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Is WFH more environmentally friendly than working in an office?

By now, we’re all a little too familiar with the lockdowns, restrictions and border closures that plagued the world throughout 2020 and 2021. While these measures are taking their toll on local businesses and human connection, they did have some unforeseen positive outcomes in their bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, namely our collective environmental impact. 

In March 2020, NYC produced nearly 50% less pollution than the year before, China’s emissions dropped 25%, and their coal use fell by 40% across their largest power plants. 

The European Environmental Agency (EEA), which measures Europe’s air quality, predicted that NO2 emission dropped from 30-60% in many European cities, including Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Rome and Paris.

And, after record-breaking air pollution levels for Delhi at the end of 2019, National Geographic reported a drop in harmful nitrogen dioxide by more than 70% from the early 2020 lockdowns. 

We also saw instances of improved water quality, lower noise pollution and overall ecological restoration across the globe. However, I will also add that the pandemic has brought about an increase in medical and plastic waste (through PPE and increased takeout packaging) which, of course, have long-term harmful environmental impacts. 

Such significant reductions are worth celebrating, though as we’ve come to find out, it’s critical to recognize the temporary nature of these results as well as the devastating means by which we achieved them. I think I can speak for everyone when I say no one would have wanted to lower our emissions in this way if we had the choice.

But is there at least something we can learn from this situation? 

Travel makes up a significant portion of global greenhouse emissions. We know that cities have encouraged their people to choose more environmentally friendly commute options such as public transit, cycling, or walking for years.

I wonder what would happen if we removed commuting from our routines altogether.

While I’m by no means advocating for shelter-in-place orders to continue long-term, I am curious whether working from home (as many of us have been doing throughout the pandemic) may be a more environmentally friendly option moving forward. 

In this article, I’ll be comparing the greenhouse emissions of regular commuters to their WFH counterparts to see whether maintaining some lockdown habits could help continue some of the positive environmental effects into the future.

How much does commuting to an office contribute to greenhouse gas emissions?

Commuting has long been a source of contention for those wanting to live more environmentally conscious lives. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, which in 2018 made up 28.2% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2019, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that the US used approximately 142.71 billion gallons of gasoline (which translates to around 390.98 million gallons a day).

Of course, this is not just a US problem. From the table above, you can see that Londoners are emitting 0.5332 lb of CO2 every mile they drive.

The Greater London Characteristics of Commuters report found that “The average commute of those working in London was 9.1 miles.” However, when they removed responders who worked from home or had no fixed working address (i.e. those whose commute was zero miles), the average distance traveled increased to 11.2 miles.

So, what would it mean to your company’s emissions if your employees could be flexible with where they logged on?

According to FlexJobs, Dell, Aetna, and Xerox cumulatively saved 95,294 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. These numbers are equivalent to removing 20,000 passenger vehicles from the road. By implementing flexibility into their policies, “The three companies also reduced paper usage [and] consolidated buildings—reducing consumption of resources such as electricity and heating oil.”

Of course, these numbers are so large because the companies themselves are large. 

At the time, Dell had more than 100,000 employees, and one-fifth chose to work from home, making a considerable dent in the company’s overall environmental impact.

But even if you have smaller numbers, your reductions can still be considerable. 

We’re going to do a bit of math here, but stay with me!

If we use the average 11.2 mile commute as an example, every day one (London-based) employee is creating 5.972 lb of CO2. By the end of one week, that’s 41.8 lb, and by the end of one year, that’s 2090 lb. 

If this employee chooses to work from home three days a week, they’ll reduce their CO2 emissions by 1492.8 lb per year. If they work from home full time, they’ll remove 2090 lb of CO2 emissions from their footprint.

Of course, this is only one example using basic averages. These numbers could shift considerably depending on the commute mode, distance traveled, and location, which all vary significantly among countries. For instance, cycling is much more common in some cities, whereas others rely heavily on their subway or public bus systems. These differences translate to consumption patterns too. One example in Norway revealed more than 40% of vehicles sold in 2019 were electric, which has different environmental impacts.

It’s also important to recognize that, while working remotely removes the need to commute, it doesn’t take away all transport needs. School runs, errands, and visiting family and friends all require some form of transportation, though, of course, these are all present in commuters’ lives.

Is working from home entirely free of emissions?

It would be easy to assume that cutting out the commute would completely eradicate any emissions associated with working. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true. While those who work from home no longer have to travel anywhere to get to their desk, they still need to dial into Zoom meetings, access files through online storage or servers, use the internet for communication and collaboration, and of course, charge their laptops, tablets, and phones. 

Calculations from Gerry McGovern, an author and speaker focusing on designing simpler digital experiences, found that “a one-hour standard-definition video call consumes about 270 MB per person.” 

If we extrapolate this to account for a one-hour meeting between two people each day for 250 days (an average working year accounting for PTO), this standard-definition video call will emit 1.32 lb of CO2 annually. This number increases to 6.17 lb when using ultra-high definition.

When comparing these numbers to the above emissions of car transport, having a daily one-hour video call (in standard definition) for a year would be equivalent to driving 2.48 miles or 11.57 miles for high definition calls. 

Of course, many workers are in meetings far longer than an hour and often attend multiple calls each day, so these numbers are probably much higher for the average remote worker. However, it’s unlikely they would overtake that of traditional commuting.

