Dr Stuart Walker assesses the environmental impact of working from home.

Due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, a large proportion of the UK workforce is currently working at home. As with so many of the results of this outbreak, this is unprecedented and unexpected. Many organisations are struggling to provide solutions for staff who were never expected to work from home. The aim of these measures, of course, is to reduce transmission of the virus by reducing the number of people we are in contact with every day.

This huge sudden shift to home working is also having other impacts. Roads are quieter than usual at normal commuting times, city centres are not bustling with hungry people at lunchtime, and many normally unoccupied homes are full of people setting up laptops on ironing boards and other temporary solutions.

Some of these changes have obvious economic impacts, and the impact of the virus on businesses is a huge concern, but perhaps these changes in our working patterns might positively impact our carbon dioxide emissions. After all, once the covid-19 outbreak has eventually passed, the issue of rising atmospheric CO2 and the resulting climate emergency will remain. Focus has understandably shifted, but climate change will not go away.

The most obvious change to the routine of the average office worker is in commuting. A homeworker no longer travels to and from work, so emissions from travel are reduced to zero. To estimate the impact of working from home on an individual’s carbon footprint, we considered two cases :

Case 1: An office worker who lives in a two-bedroom house and commutes 9 miles by car

Case Study 1: Working from home vs driving to the office.

The largest day-to-day contribution to the CO2 emissions of an average office worker is the heating of their home (in this case an average two-bedroom terrace) whether working at home or not. When working from home, emissions increase during the winter months due to extra heating required to keep the house warm, but during summer when heating is not required, the only home emissions are related to electricity for lighting and home appliances. Between April and September, commuting is a major contributor to CO2 emissions.

Due to the efficiency of office heating compared to that of a common domestic property, the car commuter actually emits less CO2 by working from the office during the winter months. However, during the summer when heating is not required, home working emissions are less than half of the office equivalent, and if the worker is based at home over the entire year they will emit less CO2 in total than working from the office every day (3.2 tonnes instead of 3.5 tonnes).

Case 2: A cyclist who lives in a 3 or 4 bedroom house

By cycling, our worker effectively reduces the impact of their office work, meaning that it is better for them to work at the office. Even if our worker lives in a 2 bedroom house, for most of the year it is still better to work from the office, and in a larger property the difference is even bigger. Though over summer the monthly emissions are lower when working from home, total annual emissions from this option are higher (working from home: 4.7 tonnes, working from office: 4.4 tonnes).

Case study 2: Working from home vs cycling to work

But what if we didn’t have to heat our whole house just to work from home? Rather than heating their entire house, our worker may decide just to heat a home office, perhaps using a small oil-filled radiator. Using this on a medium power setting instead of the full house heating reduces the overall emissions, meaning that over the course of the year our cyclist is now better to work at home than travel to the office.

Further considerations

There are of course an almost infinite number of other variations, for example, those living in modern well-insulated houses will cause lower CO2 emissions in both the home working and office working cases, so the impact of commuting will be much greater in these cases. In large open plan offices, it may not be possible to reduce the heating energy demand to account for those who are not present, making working from home a less desirable option. Some office buildings are also much less efficient than the one assumed here, so heating CO2 emissions will be greater and working from home a better option. In general, working from home is the lower carbon option during the summer months, and is preferable in winter instead of driving to the office for those who commute further than 10 miles.

The elephant in the office

Working at home may lead to many more minor changes in areas such as our eating and drinking habits, water use, and travel within work time. However, the impact of these is insignificant when we consider that many modern office jobs require international travel. The results described previously show that working at home could save the average office worker around 300kg of CO2 over a year. This is a positive change but is only roughly equivalent to one return flight from Manchester to Rome. If we could swap this flight and meeting for an online meeting, we would have the same impact on our CO2 emissions as changing our commuting habits for the entire year. If we could do both, the savings would really start to add up. An online meeting does have a CO2 burden, but in comparison to a flight this is small.

The covid-19 outbreak has forced many organisations and people to embrace online meetings, and it is perhaps in this, rather than homeworking, where its major impact on CO2 emissions will be seen. If we can learn to love online communication, and permanently adopt it in place of some international travel, perhaps we can have a more positive environmental impact in the future.

By Dr Stuart Walker.

Article originally posted in the Sheffield Telegraph 04/04/20.