COVID-19 has turned billions of lives upside-down. The global village desperately needs a win. We may have one – environmental recovery. We have seen news, both genuine and manufactured, showing just that. There aren’t any dolphins in the Venice Canal. Yet, we have seen wild animals roaming the streets, less smog in major cities, and even a global reduction in global carbon emissions.
This progress is incredible. So, how can we maintain it?
Are any of our current practices sustainable in the aftermath of this pandemic?
Working from home seems like it’s here to stay – but how does this affect our environment? No doubt it’s a big step – but is that a big step forward or backwards?
The Environmental Impact Of COVID-19
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen the world come to a grinding halt. National shutdowns have slowed global industry, manufacturing, and construction. A staggering win for the environment because these sectors make up for roughly 18% of our global carbon footprint. So, unfortunately, the reduction in total global emissions is only temporary. As things go back to normal and the economy opens, so too will our carbon emissions.
The outbreak started in China. So, looking at their carbon emission trends over the past months can help us to predict the global scenario. In the height of their outbreak, China’s emissions fell by a quarter. As China is one of the world’s largest carbon emitters, this translates to a 6% decrease in global emissions.
Although these numbers are very encouraging, it would be short-sighted not to look at the bigger picture. This decrease is not sustainable. We can see that as China recovers, their emissions increase again. As of February, Chinese emissions had already increased by 7% – but this is still an 18% deficit compared to the same period in 2019. Some ecologists predict that as there is a push to radical economic recovery, global emissions will increase beyond pre-COVID-19 levels.
A major negative environmental impact of the virus is the irresponsible disposal of PPE. This has a particularly devastating effect on our oceans because masks and plastic gloves eventually land up sleeping with the fishes.
The Environmental Benefits Of Working From Home
The pandemic has forced most office workers to work from home. So, it’s essential that we examine the possible environmental benefits of working from home. If the environmental benefits of working from home are significant, a mass movement towards the home office may be a major breakthrough. The chief environmental benefits of working from home are:
1. No Commute
Your morning commute doesn’t just suck the time out of your day – it also drains the planet’s resources. The travel industry emits 23% of all global emissions. While many environmental activists and health gurus promote walking or riding a bike to work, for many it’s not an option – due to safety and distance. So, removing the commute altogether could have a significant impact.
Let’s take a look at the effect of one person not having to travel to work. The average petrol car produces 180 g of carbon dioxide per kilometre. So, if you drive 20 km to work every day, that’s 3.6 kg of carbon dioxide per trip and 7.2 kg per day. Now, if you work 220 days a year that would equate to an annual average of 16 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. This equates to twice the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the average American household per year. In a large city this number would increase because it doesn’t take into account the time your car spends running while being stuck in traffic.
The reduction in travel may lead to fewer people buying private cars, and fewer families owning multiple cars. A decrease in cars being bought would then lead to a decrease in the raw materials and energy used to manufacture them. Not to mention, the billions of years required for a car to fully decompose. All in all, less travelling is a strong argument for the environmental benefits of working from home.
2. Decreased Paper Consumption
Companies that are based on a remote work model often require fewer hard copy documents. At Goodman Lantern we are as close to being fully paperless as possible. The system is not only responsible, it’s logical. Requiring remote workers to mail or deliver hard copy documents is both labour and cost-intensive. The growing use of digital documents has resulted in digital signatures being legally binding in most countries. So, there is no need to print any more.
Reducing paper must be counted among the most important benefits of working from home. The EPA estimates that the average office worker uses over ten thousands sheets of paper per annum. They also show that paper and cardboard make up 40% of landfill waste.
Paper harms the environment from the beginning to the end of its lifespan. The manufacturing process of paper is extremely harmful. Not only does it release significant amounts of carbon waste, and consume large volumes of water – it results in the deforestation of roughly 28 million hectares of land per year.
Deforestation has a destructive effect on our planet.
- Countless species lose their natural habitats which in many cases leads to extinction.
- Soil erosion can lead to the land becoming barren.
- Trees are one of our greatest weapons against climate change, due to their ability to scrub their surroundings of carbon dioxide. The paper industry simultaneously produces carbon dioxide and destroys our ability to absorb that carbon dioxide.
3. Slowing Down Urbanisation
Over 50% of our population lives in the city In thirty years time, this number is expected to reach almost 70%. Urbanisation has a terrifying environmental impact – water cycle perturbations, deforestation and air pollution.
Career advancement is the main reason people flock to urban areas. If more people were allowed to work remotely, there wouldn’t be a need to live in a big city. When examining the environmental benefits of working from home, it is important to consider the long haul.
This particular benefit could take several years of an en-mass work from home culture before we see significant change.
4. Decreased Single-Use Plastics
Stopping at your local Starbucks on the way to work, or buying a sandwich from the cart are habits that would soon break when working from home. Think about it, going to your kitchen to grab a cup of coffee is much more convenient than leaving the house to go grab a latte.
This is one of the more subtle environmental benefits of working from home. The small habit of buying takeaway coffee has a significant environmental impact. Take away coffee cups aren’t only made from paper, they are lined with plastic, making them difficult to recycle. It is estimated that every year 16 billion coffee cups go straight to the landfill – each one taking millions of years to decompose.
It is important to differentiate working from home from working remotely. While many remote workers do work at home, some work at collective office spaces. Obviously, going back to an office type environment may cancel out some of the environmental benefits of working from home.
The Potential Negative Impacts Of Working From Home
We have seen four powerful environmental benefits of working from home, but as with everything there is a flip side.
The Energy Conundrum
There is an argument that not having to power an office would lead to a decrease in energy consumption. This is not necessarily true. Office heating and cooling systems use significant amounts of electricity. Yet office buildings themselves are normally more energy efficient than individual homes. Research shows that in cold winter months, UK based workers used more energy working from home than they would have at the office. This increased energy use outweighed the benefit of forgoing the commute. Particularly when travel is becoming more eco-friendly – due to the electric car and improved public transport.
This study has several shortfalls – some of which they acknowledge. Firstly, it focuses on a sample size of two-hundred office workers. This is not very big when you consider the millions of people who work in an office environment. Secondly, it focuses on the UK – a first world country with reliable public transport systems. In warmer climates, the need for heating is negligible, but perhaps air conditioning systems may need to be factored in. It also doesn’t take into account that many countries run on clean energy systems.
Of note, this study assumes that there is no one else at home during office hours. In a group living scenario, different members of a household will stick to different schedules and spend different parts of the day at home. Just because an individual is at their office, doesn’t mean that their home is in a state of zero energy usage. Heating and cooling systems may be operating regardless of whether a person is working from home. Additionally, this study only factored in energy expenditure and did not factor in any other environmental benefits of working from home.
The Bottom Line
This argument brings an important point to light. The environmental benefits of working from home are dependent on the individual. A person who is dedicated to green practices or even just set on having a smaller utility bill will contribute more to the environmental benefits of working from home – or vice versa. The same goes for companies who are dedicated to running green office environments. There may not be any environmental benefits of working from home if the office environment is sufficiently eco-friendly.
If those of us who do work from home commit to being as green as possible the environmental benefits of working from home would be limitless. This is the crux of the entire eco-movement. If there is mass buy-in from individuals, the planet has a chance. This brings up another environmental imperative, the individual can commit to going green, but for real change to be achieved, we need the man to come to the party. Organisations, industries and governments all have a much bigger impact on the environment than the individual.
All is not lost – these entities are, after all, run by individuals.
The Big Question – Is Working From Home Sustainable?
Now, this is a question for economists. No matter what the environmental benefits of working from home are – it won’t happen on a large scale if it’s not economically viable. After all, does money make the world go round?
Popular opinion seems to be split on this one. You will find many articles heralding remote work as the way of the future – citing decreased operational costs and increased employee productivity. You will also find just as many claiming that the lack of personal interaction causes a decrease in productivity. Again, this depends on your company.
At Goodman Lantern, we may be far apart – but our continuous connection via different online platforms gives us a real sense of community. It’s easy to see that a company without this sense of community may see a plummet in productivity. There seem to be both economic and environmental benefits of working from home. To make this practice sustainable, a new style of leadership needs to be adapted. Managing a remote team is very different from managing a traditional office environment.
More research into the environmental benefits of working from home may inspire business to make the change. It may even inspire governments to offer incentives to those companies and individuals who do adopt a work-from-home model.
While more research is definitely needed, there are environmental benefits of working from home. At least for the interim, we have a win for this harrowing year.