The climate case for working from home

Companies are needlessly exacerbating the climate crisis by requiring employees' physical presence.

Happy Monday, everyone! Before we begin, a brief update for members of the HEATED book club. By popular request, the next meeting will be postponed until Wednesday, July 8. That gives you two extra weeks to finish up Kate Raworth’s best-selling book “Doughnut Economics” before we dive into community discussion.

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Work from home, save the planet

The green means it’s eco-friendly. Get it? Also, look at that cute mug! Credit: Getty Images.


If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that global crises need to be addressed before they get out of hand. When scientists collectively sound the alarm about a rapidly approaching hellfire, policymakers should listen to them, and the steps they recommend to prevent getting scorched.

In the case of climate change, scientists say we need to cut global emissions by about 7.6 percent every year for the next 10 years in order to stabilize warming at 1.5°Celsius—known as “the danger line” for climate change. The good news is, we’re already on track for about a 5.5 percent reduction in global carbon emissions this year.

The bad news is, that’s only because of coronavirus-related economic lockdowns, which have kept people in their homes. Emissions will rise once again as those lockdowns lift, and things start to go back to normal.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. We can preserve some of the carbon-saving practices we’ve taken up during the pandemic without continuing to hurt the economy. In fact, there’s one corporate carbon-saving practice in particular that’s been immensely helpful to economic productivity: allowing employees to work from home. If companies don’t allow that practice to continue post-pandemic, they’ll be ignoring the majority of workers—and the majority of climate scientists.

“No single activity contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than driving to and from work”

Last month, Matt Butner and Jayni Hein published a must-read piece in Quartz about remote work as high-impact climate policy. Its most convincing paragraph is just three sentences of straight facts:

No single activity contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than driving to and from work. Transportation is the number one source of emissions in the United States, and light-duty vehicles contribute the lion’s share of all carbon emissions. The most common mile traveled by households operating light-duty vehicles is the one to and from work.

The long-term solution to climate change must be to transition away from fossil fuels entirely—which means replacing gas-powered cars with vehicles powered by renewable electricity. But that transition is going to take a long time—so in the meantime, Butner and Hein argue, it makes sense to just reduce the amount of driving taking place in general. And the easiest way to reduce the amount of driving taking place is to allow workers who can work from home to do it.

“Incentivizing these employees to work from home just two or three days a week will reduce their typical commute-based greenhouse gas emissions by half, immediately,” Butner and Hein wrote.This expeditious reduction in emissions would help immensely while the window to avoid catastrophic climate effects narrows.”

“Business travel can account for about half of a typical company’s carbon emissions”

Another must-read piece about the climate benefits of working remotely comes from Grist’s Kate Yoder. If companies continue to allow employees to work from home post-pandemic, it “could have long-term global consequences,” she writes. “Recent reports suggest that workplace practices will be more climate-friendly on the other side of the pandemic.”

My favorite part in Yoder’s piece was about how, before the pandemic, travel analysts predicted that the market corporate “business travel” was going to expand. Then, the pandemic hit, and everyone realized it was not only useless in terms of economic productivity, but exceedingly wasteful in a climate sense.

From the piece, emphasis mine: “Business travel can account for about half of a typical company’s carbon emissions; one official at Goldman Sachs recently said that holding meetings over video instead of in-person could lessen demand for oil by 2 or 3 million barrels per day.”

Yoder’s piece also cited a recent survey of 3,000 office workers around the world—88 percent of whom were regularly working from home during the pandemic. The research firms that conducted the survey estimated that, for every 100 workers who worked remotely twice a week, they eliminated “70 tons of CO2, or 154,000 miles traveled by car, each year.”

There’s also the matter of physical office spaces. If more people are working from home, corporations will need less space to heat and cool. As Yoder noted: “The insurance company Nationwide, a Fortune 500 company, is encouraging its employees to work from home permanently — and it plans to shrink its number of offices from 20 pre-pandemic to just four.”

Multiple studies have also shown that workers who are allowed to work remotely, even periodically, are happier and more productive.

The majority of Americans aren’t working from home—but the majority would like to

Of course, there are downsides to the practice of working from home, too—working all the time, not socializing with other people as much, and getting monitored online by your boss being a few of them. But from a climate perspective, it seems clear that at least periodic remote work could be extraordinarily beneficial.

And yet, according to a poll released today by the progressive polling firm Data for Progress, not as many Americans are working from home as would like to. DFP surveyed 1,594 likely voters—weighted to be representative of the voting population—and found that there’s only been a 7 percent increase in people working from home during the pandemic, and that the vast majority of Americans still have to travel to go to work.

Post-pandemic, though, DFP found that most Americans—53 percent—would like to be able to work from home.

For many workers—particularly those employed in blue-collar positions, according to research—working from home is never going to be logistically possible. And research published last month by the University of Chicago found that only 37 percent of all jobs in America can be done entirely remotely.

But for the majority of office jobs, the option of at least periodic remote work is on the table. The pandemic proved it. And when it’s over, it will be interesting to see which corporations, non-profits, and public sector employers continue to allow people to work from home—particularly those entities who claim to be climate-friendly.

We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it.

Announcement: exclusive climate polling for HEATED

Is climate change still a priority for Democratic voters? Are consumers using more single-use plastics during the pandemic? Does anyone really know who Jay Inslee is? These are questions we can get exclusive answers to now, thanks to a partnership we’re launching today with progressive polling firm Data For Progress.

Every week, give or take, DFP will share some climate-related polling here in HEATED. The goal is to help us better understand how voters, consumers, and various demographic groups are approaching the greatest challenge of our time. It’s also to help us understand how people are behaving, in order to inform more effective climate solutions—like today’s poll did.

This partnership also exists to give you a voice in the reporting process. What climate-related questions would you like to see polling about? If you have any ideas, email me. I’m at emily@heated.world.

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