Does Remote Work Actually Help Fight Climate Change?
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.”
In their annual report last week, the gold standard of climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made this critical statement.
If you have been working remotely for the last year and a half, you might have patted yourself on the back for doing your part in not warming the planet.
Before the pandemic, the average person spent an hour each day commuting to their office. Cars off the road, closed offices and shuttered factories prevented billions of tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere for almost an entire year straight.
However, the images of cleaner rivers and clearer skies have faded away as businesses have reopened.
To make matters worse, those that have started hybrid working arrangements or stayed remote might find that they are still contributing to climate change just as much, if not more than ever before.
In this article, we answer the question of if remote work truly is better for the environment.
What is the state of climate change?
Now, after reading that first sentence from the intro, some might be rolling their eyes thinking, “I’ve known that for years!”
But the main argument from all the deniers has been: “Yes, the climate is changing it has been for millions of years, but we aren’t certain it’s humanity’s fault.”
Well, try getting 200 scientists in a room to agree on something and get back to us. There is now no doubt in the scientific community that we are destroying our planet, and we have less than 10 years to mitigate the damage.
No, not reverse it. The report also revealed the various scenarios of world temperature increases if we sit on our hands and if we do everything in our power to cut carbon emissions.
- If every country in the world took action starting tomorrow, the global temperature would still increase by 1.5 degrees by 2100, and we are still talking about irreversible damage.
- If they do it by 2030, that is still a 2 degrees celsius increase with dramatic disasters and effects.
- The worst-case scenario is a catastrophic future of a 5-degree rise where most of the human population dies off, and the only survivors are in a couple of locations around the globe or in space.
No matter what we do, the ice caps and glaciers will continue to melt, ocean levels will continue to rise, and plant and animal species will either adapt or die. But if we don’t act, the droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes will bankrupt nations and cost millions of lives.
The poorest, women and children, the most crowded cities, and the people most connected to the farming or coastal cities will be the most affected.
COVID is the most pressing problem at the moment, but our greatest existential threat as a species has been brought upon us by our own greed and apathy.
The most mind-boggling thing is that we have a solution to get out of this mess, yet no one can agree on how to get started.
Is remote work good or bad for the environment?
Unfortunately, the answer is “It depends.” One of the largest emitters of carbon is private transportation. A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. So a good place to start in any climate action plan is taking the cars off the road.
This was the main argument as reports came out last year that remote work was a perfect tool to fight against climate change (with good reason). Some studies show that 98% of employees’ carbon emissions come from their commute.
A Flexjobs article mentions that in 2015, Xerox’s remote workers drove 92 million fewer miles, which saved 4.6 million gallons of gas, and translated to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 41,000 metric tons.
They even make the statement: “If 3.9 million people worked from home at least half time, that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an amount equivalent to removing 600,000 cars for an entire year!”
While this is true, it is only looking at the impact of remote work on the surface. New reports have come out that say to understand the true impact of remote working on carbon dioxide emissions; we need to analyze several factors that vary from location to location.
- How people get to work on an average commute
- How far they travel
- How much commercial and residential electricity use changes
- Where does that electricity come from?
Working remotely is more likely to be good for the environment when it replaces the need to commute in car an hour each day for work from the suburbs to the city.
However, if remote working leads to more energy use in an area that relies on coal, petroleum, or natural gas to produce electricity, it will be worse for the environment.
No matter how many cars you take off the road.
So, let’s dive deeper into the positive and negative environmental impacts of remote working and see which generally comes out on top.
Environmental Benefits Of Remote Working
It makes sense to use the United States as the example here because they have the second-largest carbon footprint in the world. If they continue at the pace they are now; it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world does; we are looking at a more than 2-degree world.
- Global Workplace Analytics previously estimated that if all U.S. residents who could would work from home for half the week: “it would have the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce off the road.”
- They also reported If 3.9 million people were full-time remote, that is almost $1 billion in oil savings from less gasoline needed. Companies, the government, and individuals could take those savings and reinvest them in carbon offsets and renewable energy.
- The carbon savings from these 3.9 million remote workers is the same as 540,000 homes powered by electricity for an entire year.
- That is about 83 million total air quality savings, measured in pounds per year. It is also the equivalent of planting 91.9 million trees.
- Currently, 1 in 4 Americans works remotely, so that is almost 82 million remote workers. So, we are talking about increasing these savings happening by more than 2000%.
- Research conducted by The Environmental Research & Education Foundation has shown that business waste generation has reduced by 67% since the beginning of the pandemic.
- According to the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year.
- In a 2008 study by Sun Microsystems, office equipment energy consumption rate at a Sun office was two times that of home office equipment energy consumption.
Negative Environmental Impacts of Remote Working
To look at the true environmental cost of remote working, we have to look at it from all angles. At first glance, by just using the metrics of saved emissions from transportation and less office waste, it seems like remote workers are doing their part.
However, it doesn’t look so great when you consider other factors such as distributed team meetups, residential energy efficiency, and energy sources for electricity.
- Not only will cross-country meetups become more common, but you also have to consider all the digital nomads and “workcations” traveling from place to place. Just a quick flight from Chicago to Los Angeles releases nearly as much CO2 as three months of a 10-mile driving commute.
- A carbon calculator for businesses called Watershed estimates five flights a year for 2,000 employees can add up to nearly 8,800 tons of CO2.
- With tons of businesses like Coinbase closing their offices means it also means tons of thrown-out furniture and e-waste.
