Instinctively, working from home feels like it must be a positive thing for the environment. After all, the average commuting time in the UK is 1 hour and 38 minutes, much of which will be spent in a car. With the average petrol car in the UK producing around 180g of CO2 per kilometer, this adds up. The situation is even worse in the United States, where larger vehicles mean an average of 650g of CO2 is produced per kilometer.
The Covid pandemic provided a perfect Petri dish with which to explore how changes in our work patterns affect the environment. Homeworking leaped from around 5% pre-Covid to 47% during April 2020. Research from Spain’s Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals suggests this had a significant impact on air quality.
The study found that working from home four days a week would reduce the amount of nitrogen dioxide, which is the main pollutant generated by traffic emissions, by around 10%. Even with the lower levels of home working seen as workplaces have opened up again would still generate a reduction in air pollution of around 8%.
A similarly optimistic picture is painted in a recent study from communications industry analysts Assembly and tech giants Huawei, which suggests that access to faster and more reliable broadband could trim 2% from the UK’s annual commuting distance.
“Annual net carbon savings from increased remote working (attributable to faster broadband) are estimated to be 0.24 million tonnes by 2024,” the authors say. “Adding to that the carbon savings from the changes in business travel and server emissions, the total net carbon savings from faster broadband could be 1.6m tonnes of carbon each year by 2024.”
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While consuming digital resources, such as video conferencing, burns a considerable amount of energy in data centers, the researchers argue that the net impact is still positive, with Zoom calls emitting just 0.6% of the carbon emissions generated on a typical commute.
A mixed picture
Things are not straightforward, however, and research from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions at the University of Sussex suggests things might not be so clear-cut.
The study does indeed find that for many of us, home working can be significantly greener than our usual commute into the office, with home working reducing our personal emissions by up to 80% in some cases.
This is not the case for all of us, however, and indeed, for some of us, working from home may actually increase our energy usage. This is largely because some of us can use our newfound flexibility to increase our travel for recreation and other purposes, while also using more energy at home.
“While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings,” the researchers explain. “Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption.”
The situation is further complicated should we decide to adopt a hybrid work style that sees us mixing up home and office-based working each week. Not only does hybrid working result in more travel to work, but it also results in a duplication of the equipment required to work and an increase in the size of our homes to accommodate a home office.
This is the finding of research from the University of Manchester, which saw households from a range of professional backgrounds interviewed to understand how they worked from home during the pandemic.
For instance, between April and June 2020 the researchers discovered that global sales of laptops rose by over 11% with over 72 million units shipped. There were even bigger spikes in the sale of home office furniture, with office chairs and desks increasing by 300% and 438% respectively.
This demand is likely to continue as there has been a huge surge in the number of people wanting to work from home compared to pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, this is also driving demand for bigger houses to better accommodate home working.
The researchers found that there was a clear boost in demand for additional rooms, garages, larger kitchens, and even gardens to make spending more time at home that much more comfortable and enjoyable. We’ve undergone a fundamental shift in what we expect from a home during the pandemic that isn’t especially good for the environment.
Indeed, larger homes have been strongly linked with higher energy consumption, and if the urban flight to suburbs and smaller towns is a longstanding trend, we should also be aware that suburban households also tend to have a larger carbon footprint than their urban peers. This is especially so if we adopt a hybrid work pattern as even if commuting is less frequent, a longer distance per journey often makes it a more environmentally costly endeavor.
Of course, we’re at an early stage still of this shakedown in how and where we work, so its ultimate form is still largely unknown. It’s quite possible that the patterns seen during Covid will dissipate and pre-pandemic norms will return, just as it’s possible that we will develop more environmentally friendly ways of adopting hybrid working. For the time being, however, the jury remains very much out.