Is Remote Work Eco-Friendly? Unpacking the Emissions Debate
In the wake of the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift in the world's work environment, transitioning many employees from traditional office spaces to remote, work-from-home (WFH) setups. In the U.S. alone, remote work increased to over 40% of the workforce during the pandemic. While many people have returned to the office, nearly 13% of the U.S. workforce has remained remote, and 28% now have a hybrid WFH and office schedule.
With this transformation, there has been an ongoing debate about whether WFH is a viable alternative to office work. The pros and cons primarily focus on what businesses and employees directly lose or gain, like less commuting time and productivity.
However, a question often not at the forefront of these discussions is how WFH impacts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Understanding emissions is a core part of business sustainability and ESG reporting. On the surface, it may seem obvious that WFH creates less emissions — but does it really?
Analyzing the Emissions Equation: WFH vs. The Office
Many arguments have been presented for and against the emission efficiencies of the WFH model. Some studies suggest that remote working can significantly reduce an individual's carbon footprint. Proponents argue that less commuting reduces transportation emissions, among other benefits.
However, it's not as straightforward as it may seem. Some WFH actions produce more emissions than in an office setting. For example, many corporate campuses are designed with sustainability in mind, while the same people's homes may not. In these cases, powering multiple home offices can be less energy efficient than a single large office space.
This is particularly true for LEED-certified buildings, which are required to be more efficient than a code-compliant building. Those buildings that have achieved LEED O+M certification are also actively managing efficiency and are performing above comparable age, size, and type facilities. O+M is a great resource for understanding how to improve the efficiency of older buildings.
So, which side is correct? The answer might frustrate the binary thinkers among us. It's neither. The emissions impact of remote work varies by company, and only a detailed company-wide emissions inventory can provide clarity.
How to Calculate Employee Emissions
To make an informed judgment on the sustainability of remote work, several categories of emissions need to be considered on a per-employee basis. These are broken down into Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. In an office setting, Scope 1 emissions relate to emissions generated on-site or through company processes, including company-owned fleet, heating fuel burned onsite, or fuel burned onsite for manufacturing. Scope 2 emissions are from energy purchased from a utility company (namely electricity and water). Scope 3 emissions are other indirect sources, like employee commuting, purchased goods and services, and the sales process.
To make the comparison more manageable, we look at the emission for three primary areas:
Commuter Contributions: The Transportation Factor in Emissions
The first argument for WFH for those knowledgeable about emissions is the assertion that savings from commuting emissions outweigh working at the office. That logic makes sense, sort of, and it depends.
The average worker in the U.S. commutes about 27.6 minutes one way to work, covering over 40 miles a day. This daily travel, especially if done by gasoline-powered vehicles and without carpooling, adds to carbon emissions. Considerations like public transport, non-emissions transportation (like cycling or walking), electric vehicles, and location (urban vs. rural) all play a role in understanding the impact of employee commuting on a company’s footprint.
To really understand how commuting emissions affect the company, the company would need to keep a commuting log to capture each employee’s contribution to the company’s emissions. A commuting log includes an employee identifier (number, name, etc.), personal vehicle(s) make and model, distance traveled from home on a daily basis, and the mode the employee took to work. There are ways to streamline and simplify the tracking process to accurately capture transportation emissions, including things like understanding when the employee did not work for vacation, holidays, sick days, and other related factors.
Without a log, we look to average data, which tells us that on average, in the U.S., 76% of workers drive to work in a car. Emissions from employee-owned cars to and from work can be a big factor in a company’s footprint, estimated at 10% to 15% of a company's total Scope 3 emissions.
Work-from-home reduces this scope 3 emissions category. There is no debating that fact. It doesn’t eliminate emissions altogether — buses still run even if your employee isn’t on it. Data also shows that employees are more likely to drive around during the day to run up to a coffee shop or restaurant for lunch when working from home; those emissions may or may not offset some gains from lower commuting miles.
Office Emissions: Measuring the Corporate Carbon Footprint
An office's carbon footprint is primarily energy-related, so it is Scope 1 and 2 emissions. This is influenced by its size, location, and energy efficiency measures. Generally, a smaller building in a temperate climate will use less energy than one located in a hot or cold climate. Less energy use means less emissions.
Furthermore, well-maintained, modern office buildings are typically much more energy efficient than their older counterparts. Newer or recently remodeled offices stand a higher chance of having been designed and built using efficient design or have upgraded and more efficient energy-using systems. For example, an office building with onsite solar will have significantly lower emissions than one powered by traditional fossil fuel energy, just as a building with a brand new boiler will use less energy than one with a 20-year-old equivalent.
Even if people are not in the office, the office is likely still producing Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Even if there is a sophisticated building automation system (BAS) with setpoints, schedules, and related efficiency controls to reduce energy use during non-peak times, systems still run. Emergency lights draw electricity. Ventilation runs to ensure mold and particulates are removed through filtration. Heating and cooling remain on to ensure pipes do not freeze and temperatures are maintained in a range to ensure comfort levels can be reached in a reasonable time when needed.
Home Emissions: Unpacking the Environmental Cost of Home Offices
Lastly, and often overlooked, is the emissions profile of the home. These emissions can also be counted in the Scope 3 indirect emissions category. If someone is already at home during the day (like a family member or roommate), your home will already be creating emissions based on those people’s activities. Your work-from-home emissions for your computer, monitor, and phone charger may be small incremental increases. For sure, they are hard to calculate.
However, if the home is typically empty during the day, it is likely the lights are off. You may have setpoints to throttle back heating and cooling while you are gone. Thus, if you are now working from home, your home is likely creating more emissions that could be measured. During the pandemic, average residential power demand increased by 20% to 30% during working hours.
Just like emissions from commuting, the impact on home emissions comes down to a per-employee basis that relies on individual habits, home office setup, and situational factors. To ignore this likely increase in home emissions blurs the truth. They may outweigh the potential savings from reduced commutes. A rigorous and transparent reporting effort is the only way to know.
Tailoring a Custom Approach to Analyze Your Company's Emissions Impact
As our workplaces evolve, so too must our understanding of their environmental impacts. Whether working from home or in an office, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of emissions. Each company's situation is unique and requires a holistic analysis.
Understanding the impact of WFH on your company's emissions profile requires a thorough analysis of various factors. But you don't have to navigate this complex terrain alone. Emerald Built Environments can guide you through what to measure, how to measure it, and strategies to optimize for a more sustainable future.