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In the time of the pandemic, working from home was widespread in most European countries including the UK, which led to a drop in fuel prices. However, during the war in Ukraine, working from home was barely mentioned by the EU and I've heard nothing about it in the UK.

How is this situation different?

Wouldn't this help with both inflation as well as reducing demand for oil? Not to mention tackling climate change.

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    Working from home is currently in very high demand, since the beginning of the pandemics. Not sure that even more is needed or would have a high impact. Usually the market will solve this by itself. If the price of gasoline increases more, companies will have difficulties finding people to work onsite and will by themselves offer more remote work. Commented Jun 9, 2022 at 22:32
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    In Germany they introduced a 9€ or 9,50$ ticket that allows you to use all fashions of public transport for a entire month in order to reduce the overall oil usage. So green commute is atleast in Germany a bit more of a thing as of late.
    – Squary94
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 10:09
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    @Squary94 They also lowered taxes on the gasoline price, which will rather increase the overall oil usage again. Not sure if emissions get really reduced. More or less it seems they want to support mobility more than anything else. Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 12:05
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    Related: Is working from home a more sustainable choice?. Note that people in buildings (whether it's a house or an office) still need things like heat, light, hot water, etc.
    – LShaver
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 12:58
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    There's only so much you can save in petrol by reducing commuter traffic, versus the much more massive and much more petrol-centric goods transportation infrastructure.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 14:29

5 Answers 5

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I looked through a ton of sources but all of them seem to come to the same conclusion that in Europe, gasoline (called petrol for the non-Americans) is not used in significant amounts. As WFH seems to only affect vehicle fuel consumption and not other fuel costs, this doesn't seem like it will do anything significant other than political posturing. It may also explain why the EU put restrictions on oil quite quickly (relatively, compared to natural gas). Since fuel prices are astronomical in Europe (compared to North America), it may already have already caused downward pressure on motor vehicle usage (compared to North America) so much of the population already uses greener options (public transportation, rail, carpooling, etc.).

North America is a completely different story. Fuel prices are low because two producers of oil (Canada and the US) contribute massive amounts of gasoline to their local markets. So even though motor vehicle usage is high, supply of fuel and lower taxes contribute to usage. However, this also means that they are generally insolated from outside pressure in regards to oil pricing. The US almost immediately sanctioned Russian oil (and tried to encourage the EU to do the same) after the Russian invasion of Ukraine because they are not dependent on Russian oil at all. In fact the US has tried to sanction Russian oil in the last few years by CAATSA (which of course did not fare well with European countries). That is to say that this idea will not affect the US (or Canada) in regards to dependence on Russian oil.

As for tackling climate change, gasoline usage in Europe is likely negligible given the above source. This is because the cities in Europe are older and designed for walking. In the United States (and Canada), most cities were built in the industrial revolution or later. Cities were designed for cars and have a sprawling neighborhoods and suburbs. This means that even if people stopped commuting to work, they would still have to drive to do any basic activity since walking is not viable unless you live in the center of the city (and even then, newly added amenities will be added in a sprawling fashion). Car ownership and usage is orders of magnitude higher than most countries (likely contributing to the disparity on the chart). While this means that there is a lot of room for improvement, this is not a viable solution in reality unless cities are redesigned, public transportation is widespread, and people can access public transportation from their homes without much effort. Unless that happens, this is not going to affect how much people drive cars even if everyone* works from home.

Lastly, the idea that everyone, or even a large portion of people can work from home is nonsense. A nurse cannot work from home if their job is to serve people in a hospital. A garbage collector cannot work from home if their job is to collect garbage from households. A factory worker cannot work from home if their job is to build cars. A stocker cannot work from home if their job is to stock shelves in a grocery store. Etc. These are the jobs that most people have. Not the chosen few who work in offices. Now, obviously most of the jobs that I mentioned above can just be automated, eliminating the commute of a human operative. But that would result in these people being jobless, which is politically unviable.