Gerry cautions taking the viewpoint that video calls are the only high emission activity for remote workers. “In many organizations, meetings are saved and stored and sometimes watched later by others. There are costs relating to the devices used for the meetings,” he says.

“Based on initial calculations, we estimate that streaming may represent no more than 5% of the total costs.”

Even with these added numbers, video calling is still likely the better option. However, it showcases just how important it is for every company and individual to be mindful of their emissions — whether they commute daily or not.

Comparing the environmental impacts of eating at home vs takeout 

Another place where you’ll likely reduce emissions when working from home is your lunchtime meal. When you’re cooking from home, it’s more likely to be a simpler meal that won’t require too much time, let alone any energy-intensive appliances. In comparison, your local restaurant is more likely to use industrial-level refrigerators, hot plates, or friers when making your meal.

Perhaps more significantly is the plastic waste associated with takeout foods and drinks. Though there has been significant innovation into compostable containers and utensils and more reusable cutlery, straws, and takeaway coffee cups, there is still considerable plastic waste in this industry. 90% of which will not be recycled or reused and simply ends up in a landfill. 

Plastic waste is, of course, still present in home kitchens in the form of food packaging, but the amount is much less when using plates, cutlery, and glassware that can be washed and reused. Dining at a restaurant will also have a similar effect as you’ll be able to use their in-house plates, cutlery, and glassware. 

Comparing the impacts of in-home vs in-office heating and A/C

Depending on where you reside, keeping homes and offices warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer is an incredibly energy-intensive process. The table below shows data from recent research by WSP UK, a London-based consulting firm specializing in engineering. They examined the carbon output of 200 UK-based workers across various locations and found some interesting results. 

“Energy management in buildings is generally more sophisticated than at individual homes,” David Symons, Future Ready Lead and Director of Sustainability at WSP UK, said in a BBC article. Therefore, heating across each worker’s home added up to be more than heating a single office space.

Having A/C in UK homes is extremely rare, so the study found that offices have a higher energy output in summer.

It’s worth remembering, these findings are incredibly location-dependent. Many countries in tropical or desert climates rely on A/C throughout summer but may not require heating at all. A/C generally consumes more energy than heating, so results would be almost opposite to the above study. 

Kenneth Gillingham, Associate Professor of Environmental and Energy Economics at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, adds that it’s not only about whether you need to heat or cool a space but how you do it.

“It does very much depend on where the electricity is coming from,” he says.

For example, Iceland uses clean geothermal energy to power both commercial buildings and residential homes.

Offsetting your environmental impact

As we can see, reducing your environmental impact isn’t as simple as asking your employees to work from home or bringing more flexibility into your office policy. Everything we do from sending emails to making a sandwich has a carbon footprint. To counter these everyday tasks, that would be impossible to reduce, some companies are turning to offsetting. 

Offsetting is where an organization (or individual) calculates its carbon footprint and then purchases the equivalent credit from projects that aim to either prevent or remove emissions elsewhere. Companies that choose to do so often claim a ‘carbon neutral’ title, where any emissions they do have are entirely offset by these investments. 

The software company, Zapier, which has 320 remote employees, is among the first remote companies to purchase carbon offsets.

“CEO Wade Foster – who used to work in energy himself – says that last year Zapier offset 647 tonnes of carbon through reforestation. The estimate included the footprint from home offices, corporate infrastructure such as servers, as well as travel, including bi-yearly team retreats,” Meredith Turtis writes in a BBC piece.

Offsetting has become increasingly popular as the mainstream public has begun collectively engaging with environmental causes. According to a Forest Trends report, “Demand for voluntary carbon offsets has grown…from just 0.3 million tonnes of CO2 in 2008 to 42.8 million tonnes in 2018.” 

While this is an extremely positive movement, it shouldn’t be your only environmental action. 

“Offsetting must go hand in hand with an ambitious internal reduction strategy,” says Sarah Leugers, communications director of the Geneva-based nonprofit Gold Standard, which was set up by environment group WWF via The Guardian. “The first priority should always be to reduce your own footprint before offsetting, but the reality is that not every individual or business can do that quickly.”

Is working from home more environmentally friendly than working in an office?

The real answer: it depends. 

Reducing or removing the need to commute will decrease your carbon emissions. Depending on how far you travel and what mode of transport you take this could be a significant portion of your overall emissions and completely justify the switch. We know that eating from home is generally more environmentally friendly from the emission standpoint but also plastic waste. But you may use more energy-intensive online storage, and bandwidth-heavy video calls when your team is all remote. If you’re heating or cooling your home year-round, the office likely does this better but if it’s just for one season (or periodically) your output from home is probably lower. 

Offsetting is always an option, but shouldn’t take the place of meaningful change and the source of energy is always more important than its use. 

I wasn’t able to touch on business travel, flights, or the emissions associated with shipping items for office setup, but these are all huge factors in determining your company’s overall footprint. 

With all of this in mind, I think it’s fair to say it’s all of our responsibility (whether remote or co-located) to become more conscious of the environmental impact our work may have. Whether that looks like switching to working from home during summer months (or the opposite if living in a hotter climate), bringing more lunches to work rather than relying on takeout, or choosing to offset video calls and data storage. 

 

— Bree Caggiati

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