Work from home, save the planet? Ehhhh

The increase in remote work is encouraging for the climate. But we're not going to save the planet by accident.

Briefly, before today’s main item, I wanted to let you know I was on The Mehdi Hasan Show on Peacock last week. We talked about the big shareholder votes at Exxon and Chevron; the recent Dutch court climate ruling against Shell; the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of Big Oil; and the Biden administration’s climate record.

Work from home, save the planet? Ehhhh

Back in June 2020—in the depths of pandemic hell—HEATED wrote about the climate benefits of working from home.

We argued that when the pandemic was over, employers should continue the practice of allowing employees to work remotely if they desire. Our argument was based in part on a piece by Matt Butner and Jayni Hein, who said continuing flexible remote work policies could result in huge emission decreases while society transitions to renewable electricity-powered vehicles.

As the piece read: “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. …

“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.”

One year later, the permanent shift to remote work appears to be underway. This could be profoundly beneficial for the U.S. greenhouse gas emission trajectory in the short-term.

But it could also be a huge debacle and a complete wasted opportunity if corporations and employees do not think of remote work policy as climate policy. And right now, they are definitely not thinking of it that way.

First: we’re not going “back to normal” on remote work

In a survey of 231 large companies published last week, USA Today reported that 79 percent plan to allow 10 percent or more of their employees to work remotely at least three days a week post-pandemic.

That’s a huge increase from The Before, when only 29 percent of large companies allowed more than 10 percent of their employees to work from home semi-regularly.

In addition, 38 percent of the large companies surveyed said they will allow 40 percent or more of their employees to work from home all the time post-pandemic.

That’s a humungous difference from The Before, when only 5 percent of large companies allowed that.

Second: There’s huge potential for short-term climate benefits

This shift in corporate remote work policy could have huge climate implications. Though it varies from city to city, the vast majority of Americans still drive to work. That means millions of cars are no longer going to be regularly on the road if these work-from-home policies continue. And I mean millions.

There are currently about 64.2 million office workers in the United States. If you apply the USA Today survey findings to the entire office workforce and assume workers are spread evenly across companies (they absolutely aren’t, but whatever, just bear with me), then only a minimum of 1.8 million office workers were allowed to regularly telework before the pandemic. But now, approaching post-pandemic, a minimum of 4.9 million office workers will be allowed to regularly telework.

Three million people no longer regularly commuting to work is a huge climate deal. But 8 million people no longer commuting to work ever is an even bigger climate deal.

That’s the implication of the USA Today survey’s second finding, according to my rudimentary analysis. Pre-pandemic, only 1.2 million people were allowed to work from home all of the time. And now, as we approach post-pandemic, it appears about 9.2 million people will be allowed to work from home all the time.

Reducing emissions from the transportation sector is one of the most difficult climate tasks we face. This increase in remote work could serve as a short-term way to address it as we transition to zero-emission vehicles.

Third: There’s also huge potential for this to be meaningless

This opportunity to address transportation emissions in the short-term though remote work is likely to fail, however, if companies and employees don’t think of remote work policy as climate policy. If they simply think of remote work as a way to increase convenience and boost productivity, they will inevitably just replace driving emissions with other emissions, and cancel the whole thing out.

Bloomberg explained this issue well back in March. If corporations aren’t thinking of remote work as climate policy, they explained, then they might increase the number of trips for employees to meet each other face-to-face. That could “up the average number of airplane flights a year that the company is responsible for, handily erasing any emissions gains seen elsewhere.”

In addition, if workers do not think of remote work as a climate-friendly act, then they may decide to take the opportunity to move away from cities. That will accelerate the “urban exodus” that’s currently undermining the climate benefits of urban population density.

Remote work has also already led to a huge increase in household energy. That’s bad, because an individual’s household energy is far more likely to come from fossil fuel sources than a corporate office building. (Corporations are increasingly under pressure to be more climate-friendly, and they’re more likely to have the resources and time to make the shift).

So if both corporations and individuals aren’t approaching remote work policy as a climate policy, there’s huge potential for it to be a wasted opportunity. And spoiler alert: corporate America is currently thinking of it as pro-business policy. As USA Today’s article noted, corporations “increasingly believe remote workers have been cranking out more products and services.” That’s why this is happening. Not for the climate.

The lesson: we’re not going to save the planet by accident

Politically, it’s not considered smart to talk about climate policy as a thing that we need because it will save the planet and everything that lives on it. It’s more politically safe to talk about climate policy as a thing that creates economic opportunity, and it just so happens that it saves the planet and everything that lives on it.

The prevailing logic for talking about climate policy like this is that somehow, it will trick Republicans into supporting the planet’s long-term health. But actually, what it does is teach society that climate crisis is not a crisis worth addressing for its own sake.

The increase in corporate remote work policies post-pandemic could give the climate some much-needed short-term relief. But right now, it’s just another way to fantasize that we can solve a crisis without ever having to be intentional about it.

Further reading:

Catch of the Day:

Fish loves to work from home. For the climate.

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