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    "most cities were built in the industrial revolution or later. " While true, most american cities were rather pedestrian friendly until about the 1930-1950
    – SirHawrk
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 8:01
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    "But that would result in these people being jobless, which is politically unviable." - I think you're mistaken about why many jobs don't get automated.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 9:00
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    Although this answer is of course right in the sense that European countries use far less petrol per capita than North American ones, it is still an outrageous exaggeration to say “gasoline is not used in significant amounts” here, especially when including diesel (which for the purpose of the question you absolutely should). Yes, the cores of larger cities in Europe are built quite well for non-motorists, but lots of people live in smaller cities where this does not hold, or travel regularly between cities. Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 14:34
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    This answer has many misleading points. You cannot simply compare Europe vs the US, and, when a problem is even worse in the US, conclude that it's not a problem in Europe. Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 14:52
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    the cited statistic for gasoline consumption is a bit awkward, not being scaled for population. Even though the per capita usage is indeed lower in Europe, this is not apparent from the consumption statistic. It might also exclude diesel fuel, which is more common in Europe than North America.
    – Chieron
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 15:36
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While I do think that remote work is a good thing in general, there are several important differences between the two situations you mention. Even if all businesses were to fully embrace remote work where it were possible, it would not have anywhere near the impact on fuel consumption as the near-total-shutdown of the early days of the pandemic.

To understand this, we should focus on the initial months of the pandemic (February for some parts of the world, but primarily March through May), when fuel prices (and consumption) hit record lows.

Note that my perspective is US-based, but from my understanding, most of it applies to nearly every country.

  • During those first months of the pandemic, it was often government orders to shelter-in-place that (at least initially) drove businesses to remote work.

  • Those shelter-in-place orders typically impacted all "non-essential" businesses and their workers. It didn't matter if the employees could work remotely or not -- They were home. Gyms, hair salons, bars, non-essential medical procedures, theatres, theme parks, and many, many other businesses and their employees were impacted.

    That clearly cannot be the case over the long-term. Even during the pandemic, that was a short-term approach for most countries for a limited period of time while "reasonable precautions" (or not, depending on perspective) were put in place for these businesses.

  • Even after businesses began to reopen, employees were often on staggered schedules initially. Only 50% of the workforce would be in the workplace at the same time. This led to longer workdays for many, but fewer days in the business. For instance, a hair stylist would work 12-14 hours, 2 days one week and 3 days the next to keep the staggered schedules in place.

    Restaurants (and other businesses) were limited (by government or choice) to spaced-seating and fewer employees as a result.

    Fuel usage started to tick back up as non-essential employees returned to their workplace, but even non-essential workers didn't return to 100% of their previous usage based on this.

  • It was not just "remote work" that drove fuel consumption down drastically. It's possible that it wasn't even the major factor. The travel and entertainment industry was almost completely shuttered during this time. Airline fleets were stored on unused runways and airports. Practically no one travelled by car or plane or bus or any other means to vacation, or to bars, or practically anywhere else during this time.

  • No school buses ran, few taxis/ride-shares, etc.

  • There was no traffic as a result of this, meaning that even essential trips were not wasting fuel sitting in traffic. Parents picking up their children from school weren't sitting outside idling their cars (bad practice, sure) waiting in line. As a result of fewer vehicles on the road in the first place, there was less wasted fuel during this time.

As much of the world has attempted to return to "status quo", none of the above factors are in play at this time. And should or could they be during the economic/fuel-price crisis? Probably not. Although there will be some elasticity in consumption based on the prices that drives consumption down naturally.

To summarize (and repeat): Even if all businesses were to fully embrace remote work where it were possible, it would not have anywhere near the impact on fuel consumption as the near-total-shutdown of the early days of the pandemic.

