The switch to home-working seems like a convenient planet-saver. It’s not that simple.
Back in early 2020, when we were still disinfecting our groceries and making sourdough starters and banana bread, something was happening that seemed like a silver lining behind the black cloud of the pandemic. Nature was flourishing. Dolphinsplayed in the canals of Venice. There was less noise and air pollution. Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4% globally and 13% in the US alone. All of this was happening because offices were shuttered, planes stayed in hangars, and commutes were replaced with the short walk from the bed to the kitchen table.
Now the daily commute is becoming a thing of the past - at least for high-paying desk jobs. A whole raft of major employers, including Microsoft, Adobe, Verizon, and Spotify, have announced hybrid or remote work policies. Sixty-one percent of professionals want to be fully remote and 97% want to be at least partly remote. In fact, more than half of professionals surveyed said they would quit if not offered hybrid working post-pandemic. That’s significant data in a hiring market where candidates are calling the shots.
It all sounds like great news for the environment, but that’s not necessarily the case. To understand the complexities of the situation, let’s unpack the environmental impact of heating/cooling your home, commuting to work, and a few other unexpected factors.
Heating and Cooling
Residential energy use surged during the lockdown with midweek demand resembling normal weekend patterns. In some parts of the US, weekday residential usage was up by 30%. Even though we were replacing restaurants, cinemas, and gyms with home baking, Netflix binges, and sessions on Peloton bikes, it’s safe to say that working from home (WFH) made up a hefty chunk of our lockdown carbon footprint. Estimates suggest an average day of home working increases household energy use by 7-23%.
The impact of WFH depends on where you are and whether the sun’s out. In the US, electricity demand is higher in summer when everyone flicks on the AC. In the UK, energy use is 36% higher in winter, meaning that WFH costs households an additional £21/day in the colder months. Those fluctuations will only get more dramatic as global warming brings hotter, longer heatwaves and more extreme winter weather, like the cold snap in Texas last Feb.
The environmental impact also depends on whether the electricity source is green or ‘dirty’. Sweden’s electricity production is 45% hydroelectric, 30% nuclear and 17% wind power whereas South Africa’s is 83% coal-powered. Heating a bachelor pad for one exec is less efficient than heating a couple’s shared space (if less likely to lead to arguments) and drafty old mansions will fare worse than compact, modern apartments.
This wasn’t so much of a problem during lockdown when whole floors of skyscrapers went dark and office microwaves sat idle. But in the hybrid working world, there is the danger of doubling up, with companies heating and cooling offices for some staff while others tweak the thermostat at home. It’s a difficult problem to tackle. In the past, companies could calculate their carbon footprint by assessing an average day in the office. Now they have to take into account the fluctuating number of people in the office and what kind of insulation they have in their homes.
Okay, so we use a bit more electricity at home. But surely that’s canceled out by all those gas-guzzling commutes we’ll avoid? Again, it’s a bit more complicated.
Road transport accounts for about 15% of global carbon emissions. Pre-pandemic, over a million people, commuted into New York City every day, and more than 500 million traveled across the city. Similar movements were happening in urban centers across the world. That’s a whole lot of journeys, each with its own carbon footprint.
In 2020, traffic around the world decreased by around 70%. Major New York commuter highways were so quiet that they attracted drag racers and even ATVs. As recently as this Jan, Subway and commuter rail rides in NYC were less than half of 2019 levels. Similar patterns are visible for rail networks in Paris and London.
That’s definitely a major win for the environment but it's a bigger win for some cities than others, depending on their commuting patterns. Pre-pandemic, 75% of Chicago commuters drove to work, while in Tokyo more than 80% traveled by rail. London was somewhere in between with 45% of commuters traveling by car or bus and 38% by rail.
Cutting down on rail journeys has a much smaller impact on the environment than cutting back on car journeys. Rail is one of the greenest modes of transport and accounts for only around 1% of emissions. That’s including luxury journeys on the Orient Express and 2 a.m. rides home on the metro on a Friday night. In other words, even if commuter rail journeys stay at their current low volumes, we are still talking small percentages of global emissions - which is positive but not as dramatic as you might expect.
WFH will have an even smaller impact in cities with eco-friendly commute habits. In Amsterdam, for example, almost half of all home-to-work trips are by bicycle, so the carbon footprint of commuting is already minimal - not to mention the wellbeing benefits a morning cycle affords workers.
The impact in different regions will also depend on how ‘clean’ cars run. US cars tendto run ‘dirty’ and are also less fuel-efficient than their European counterparts. In the UK, the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned from 2030 to encourage the adoption of more eco-friendly electric vehicles while US President Biden’s ambition is to require 50% of new vehicles sold to be electric by the same date. Laws like these will have a big impact on the carbon footprint of office workers.
The good news is, remote working will still likely cause a net decrease in global emissions. Researchers estimate that if everybody able to work from home did so for one day a week, global emissions would drop by 24 million tonnes/year - which is the equivalent of shutting down all of Greater London. Not to mention, global oil consumption would decrease by 1%.
Here’s an indication of how WFH impacts your personal carbon footprint. If you commute by car and live more than 3.7 miles from work, WFH probably lowers your footprint. But if your commute is shorter or by public transport, foot or bicycle, WFH could increase it.
