Last week, Boris Johnson confirmed in a press conference that the government would be moving to its Coronavirus Plan B. This means that from Monday 13th December, everyone was advised to work from home where possible. Although this may have been seen as something of a luxury in a pre-COVID world, it is something that a lot of people have now grown accustomed to. Many people may have even started their job working remotely.
The environmental impact of working from home may at its surface seem very straightforward but when you look more deeply, it can get quite complicated.
We can first examine some of the positive environmental effects of working from home.
The first and perhaps most obvious impact of working from home is reduced greenhouse gas emissions as less people use cars to travel to work. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the largest proportion (29%) of the total US Greenhouse Gas emissions came from transportation in 2019 . There will also be less usage of trains and public transport, and if this causes less of these services to run as a knock-on effect, greenhouse gas emissions can be further reduced. Unfortunately, although carbon emissions have fallen dramatically at points during the COVID pandemic, particularly when any lockdowns have been in place, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) say in their annual greenhouse gas bulletin that the overall atmospheric concentrations in CO2 are still rising almost as fast as ever.
A secondary effect of reduced greenhouse gas emissions is better air quality. This can have a significant impact on our health. The WHO estimates that air pollution kills seven million people worldwide every year . WHO data also shows that 9 out of 10 people in the world breathe air that exceeds their guideline limits on high levels of pollutants. Many striking images can be seen of how the smog that places like Delhi in India are famous for, seemed to virtually disappear during lockdown.
Another effect to consider is the reduced use of cardboard and plastic packaging as people work from home. Think about the morning and afternoon coffees foregone, the meal deal from the supermarket, or the food from the local takeaway. It is very difficult to quantify the amount of plastic waste that one might create from working in an office vs. working at home because this largely depends on an individual’s habits and environmental awareness. However, it follows reason that someone working from home is more likely to make coffee in a cup and prepare their own lunch at home, than someone working in an office.
Points for Discussion
However, some impacts are not as straightforward as one might expect.
One impact that can vary throughout the year is heating. Heating one office in the winter may be more environmentally efficient than heating 10 peoples at home office spaces. Energy management systems in offices may be more sophisticated than those in individual homes. Add to this that many people may not have heating control over every individual room at home, so have to turn the heating on in the whole house, which isn’t very efficient. However, in the summer, it may be more environmentally efficient to work from home where people don’t tend to have air conditioning (like in the UK) as compared to office buildings which do tend to have air conditioning on during the hotter months.
A counter point to this is that people working from home might care more about leaving on the heating since they are paying the bill themselves as compared to an office where the company has to pay. This could also apply to electricity and water usage, meaning someone who works from home may be more environmentally aware.
Many companies are now moving to a hybrid setup where workers can split their time between home and office. This could potentially be the worst-case scenario, according to a June study from the Carbon Trust and Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications . “This split could result in consuming more energy and emitting more emissions as both homes and offices are fully operating to enable teleworkers and office workers to do their jobs,” the report warned.
This is a complicated topic and a lot more could be said on the positive and negative impacts of remote working. The main conclusion is that there is no straightforward answer to the question ‘is working from home better for the environment?’. The issue runs very deep and perhaps in the future more studies will be undertaken into how working from home during the COVID pandemic impacted the environment.
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 Sigmund, “Unsplash,” Unsplash, [Online]. Available: https://unsplash.com/photos/eTgMFFzroGc. [Accessed 17 December 2021].
 EPA, “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” EPA, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions. [Accessed 17 December 2021].
 M. Kinver, “Then and now: Pandemic clears the air,” BBC, 1 June 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-57149747. [Accessed 17 December 2021].
 Carbon Trust, “Homeworking Report,” Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, 2021.