How Telework Does (or Does Not) Reduce Carbon Emissions
Teleworking appears to be good for emission reductions, due to less emissions from the workplace commute. However, Dr. Jean Andrey, Professor at the University of Waterloo, explains how this may not be the case.
The transport sector is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, accounting for 24% of total emissions (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2022). Changing how we travel can reduce emissions.
Since the 1970s, when the terms ‘telecommuting’ and ‘telework’ were introduced, employers and employees alike have been exploring, and sometimes embracing, home-based/remote work as a partial or full replacement for employer-based work. While the motivations for these alternate work arrangements are seldom carbon-related, the potential reductions due to fewer work trips are obvious: most work trips in North America are auto-based and most autos use fossil fuels, ergo fewer work trips translate into lower carbon emissions. Or do they?
In most countries, the uptake of telework from the 1980s onward was gradual, that is until until 2020 when the covid-19 pandemic gripped the world. From April 2020 to June 2021, which coincided with the first three waves of the pandemic in Canada, Statistics Canada estimated that 30% of employees in Canada performed most of their hours from home – up from only 4% in 2016 (Mehdi and Morissette, 2021).
Similar trends occurred the world over, with many employees experiencing remote work for the first time. Not surprisingly, many workers liked what they experienced and are now resisting a full return to the office. By everyone’s account, Covid-19 has changed work forever. Indeed, Statistics Canada estimates that going forward, based on worker preferences, approximately one-quarter of work hours may be home-based, up from only 5% in 2018 (Chart 1).
This is good news for carbon reductions. Right? Well, it depends. Various counter forces are at work that can erode the carbon benefits of remote work. Let me begin with two forces that relate directly to automobile travel: the first pertains to non-work travel and the second to residential location. Together they account for the majority of the ‘rebound effect’ that is talked about in the telework literature.
Telework affects both work and non-work trip making. One of the personal benefits of home-based work is that time normally spent commuting can be used for other activities. But this can unleash latent demand for non-work travel – things like taking a break to pick up a coffee, meeting friends for lunch, or joining a gym. Also, the ‘commuting car’ becomes available for others to use, for example driving-aged children taking the car to school. Together, these offset energy savings associated with fewer work trips.
Another counter force relates to locational choice. There are two aspects to consider. The first pertains to the primary place of residence. Telework allows people to live where they choose, be it another neighbourhood, community or even country. Pandemic news coverage was replete with examples of people moving from urban cores outward, from large cities to mid-sized communities, and from one part of the country to another. So, even as teleworkers’ daily commutes are foregone, the less frequent trips that must be made to the office to meet with one’s team or a client become longer.
Also, because of land use differences, there is a gradient of automobile use for those who live in inner cities versus suburbs more rural areas. In other words, as we move away from urban centres, residents use their cars more – and not just for getting to and from work (e.g., Millward and Spinney, 2011).
Chart 2 displays the carbon footprint for a hypothetical employee before and after teleworking. Note the similarity in total auto emissions. As shown, it is quite easy to have small decisions offset the carbon benefits of telework. And, of course, there are other possible changes in activity and expenditure patterns that would also affect the bottom line – from clothing and food choices to the possible use of money saved on gasoline for a family vacation abroad.
Two large-scale studies highlight the pervasiveness of the rebound effect.
- The first is an open-access article published in Environmental Research Letters that provides a systematic review of the current state of knowledge of the energy impacts of teleworking based on published studies, mainly from the USA and Europe. The authors state that “While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and/or those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings. Indeed, where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited—with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption” (Hook et al., 2020, 27).
- The second, by Caldarola and Sorrell (2022) is based on 15 years of data from the English National travel survey. Their results suggest that teleworking does not reduce travel. “Indeed, after controlling for a range of variables, we find that the majority of English teleworkers travel farther each week than non-teleworkers. This results from a combination of longer commutes and additional non-work travel. There appears to be a ‘tipping point’, however. If people telework three or more times a week, their weekly private travel (commuting + non-work) is less than that of non-teleworkers. We also find that the total weekly travel of all household members is greater in households where one member is teleworking, suggesting the presence of intra-household effects that further erode the benefits of fewer commutes” (p. 282).
These are sobering findings at a time when telework, and even telepresence more broadly (cf. climate solution #63 in Drawdown, edited by Hawken,2017), are being widely promoted by environmentalists and adopted by organizations and businesses in the post-covid era.
So, should we write off telework as a viable climate solution? Of course not, but there is a need to be holistic in our assessment of its benefits and to put policies and programs in place to motivate and support reduced carbon emissions across all aspects of people’s lives. Integrated policies are key to limiting the rebound effect – and not just for teleworking but for other climate solutions as well.
Caldarola, B. and Sorrell, S. (2022) Do teleworkers travel less? Evidence from the English National Travel Survey. Transportation Research A: Policy and Practice 59:282-303. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tra.2022.03.026
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2022) Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators: greenhouse gas emissions. Consulted on Month day, year. Available at: www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/greenhouse-gasemissions.html.
Hawkin, P. (ed) (2017) Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global. Penguin Books: New York.
Hook, A., Court, V., Sovacool, B.K. (2020) A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking. Environmental Research Letters 15: 1-20. Available at: A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking (iop.org)
Mehdi, T. and Morissette, R. (2021) Working from home after the Covid-19 pandemic: an estimate of worker preferences. Statistics Canada Economic and Social Reports. Available at: Working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic: An estimate of worker preferences (statcan.gc.ca)
Millward, H. and Spinney, J. (2011) Time use, travel behavior, and the rural-urban continuum: results from the Halifax STAR project. Journal of Transport Geography 19(1): 51-58. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S096669231200289X