General Car Use
There’s another complication to consider. Although car use was down overall during the lockdown, the covid-era has seen people ditch the coughing crowds on public transport and shift to private vehicles. In China, bus and metro journeys more than halved during the height of the pandemic while private car use doubled. In New York, car registrations were up 18% in 2020 compared to the previous year and congestion increased in greater Paris, London, and Perth. Without a proper rush hour, trains, tubes, and trams might be forced to reduce their offering, pushing even more people towards cars.
Moreover, some researchers think that WFH makes us drive more. The theory is that office workers drive to and from an office in the city center and do activities and errands within walking distance of that office. They often use the gym at work, nip out during their lunch break to run errands, grab groceries on the way home and meet friends for after-work drinks near the office. Home workers, however, have to make separate car journeys for each errand or activity in their day. If more people work remotely, traffic levels could drop and parking could be easier meaning that those who are commuting might find driving a more attractive option. And if more people are only working part of the week in the office, they may consider living further away - where property prices are lower - and end up taking on a longer commute.
That theory is backed up by data. A survey of 26 countries found that loads of people plan to drive more after the pandemic than before. In the US, the figure was 40% of drivers. In South Africa and Brazil, it was 60%+.
The Great Exodus
On top of the Great Resignation, The Great Reset, and The Great Reshuffle, lockdown brought us another big movement: The Great Exodus. Everyone seems to know someone who bought a shack on the beach or a house in the suburbs in 2020 in an attempt to escape the virus-ridden cities and make the most of remote working. Research suggests that more people moved out of cities than into them while suburbs saw the reverse. San Francisco and New York are thought to have seen the largestexodus, perhaps because of the high cost of property and a high proportion of remote-friendly employers in those cities.
So what does that mean for carbon footprint? It’s intuitive that big suburban houses lend themselves to high energy use and a car-centric lifestyle. One study found that the average suburban household emits 25% more carbon than the average urban household. Another study claims that high-rise dwellers use more eco-friendly transport and make more journeys by public transport, on foot, and by bike. However, they also found that city slickers travel more miles by car per year per household and consume about 27% more energy per person at home. Of course, those details will vary massively depending on whether you're comparing downtown LA to Beverly Hills, London to the suburbs of Essex, or Cape Town to the seaside village of Kommetjie. In short, The Great Exodus seems like a carbon footprint win but it’s tricky to make any firm conclusions.
Much like the dessert on an airline meal tray, the stats on business travel leave a bad taste in your mouth. Air travel causes around 2% of global emissions and 3-4% of US emissions. Business travelers make up 12% of airline passengers but are responsible for more than their fair share of CO2. Flying on the company dime often means flying upfront, not squeezed into cattle class with the sunburnt backpackers and screaming babies. First-class seats have 4x the carbon footprint of the economy while private jets are 10x more carbon-intensive than commercial flights.
Bill Gates claims that 50% of business travel will vanish post-pandemic. Video-conferencing alternatives have seen major venture capital investment in the past 2 years, which suggests that virtual events are not going anywhere. Yet, Zoom fatigue and the benefits of face-to-face interaction might get people back on the road attending trade shows and conferences, meeting international clients, and getting to know their colleagues on team-building getaways. There is a potential financial incentive too. According to one study, every $1 spent on business travel corresponds to $12.50 in revenue because it’s an opportunity to close deals, network, and attract new clients.
Fifty-four percent of companies expect travel spending to match 2019 levels by the 4th quarter of this year and 34% expect it to return to 75-99% of 2019 levels by the same date. However, 79% of companies have made some kind of sustainability pledge so, unless that’s just lip service, we might see more of Zoom and less zooming about.
Remote work also opens the door for employees to set up shop in exotic locations. We might see more ‘digital nomads’ taking conference calls from a resort in the Caribbean or an Airbnb in Paris - which could have an impact on air travel. Time will tell.
A Few More Factors
- Clothing: People who WFH buy less clothing which is good news for their carbon footprint.
- Online shopping: Spending more time WFH does not correlate with doing more of your shopping online. That’s relevant because online shopping is probably worse for the environment than in-person shopping.
- Office downsizing: A study of Fortune 500 CEOs revealed that 74% expect to reduce office space post-pandemic. Offices are also likely to be rearranged. Open-plan spaces are not ideal when half the room is talking loudly on external Zoom calls. Renovation materials, moving vans and new furniture all have an impact on the environment.
So what can we do to manage our carbon footprint as we embark on the remote working path? As individuals, we can make eco-friendly choices both at home and in the office. We can turn off lights when we aren’t using them, choose climate-kind modes of travel or even adopt hygge, the Danish cultural practice of enjoying cuddly blankets and cozy beanies in the height of winter, instead of cranking up the thermostat. We can also adapt our WFH schedule so that we work more in the office in summer, for example, to save on air conditioning at home.
As businesses, we can:
- gather data about the energy use of remote workers
- consider the sustainability of materials and the energy requirements of buildings when we downsize office space
- invest in carbon offsetting schemes
- offer benefits or incentives that encourage employees to cycle to work, commute by public transport, or choose an electric company car
- coordinate remote working schedules so that the entire office is unplugged once a week
Too often, businesses have sustainability policies that are more PR and lip service than anything else. The pandemic is a great chance to shake things up. Maybe our lockdown plans to lose 5lb and learn a language didn't shape up, but it's not too late to set a carbon footprint goal. The window is closing. The ‘new normal’ is establishing itself in its permanent form. The time to reset working habits is now.