What about the net-climate-impacts of teleworking?

Most of us have been teleworking for quite some time now, and it is likely that after the current Covid-crisis there will be more teleworking than before. You may have wondered about the overall climate-effects of increased teleworking.  

While many intuitively expect it to leads to a net decrease of CO2 emissions, several studies suggest that this may not be so“Despite the generally positive verdict on teleworking as an energy-saving practice, there are numerous uncertainties and ambiguities about its actual or potential benefits.[…] The available evidence suggests that economy-wide energy savings are typically modest, and in many circumstances could be negative or non-existent.” (A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking , Hook et al. 2020.04.27)  

While teleworking does lead to less home-to-work commuting, there are several “rebound” effects that are likely to counter this:  

  • As people often combined trips to work with other trips, to school, to the doctor, shopping, culture, many of these trips stay with teleworking. 
  • Working at home allows saving energy at the workplace or even reducing office space, but requires more use of energy for electricity, heating and cooling at home.  
  • “Habitual home working could lead to people living farther from their place of work, potentially offsetting the demand reductions in energy for commuting.” (IEA
  • As rents and property prices usually decrease with distance to the urban centres, people may choose to live in more spacious homes, often leading to increased energy use.  
  • Workplace and homes use or not green electricity, and other factors. 

Here some more articles that elaborate on these aspects:  

Does working from home reduce CO2 emissions? An analysis of travel patterns as dictated by workplaces June 2020, Viana Cerqueira et al.:  “The results suggest that workplace diversification is often reflected by longer average distances for work trips, which are often associated with more remote residential locations. Findings also show that for some categories, such as teleworkers and home-based workers, trade-off effects are observed between work and non-work trips, which increase CO2 emission levels. […] We also hypothesize that the development of ICT and the consequent increase in the proportion of home-based workers and teleworkers does not necessarily generate fewer CO2 emissions due to potential rebound effects. […] In order to definitely prove the existence of a “rebound effect”, one would probably need longitudinal data. […] Contrary to the generally accepted idea that commuting trips have a greater environmental impact, the findings of this study show that non-work trips account for a significant share of CO2 emissions.” 

Article of 20.11.2020 on a Belgium “Bureau Fédéral du Plan” study: “Impact du télétravail sur la mobilité en Belgique : un effet vraiment marginal!” [(-1,2%) for a scenario of volunartary teleworking] observed for Belgium a redistribution of trips rather than an a strong reduction, to the disadvantage of train use. […] The non-work trips on teleworking days usually take place by car, outside rush hours, and close to the residence of teleworkers.”  

The works of Elldér, E., 2015. “Does telework weaken urban structure–travel relationships?” Journal of Transport and Land Use10(1). finds that teleworkers travelled further than non-teleworkers on both teleworking and non-teleworking days“While non-teleworkers travelled an average of 46 km per day, teleworkers travelled 54km on teleworking days and 64km on non-teleworking days.” 

8.4.2020 Financial Times “EU carbon emissions tumble during lockdowns” : “The one sector where emissions have risen since the pandemic began is households, where they are almost a third higher because of the huge numbers of Europeans who are confined to their homes.” 

There are also studies suggesting that teleworking does lead to net CO2 reductions, but “the more rigorous studies that include a wider range of impacts (e.g. non-work travel or home energy use) generally find smaller savings.” (A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking , Hook et al. 2020.04.27)  

Interestingly, there are also first attempts to calculate/provide calculators for the net-CO2 emissions of teleworking of specific companies: e.g. by the French Environmental Protection Agency or the consultancy Ecoact .  

Of course, on the long-term, EU energy and climate policies can be expected to lead to economy-wide decarbonisation, thus also reducing the rebound effects of teleworking.  

As we can see, teleworking is not the silver bullet to solve carbon emissions. It looks like if we don’t commute to work, we use the opportunity to travel for other reasons. Maybe we always wanted to travel, just we didn’t have the time and energy because of the chore of the work commute.
An advantage we experience that travel is more distributed both in space and time, which we assume is better for the environment than the overloaded peak hours of work-commutes.
Also, there are benefits for the quality of life, as we can travel more for pleasure than because we have no other choice, and we also have more freedom to choose where we live, less constrained by the location of our workplace. 

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