The cost savings benefits and other strengths or advantages of remote work or telecommuting have made it appealing to both individuals and organizations. Considering how it eliminates the need for an individual to commute to and from work, as well as how it reduces the utilization of certain organizational resources, this work arrangement also has positive environmental impacts.
Remote Work as a Green Solution: The Environmental Benefits of Telecommuting
Lessens Emissions from Road Transport
One of the primary benefits of telecommuting to the environment centers on its potential to reduce emissions due to the lesser use of automotive vehicles and other means of transportation. The United States Environmental Protection Agency noted in a 2021 article that emissions from transportation account for about 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. A 2017 report from the European Commission also noted that road transport contributed to 21 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the European Union.
Road transport due to work-related activities is a specific significant contributor to road-related emissions. A commentary by energy modelers Daniel Crow and Ariane Millot of the International Energy Agency argued that telecommuting can not only help in lessening energy consumption but also reduce emissions. Their analysis on commuter trends and labor market data showed that there would be an annual decline of 24 million tons of global CO2 emissions if everybody across the globe works from home once a day a week
Several studies have recorded the drop in emission levels across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic in which numerous businesses were forced to implement work-from-home arrangements due to lockdowns. Data published in the first half of 2020 in October and was reported in a Nature article by J. Tollefson revealed that global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4 percent or 2.3 billion tons. Of course, note that this reduction comes not only by lesser road activities but also by the temporary halts in different business activities.
The fact remains that commuting to work generates a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The 2021 analysis of M. Beňo found that 98 percent of an individual employee carbon footprint comes from commuting. Note that the remote work program of Dell successfully reduced emissions by 6700 metric tons. Telecommuting can fundamentally be part of corporate social responsibility initiatives of business organizations and a specific element of the overall climate action and climate emergency mitigation strategy of governments
Reduced Fuel and Energy Consumption
Another positive environmental impact of remote work arrangements related to reduced greenhouse gas emissions is the potential cutback in energy consumption. The same commentary and analysis by Daniel Crow and Ariane Millot showed that the world could save around 1 percent of global oil consumption for road passenger transport per year if all workers around the globe would work from home at least once a week. Lessening work-related commutes essentially mean lessening the demand for energy-dependent modes of transportation.
There are other estimates from other researchers. In a book authored by Kate Lister and Tom Harnish, they noted that if 40 percent of the American population chose to work from home half of the time, the U.S. could save 280,000,000 barrels of oil while taking 9 million cars permanently off the road. Furthermore, a 2014 article from The Carbon Trust, a business-led publicly-funded organization that provides advisory roles to the government and business organizations, mentioned that the United Kingdom could save over 3 million tons of carbon pollution each year by increasing the number of employees working from home.
Organizations can also lessen their energy consumption and save on electricity bills or expenses related to energy consumption through work-from-home arrangements. A LinkedIn article by Adam Rese, a finance professional, noted that office buildings in the U.S. spend an annual average of USD 1.34 per square foot on electricity and 18 cents per square foot on natural gas. Telecommuting would essentially reduce the need to maintain and operate worksites. A typical office space consumes electricity from climate control systems that include heating and air conditioning units, lighting fixtures, and computer systems operations.
However, it is important to note that there are potential drawbacks as far as energy consumption is concerned. A critical review of relevant quantitative studies conducted by W. O’Brien and F. Yazdani Aliabadi, and published in 2020 in the Energy and Buildings journal explained that the majority of studies have affirmed the energy savings benefit of telecommuting. However, they also concluded that there are some exceptions. So-called rebound effects can significantly offset and even exceed energy consumption savings.
Lessens Demand for Land Resources
The demand for office spaces continues to remain at a steady increase in developed and developing countries despite earlier lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several issues of the VTS Office Demand Index or VODI released since 2020, a report by View The Space, a software developer of a commercial real estate platform, indicated sustained demands albeit some downward trends in certain cities across the United States. There was even a 117.9 percent increase in demand across the country since January 2021.
In Hong Kong, where properties and rentals are expensive due to its limited land resource, demand for spaces in premium towers in its central district has started to rebound in July 2012 despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and albeit the heightened risks under the national security law imposed by mainland China in 2020. Several reports by local media organizations in the Philippines also mentioned increasing demand for office space despite optimism in economic performance due to the impacts of the pandemic.
