Working From Home During the Pandemic Has Environmental Benefits — But We Can Do Even Better
Junjira Konsang / Pixabay
By Matt Casale
For many Americans across the country, staying home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) means adapting to long-term telework for the first time. We're doing a lot more video conferencing and working out all the kinks that come along with it.
While this particular situation is not ideal for many — for example, I'm currently writing this with an infant in a baby carrier on my chest and our almost-three-year-old belting "Let It Go" in the background — in many ways we're playing out a real-time experiment on whether telecommuting is possible on a large scale.
The author (above) wrote this while working from home, baby in tow. Emily Anderson (author's wife/home office mate)
The coronavirus will pass, but it's looking more and more like remote work will stick around. This time has demonstrated that, despite the ups and downs many of us have experienced, telework works for way more of us than we knew.
Even before this we knew that there were several benefits for both employers and employees to sidestepping the office. Studies have shown that it can lead to increased productivity, higher morale and lower employee turnover. It can also reduce real estate and office operation costs for employers.
We may now also be seeing some larger societal benefits that make the case for taking telework even further. Our current situation has provided a window into how a reduction in driving, buoyed, in part, by a greater adoption of telework, could relieve some of the stress on our overburdened transportation system and help heal at least a portion of the environmental damage it causes.
Today, roads that would normally clogged at all hours of the day are virtually empty, even during rush hour. And the reduced car travel leads to fewer crashes and less air pollution, which harms human health and contributes to global warming. Air that's usually cloudy with smog has cleared. Los Angeles, which has notoriously pollution-choked skies, could recently boast having the cleanest air in the world. And this year, experts predict, the transportation transformation will contribute to the largest-ever annual decline in global carbon emissions.
Virtually empty Los Angeles streets on May 7. Chris Yarzab / CC BY 2.0
Clearly not every job can be done from home, and it's not just commuting for work that has come to a halt during coronavirus lockdowns. In 2017 only around 28 percent of total miles driven were work-related. Even if telework continues or expands on a much larger scale, non-work-related car trips — shopping, recreation, visits to doctors and the like — can be expected to go back to normal.
Still, telework's potential for taking cars off the road can clearly have an impact on global warming emissions and air pollution. Just how much of an impact could telework have? As it turns out, the answer is a significant one — and with a few important steps, the benefits can be even greater and more sustainable.
How Much of the Workforce Could Reasonably and Permanently Transition to Telework?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.2 percent of U.S. workers — around 8 million people — worked from home in 2017. But that's still just a fraction of potential teleworkers. Earlier this month researchers at the University of Chicago found that 37 percent of U.S. jobs can plausibly be performed at home. The U.S. workforce reached 164.5 million in February 2020, before the pandemic, meaning approximately 61 million of those workers could plausibly telework permanently once the economy starts up again.
Of course, the full economic consequences of this public health crisis are still unknown. It's possible that coronavirus-related job losses will impact the overall number of those employed for some time. But for these purposes, this assumption of 53 million new remote workers will be useful to illustrate the potential impacts of telework.
How Much Driving Would Full-Capacity Telework Avoid?
In 2019 Americans drove a total 3.23 trillion miles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The DoE doesn't break that down by reasons driving, but we know that in 2017 there were 683 billion total commute miles driven. Reducing the commuting workforce by about 32 percent (37 percent of total workers who could telecommute minus the 5.2 percent of them who already do) would theoretically decrease commuting totals by about 219 billion miles.
A traffic jam on January 17. Raphael Labaca Castro / CC BY-SA 2.0
Of course telecommuting won't let us avoid logging all of those miles, since people may occasionally still need to travel to an office for meetings and may need to make new trips they wouldn't otherwise have taken (you can't stop at the grocery store on the way home from work when you work at home). Various studies have found that telecommuting actually reduces driving somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of commute vehicle miles traveled (VMT). We'll split the difference and calculate that telework reduces commute miles by about 75%, meaning the new teleworkers could avoid around 164 billion miles driven.
U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels Data Center
Still, that much of a transformation may not work for everyone, as people will still need to do face-to-face work — and, let's be honest, the other thing the lockdowns have taught us is to appreciate the value of regular social contact. That said, even if most people worked from home two to three days a week and the actual VMT reduction were closer to 2 or 3 percent, the difference would still be significant — especially considering that VMT has been steadily rising since the 1970s, except for a few years during economic downturns. Even if just a quarter of American workers started working from home one day a week, total vehicle miles traveled would fall by 1 percent — not a huge amount, but enough to make a difference on a grander scale.
Impact on Global Warming Emissions
The cars and trucks we drive every day are major sources of air pollution and global warming emissions. Transportation as a whole accounts for 28 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., more than any other source. Light-duty vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks are responsible for 82 percent of the transportation sector's emissions.
