Work-from-home not as beneficial to the environment as previously thought: Experts

Our Bureau New Delhi | Updated on May 01, 2020 Published on May 01, 2020

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A mass move to working-from-home, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, might not be as beneficial to the planet as many hope, according to a new study by energy policy researchers in the UK.

With cities and countries shutting down to contain the spread of the virus and the sizeable population living there opting to work-from-home, commuter travel and related energy use has come down by as much as 80 per cent in many places, according to a study by researchers at the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), a UK-based research centre, which tracks changes in energy demand.

CREDS was set up in 2018 and has a team of nearly 100 academics at 15 academic institutions, including the Universities of Oxford, Sussex and Manchester.

But their study, quoting a small number of studies, found that telecommuting has increased energy use or has had a negligible impact, since the energy savings were offset by increased travel for recreation or other purposes, together with additional energy use in the home.

"While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies, and those with a broader scope, present more ambiguous findings. Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited - with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption," said Andrew Hook, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sussex, in a statement.

"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," said Steven Sorrell, Professor of Energy Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex.

The paper, published in Environmental Research Letters, provides a systematic review of current knowledge of the energy impacts of teleworking, synthesising the results of 39 empirical studies from the US, Europe, Thailand, Malaysia and Iran published between 1995 and 2019.

Even the mass migration of workers to home working might have only a small impact on overall energy usage. One study noted that even if all US information workers teleworked for four days a week, the drop in national energy consumption would be significantly less effective than a 20 per cent improvement in car fuel efficiency.

The authors added that modern-day work patterns are becoming increasingly complex, diversified and personalised, making it harder to track whether teleworking is definitively contributing to energy savings.

According to them, some of the potential energy increases from working-from-home practices include:

Teleworkers living further away from their place of work make longer commutes on days they worked in the office. One study found UK teleworkers have a nearly 17-km longer commute than those who travelled to work every day.

The time gained from not participating in daily commutes was used by teleworkers to make additional journeys for leisure and social purposes.

Teleworking households spent money saved from the daily commute, on goods, activities and services, also requiring energy and producing emissions.

Isolated and sedentary teleworkers took on more journeys to combat negative feelings.

Other household members made trips in cars freed up from the daily commute.

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Published on May 01, 2020
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