Shifting to remote work can halve the carbon emissions associated with a person’s job, according to a new analysis. But working from home just one day a week has almost no climate benefit, the study suggests.
The findings emerge from the most comprehensive U.S. study yet to investigate the environmental impact of trends toward remote work and hybrid schedules prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent back-to-the-office efforts of some employers.
In the new study, researchers analyzed data from multiple national databases as well as information collected by the Seattle-area software giant Microsoft on its employees’ commuting and remote work habits.
They used these data to model carbon emissions from internet and communications technologies, home and office energy use, commuting, and non-commute travel for onsite, remote, and hybrid workers.
The carbon emissions of fully remote employees are 54% lower than those of employees who work full-time in the office, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A lot of past discussion has raised concerns about carbon emissions from computer and internet use while working from home, but “the effects of remote and hybrid work on communications technologies such as computer, phone, and internet usage have negligible impacts on the overall carbon footprint,” says study team member Fengqi You, an energy systems engineer and sustainability researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The study suggests that efforts to decarbonize work should focus instead on greener commutes, smaller offices, and connecting workplaces to renewable energy sources. “Office space energy use is a main contributor to the overall emissions, and shared office space in an effective way could be a very important tool for hybrid workers to reduce carbon footprints,” You says.
Desk sharing by hybrid employees could shrink their work-related carbon footprint by up to 28%, according to the analysis. This is because a lot of office energy use—heating, cooling, lighting, and so on—happens regardless of how many people are actually at the office.
Working from home just one day each week reduces an employee’s carbon emissions by only 2%, because people tend to make more non-commute trips on work-from-home days. Meanwhile, hybrid employees who work from home two to four days per week reduce their emissions by 11 to 29% compared to full-time onsite workers.
“When organizations enact work policies, they not only affect employees’ work-related carbon emissions, but also alter their personal environmental portfolio,” says study team member Longqi Yang, a researcher in Microsoft’s Office of Applied Research. “For example, remote workers lived farther away and commuted more for non-work purposes.” People might be willing to slog through a long commute once or twice a week, but not every day.
Of course, companies usually don’t make remote work policies entirely on carbon savings grounds. “Environmental impact is one of the many factors organizations may consider for their work policy,” Yang says. “Research has shown that some tasks are more productive to do remotely, while others are better fit for in-person. Balancing between these factors and enable[ing] flexible work is the key.”
In line with that, You’s team at Cornell is now investigating the environmental impacts of technologies for remote workers, such as metaverse technologies, he reports.
Source: Tao Y. et al. “Climate mitigation potentials of teleworking are sensitive to changes in lifestyle and workplace rather than ICT usage.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2023.
Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine.