Is WFH increasing emissions?

We break down the difference in WFH and commuting emissions
Jack Kennedy
5 mins

Since the pandemic hit there are have been some obvious benefits of working from home: more time, fewer distractions, and most importantly from an environmental (and health) point of view - less commuting. However, recent research has shown that WFH can cause more CO2 to be emitted depending on a number of factors including the country, the method of commuting, and the time of year. So what can companies do when designing their WFH policies? Let's first look at the impact of each to understand it further.

The impact of commuting on emissions

Commuting has long been a huge source of emissions. In the US alone, it accounted for 28% of total emissions in 2018, making it the largest source in its entire carbon footprint. In the UK, the average Londoner emits around 0.38kgs of CO2 per kilometre driven with the average commute being just over 14kms. If we took an average working month, this would equate to over 110kgs of CO2 released per month and just over 1 tonne of CO2 per year.

You might think that trains and public transport would be the dominant form of transport, but cars are in fact the most popular choice. 70% of people in England used cars to commute, with just 20% using trains/buses and 10% travelling by bicycle or by walking. This isn't too much of a problem say in Norway (where over 40% of new car sales are electric) but it does highlight how significant commuting emissions are in the UK and US.

Breaking down WFH emissions

So can WFH save the day? The short answer: it depends. Modern office buildings have become incredibly efficient energy management systems. These buildings tend to have regulated heating & cooling, LED lighting systems that switch off automatically, and methods to reduce waste and water. On the other hand, WFH requires a person to fire up their heating systems to heat the entire house, and might also use traditional lighting systems that are more energy intensive.

Surprisingly, the other major contributing factor is seasonal. This report from the WSP highlights how WFH during the summer can save up to 400kgs of CO2 or 5% of a person's carbon footprint in the UK. On the flip side, if a person was to WFH year-round (i.e. including the winter) it would increase emissions by up to 80% to over 2.5 tonnes per year. This makes sense as in the summertime there is less need for heat and lighting, and even less need for air conditioning in the UK. The results however are pretty surprising and challenge the underlying assumption that WFH is more effective in reducing carbon.

So what can companies do?

This raises the question as to what companies can do when trying to understand their carbon footprint. The first step is to gather actual emissions from your team. Since the above data is based on averages it's always useful to gather on the ground data to determine where the biggest sources of emissions lie. You can run a survey to discover how your team is commuting, the distance they are travelling, and what type of electricity is being used at home.

You can use this information to then understand whether to run a cycle to work scheme, or loans to purchase seasonal rail tickets to encourage more sustainable commuting patterns. You could also look at perks to help employees make the switch to renewable energy at home. While potentially controversial, you could also look at making WFH strictly a summer activity to reduce overall emissions.

So in summary, WFH can lead to major savings in emissions but what's important is understanding the when, where and how employees are releasing carbon in their commute.

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