Is telework really a ‘green’ choice?
The answer is yes – potentially. Assessing the environmental benefits of telework is a complex task, because any move to work from home involves a series of changes in individuals’ daily lives and activities, as well as company-level decisions, that may positively or negatively influence the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated. This means that the overall climate impact of teleworking is determined by the interplay of a variety of factors. These are crucial to consider for a robust assessment of whether this type of flexible working arrangement can be a green choice.
Reduced emissions from work commute
One of the most widely acknowledged short-term effects of teleworking is a reduction in commuting to work, leading to a decrease in GHG emissions. Lengthy commutes are a notorious issue, especially in urban areas, and capitals most of all. At the same time, ‘teleworkable’ jobs tend to be more common in cities, because of their higher share of knowledge-intensive services employment.  The potential to do these jobs by telework materialised with the COVID-19 pandemic.
One might then wonder what the emission savings resulting from a higher incidence of telework, and the associated reduced commute, are. To understand this, we need to consider several factors:
- the frequency of teleworking (one or two days a week, or more regularly)
- the distance travelled and duration of the commute (very short, medium or long)
- the emission intensity of the mode of transport used by each worker (for instance, diesel or petrol car, electric vehicle or public transport)
- the car occupancy during commutes (driver only or shared ride)
Various combinations of these factors yield different environmental dividends. Clearly, the worker who teleworks very frequently is going to generate fewer GHG emissions than worker commuting alone by (petrol or diesel) car for a long distance or duration.
Relocating outside the city
Yet, while in the short term telework might reduce the number of home-to-work journeys, in the long term it could increase commuting distances if people relocate far from the office to avoid the high rents, property prices and living costs of cities. The possibility to avail of telework and avoid commuting some days could result in workers being more willing to accept a longer commute on the days of the week they are in the office. This could potentially offset the associated emission savings.
Evidence from the Remote Working National Survey conducted in Ireland in April 2021 shows that 8% of respondents had already relocated within the country due to their experience of remote working since the COVID-19 outbreak. A further 24% said they would consider relocating, with the highest proportion of these respondents residing in the Dublin capital region.
In this context, in Ireland, there has been increasing interest in the role that remote working hubs could play in a post-COVID scenario. It is likely that workers who moved farther away from their employer’s premises would prefer a co-working space close to home. Data from the Pulse Survey collected in November 2021 (by the Irish Central Statistics Office) show that 18% of remote workers would work from a hub, or a combination of home and hub, in the future.
Taking other things into account
Besides the potential environmental gain of less commuting, telework has other important climate impacts, not all necessarily positive. The most obvious negative effect, which at least partly counteracts the benefits of reduced travel, is the increased home energy use, given teleworkers’ new or greater need for heating, cooling, lighting, internet, cooking, home-office equipment use and so on.
Moreover, as it is likely that workers will want to retain the flexibility of working from home, with the option of going to the office from time to time, it is unclear to what extent employers will be willing and able to scale back on office spaces post-pandemic. Crucially, the potential reduction of office energy consumption due to a lower number of employees present on site will depend on office energy management policy – notably the flexible and efficient use of office space through hot-desking. If offices continue to be open full time, the increase in energy consumption at home will have an additive effect on top of the energy consumed by office buildings.
Climatic and seasonal conditions also play an important role. In summer, offices have higher energy demand compared to homes, on average, when cooling may be necessary. In contrast, heating in winter is more efficient in office buildings due to centralised systems and the proximity of employees. Therefore, heating homes during winter – which would likely not have been heated (or heated to a lower extent) had the worker been in the office – is especially energy-consuming. Regional climatic differences influence such effects at local level.
There is also the potential for a rebound effect in terms of increased non-work travel. This is primarily associated with the need to make other car journeys for tasks that were previously carried out during the commute to work – doing the shopping or bringing children to school, for instance. The availability of the vehicle that was previously used for the commute may also spur new trips among other household members. Finally, increasing teleworking rates are associated with – if not made possible by – an increase in the use of both ICT equipment (such as computers and screens) and online platforms and services. The issue of ‘digital pollution’ related to the growing need for digital infrastructure should not be overlooked.
Practical steps to the green dividend
So, then, is telework really a greener option? Yes – potentially – but only if it is supported by specific measures. These include, for instance, enabling employees who have to commute long distances by car to telework as much as possible, as well as expanding the infrastructure of remote working hubs to allow workers to live and work in a place of their choosing. It would also be beneficial to promote flexible space use in offices to avoid heating, cooling or lighting unused or sparsely used areas when low employee presence is expected.
It is also essential to continue supporting improvements to the energy efficiency of buildings, shifting to low-carbon means of transport and transitioning to renewable energy sources. In this regard, the ambitious REPowerEU Plan recently unveiled by the European Commission and complementing the European Green Deal goes in the right direction, as it will help to fast forward the transition to clean energy.
Image © Halfpoint/Adobe Stock
Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.