Working from home may halve emissions compared to office-goers: study

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People who work remotely could have a 54 per cent lower carbon footprint than those who work in an office, a new study has found.

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal on Monday. The findings come as employees gradually return to the office following the major growth of hybrid and remote work catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, which focused on the United States, analyzed the environmental implications of remote, hybrid and fully on-site work. Lifestyle along with the amount of time spent working from home appeared to make the most significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Office energy is the main contributor to the carbon footprint of on-site and hybrid workers, the study found. In contrast, the information and communication technology (ICT) usage of remote and hybrid workers had very little impact on carbon footprint.

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Examples of ICT are computers, cell phones and printers, which are all common devices in the workplace.

“This highlights that people should shift their focus from ICT usage to commute decarbonization, facility downsizing, and renewables penetration for office buildings to mitigate GHG emissions of remote and onsite work,” the study says.

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Hybrid workers with two to four at-home workdays can reduce emissions by 11 to 29 per cent, the study found. That value is significantly reduced if employees only work one day from home, cutting emissions by only two per cent.

Fengqi You, an author of the study and professor at Cornell University, says while it’s significant that remote work can more than halve emissions, there is still room for improvement.

“It’s only by half, not by 85 or 95 per cent,” You told Global News.

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He says that with more people working remotely, there is an increase in residential energy use. That includes the energy used to cook lunches from home and run the dishwasher more often.

However, despite not needing to commute to work, the biggest environmental issue linked to remote work still revolves around time in the car. Working from home often allows for more time to drive to various non-work related destinations.

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The study found that non-commute related travel accounts for 79 per cent of GHG emissions for remote workers and only 31 per cent for on-site workers.

Though remote workers in the study travelled smaller distances, their number of trips was about 1.6 times higher than on-site workers.

Still, You says the GHG emissions produced by remote workers during non-work related commutes is still much smaller than from office energy.

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“Heating, air conditioning, ventilation. They all use energy, and they are all things that you need to use in the office,” he said. “The carbon footprint for office buildings definitely is much more significant than those induced… from remote working. They are not the same scale.”

You says remote workers can reduce their emissions by using public transit and ride-shares, and if possible, updating their homes with more energy-efficient appliances.

“It all helps. Everything comes from small bits and small steps to contribute to the broader perspective,” he said.

You notes that the study only analyzed office workers, and the results may be different for employees in other job sectors.

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But having fewer in-office workers without reducing the footprint of the office space does little to reduce emissions.

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Reducing building attendance from 50 to 10 per cent would likely result in double the carbon footprint of an onsite-worker since “a substantial share of buildings’ emissions is not sensitive to occupancy,” the study says.

By shrinking an office space and offering communal desks that workers cycle through when on-site can reduce emissions by up to 28 per cent.

Overall, the study encourages individuals, companies and policymakers to maximize the benefits of remote work by “choosing public transit over driving, encouraging car sharing, assigning multiple head-counts per seat, reducing or eliminating office space for remote workers, and improving energy efficiency for office buildings.”

You says offices and commutes are most critical in the discussion about decarbonization.

“It’s not about how much energy you use for cooking (or) how much energy used for entertainment. It’s all about buildings and transportation,” he said.

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