Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the discussion around the environmental impacts of teleworking was elevated into the public consciousness when news outlets plastered social media with dramatic images of smog-free urban centers. (We ooh-ed and ah-ed at those pictures too, no shame there.)
Of course, as a social enterprise that began in Los Angeles’ backyard, we knew all too well that less cars on the road meant cleaner air and a healthier environment. The EPA agrees with that assumption. According to the EPA, the transportation sector is responsible for 28% of all greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere with light-duty vehicles accounting for 59% of those emissions.
With these figures in mind, it makes sense that Kate Lister, President of Global Workplace Analytics, remarked at the beginning of the pandemic: “There is no easier, quicker, and cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than by reducing commuter travel. The annual environmental impact of half-time remote work would be the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking the entire NY State workforce off the road.”
While its effects on emissions are constantly being studied, there are existing case studies that bolster the idea that telecommuting can be a net positive for the environment. Dell, for example, observed that workers who telecommuted to the office for only nine days out of every month were able to reduce their annual carbon footprint by over one metric ton and use 175 less gallons of gas per year.
With such stark numbers in-hand, a rosy picture is painted of the environmental benefits of the past and a half. Especially given that, before March 2020, only 4% of the country was telecommuting to work more than half of the week. By the following month, more than half the country was. This trend doesn’t seem likely to go away either - only a quarter of currently-remote workers indicate they would voluntarily return to the office at all.
Climate scientists don’t seem keen on returning to the status quo of daily commutes, either. “Returning to a culture that devalues public transit and increases suburban sprawl is one of the biggest risks of this climate moment,” said Brent Toderian, former chief city planner for Vancouver, British Columbia.
However, some fear that teleworking is actually accelerating the realization of this exact fear. This concern, that teleworking will help usher in a new era of suburban sprawl, becomes worth consideration when one considers that workers’ transportation needs don’t magically disappear just because they don’t have to commute to an office.
They still have to go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, and other non-work related activities. For workers who live in the suburbs, where public transportation is not nearly as robust or widespread as in inner cities, this means using a private vehicle.
This concern was echoed by New York University professor and climate economist Gernot Wagner when he said “The flip side [of more telecommuting] is that there are lots of us who live in the city near our work for good reason. I can easily see that this means there will be fewer people living in a 400-square-foot walkup studio, because why do it? So here comes the ’burbs.”
Furthermore, one must consider that transportation is not the only source of work-related carbon emissions. Regardless of whether they live in a single-family home or a walkup, people who work from home must also consume energy to do things like control their home’s climate or access the internet.
The latter point was of particular interest to sustainability researchers at Purdue, Yale, and MIT who found that one gigabyte of internet infrastructure emits between 28 and 63 grams of CO2 yearly.
Nateghi’s and his team’s research also indicates that, if the current trend of remote work persists without subsequent carbon-reducing steps being taken, the global carbon footprint may increase by more than 34 million metric tons. To put that into perspective, it’s estimated that we would need a forest the size of Indiana to sequester that amount of carbon out of the air.
Interestingly, their research points to streaming and videoconferencing as the two largest culprits of internet-related carbon emissions born out of working from home. The study reveals that just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits between 5.3 oz and 2.2 lbs of CO2 (between 2.5% and 10% of that released by burning a gallon of gas), requires between 60 and 406 fluid ounces of water, and demands an area adding up to the size of an iPad mini.
These statistics are alarming when taken at face value, especially when contextualized by the fact that 41% of workers expect to work-from-home at least part-time following the pandemic.
Luckily, a tactic for reducing our carbon footprint when working from home can actually be intuited from these findings: if videoconferencing is a potent contributor of emissions, then cutting down on the amount of time spent videoconferencing with our teammates can eliminate a substantial amount of our internet-borne work-from-home footprint!
Nateghi’s research supports this claim, estimating that leaving our webcams off during conference calls could reduce our carbon footprint originating from internet use by 96%! The implications of Nateghi’s research go even further, stating that simply choosing to stream video (hopefully after work) in standard quality rather than HD can reduce our streaming footprints by 86%
So, while it may seem daunting to try and eliminate the carbon footprint associated with working and relaxing from home, it’s clear that we can’t allow ourselves to feel defeated!
It is possible to substantially reduce our individual emissions with just a few, small changes.
Continuously improving how we work (and relax) is going to be key in saving the planet and building a more sustainable, just society.