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Is working from home good for the planet?

Working from home during the Covid lockdown in 2020 saw a decline of about 17% of global carbon dioxide emissions thanks to the decreases in land and air transport, and emissions generated by industries which accounted for nearly half of the decrease in carbon dioxide emissions.

Since then, many industries and their employees have returned to their normal operations and as expected, carbon dioxide emissions increased, which seems to suggest that working from home might actually accelerate the just transition to net zero by the year 2050 as set out in the United Nations Paris Agreement, says Natalie Scott, head of sustainability and Janice Geel, candidate attorney at Werksmans Attorneys.

A study conducted by WSP Global, an environmental consulting company, showed that companies in the United Kingdom may contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gases if they allow employees more flexibility to work from home when the country’s general energy consumption is higher, typically during the colder months of autumn and winter.

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Contribution of digital nomads

But what about the digital nomads, who travel the world while working remotely? Orion Growth, an independent consulting firm, found that digital nomads who constantly travel can largely reduce their carbon footprint by not flying to various locations, as air travel produces higher quantities of carbon emissions per flight.

Watershed Technology Incorporated, an enterprise climate platform that measures and reports carbon reductions for businesses, also noted in their study that the carbon footprint of a company and its employees should be considered within the context of whether or not the employees working from home are living more sustainable lifestyles at home as opposed to the office.

Employees working from home should be aware of their indirect carbon footprint when working from home, specifically in relation to their contribution to scope two and three carbon emissions.

Scope two carbon emissions refers to the indirect carbon emissions associated with buying electricity, steam, heat, or cooling from service providers, for example using sustainable electricity sources to power their homes.

Scope three carbon emissions refer to carbon emissions from activities and assets not owned or controlled by someone, but where you indirectly affect the value chain of these assets, for example, the indirect carbon costs associated with the various employees’ UberEats deliveries compared to the collective company cafeteria for all employees working in the office.

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Green is not always green for everyone

Scott says it is interesting that the WSP study also found that employees are more likely to print documents while working from the office, which may also be associated with scope two and scope three carbon emissions. The overarching consensus in the various studies is that what is “green” for one company is not necessarily “green” for the next.

South Africa, as a signatory to the Paris Convention and under the National Development Plan and the Climate Change Bill (which is yet to come into effect), has undertaken a just transition to a low-carbon, resilient economy by 2050, which will ultimately culminate in achieving the net zero carbon emission target.

“South Africa should, therefore, be conscious of all the arguments in favour of and against working from home from a sustainability perspective. Here issues, such as load shedding and interrupted internet connectivity, can hamper any general shift by companies towards adopting a more permanent and flexible workplace policy as not all employees have the financial means to power their homes and even fewer have the means to do so using sustainable energy sources such as solar energy,” Scott says.

Employees can also opt to use small generator units or inverters to power their homes during load shedding while working from home. “However, it has been found that the larger industrial diesel generators which are often installed at the office of the employer generally produce fewer emissions due to their more efficient design,” Geel adds.

Therefore, companies in South Africa should be urged to create a suitable and appropriate tailor-made sustainability framework for their specific sector and industry to promote a reduction in greenhouse gases if and when requiring employees to work from home, Scott says.

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Sustainable working from home

The sustainability framework for working from home can then include the company using energy-efficient data centres and servers for connectivity purposes for employees working from home or organise carpooling services for employees who are required to visit the office by establishing collection sites from where the employer transports employees to the office.

Companies can also introduce slower travel for longer work-related trips which would exclude air travel if possible, because it is associated with higher carbon emissions. In addition, companies can incentivise employees to recycle and compost materials while working from the office or home and encourage employees to use natural ventilation and daylight when working from home.

“As a result, South Africa’s needs to make working from home more sustainable may differ from what is relevant elsewhere in the world.”

The pandemic highlighted the impact that working from home has on the number of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere but working from home may not be more sustainable than working from the office if it is not carefully considered by all affected parties, Scott says.

“Employers and employees should work together to facilitate a flexible and sustainable ‘workplace’ solution that balances the benefits of working from the office and working from home to employers and employees with the benefits arising from reduced carbon emissions and the just transition to net zero.”

from The Citizen https://www.citizen.co.za/business/personal-finance/is-working-from-home-good-for-planet/

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