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Is working from home better or worse for the environment?

05 December, 2020

Is working from home better or worse for the environment?

Steven Robert Sorrell

Clare Downing

Aimee K Eeles

Case study  

Steve Sorrell, Clare Downing and Aimee Eeles

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis there was a huge global shift to working from home for many office-based jobs and current thinking suggests that there will be a permanent increase in home-based work, even after the crisis has abated.

Against this background, researchers from CREDS’ Digital Society theme at Sussex University published a paper entitled “A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking” that received widespread international interest, helping to inform the media and policy conversation around remote working. The paper quickly became one of the most widely quoted academic papers from the Sussex Energy Group in recent years.

The paper was launched through a press release, a news article and accompanying social media work. It was featured in news items 41 times, with articles appearing in mass-market news sites such as Telegraph, iNews and Forbes, as well as specialised sites such as Science Daily.

Most articles focused on the paper’s perhaps surprising finding – that working from home does not necessarily save energy and greenhouse gas emissions. The study suggests that working from home has some potential to reduce energy consumption and emissions from reducing commuter travel and displacing office-related energy consumption. But those benefits could be lost for many reasons – such as, if the journey for work is replaced by journeys for leisure, or if telecommuting encourages people to live further away from their workplace, or if the money saved is spent on other goods that consume energy, or if telecommuters use more energy for heating their home.

Informal feedback from contacts in Government (see quote) suggest that the paper was used to inform internal discussions of the energy consumption impacts of the lockdown. It generated a peak in traffic to the CREDS website – with the news post Ending the daily work commute may not cut energy usage as much as one might hope generating 345 page views.

Whilst interest in the paper was greatly boosted by the UK lockdown, its relevance really lies in the post COVID world. The paper forms part of a wider body of work on rebound effects, which (for transport) were suppressed during lockdown but may come to the fore in the anticipated lasting shift to homeworking. By rebound effects we mean technical and behavioural changes that offset some of the energy and emission savings – such as telecommuters taking more non-work trips to retail and leisure destinations. The size and nature of these impacts can be influenced by public policy – for example, by encouraging walking and cycling, or ensuring more rapid improvements in the energy efficiency of houses.

Project team

Future plans

Due to the interest received by this work we have initiated a further project under the CREDS Digital Society theme. This will use data from the UK National Travel Survey to examine the impact of teleworking on household travel activity over the last 20 years (as opposed to individual travel activity). This will allow rebound effects to be explored in greater depth.

The paper also forms part of a wider project within the CREDS Digital Society theme, on the past, present and future impacts of information and communication technologies (ICT) on energy demand – E-materialisation and E-sharing.

As the body of work accumulates, and post-COVID working trends become clearer, we intend to move impact into the policy sphere via research briefs, webinars and one-to-one discussions with key individuals. The focus of this work will be on how the energy savings of remote working (and remote socialising) can be maximised, whilst minimising the associated rebound effects.

Sources of information

Quotes

This research was extremely topical and useful – understanding the impacts of home-working at a time where working patterns had changed significantly was very important. The research has been an important evidence source in informing analysis and policy for a number of government departments. Principal Research Officer, BEIS

It is our belief from examining the relevant literature that teleworking has some potential to reduce energy consumption and associated emissions – both through reducing commuter travel and displacing office-related energy consumption. But if it encourages people to live further away from work or to take additional trips, the savings could be limited or even negative. Dr Victor Court, co-Author, Lecturer at the Centre for Energy Economics and Management

Publication details

Sorrell, S., Downing, C. and Eeles, A.K. 2020. Is working from home better or worse for the environment? Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Oxford, UK. CREDS case study.

Banner photo credit: Alireza Attari on Unsplash

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