A 2009 paper from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania showed that 25 percent of corporate assets are invested in real estate, which represents 5 to 8 percent of gross sales or 40 to 50 percent of net income, thereby indicating that real properties or land resources and spaces are critical to the operations of organizations. Continued demand for office spaces to deploy physical worksites and house workers would mean a further expansion of urbanization and conversion of lands into commercial areas.
The 2017 review study of X. Bai et al. explained that cities and urbanization processes drastically modify the natural environment, thus resulting in impaired ecology. A referenced article published online by National Geographic explained that jobs located in cities pull more people from the periphery while expanding the urbanization process. However, urban growth means concentrated energy consumption that leads to greater air pollution, as well as generation of large volumes of wastes, destruction of natural habitats, and reduction of natural mediums to allow the natural growth of trees and other plant species.
Takeaway: Understanding the Positive Impacts of Telecommuting on the Environment
Based on the discussions above, remote work or telecommuting has three primary benefits to the environment. First, it can help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of a particular city or an entire country by removing vehicles on the road and other traffic-related activities and reducing the influx of daily commuters.
The second is that it can help conserve energy resources and promote energy security while lessening the negative environmental impacts of unclean energy sources such as fossil fuels. As mentioned, reducing work-related commutes essentially mean reducing the demand for energy-dependent modes of transportation. Furthermore, reducing the operation and capacities of worksites would mean reducing commercial electricity consumption.
Another environmental benefit of telecommuting centers on the reduced need for converting land resources into urban areas and specific commercial spaces such as office buildings. Growth in the economy means an increase in business activities, which, in turn, translates to heightened demand for real estate to build worksites. However, because a remote workplace transpires within the digital realm, telecommuting can play a role in slowing down urban growth and maximizing available developed land areas.
Nevertheless, considering the aforesaid benefits, remote work or telecommuting arrangements can form part of sustainability solutions, action and mitigation plans against global warming and the ongoing climate emergency of organizations and government, or as a component in the implementation of concepts such as a circular economic model.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Bai, X., McPhearson, T., Cleugh, H., Nagendra, H., Tong, X., Zhu, T., and Zhu, Y.-G. 2017. “Linking Urbanization and the Environment: Conceptual and Empirical Advances.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 42(1): 215-240. DOI: 1146/annurev-environ-102016-061128
- Beňo, M. 2021. “The Advantages and Disadvantages of E-working: An Examination using an ALDINE Analysis.” Emerging Science Journal. 5: 11-20. DOI: 28991/esj-2021-sper-02
- Reese, A. 2016. “Office Buildings & Managing Energy Costs: Energy Represents About 19% of Total Expenditures for the Typical Office Building.” LinkedIn Pulse. Available online
- Chan, M. 2021. “Demand for Central Hong Kong Office Returns.” Nikkei Asia. Available online
- Crow, D. and Millot, A. 2020. “Working From Home Can Save Energy and Reduce Emissions. But How Much?” International Energy Agency. Available online
- European Commission. 2017. “Road Transport: Reducing CO2 Emissions from Vehicles.” Climate Action. European Commission, European Union. Available online
- Lister, K. and Harnish, T. 2009. Undress for Success: The Naked Truth about Making Money at Home. 1st ed. Wiley. ISBN: 978-0470383322
- National Geographic. n.d. “Urban Threats.” National Geographic. Available online
- O’Brien, W. and Yazdani Aliabadi, F. 2020. “Does Telecommuting Save Energy? A Critical Review of Quantitative Studies and Their Research methods.” Energy and Buildings. 225: 110298. DOI: 1016/j.enbuild.2020.110298
- The Carbon Trust. 2014. “Homeworking: Helping Businesses Cut Costs and Reduce their Carbon Footprint.” The Carbon Trust. Available online
- Tollefson, J. 2021. “COVID Curbed Carbon Emissions in 2020—But Not By Much.” Nature. 589(7842): 343-343. DOI: 1038/d41586-021-00090-3
- S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2021. “Carbon Pollution from Transportation. Environmental Protection Agency. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Available online
- View The Space. 2021. VTS Office Demand Index. Monthly Report: June 2021. View The Space Inc. Available via PDF