Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Ditching the commute might seem an easy climate win, but other factors such as the relative inefficiency of home heating outweigh the CO2 savings.
Is remote working better for the environment? Not necessarily
Companies have a rare moment to reset working models. But climate calculations of remote v office work are complex
Tue 3 Aug 2021 01.00 AEST
Stacy Kauk was finalizing Shopify’s 2019 sustainability report when the pandemic forced the company into remote work.
“I kind of stopped in my footsteps and went, ‘Uh oh, what’s going to happen if we’re closing our offices during Covid and staying remote in the long term? What does that mean for Shopify’s corporate carbon footprint?’” said Kauk, who directs the Canadian e-commerce company’s $5m annual sustainability fund.
It’s a vital question that companies may need to ask as they start to redefine their working models in the wake of the pandemic – though sustainability experts worry that not all will.
When workers’ homes become their offices, commutes may fall out of the carbon equation, but what’s happening inside those homes must be added in. How much energy is being used to run the air conditioner or heater? Is that energy coming from clean sources? In some parts of the country during lockdown, average home electricity consumption rose more than 20% on weekdays, according to the International Energy Agency. IEA’s analysis suggests workers who use public transport or drive less than four miles each way could actually increase their total emissions by working from home.
Looking further ahead, the questions multiply. Many Shopify employees live near the office and walk, bike or take public transit. Will remote work mean they move from city apartments to sprawling suburban homes, which use, on average, three times more energy? Will they buy cars? Will they be electric or gas-powered SUVs?
“You have company control over what takes place in the office,” Kauk noted. “When you have everyone working remotely from home, corporate discretion is now employee discretion.”
Clearly the real problem is that people stuck at home can still afford heating and air conditioners.