May 01, 2020

Working from home may not be better for the planet, study says
Working from home may not be better for the environment in the long-term as it could be offset by emissions in the home and additional car journeys, according to a study from the University of Sussex. Road transport has halved worldwide during the lockdown as commuters are forced to stay home, contributing to what will likely be the biggest drop in carbon emissions in history. Working from home has been touted as one of the most likely long-term impacts of the pandemic, as both employers and employees adjust to more flexible behaviours. But maintaining a work-from-home lifestyle after the lockdown has lifted is likely to lead to emissions being offset elsewhere, the study by the university’s Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions has concluded. This is particularly true if workers spend part of their time in the office, because they are more likely to live further away and have longer journeys when they do travel in, said the study, published in Environmental Research Letters. People are also likely to use their newly disposable time and income taking more journeys and buying more goods that have associated carbon emissions. Furthermore, much of the energy savings from the office are simply transferred to increased electricity and heating at home. Jonathan Marshall, the head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said the study showed that large-scale infrastructure change would be necessary to achieve deep emissions cuts. "We still use gas in almost all homes to keep warm for instance. So if you saw a lot more working from home in winter, you'd see a lot more emissions because it's likely that most offices will have their heating still on, and then you'd have all the additional homes," he said. "If people are going to spend their saved money on something else, there needs to be government policy in place to make sure the industries that are providing these goods and services aren't doing so in a way that offsets environmental benefits." Researchers looked at 39 studies on the subject from the US, Europe, Thailand, Malaysia and Iran that were published between 1995 and 2019. While most of the studies found there was a significant drop in emissions from travel to the office and the energy used there, those that expanded their scope to the knock-on effects suggested working from home could have a negligible and possibly negative impact. One study found that in the UK, people who normally work from home have a commute that is 10.7 miles longer than average when they do go into work. Steven Sorrell, Professor of Energy Policy at the university’s Science Policy Research Unit, said the study showed that: "While the lockdown has clearly reduced energy consumption, only some of those savings will be achieved in more normal patterns of teleworking. To assess whether teleworking is really sustainable, we need to look beyond the direct impact on commuting and investigate how it changes a whole range of daily activities."
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