Suddenly, the streets emptied and the air became cleaner. Much of the population — at least those who still had jobs — were at home in a Zoom meeting while nature regenerated. It seems like a no-brainer — if everybody works remotely at home, commuting emissions will plummet and the world will be a greener place. But the full picture is more complex, and studies are exploring the pros and cons of the remote working lifestyle. Here’s a look at the factors that help determine the most sustainable ways to work.
The most obvious environmental benefits of the stay-at-home orders have been the quiet highways and skies, as cars stayed parked and planes grounded. Daily work commutes ceased, except for essential workers. People canceled airline reservations, airlines canceled flights and meetings and conferences became virtual events.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation takes the top spot of sources of greenhouse emissions at 28%. Electricity is close behind at 27%. Approximately 53% of those transportation emissions are related to work commutes, primarily car travel, plus a combination of rail, planes, buses and motorcycles.
While we don’t yet know exactly how many commutes were skipped due to the pandemic, a 2017 study by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics assessed the environmental impact of the remote worker population, which they estimated was then 3.9 million workers who worked from home at least part-time. They concluded this saved the environment 7.8 billion travel miles, 3 million tons of greenhouse gases and $980 million in oil savings (at $50 per barrel).
This is obviously a big win for the environment. However, energy consumption patterns vary from place to place. For example, 40% of vehicles sold in Norway in 2019 were electric, meaning transportation has a slimmer footprint there. And in the many major cities where workers rely on public buses and trains, commuting accounts for fewer emissions than cities where most people drive private cars.
Living more sustainably
Eco-conscious people have much more control over everyday decisions when working at home. Food consumption is one major difference. A person working at home is probably eating off of their regular dishes instead of using plastic cutlery and takeout containers. By preparing healthy meals at home, the remote worker can make choices that are better for their physical health, their wallets and the environment. This is especially convenient for people with special diets, such as vegans. People who work at home at least part-time can also save money on work clothes, ultimately helping the planet by avoiding fast fashion and textile waste.
When people work at home, they absorb many of the overhead costs. In a Staples workplace study, 77% of employers responded that they believed they could lower operating costs by allowing workers to work remotely. Companies save on office space, utility bills and equipment. Of course, this is less attractive to the remote worker. Part of the recent toilet paper shortage was driven by people who usually used someone else’s toilet at least 40 hours a week and were shocked to see how much faster the rolls disappeared while working at home. Most remote workers can expect to provide at least some of their own equipment and furniture as well as pay for electricity. Still, this could encourage people to reduce their energy consumption.
Choosing a remote work location
One of the biggest advantages for remote workers is that they have a choice over where they live and work. For those who work remotely full-time and aren’t required to show up in person regularly, they can live anywhere with an internet connection.
Some people will always want to move to big cities for culture, nightlife or other opportunities. But many others would rather live in small towns or rural communities if job location isn’t a factor. The UN predicts a staggering 5 billion people will live in cities by 2030, “exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, sewage, the living environment and public health.” Instead, remote work lets people stay in their hometowns or other places of their choosing. Many workers would value the opportunity to stay home and care for family members, tend to gardens or farmland, contribute to their own communities and be role models for local youth.
Heating and cooling
Office climate control is a big factor in the remote-versus-office debate. On the upside, home workers get to decide whether the temperature is too hot or too cold, and might even live in a building with windows that open. On the downside, the cost of heating and cooling is entirely shifted from employer to worker during that 8-hour workday. Many people who suddenly found themselves at home full-time during the pandemic noticed a surge in the cost of their electricity.
On a larger scale, heating and cooling have big environmental implications. The London-based consulting firm WSP UK studied the carbon output of 200 U.K.-based workers in different locations. It concluded that remote work was a boon for the environment in summer, but not in winter. The environmental cost of heating all the workers’ individual houses was greater than heating one office building. “Energy management in buildings is generally more sophisticated than at individual homes,” WSP UK’s David Symons told the BBC. In places like the U.S., much of which relies heavily on air conditioning, the energy cost of working at home could be high in summer and the winter.
Of course, one must also factor in the source of the energy. If you live somewhere like Iceland, which powers many homes and businesses with geothermal energy, it makes less of a difference where you work. If your home benefits from solar or wind power, energy consumption also becomes less of an issue.
There are many factors in the remote work decision
While working from home can have a positive environmental impact, it’s a complicated question with many factors, some of which are very individual. Some people thrive on social interaction and feel off without being in the office with their coworkers. Others are relieved and better able to focus. Remote work fits smoothly into some home and family situations, while in others, it might be too distracting to get anything done. Whether you work in an office or at home, remember that your environmental impact is made up of hundreds of little daily choices, including how you set your thermostat, what you eat for lunch, where you buy your work clothes and what kind of transportation you use for your commute.