Climate Benefits of Working From Home
Working from home has become the new normal for many people in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. While some may miss the social interaction and structure of the office, others enjoy the flexibility and comfort of remote work. But what does working from home mean for the environment and the ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals of companies and individuals
In this blog post, we will explore some of the benefits and challenges of working from home as they relate to climate and ESG goals, based on recent research and data. We will also share some tips on how to make your remote work more eco-friendly and aligned with your values.
Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions
One of the most obvious benefits of working from home is the elimination or reduction of commuting, which can have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and more than half come from personal vehicles. Less cars on the road means more not being burned, and ideally, less wasted in traffic. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg; truly transformative infrastructure change from around the automobile is needed, not just for the climate, but for the amount of money needed just to maintain such infrastructure as well, but that is a topic for a future blog.
And of course, this only goes into the environmental benefits of working from home, to say nothing of increased productivity, worker happiness, and monetary savings. By avoiding commuting costs, such as gas, parking, tolls, public transportation fares, or car maintenance, remote workers can save an average of $4,000 per year. This can also incentivize them to use more sustainable modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, or carpooling, when they do need to travel.
This is infinitely better than any corner office
Improved Air Quality
Reduced air pollution from commuting can also have positive effects on public health and well-being. According to Earth.org, improved air quality can prevent respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, allergies, and premature deaths. It can also improve cognitive performance, mood, and productivity of remote workers. Moreover, improved air quality can benefit ecosystems and biodiversity by reducing acid rain, smog, and ozone depletion.
Less Plastic Pollution
Another benefit of working from home is the potential to reduce plastic pollution by avoiding disposable cups, bottles, utensils, and packaging that are often used in offices or on-the-go. According to Earth.org, remote workers can save an average of 23 pounds of plastic waste per year by using reusable items at home. This can also help them save money and reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals that may leach from plastic into food or drinks.
Reduced Impact on Infrastructure
Working from home can also reduce the pressure on urban infrastructure and public services, such as roads, bridges, buildings, water supply, sewage systems, and electricity grids. According to Earth.org, remote work can lower the demand for office space, which can reduce land use, construction waste, and energy consumption.
Sadly, many of the companies that champion ESG (environmental & social governance) see this as a negative, as opposed to the positive that it is. Instead of recognizing the positive impact remote work can have on the environment, these companies view it through the lens of losing out being able to micromanage a remote workforce, and fearing the loss of control over employees. Worse yet. this ties deeper into the economic system which our society is underpinned by, since if lower demand for office space has a negative feedback in rent prices, this can harm the real estate market, which in turn would harm the banks, and cause potential economic catastrophe, or at least, those are the worst fears of property managers afraid of dealing with the inverse of supply and demand. Unfortunately, this narrow perspective prevents them from fully embracing the environmental benefits that remote work can offer. It is crucial for companies to recognize and appreciate the positive implications of remote work in reducing their ecological footprint and align their ESG efforts accordingly.
Challenges and Trade-offs
It would be remiss of me to say that there are no negative externalities of working from home. While working from home has many environmental benefits, it is not without challenges and trade-offs. Depending on various factors, such as individual behaviors, home infrastructure, and situational contexts, remote work can also increase energy use, technology consumption, and waste generation.
The impact of working from home on energy use is mixed, with some studies finding a positive effect, while others indicating a neutral or even a negative impact on energy use. Ultimately, such impacts can vary substantially by employee’s individual characteristics (e.g., awareness, attitudes, family size, wealth), home infrastructure (e.g., building energy ratings, supplier), and even situational factors (e.g., geographic location and season).
For example, if your home is powered by 100% renewable energy, and you drive a Hummer, working from home will reduce your carbon footprint. If you drive a Prius, but you keep your coal powered heat or A/C on in your entire home while you work, you will most likely be increasing your carbon footprint. Although, admittedly each of the scenarios above are highly unlikely extremes.
Anecdotally speaking, while I have significantly cut down on my driving from years’ past (pre and post-pandemic), I use more air conditioning and probably more heating working from home, so it isn’t to say as though there isn’t minutiae for everyone working from home worth examining.
Moreover, working from home may not necessarily reduce the energy consumption of offices, as they may still need to maintain lighting, heating, cooling, and equipment for security or backup purposes4. Some offices may also switch to more flexible or shared workspaces, which may require more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.
Working from home may also increase the demand for technology devices and services, such as laptops, monitors, printers, routers, software, cloud storage, and internet bandwidth. These items require energy and resources to produce, transport, and operate, and they also generate electronic waste when they become obsolete or damaged. According to Earth.org, the global e-waste generation in 2019 was 53.6 million metric tons, which is equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships. Only 17.4% of this e-waste was collected and recycled, while the rest was dumped, burned, or traded illegally. E-waste can pose serious environmental and health risks, as it contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants.
Working from home may also affect the way people manage their household waste, such as paper, cardboard, food scraps, and packaging. Depending on the availability and accessibility of recycling and composting facilities in their area, remote workers may have more or less opportunities to divert their waste from landfills. Moreover, working from home may change the consumption patterns and preferences of remote workers, such as ordering more online deliveries, takeout food, or groceries, which may increase the amount and type of waste they generate.
Tips for Eco-Friendly Remote Work
Despite the challenges and trade-offs, there are many ways that remote workers can make their work more eco-friendly and aligned with their ESG goals. Here are some tips to consider:
- Choose green energy suppliers or install renewable energy sources (such as solar panels) for your home.
- Optimize your home insulation and ventilation to reduce heat loss or gain.
- Use energy-efficient appliances and devices and turn them off when not in use.
- Adjust your thermostat settings according to the season and your comfort level.
- Use natural or LED lighting and avoid working in dark or bright areas.
- Use reusable or biodegradable items for your food and drinks and avoid single-use plastic.
- Buy local, organic, and seasonal food and avoid food waste.
- Recycle and compost your waste as much as possible and avoid buying unnecessary items.
- Donate or sell your old or unwanted devices and equipment and buy refurbished or second-hand ones.
- Use cloud-based services and software and avoid printing documents.
- Use video conferencing and online collaboration tools instead of traveling for meetings or events.
- If you need to travel, use public transportation, bike, walk, or carpool instead of driving alone.
- Support companies and organizations that have strong ESG policies and practices.
Working from home can have many benefits for the environment and the ESG goals of companies and individuals, but it also comes with challenges and trade-offs. By being aware of the impacts of remote work on various aspects of sustainability, and by taking actions to reduce or offset them, remote workers can make a positive difference for themselves, their communities, and the planet. My educated, albeit not scientifically studied, guess is that working from home is a net positive towards reducing carbon footprint, but in itself will not solve the climate crisis, and probably has a smaller positive effect on carbon emissions than most realize.