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An Environmental Dilemma: Working from Home or in the Office?

An Environmental Dilemma: Working from Home or in the Office?

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Career Tips

Environmentalists and other climate experts have long contended that working remotely reduces greenhouse gas emissions by taking millions of vehicles off the road.

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Working from home also lessens the personal stress that comes from managing a daily morning routine and commute – showering, dressing, downing a quick breakfast, and rushing off to catch the 8:10 bus or joining countless others inching along the freeway to work and then travel back home.

As BBC Worklife reporter Meredith Turits wrote: “Car engines running, office heaters pumping – work as we know it has a substantial carbon footprint. Shouldn’t workers ditch the drive to a large office building and trade it in for the commute from their bed to their computer?”

Many Employers Have Sanctioned Working from Home

The good news is many employers agree; they have sanctioned working from home. They believe the practice produces better work, a healthier workforce, and a more sustainable ecological future. It is estimated that 4.3 million people in the U.S. work from a home office at least half the time.

Workers too like the idea of having a home office.

But now comes a study, reported by Turits, which suggests that year-round telecommuting may not be the be-all and end-all many believe it is.

The study by WSP UK, a London-based consulting firm, found that working in the office in the winter and working at home in the summer can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.

“Examining the carbon output of 200 WSP workers across different locations in the UK, researchers found that the environmental impact of remote work was higher in the winter due to the need to heat individual workers’ buildings versus one office building,” Turits wrote.

David Symons, Director of Sustainability at WSP UK, explained: “Energy management in buildings is generally more sophisticated than at individual homes.”

As Symons told the BBC, “Because each individual remote worker keeps the heat on and tends to heat the entire house, working in a single office building ends up having a lower [energy] impact – even with the commute added in.”

Without A/C, Working at Home Is Better for the Environment than Cooling Large Office Buildings

Working from home in the summer makes environmental sense, Symons added, because the consumption of energy is far lower than in the winter. “We don’t have [home] air con[ditioning] in the UK, so as a result it’s much more carbon efficient to work from home in the summer because you haven’t got heating” – or cooling – expenses.

American tourists to England found that out pretty quickly upon arrival at their a/c-less hotel last summer when the UK experienced its hottest July day ever at 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

WSP’s calculations showed that working from home rather than in the office in summer saves around 400 kg of carbon emissions. That’s the equivalent of five percent of a typical British commuter’s annual carbon footprint.

Working at Home, an Average Employee Would Produce 2.5 Tons of Carbon a Year

In fact, the WSP study postulated that “If an average employee worked at home all year round, they would produce 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year – around 80% more than an office worker. This is because working from home in the winter means most heating systems in Britain heat the whole house which produces far more carbon emissions than what would be produced from the commute.”

However, many countries, including the U.S., rely on air conditioning far more and for longer periods than European countries. And because a/c generally consumes more energy than heating, “cooling individual workers’ homes has even more of an impact than heating each home.”

Kenneth Gillingham of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies told Turits that “it’s likely that calculations in aircon-dependent countries would look more like the UK wintertime calculations.”

He says it may not be more efficient to work from home in the winter or in the summer in those places.

With global warming becoming a year-round meteorological event, the question whether it’s better for the environment to work from home or in a large office building is becoming moot.

Summers are cooler and winters are shorter and milder. As a result, air-conditioned homes and offices may soon be the norm in many countries that once eschewed artificially cooled homes and buildings as a frivolous and needless expense.

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