- The environmental friendliness of remote work is seasonal. Researchers from WSP UK found that the environmental impact of remote work was higher in the winter due to the need to heat individual workers’ buildings versus one office building.
- Countries with colder winters will have people using more electricity for heating, while countries with hotter summers will spend it on AC (Both seasons are expected to get more extreme with climate change). In this case, the U.S is the exception, where heating and air conditioning are standard in almost every residential house or building.
- How is the energy produced? As of right now, our content manager and product manager are in Lima and Mexico City, where electricity comes from a mix of hydroelectric and petroleum. Our developer is in India using air conditioning powered by coal, and our CEO is San Diego cooling his home with electricity from a mix of wind and natural gas.
- Each city will have a different emissions mix, and some have produced more CO2 and used more electricity since the pandemic began.
- Finally, there are ‘Scope 3’ emissions. These are the logistics emissions that are often forgotten that involve supply chain management or office supply purchases. The emissions to ship home office equipment to each individual worker could potentially be more significant than sending one larger box to the main office.
- At GroWrk we can help you save on cost and carbon emissions when equipping your distributed team
With these two comparisons, it can be pretty easy to see that most of the emissions lost are gained somewhere else.
If this isn’t taken into account, there could even be a point where it’s never more energy efficient to work from home anywhere in the world.
Hybrid Work Is The Least Environmentally Friendly Option
This headline is probably the last thing that more than half of knowledge workers that support the hybrid work model want to hear. But the more you weigh the options; hybrid work appears to be the worst of both worlds.
Think about the trend of remote workers moving to the suburbs. They still might be commuting 2-3 days a week. Imagine an office in San Francisco where there is an even divide between urban and suburban employees.
According to a study by Bloomberg, if a quarter more employees move from the city center to the suburbs, workplace emissions will still drop, but only by 7%. Overall emissions, meanwhile, would be 4% higher than before those workers moved.
An entirely suburban workforce commuting to the office two days a week could leave workplace emissions unchanged and overall emissions 9% higher.
Then, you also have to consider the energy efficiency of commercial vs. residential. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute estimated that up to 40% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from all types of buildings.
Residential buildings typically are less energy-efficient than new commercial buildings because they don’t require the same energy codes.
If you have a workforce with a bunch of people at home half the week and some people in the office the whole week, you are adding a whole new element to pre-pandemic emissions.
The carbon footprint is reduced from not commuting, but it is made back up again by keeping the lights on in two locations simultaneously.
How can we make remote working more sustainable?
Remote work has caused the carbon footprint of the corporation to fall on the employees. It is now becoming more critical than ever for individuals to take small actions to reduce their climate impact.
Most importantly, start investigating where their electricity comes from and possibly investing in their own lower-emission infrastructure.
Remote working can still be a more climate-friendly option, but it requires buy-in and consciousness from both the employer and the worker.
Here are 4 different strategies for companies and individuals to implement now and start making a difference for the next generation.
1. Use a resale platform for your used furniture and tech. When Hootsuite closed their Vancouver office, they didn’t just toss out everything inside. They created an in-house used furniture and equipment resale site that employees could use to purchase office supplies for their homes.
Are you closing an office or moving things around? With GroWrk, you can manage your entire office inventory from an intuitive dashboard. Send your laptops and office equipment to new and current employees in over 150 countries. Manage each item through its entire lifecycle and pick them up when plans change—all with a couple of clicks.
2. Bloomberg suggests limiting long-haul flights to company-wide meetings to at the most once a year. If you do keep an office open, you should offer better subsidies for public transit than parking. Spend the money once used for office snacks and entertainment on a clean power upgrade for your building. You could even offer an incentive for employees to upgrade their home’s energy efficiency.
3. You could use a climate program builder like Watershed. They have the tools to give you exact measurements of your company’s and employee’s carbon footprint. They will then advise you on reducing your carbon emissions and help you implement carbon offset programs to become carbon neutral.
For example, Zapier, which has 320 employees working in 27 countries, is among the first fully remote companies to purchase carbon offsets to compensate for their footprint. Last year, Zapier offset 647 tonnes of carbon through reforestation. The estimate included the footprint from home offices, corporate infrastructure such as servers, and travel, including bi-yearly team retreats.
4. According to Zoho, there are multiple ways to living a more sustainable lifestyle as a remote employee:
- Create climate education courses or days. This topic is relevant regardless of their location, and there should be an open dialogue of its importance in company culture. Parts of these programs should explain the importance of shutting off equipment when employees aren’t working.
- Poll your workforce about who has an interest in volunteering or gardening. You can send employees seeds of their favorite vegetables, or they could volunteer in their local parks for tree planting initiatives.
- Motivate your employees to use furniture from recycled materials, energy-efficient lighting systems, and green office supplies in their home office as much as possible. You can also offer a small allowance to help them afford more environmentally friendly options.
- Organize webinars with environmental activists to educate your employees on recycling and reuse techniques.
Wrapping things up
It is in our nature to look for the quickest and easiest way out. However, climate change is such a complex and a comprehensive threat that just slapping a green sticker on something will do nothing.
Companies, governments, and people will have to change their biases towards the status quo if real action is to be taken.
The way we worked has changed forever, and so has our energy consumption needs. That doesn’t mean we haven’t made considerable gains in the last year and a half.
But it does show that for remote work to be a genuinely positive and transformative movement, everyone must be accountable.
Grow remote with GroWrk. We provide and manage laptops, devices, other equipment and services to remote teams in over 150 countries.