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Remote work can positively help environment

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Remote work can positively help environment

The environmental benefits of remote work are not just in the reduction of emissions and power usage. Remote work can become a proactive approach to a green world and allow us to contribute to a healthier tomorrow for the planet...

Remote work  can positively help environment


Thinking Point

VN Garg

The writer is the Honorary Secretary, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), U.P. Regional Branch. He is also former chairperson, UP Forest Corporation; formal principal secretary, forest & environment; former chairman, UP Pollution Control Board  

Remote work, also called telecommuting, has been on the rise since 2005. Covid 19 has contributed to the rise of remote work in a big way. Now more and more companies are asking workers to work from home or any convenient place. This trend is likely to continue. One study has estimated that 58 percent of the US workforce will do remote work by 2027.

There are many implications of remote work regarding its impact on the environment. Some of the arguments that remote work is good for the environment are as follows: Remote work reduces significantly commuting for workers, thereby reducing the consumption of fuel for vehicles. This, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions as well as pollution. It also reduces the wear and tear of roads as well as the vehicles. During the COVID-19 pandemic, breathe London data showed that emissions reduced 25% during the normal morning commute and 34% during the evening commute. Working from home means billions of tons of emissions are reduced each year at a global level. This also improves air quality in city areas as well as in the suburbs.

Secondly, there is a reduction in the consumption of power for lighting the office and running the office equipment, as there are fewer people in the office. In the long run, organizations may shift to smaller office space. According to the World Economic Forum, power consumption has gone down overall due to work-from-home positions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Thirdly, less furniture and office equipment like printers, copy machines, and phones are used and purchased.  Digitizing documents for remote workers drastically reduces paper usage by companies across the board. Also, there is less usage and purchase of consumables like ink. Further, the production of such items will also be reduced making a favourable impact on the environment.

Fourthly, cooking at home can cut the use of plastics used by home delivery services. When people eat at home, they use less paper and plastic cups,  utensils, and other supplies than normally in an office kitchen. Brewing coffee at home can reduce the use of plastic lids. If the office has non-environmentally- friendly coffee machines that the workers don’t have at home, that waste will also be reduced. Drinking water through a filter can prevent the continuous consumption of single-use water bottles. Persons with work-from-home jobs have the chance to reduce their carbon footprint through eco-friendly diets. With more time to choose healthier foods and prepare meals at home, remote workers can make a huge impact on their carbon footprint. In addition, a switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet can substantially reduce emissions and provide a boost to health.

However, there are some arguments about how remote work can impact the environment adversely, as follows:  The energy and bandwidth used on things like video calls and webinars on computers and the internet result in  CO2 emissions. It has been estimated that one hour of an ultra-HD video call creates 2.8 kg of CO2 per participant. If we have an average of three hours of video calls per day, then in one year (260 workdays), we shall be personally emitting  (2.8x3x260) or 2184 kg of CO2 per year for our video calls. Thus,  online work at home is not free from greenhouse gas emissions.

 Secondly, office buildings are designed to utilize energy better than homes. Therefore, getting everybody into a heated or cooled office building uses less energy than each worker using energy in his or her home. The London-based consultancy firm  WSP, UK studied the carbon output of 2000  UK-based workers in different locations. It concluded that remote work was a boon for the environment in summer, but not in winter. The environmental cost of heating all the workers’ houses was greater than heating one office building. In places like the US, which relies heavily on air conditioning, the energy cost of working at home could be high in summer and the winter.  Of course, one must also factor in the source of the energy. In places like Iceland, which powers many homes and businesses with geothermal energy, it makes less of a difference where you work. If your home benefits from solar or wind power, energy consumption also becomes less of an issue. Thirdly, materials and transportation to ship supplies or equipment to remote workers for their online orders consume energy and impact the environment adversely.

In addition to energy implications, there are time implications of remote work. According to a US Census Bureau report and research from The Washington Post, the average one-way commute time for American workers was 27 minutes. Through extensive research, the company  CoPilot compiled the cities that gained the most time back from not commuting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Some of the cities that gained the most from remote work included: New York City gained 15.2%, Chicago gained 13.1%, Philadelphia gained  13.0%, Oakland at 12.6 %, and Los Angeles at 12.4% time from not commuting. These statistics indicate not only the additional time that workers can use at the remote office but also a drastic reduction in emissions caused by telecommuting.

Companies can save up to 11,000 dollars per year for each worker who commutes half the time.  Employers cannot afford to ignore this saving at the environmental or bottom-line level. For employees, remote work mostly means benefits in terms of big savings on time and money (on gas, oil, and wear and tear), flexibility, and better work-life balance.  But with extra time, workers are also in a unique position to make an even more profound impact on the environment. To improve the environment, remote workers can take up the following activities:

1.         Building a garden and composting

2.         Cleaning trash in a park  or body of water

3.         Planting trees

4.         Working with an advocacy organization

5.         Starting an urban or suburban community

The environmental benefits of remote work are not just in the reduction of emissions and power usage. Remote work can become a proactive approach to a green world and allow us to contribute to a healthier tomorrow for the planet. Remote work is the likely pattern of work in the future due to a variety of factors mentioned above, and its friendliness to the environment and sustainability is one powerful factor in its favour.


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