While working from home is a luxury for some, it’s becoming a necessity for others. The world is currently witnessing its “largest work-from-home experiment,” as Bloomberg put it, due to the rapid spread of the Wuhan coronavirus that’s killed more people than the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. Many businesses across China are forcing workers to stay home to protect their health and keep the virus from spreading. This may be challenging for teams accustomed to in-person brainstorming sessions, but remote work has the potential to protect public health by doing more than containing the Wuhan virus.
That’s because working remotely is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And as scary as the coronavirus is, climate change is another huge issue already preying on the most vulnerable. Fighting it will require changing basically everything about our lives, and that could include how often we leave our homes to go into the office.
The U.S. government actually began mandating telework for its employees in 2000 partly to have systems in place in the case of a pandemic, Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting group that helps facilitate the implementation of remote work, explained to Earther (note Wuhan virus hasn’t reached pandemic levels yet, but it’s sure as hell getting closer). In recent years, however, the federal government has been looking at telework as a way to reduce individual agencies’ greenhouse gas emissions. The current president is on a mission to ruin that progress, but that’s a separate story.
The carbon benefits of working from home largely depend on how a person gets to work. If you’re like me and take a train to work, staying home doesn’t do all that much to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. If you’re among the 76 percent of Americans who drive to work alone, then staying home a couple days a week could dramatically reduce your individual carbon footprint while also reducing all the congestion and pollution that results from so many cars on the road.
In a car-obsessed place like the U.S., transportation makes up the hugest chunk of national greenhouse gas emissions at 28.9 percent. Improving fuel efficiency and access to public transit are often hailed as solutions, but they require investments. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to invest in of course, but it costs virtually nothing for employees to stay home once or twice a week if their work can allow it. Research from Global Workplace Analytics shows that while the numbers show that telecommuting has increased by 115 percent over the last decade, only 7 percent of employers offer this option to most employees. That’s not enough if we’re gonna save the world, man.
The same report goes on to show that even this relatively small pool of remote workers—some 3.9 million telecommuters in the U.S.—created greenhouse gas savings equivalent to removing 600,000 cars off the road a year. A separate study published in 2018 in the journal Transportation Research found that in Chicago, telecommuting resulted in daily reductions of about 695 tons of greenhouse gas emissions and 367 pounds of particulate matter, a dangerous air pollutant that can lead to lung and heart problems.
“We need these kinds of policies, like promoting public transportation, promoting active transportation like biking, scooters, and so on—and of course telecommuting—as a cheap policy that we can implement and at the same time, get promising results,” study author Ramin Shabanpour, a visiting research assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Earther.
Working from home isn’t perfect, though. The science still hasn’t taken as close of a look at how these benefits may be canceled out by increased home heating and cooling needs or running around to do errands during the workday. Shabanpour’s research simulated some scenarios, but there’s still more analysis that needs to be done.
“Overall, working from home can reduce travel to/from work, and if this travel was done by automobile in particular, working from home can reduce carbon emissions from the commute,” Markus Moos, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who has studied this topic, wrote in an email to Earther. “However, the research on working from home also finds that people take new kinds of trips when working from home, so the net effect remains somewhat ambiguous.”
In the ideal world, the positives would be enough to encourage employers to create flexible work policies. However, saving money is the real push, said Lister. Luckily for the planet, economics and the environment go hand in hand these days, so companies are also seeing the financial benefits of setting and meeting internal sustainability goals. These work-from-home measures may appeal to investors (and consumers!) that are interested in a company’s environmental and societal impact.
“I’ve walked into companies and said, ‘hey, we can satisfy your [emissions] reductions in a very simple, easy, popular, and inexpensive way,” Lister told Earther. “And that’s been a real selling point.”
Employees love the option, too. I work from home at least twice a week. If I’m getting a cold, my co-workers get mad if I come in. Some days, I work in my pajamas. It’s great! And research has found that offering the option to employees increases their productivity levels, makes them happier, and improves retention. So companies also help their pocketbooks when they implement remote work policies.
And in China, employers faced with the task of trying out this work practice may realize they actually really like it. Those feelings may be a bit, well, complicated given the reason why many people in China are working from home, but it could also offer some important lessons about the climate benefits of remote work. China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, so hopefully companies based there take a deeper look at how this work-from-home experiment may serve as a more permanent measure to reduce emissions.
“In a lot of cases, when something good happens, it’s because of something bad,” Paul O’Keeffe, a civil engineer at Dublin-based engineering consultancy Arup who’s researched these benefits, told Earther. “And it’s how people react to it, that shows you change can be good or possible.”
Correction: 2/4/2020, 4:10 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the data in the 2018 study published in the journal Transportation Research, which we miscalculated in writing the story. Sorry!