The Covid-19 pandemic has been an opportunity for companies to rethink their working models. Telework, in particular, was praised for its alleged benefits for employees and the environment. It is widely accepted that remote work helps reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, however, climate calculations are far more complex.
What are the real benefits of teleworking for the climate?
The decrease in GHG emissions related to reduced commuting may be smaller than the increase in emissions linked to heating or air conditioning in employee housing. It depends on the average distance between home and workplace as much as the type of energy used for heating. Likewise, the energy use in offices is not necessarily cut by remote work. This is the case for companies with central heating and ventilation systems, which operate at full capacity regardless of the occupancy rate of the premises.
In addition, complex secondary effects also mitigate the benefits of teleworking. A certain number of employees working remotely choose to move outside of urban centers. More affordable real estate on the outskirts allows them to acquire more spacious homes, which increases the heating and cooling load. The longer distances and limited public transport availability in these areas also increase car travel, especially for shopping or children’s extracurricular activities. This neutralizes part of the benefits of teleworking. The rise in digital services use also has an impact in terms of GHGs.
However, less drivers on the roads thanks to remote work eases traffic flow, which helps reduce transportation GHG emissions of non-teleworkers. Telecommuters moving away from urban cores also allows “blue collar workers” to move closer to their workplace through relaxed housing prices.
There is therefore no clear-cut general answer to the question of the climate benefits of teleworking. However, in Quebec, the energy mix is based almost entirely on renewable energies, while more than 40% of national GHG emissions come from the transport sector. This specific situation leads to speculate on the advantage of teleworking. The rise in energy use for heating has a limited environmental impact due to the very low carbon footprint of electricity.
Teleworking and social justice
Remote working also raises social issues. An employee who works at home will see their energy bill increase, sometimes by several hundred dollars per year. He or she will also pay for the Internet subscription. This increase may be more important than the reduction in commuting cost.
In California, it is mandatory for the employer to cover part of the increased cost of heating and Internet subscriptions for employees who work from home. Should Quebec take inspiration from this state and adopt similar legislation? The unilateral transfer of heating costs to employees indeed raises the question of social justice.
In addition, some companies have established a policy of financial support for those who decide to implement energy efficiency measures in their homes. While this is not within the reach of all businesses, it is still an inspiring example for Quebec companies.
To conclude, it is important to implement monitoring of the impact of teleworking on the environmental and social levels. In this direction, some companies have chosen to include the heating and air conditioning emissions of employees working at home in their carbon footprint. More precise data will thus fuel a more enlightened debate on this topic.
Claire Druet, GHG Auditor