Most workers are not telecommuters. The average American is still commuting daily by car (or SUV or van, etc.) for just under an hour each day, covering roughly 32 miles (usually in heavy traffic), thereby generating about 3.2 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per commuter per year (Chen, 2020). Given well over 100 million such commuters in the US alone (Tomer, 2016), that adds up to a lot of emissions.
Avoiding that amount of air pollution, or a major portion of it, could have significant positive impact on air quality, energy consumption and climate change. Together, if just half the workers who can feasibly work from home did so, we could avoid some 54 million tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) per year (Mai, 2021).
The situation changed considerably during the COVID pandemic lockdowns. Telework arrangements increased from estimated pre-pandemic levels of between 6% and 13% of workers to a peak of about 33-35% in May/June 2020 (BLS, 2021) (NCCI, 2021). This was good news for air quality. Telecommuting rates then decreased to 22% by year-end (BLS, 2021).
Amidst the terrible illness and economic disruption, this decreased air pollution and lessened traffic congestion were among the very few positives to be experienced at that time. Many employees and some employers liked teleworking enough to plan to continue telecommuting even after the pandemic, so telework is not expected to return all the way back to pre-pandemic levels (NCCI, 2021).
The potential benefits and/or drawbacks of telework have been the subject of much study and some debate. Some of the drawbacks cited seem less than fully realistic. Consider, for example, the concern that is raised about workers who, upon becoming telecommuters, go out and purchase larger homes to accommodate their new home offices. This action we are told may drive energy consumption at home upward so much that it counters the positive effects of telecommuting-driven GHG reductions. While some people no doubt take this step, there are many who do not, witness all the teleworkers at their desks in their basements, or working at their kitchen tables, in family rooms or spare bedrooms.
Another issue has been raised about an alleged group of infamous telecommuters who theoretically spend their days not at their home office desks at all but in their cars driving about town on endless errands thus matching or exceeding the drive time formerly spent commuting. How those folks could manage their project deadlines is difficult to figure, and how all those errands were dealt with previously, remain unsolved mysteries.
Increased electricity use at home, on the other hand, is a relevant concern for a number of reasons, but may be mitigated where residential green power (community solar or wind farm, for example) is in use. Current commuter transport technology is also a key factor influencing just how successful telecommuting can be at reducing GHG emissions. Communities primarily using mass transit, for example, will see less dramatic results. Nuanced analyses seek to consider a larger context including such countervailing factors.
Few if any of these factors seem likely to outweigh the core benefits of telecommuting, however. These benefits include fewer GHG emissions and lowered resource utilization, not to mention reduced driver stress. Taking some of these additional factors into account, for example, Ainslie Cruickshank demonstrates how telecommuting can help fight climate change in a July 2020 Scientific American article, using three key U.S. cities as examples (Cruickshank, 2020). This analysis indicates that, although the more dramatic results are likely in a city like L.A., significant GHG reductions should be possible from telework in Chicago and New York City as well.
In a recent study that also considered the bigger picture, the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) found that "...there was, indeed, a net environmental benefit that resulted in a 13% reduction in work-related energy consumption and a 14% reduction in work-related greenhouse gas emissions…” (Mullinix, 2022). In general, the study reported that "...telecommuting can promote both energy savings and emission reductions...". Greg Keoleian, SEAS professor of sustainable systems, tells us that "Continuing with remote work where possible is a simple and effective way to reduce emissions and make an impact on climate mitigation efforts.” (Ibid.)
The overriding fact remains that most cars 🚘 on the road are some form of "gas guzzlers" and thus are producing vast quantities of toxic, world-heating greenhouse gases (GHGs). Without these GHGs, the skies can be more clear, the planet less overheated, and our carbon footprint significantly reduced. Constantine Samaras, director of the Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation at Carnegie Mellon University, maintains that telework can “play a big role, because transportation is now the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—and it’s growing” (Cruickshank, 2020).
For some anecdotal evidence, think back to a few minutes you may have spent, during the early months of pandemic lockdown, taking in the view from your back porch. Amidst all the worries, difficulties, fears, raging illness and economic dislocation, there were also on offer at that time, noticeably cleaner, fresher air, bluer skies and cooler temperatures. Studies such as those conducted by Scientific American and the University of Michigan appear to validate the intuitive impression one got from those blue skies and fresh air: namely that real, life-sustaining benefits are indeed achievable from wide-spread telecommuting.
Would the best future be one that eliminated the Covid virus but kept an emphasis on telecommuting? No question. It would.
Coate, P. (2021, January 25). Remote work before, during, and after the pandemic-quarterly economics briefing - Q4 2020. National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI). Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.ncci.com/SecureDocuments/QEB/QEB_Q4_2020_RemoteWork.html
Chen, J. (2020, June 30). Is remote work greener? we calculated buffer's carbon footprint to find out. Buffer Resources. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://buffer.com/resources/carbon-footprint/
Cruickshank, A. (2020, July 22). Covid pandemic-19 shows telecommuting can help fight climate change. Scientific American. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-pandemic-shows-telecommuting-can-help-fight-climate-change/
Mai, D. (2021, March 13). 8 shocking environmental impacts of remote work. Digital Nomad Soul. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://www.digitalnomadsoul.com/environmental-impacts-of-remote-work/
Mullinix, N. (2022, June 20). Continuation of remote work post-pandemic can contribute to climate mitigation efforts. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://seas.umich.edu/news/continuation-remote-work-post-pandemic-can-contribute-climate-mitigation-efforts
Tomer, A. (2022, March 9). America's commuting choices: 5 major takeaways from 2016 census data. Brookings. Retrieved October 4, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/10/03/americans-commuting-choices-5-major-takeaways-from-2016-census-data/
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (n.d.). Appendix. breakdown of teleworking suitability of occupations. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2021/article/teleworking-and-lost-work-during-the-pandemic-new-evidence-from-the-cps.htm