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Could preserving remote work options help society reach net zero?

As the pandemic becomes a distant memory, remote work is starting to dwindle – especially in the corporate world. A new study warns against this backward trend, pointing to work-from-home options as a viable strategy for minimising our carbon footprint.

Throughout the global pandemic, millions of people were forced to start doing their jobs from their home desks or kitchen tables.

It wasn’t easy at first. We had to learn how to navigate Zoom, remember to mute and unmute our microphones, as well as how to effectively communicate in the absence of in-person meetings and quickfire questions to colleagues in the office.

Still, we managed. Eventually, we thrived at it. Remote work quickly became the preferred way to work for the majority, with recent surveys showing that 91 percent of employees still want to continue hybrid or completely remote working.

As it turns out, the benefits of remote work extend well beyond getting an extra 40 minutes of sleep when avoiding the office commute or saving money on store-bought lunch when you’ve forgotten to pack it yourself.

Aside from these personal perks, working from home is better for the planet, too. A new study shows remote and home-based work helps individuals and companies cut down on their overall annual emissions.

Let’s look at the findings.

The study’s finding

According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, fully remote workers produce 54 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than full-time office workers.

Getting into the nitty-gritty, it became clear that working at home for one day a week generated rather insignificant cuts in emissions, which dropped by just 2 percent. Energy savings for this group were offset by non-commuting travel and home energy use on these occasional remote days.

That said, when work-from-home days increased by 2 or 4 days, emissions per person dropped by 11 to 29 percent. A large portion of these reduced emissions are likely down to the number of people who use personal vehicles to drive to work in the US – though co-authors of the study say findings are likely to be replicated in Europe.

This shouldn’t be all that shocking, considering global CO2 emissions during April 2020 measured 17 percent lower than levels the year prior. As the world opened up production, consumption, air travel, and local commutes surged – and so did the number of employees trickling back into the office.

Since then, emissions have shot back up to pre-pandemic levels and continued to stay there – despite the fact that many employees are still at home. What’s the catch?

Where loopholes lie

Of course, emission cuts caused by remote work will be dependent on how energy is being supplied to those at home.

For example, many homes are still not optimised for decarbonisation. They may not be powered by renewable energy or fitted with energy-efficient appliances. Scale-related energy savings also come into play, such as small home printers which use far more energy than larger, office printers.

It’s also been suggested that at-home employees are more likely to engage in domestic activities and non-work travel that keeps their emissions on a plateau. In this light, the work-from-home strategy is not a flawless one for reducing our individual carbon emissions.

Still, it will almost always trump the environmental footprint of in-office work.

To combat this, companies will need to identify ways to make their office buildings greener. Revamping older buildings and fitting them with energy-efficient appliances are two great places to start, and if available, having them connected to a decarbonized grid.

For industries with already low overall emissions – such as IT and communications – authors of the study suggest companies focus on adopting renewable energy for office heating and cooling, as well as decarbonising commuting.

Only then will in-office work potentially match the more sustainable option of working from home. Until then, I’ll catch you on Zoom… from my living room.