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There's much talk about work from home: efficiency, people who like it, people who don't, but I didn't see any policy talk, by governments, about its impact on the environment and whether it should be seen as a tool to fight climate change.

How Working from Home can lower Global Emissions: Walter Tobé, Canon.

Governments around the world are now looking to solutions that involve flexible work to help tackle issues such as congestion in cities, high office prices and elderly employment.

But beyond improving time productivity for employees, there are many environmental benefits associated with homeworking. Not only does it reduce travel distances and fuel consumed, it also avoids excess energy consumption in the office.

And through these benefits, homeworking can actually contribute to meeting global targets for emissions reductions and energy demand.

In the UK alone – where the number of people working from home in the UK increased by 13% between 2007 and 2012 – homeworking has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by over 3 million tonnes a year.

Remote work is a huge opportunity for high-impact climate policy, May 5, 2020.

Amid the immense hardship of the Covid-19 pandemic, one unexpected bright spot has emerged: residents from Los Angeles to New Delhi are reporting unprecedented smog-free skies—the result of a drastic reduction in vehicle-based and industrial air pollution.

What could work-from-home climate policy look like?

First, policy makers should consider tax breaks to companies that support employees working from home at least part of the time. The benefit should be proportionate to carbon emissions avoided, with credible third parties tasked with verifying emissions reductions. This could be coupled with broad-based policies to support high-speed internet connections, and legislative reforms similar to the federal Telework Enhancement Act of 2010.

Second, policies encouraging or requiring eligible employees to work from home, either full-time or part-time, can be a meaningful part of corporate emissions-reductions goals, which are increasingly relevant to consumers and investors alike. Businesses also should encourage employees to walk, bike, or take public transportation on days they do come into the office, by reimbursing related expenses.

In light of these "unprecedented smog-free skies," are any governments actively promoting work from home policies (such as those given above) as an effective way to reduce CO2 emissions for the purpose of meeting the challenges of climate change?

  • Regarding the environmental impact, I wrote an answer over on Sustainability.SE addressing emissions reductions in the U.S. – LShaver May 27 at 16:36
  • Just my $2, unprecedented smog-free skies had nothing to do with CO2. CO2 does not cause smog or even any harm by itself, it is just the global warming caused by CO2 and other greenhous gas which causes harm. – Bregalad Jun 17 at 9:58
  • @Bregalad this is the tragedy of any goals: a narrow definition of what is being considered good. From a CO2-reduction standpoint less smog isn't good or bad. Working from home slashes time spent on the commute; from CO2 point of view, again neither good nor bad. – Dohn Joe Jun 17 at 13:41
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    Yes, people frequently conflate CO2 emissions with other types of pollution such as particulates and NO2. In this specific instance (clearer skies during the Covid-19 lockdown), the two largely stem from the same sources though (mostly cars, as well as certain types of industrial activity and power generation) – zinfandel Jun 17 at 14:09
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They aren’t, mostly because the potential emissions savings are (surprisingly) small.

The first report you cite estimates that homeworking in the UK could save about 3 million tonnes of CO2 annually. The UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions were about 452 million tonnes in 2018, so the estimated reduction would translate to just 0.7% of all emissions.

Calculating the carbon savings of working remotely vs working from an office is surprisingly complex and some research suggests that for some workers, working from home doesn’t lead to a reduction in emissions at all. A BBC article from earlier this year explains that heating (or cooling) individual workers’ homes is a lot less efficient than managing energy consumption in a single office building, to the degree that the extra energy used can outweigh what is saved by not commuting to and from the office.

So while some experts believe that the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to a transformation of work and office culture, it’s not clear that this should be accelerated or encouraged from a climate point of view.

And while it is undoubtedly good for the environment to reduce the number of petrol and diesel cars on the road, shifting millions of people to remote work might not be the easiest or indeed most sustainable way to achieve that.

It’s worth noting that the pandemic does seem to have given renewed urgency to broadband rollouts, digitalisation programmes and the like, so governments are looking at investing into these sectors. Here is an FT article on the UK government’s stimulus plans which mentions broadband improvements. It just doesn’t look like the climate aspect is a significant driver of these proposals.

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  • While I do not doubt the numbers, I would like to disagree with the conclusion regarding the energy efficiency of working from home. At first glance, heating one corporate building might take less energy than heating the homes of the employees; working from home saves time spent on the commute (hard to put a value on). Furthermore, updating residental premises to require less heating/cooling has a huge potential, since even we work from highly efficient corporate buildings, the majority of our time we spend in our homes. So working from home might encourage to improve our homes, which is good. – Dohn Joe Jun 17 at 13:38
  • Hence, working from home offers plenty of potential for indirect benefits. – Dohn Joe Jun 17 at 13:39
  • I take your point, my answer focuses mostly on the short to medium term. Clearly the balance can change in favour of remote work if home energy efficiency improves. But then one could argue that it is retrofitting homes, not so much remote work where the potential for carbon savings lies. As you mention, we spend a lot of time in our homes anyway – zinfandel Jun 17 at 14:04
  • Data show the significance of air pollution decrease during lockdowns in big cities, although the article does not address CO2 specifically – Jean Monet Jun 24 at 12:31
  • I think you pasted the wrong link. You're right CO2 emissions temporarily dipped, but keep in mind that lockdowns shut down the activity of thousands of businesses (shops, restaurants, bars, hairdressers, entertainment and arts, ...) which has nothing to do with working from home – zinfandel Jun 24 at 12:43

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