Continuation of remote work post-pandemic can contribute to climate mitigation efforts
Lockdowns and social distancing measures were put into place quickly once the Coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in 2020. In the U.S., approximately 42% of workers shifted to telecommuting, freeing up roads and commercial buildings alike. Many have wondered what the environmental impacts have been of this shift, with various studies showing inconclusive results. This sparked an idea for a team of graduate student researchers at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). The project team designed a study that found that there was, indeed, a net environmental benefit that resulted in a 13% reduction in work-related energy consumption and a 14% reduction in work-related greenhouse gas emissions.
These percentages may not appear significant, but according to Greg Keoleian, SEAS professor of sustainable systems, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, and advisor of the project, they make an important contribution toward the deeper cuts required to meet U.S. carbon reduction targets. “The net environmental benefit that we revealed in this study is equal to 1 quad (quadrillion Btu) of energy savings from the total U.S. energy consumption in 2020 of 97 quads and represents an unexpected but new opportunity to further climate mitigation,” said Keoleian. “The accelerated deployment of decarbonization strategies across all sectors are crucial to address the climate crisis and to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate impacts. Continuing with remote work where possible is a simple and effective way to reduce emissions and make an impact on climate mitigation efforts.”
The project group worked with clients at the Ford Motor Company, who have a continuing interest in exploring the future of mobility from a product strategy standpoint as well as for their own employees’ work arrangements. Together, they aimed to quantitatively estimate the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of COVID-related telecommuting activities. This included transportation, commercial buildings, residential buildings, and information and communication technology. "When thinking about the environmental impact of teleworking, the first thing that typically comes to mind is the reduction in vehicle emissions from eliminating the daily commute, but we challenged the research team to provide us with a more complete picture by also examining the non-vehicle effects," said Robb De Kleine, an environmental science researcher and one of the Ford clients.
Using data from the 2019 U.S. Census, the team developed a quantitative framework to model the energy consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions of telecommuting, integrating transportation and commercial and residential buildings. They then analyzed the energy and emission impacts of workers’ behavior changes as a result of telecommuting.
The findings show that telecommuting can promote both energy savings and emission reductions, but they revealed that energy savings in commercial buildings were essentially canceled out by increases in residential buildings. The overall reduction in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from telecommuting-related activities was driven by a significant reduction in vehicle miles traveled, and commuting occurs mostly in single-occupancy vehicles.
According to Keoleian, in a post-Covid world, commercial building stock and office space usage can be adjusted for long-term remote work to further reduce energy consumption and emissions. “Now that people are starting to go back to in-person work, we need to learn from this and take the opportunity to practice more remote work as a carbon reduction strategy, along with other solutions such as vehicle electrification, greater use of public transit, trip chaining (grouping errands or other activities into one trip), and increasing vehicle occupancy across modes. We should also increase trends in teleconferencing and other virtual meetings to reduce transportation impacts, particularly involving air travel,” said Keoleian.