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The big question: is working from home environmentally friendly?

We are often told that working from home is more eco-friendly than working at the office, but is that really the case? Individual habits appear to be the deciding factor

As the COP26 conference in Glasgow draws to an end, questions have been raised about the impact the societal shift caused by Covid-19 has had on carbon emissions over the last two years. There are many benefits to working from home: flexibility, comfort and more time with family; but is working remotely also better for the environment?

Almost 50 per cent of the UK population was working from home at the height of the pandemic according to the National Office for Statistics. Now, companies worldwide are embracing hybrid working in an attempt to give employees the best of both worlds.

However, despite fewer people are commuting to the office, it is still unclear how eco-friendly home working really is. Experts, including James Hand, co-founder of Giki, a social enterprise focused on sustainability, have suggested that one form of working isn’t definitively better for pollution levels and the environment over another.

Instead, it comes down to the individual’s personal habits in and around work. Hand says we should ask two questions: first, ’how much energy do you save by not travelling to work?’; and second, ‘how much extra energy do you use by being at home?’.

Eco-benefits of home working

As mentioned above, one of the biggest benefits to working from home is not having to commute. Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 6.4 per cent in 2020 and a large portion of this was attributed to people no longer taking part in their daily commute.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, which in 2018 made up 28.2 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

However, how much an individual really saves because of this depends on their pre-Covid commuting habits. James Hand notes that ‘an individual who drives to work in a large car would have saved a lot more than someone who has a short train journey.’ Furthermore, if you were the type of person who needed to travel internationally to be in meetings all over the world, you would be saving greatly by working from home.

Working from home during the pandemic has meant people are now acquainted with virtual meetings and feel less inclined to travel when they can simply sit in front of zoom rather than taking an eight-hour plane journey.

‘People are now acquainted with virtual meetings and feel less inclined to travel…’

Another benefit of home working is the reduction in waste and non-recyclable material. Workers no longer pop out during breaks to coffee shops or cafes to buy food and drink, which often comes in non-reusable containers. At home, workers are more likely to stick to whatever is available in the fridge rather than travelling to a store every day.

Food that can be prepared at home also comes in less single-use plastic packaging than items like sandwiches from supermarkets, and cutlery that can be washed up can be used instead of plastic forks that often end up going straight to landfill. Office canteens also do not have to prepare as much food as fewer people are coming into the office meaning there will be less food waste at the end of the day.

Eco-benefits of office working

New office builds are often better designed when it comes to being more environmentally friendly than individual houses. This means that by choosing to work from home instead of the office you could be contributing more CO2 emissions than those who commute to the office. This is because the office will always remain open, lit and heated to accommodate those working there. By choosing to work from home you are heating and lighting a separate space that would otherwise be dormant.

Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, told COP26 that people who work from home might actually be counter-balancing any carbon emissions saved, depending on where they live. ‘People who work from home typically moved away further from their work, so that when they did commute they actually made up for all the gains (in reducing their carbon footprint).’

‘New office builds are often better designed when it comes to being environmentally friendly…’

Those who live in a modern home with good insulation will need to use less energy than someone who lives in an older house without good temperature controls. However, offices can accommodate thousands of workers – if they all chose to work from home, thousands of individual spaces would have to be heated and lit, leading to a much higher release of CO2 emissions.

Therefore, the environmental benefits of different work locations come down to the individual. A reduction in the number of commuters is certainly a benefit. However, working in an office is clearly going to continue post Covid-19 – companies are being encouraged to be flexible when it comes to where their employees work from.

Facilities managers needs to think hard about energy use to make sure that, if the office is less full, then only those parts which are needed are lit and heated. Employees who want to help reduce climate change need to work out whether they release less greenhouse gases working from home or from the office. However, as they juggle an increasingly hybrid working life, such calculations will be difficult to make with any accuracy.

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