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    " Even if all businesses were to fully embrace remote work where it were possible, it would not have anywhere near the impact on fuel consumption as the near-total-shutdown of the early days of the pandemic." Agree but one should add that even a smaller impact is already something and should be considered. Maybe it's still significant. Transportation is responsible for a lot of oil usage and commuting is a responsible for a lot of transportation. Commented Jun 11, 2022 at 22:41
  • @Trilarion While I do agree that every bit helps, the question being asked is specifically about why governments don't consider it more seriously. That to me means that the governments would need to either "incent" or "mandate" businesses to encourage more remote work. If the benefits aren't great enough, then it may not be be politically or economically feasible to put such incentives or mandates in place. That said, I absolutely agree that there are multiple benefits to remote work (besides just fuel concerns) for the businesses themselves, the employees, and the community-as-a-whole. Commented Jun 11, 2022 at 23:46
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    @Trilarion: Also, there's a domino effect to decentralizing work. There's a lot of services in cities, around offices: eateries, gyms, ... if people stayed home (or closer to home), part of those services would migrate and (ideally) their employees would thus also reduce or eliminate their commute. Commented Jun 12, 2022 at 11:41
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I would say because of the number of jobs that would be able to have remote work and the costs involved in setting up remote work. What many don't realize is that there is a decent amount of work and cost in setting up an office network to allow people to securely work remotely and that is not something that every office is willing to do. There are also issues with workers not being able to work remotely for various reasons. Some of those reasons include:

  • Job doesn't support remote work and some part of the job requires you to be on site
  • Worker/Company doesn't have the needed equipment/infrastructure to allow for remote work
  • Worker is not able to get an appropriate location to work remotely from
  • Worker is not able to work effectively while remote and needs to be in an office situation

There are plenty of reasons why people can't work remote either do to the job/company or personal reasons. While it is a great idea to reduce the costs associated with commutes it will not work in all cases.

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    I would argue that because of covid, the majority of people that have the ability to work remotely have already dealt with the infrastructure issues.
    – rtaft
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 12:38
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    @rtaft I would disagree with that as there are places that just shut down because of covid as they couldn't get people set up to work from home or they are working from home in sub optimal conditions.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jun 10, 2022 at 12:44
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A slightly different take:

Traditionally, working from home was seen by employers as a bad move, purely because the employers didn't trust their employees to actually work. The pandemic has pretty well removed this as an issue, there are plenty of people (in the UK) who are now pretty permanently working from home.

However, and this is the 'other' take... In the UK the current ruling party (conservatives) are pretty much controlled by big business and rich people. It's these businesses and people who own the large office spaces in big cities. Most companies, except the largest, rent their offices. So, it's in the interests of the big businesses and rich people to have people working in offices. Therefore, the UK government isn't going to suggest that working from home is a good idea.

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You mix different goals like fighting inflation, global warming and the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine. People might only share some of these goals and solutions would probably depend on which of these goals you exactly want to achieve. For example, if your concern would only be to stop Russia from further invading Ukraine it would be fully okay to consume lots of non-Russian fossil fuels and sending weapons to Ukraine would be much more effective than reducing fossil fuel usage in the short run. You cannot reduce fossil fuel usage that much anyway in the short run without disrupting economic activity. Fossil resources are needed for transportation, energy and materials productions and cannot easily be replaced by something else although you're right that up to a certain amount fossil resource usage could probably easily be avoided (all that which is kind of wasted right now).

In the long run, I fully agree. There needs to be a credible plan to reduce fossil resource usage globally to zero for limiting the global heating effect and there are many different schemes for that in place already, for example the EU emission trading system, although the pace could surely be much faster.

Even more working from home could be one consequence of this. Although densely populated areas with an efficient public transit would probably still allow commuting at relatively low environmental costs.

In many countries, politics typically only decides on the general framework (how to tax emissions, which country to embargo) and the more fine grained decisions are done by the market implicitly. This means that some companies might find it more useful to insist for its employees to be present in office, and other companies might see that good employees aren't willing to do this anymore (especially if the price of gasoline keeps increasing) and are more flexible as a result. But this are all long term developments playing out over many years. The direct influence of them on the coming months of war in Ukraine are minuscule. There are much more direct ways of supporting Ukraine available.

Maybe that's why it didn't play a major role in public debate in the last months. However, the topic is present and is discussed. Just see for example Germany increasing subsidizing public transport and the gasoline price and electric cars at the same moment currently (they obviously do not seem to believe in the efficacy of avoiding emissions and rather want to simply provide support and weather the crisis in the short run, for the long run they hopefully have a better plan).

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