be lost,” study team member Benjamin Sovacool said in a statement. “A scenario after the threat of Coronavirus has cleared where workers will want the best of both worlds; retaining the freedom and flexibility they found from working from home but the social aspects of working at an office that they’ve missed out on during lockdown, will not deliver the energy savings the world needs.”

Source: Hook A. et al.A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking.” Environmental Health Letters 2020. 

Image: RF123.

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