The average American car or SUV emits 404 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile traveled. So reducing commuting by 164 billion miles would avoid 66 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. These are significant emissions reductions, but they'd only make a small dent in total transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, which reached nearly 1.9 billion metric tons in 2018.
Nevertheless, it would help us move in the right direction. And while it only represents a small percentage of total emissions, it would still be the equivalent of more eliminating emissions from than 7 million homes' total energy use for one year, or the same as shutting down more than 16 coal-fired power plants.
Impact on Health-harming Air Pollution
People across America regularly breathe polluted air, which increases their risk of attacks and other adverse health impacts, and even premature death. In fact, in 2018 108 million Americans lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality. Our cars and trucks are a major source of this pollution, which includes ozone, particulate matter and other smog-forming emissions.
There's a reason the air has cleared over many of our major cities during the coronavirus lockdowns. When you remove cars from the road, you also remove smog. The lockdowns have resulted in an extreme reduction of VMT — between 68 and 72 percent across the country (and in some places closer to 90 percent). Assuming that telework has contributed something close to its peak potential reduction of 7 percent, it seems likely that it has played at least a supporting role in helping to clear our skies.
Additional Emissions Reductions From Reduced Traffic
The average American commuter wastes 54 hours a year stuck in traffic. That's lost time with friends and families, lost productivity at work, wasted money, tons of unnecessary stress, and a lot more pollution from idling cars.
Traffic patterns are complicated because traffic is non-linear, meaning there isn't a one-to-one ratio of percentage of cars removed to percentage of traffic alleviated. As such, just a few extra cars on or off the road can have an outsize impact on traffic. Reducing commute VMT by up to 7 percent would have a huge impact on rush hour traffic (when bottlenecks are at their worst and most of that driving occurs). A greater adoption of telework could give people back some of those 54 hours so they can spend it doing the things that matter to them. And slow moving or stop and go traffic results in greater emissions than free-flowing traffic. So freeing up the roads and alleviating traffic for the remaining will result in even greater emissions reductions.
What Needs to Happen for Telework to Live Up to Its Potential?
It's clear that telework can have significant societal benefits, including less global warming pollution and cleaner skies. But significant benefits are only possible if everyone whose job could plausibly be done from home has that opportunity.
To reach that goal, several barriers must be overcome:
Technology: We've all had technical mix-ups when using Zoom or Google Hangouts or one of the other conferencing platforms. But the real technological barrier is access to broadband. Roughly three-quarters of American adults have broadband internet service at home, but the rate of access is much lower in rural parts of the country, according to a report by Pew Research Center. Those locations often don't have broadband infrastructure and even 14 percent of households in urban areas lack access, usually because they are not able to afford it. States should make funding available to develop broadband capacity in underserved areas.
Employer policies and managerial reluctance: Coronavirus lockdowns across the country have forced employers and managers to adapt to large-scale telework quickly on an emergency basis, meaning these barriers are less likely relevant now than before. But general employer and manager reluctance to embrace working from home has slowed this transition. Cities and states can encourage employer acceptance of telework by providing tax benefits or other incentives for greater adoption.
Car-centered transportation policies: Our current transportation policies often incentivize driving or parking. From commuter and parking benefits to decades of outsized spending on highway infrastructure, we tip the scales toward getting behind an automobile's wheel. In other words, our transportation policies are meant to move cars rather than incentivize things, such as telework, that would take cars off the road.
We need to rethink this approach and shift toward better "Transportation Demand Management." This requires the implementation of a set of strategies aimed at maximizing traveler choices. Those strategies should include greater employer and employee incentives for telework, as well as policies designed to facilitate more walking, biking, ridesharing, vanpooling and public transportation use.
Bikeshare in Milan, October 2019. Guilhem Vellut / CC BY 2.0
That's important, because the potential gains we'd see from telework would only be sustained if that shift were paired with other policies to ensure those commuter miles aren't just replaced with other trips. We usually talk about this in relation to widening or building new highways, but when you open up highway capacity, it usually fills quickly. This is what the wonks call "induced demand." People who otherwise would have driven at a different time of day, taken a different route, taken public transportation or would have avoided traffic on the highway some other way, come back to the road. The same could happen here if additional measures aren't taken.
It's likely that, even after the coronavirus lockdowns are over, telework is going to become more and more common in the American workforce. As it does, the environmental benefits will be significant. In a time when climate change presents an existential threat to life as we know it and millions of people across the world are subjected to unhealthy levels of air pollution, we need to be taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving these problems. Telework can clearly be a significant part of the long-term solution — especially if we take further steps to maximize its potential.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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