Pollution in the skies over some of the world's most crowded places has cleared significantly as strict stay-at-home orders have been put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It makes sense. Because countries have implemented strict travel restrictions and closed their borders, air travel has ground to a halt. And with more people working from home, office blocks are no longer running heaters or air conditioners. Fewer people are commuting by car, which reduces our carbon footprint.
As lockdown restrictions gradually begin to lift, many people are suggesting a mass move to working from home may continue to help the planet. But others say this view may be too simplistic.
To find out whether working from home is as beneficial to the environment as it appears to be, University of Sussex academics reviewed current knowledge of the energy impacts of teleworking. The researchers synthesised the results of 39 empirical studies from the US, Europe, Thailand, Malaysia and Iran published between 1995 and 2019.
The majority of studies agree that working from home reduced commuter travel and energy use – by as much as 80% in some cases. But a small number of studies found that telecommuting actually increased energy use or had a negligible impact. This is because the energy savings were offset by increased travel for recreation or other purposes, together with additional energy use in the home.
The authors found that more methodologically rigorous studies were less likely to estimate energy savings.
“Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption,” says Dr Andrew Hook, lecturer in human geography at the University of Sussex.
The authors identified several ways in which working from home practices may lead to energy increases. One issue is that teleworkers may end up living further away from their place of work, so they commute further on the days they do have to work in the office.
In addition, the time gained from commuting each day may be used by teleworkers to make additional journeys for leisure and social purposes. In some cases, isolated and sedentary teleworkers might take on more journeys elsewhere to combat negative feelings.
There is also the argument that energy management in office buildings can be more effective than in homes. So working in a single office building has a lower impact than each person working from home and heating their house.
“It is our belief from examining the relevant literature that teleworking has some potential to reduce energy consumption and associated emissions – both through reducing commuter travel and displacing office-related energy consumption. But if it encourages people to live further away from work or to take additional trips, the savings could be limited or even negative,” says Dr Victor Court, lecturer at the Center for Energy Economics and Management, IFP School.
Whether working from home has a significantly beneficial impact on the environment also depends on the country. In Norway, electric cars made up 37.8% of sales in 2019. Therefore, the environmental cost of commuting is lower than in countries which tend to use petrol, such as the UK.
This isn’t to say that working from home doesn’t have its benefits. The problem is that modern-day work patterns are increasingly complex, diversified and personalised, which makes it far harder to track whether teleworking is definitively contributing energy savings.
“The body of research on the subject shows that it is too simple to assume that teleworking is inevitably a more sustainable option,” says Benjamin K Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex.
“Unless workers and employers fully commit to the working from home model, many of the potential energy savings could be lost. A scenario after the threat of coronavirus has cleared where workers will want the best of both worlds; retaining the freedom and flexibility they found from working from home but the social aspects of working at an office that they’ve missed out on during lockdown, will not deliver the energy savings the world needs.”