Working From Home Can Be Far Greener Than Commuting, Study Finds
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your carbon emissions you could start by staying home for work. A new study by researchers from Cornell University and Microsoft has found that working remotely can have great benefits for the planet.
According to the study, compared to those who travel to an office for work, people who work remotely all the time could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 54 percent. Hybrid workers can reduce their carbon footprint by 11 percent when they work remotely two days a week and 29 percent when they spend four days working from home.
“The remote work has to be significant in order to realize these kind of benefits,” said Longqi Yang, an applied research manager at Microsoft and co-author of the study, as The Washington Post reported. “This study provides a very important data point for a dimension that people care a lot about when deciding remote work policy.”
The study, “Climate mitigation potentials of teleworking are sensitive to changes in lifestyle and workplace rather than ICT usage,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
As a model for the projected greenhouse gas emissions of U.S. remote, hybrid and office workers, the researchers used data on teleworking and commuting from Microsoft employees. They looked at five types of emissions, including energy use at home and in the office.
“Office energy use is the main contributor to the carbon footprint of onsite and hybrid workers, while non-commute-related travel becomes more significant as the number of remote work days increases,” the study said. “In contrast, the effects of remote and hybrid work on ICT usage have negligible impacts on the overall carbon footprint. This highlights that people should shift their focus from ICT usage to commute decarbonization, facility downsizing, and renewables penetration for office buildings to mitigate GHG emissions of remote and onsite work.”
The researchers found that travel not related to work increased for remote workers.
“People say: ‘I work from home, I’m net zero.’ That’s not true,” said Fengqi You, one of the authors of the study and a Cornell professor whose research is focused on systems engineering and data science, as reported by The Guardian. “The net benefit for working remotely is positive but a key question is how positive. When people work remotely, they tend to spend more emissions on social activities.”
Professor You pointed out that people’s homes are not always the most energy efficient, and office printers tend to be more energy efficient than printers used at home.
“While remote work shows potential in reducing carbon footprint, careful consideration of commuting patterns, building energy consumption, vehicle ownership, and non-commute-related travel is essential to fully realise its environmental benefits,” the study said.
Improved fuel economy due to less congestion at rush hour was an additional benefit of more remote work.
“To have a comprehensive plan for something like this, you’re looking at more than just the workplace, and obviously the other choices that people make in their life will also impact the emissions that they create and that organizations might create as well,” said John Trougakos, a professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at University of Toronto-Scarborough, as The Washington Post reported.
The study found that communications and information technology made up only a small portion of overall carbon emissions, so the focus of emissions reductions should be on using renewables for office temperature control and decarbonizing transportation.
“We’re not trying to predict the future, but I think the future is all up to us,” Yang said, as reported by The Washington Post. “This study tells people, if we want to be more carbon neutral in the future, what can we do now?”