Staying put to save the planet: How remote work might help Canada cut emissions
Experts say working from home could offer environmental benefits — depending on how it's done
Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.
While the federal government claims that the measures it has taken or will take will allow Canada to meet its Paris climate targets, those targets are not consistent with avoiding warming of over 1.5 degrees Celsius. Blowing past that 1.5 degree target would take the planet into a dangerous territory of unknown secondary consequences and frightening feedback loops.
But what if Canada could cut its emissions substantially merely by encouraging people to work from home — something millions of Canadians have gotten used to since the pandemic began?
Could remote work — even part-time — lock in the drops in transportation emissions seen during 2020 and help bridge the gap to a future of zero-emission vehicles by keeping today's polluting vehicles parked in the garage?
Drive less, emit less
There is some evidence to suggest that Canada could see a significant reduction in emissions if everyone who could telecommute continued to do so.
René Morissette was one of three researchers at Statistics Canada who analyzed that proposition this year using the 2015-16 census as a starting point.
They concluded that 36 per cent of Canada's 2015 workforce were "potential teleworkers" — people who could have worked from home but didn't.
"This was really the first time anyone did these back-of-the-envelope calculations to see what the effect would be," Morissette told CBC News. Fifteen per cent of those potential teleworkers used public transit to get to work; most of the rest drove their own vehicles.
"In the maximum scenario, in which everyone who can work from home does so five days a week, you would see a reduction of 11 per cent of the emissions produced by households for transportation," he said.
That amounts to 6 per cent of Canada's total household emissions. Bonus: StatsCan's math also says the "maximum scenario" would save each commuter an average of nearly an hour a day in transit time, and reduce demands on public transit by 18 per cent.
In raw terms, the total emissions drop from this scenario adds up to 8.6 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, Morissette said.
That's more than one per cent of Canada's total emissions in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available — 730 megatons equivalent.
The federal government says it's still considering letting more of its own employees stay at home at least some of the time to reduce emissions.
"There is no one-size-fits-all approach moving forward," Martin Potvin of the Treasury Board Secretariat told CBC News. "As the heads of their organizations, deputy heads are responsible for the safety and well-being of their employees and departmental leaders will set out the next steps in a phased way that includes sustained employee engagement.
"The Government of Canada will also continue to build flexibility into our work models, including hybrid work, where this is possible and where it makes sense."
Companies say remote work is working
Many large companies were attributing large emissions reductions to remote work even before the pandemic hit.
Xerox, an early adopter of remote work, claims to have reduced its emissions by nearly 41,000 tons by having 11 per cent of its workforce stay at home. Dell estimates that its work-from-home employees avoid driving nearly 26 million kilometres a year, for an annual emissions reduction of 6,700 metric tons.
Statistics Canada reports that in 2020, the pandemic drove down gasoline and diesel consumption to levels not seen in 20 years. That drop in consumption may have been driven in part by lockdowns — and even curfews — imposed in some jurisdictions to keep the pandemic in check.
But the relationship between remote work and emissions reductions isn't quite that simple. Morissette said that reducing the amount of time Canadians spend commuting may be only one part of a very complicated equation that also has to factor in extra energy use at home and behaviour that can offset savings in commuter emissions.
Behaviour is the unknown variable
"The big unknown is to what extent these reductions in emissions would be offset by changes in behaviour," said Morissette. "For example, people working at home are likely to use more energy for heating and air conditioning."
It's obviously more efficient to keep 100 people warm in an office than it is to heat 100 different private households.
And the behavioural changes could go beyond dialling up the thermostat. An urbanite freed from the need to show up at a downtown office every day might move further out into the suburbs and get a bigger house.
"You might end up driving further on the weekend to get your groceries," said Morissette. "You might decide you now need to buy a used car so your daughter can get around."
J.B. MacKinnon, author of The Day the World Stops Shopping, said remote work could all too easily end up driving the existing cycles of urban sprawl.
"Maybe you're no longer commuting to work, but instead you're commuting to all of the other things that you used to do by bike or on foot or by transit," he said.
There's also the question of how people would use the time and money they save by staying put. "If we're just shuffling around how that money is spent, then there's not necessarily any improvement," said MacKinnon.
"If commuters are saving money on gas and then spend it, for example, on increasing the number of flights they take in a year, then they very well may worsen, rather than improve, their emission contribution."
"Office space is a very efficient way to pack a whole bunch of people into a place of work. As people are doing more remote work, they're realizing they don't want to work on the kitchen table. So you have people moving into larger forms of housing with more rooms and setting up those rooms as office space, with all of the consumables that requires."
New desk, new printer
This year, researchers at Carleton University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering conducted interviews with 297 knowledge-based workers from Ontario and Quebec who began working from home during the pandemic.
They found that remote work led a lot of people to a large number of initial purchases.
"Participants were asked if they had to start using or had to buy more office equipment to improve the functionality of their home office or workspace since the lockdown started," says the study.
"Over half (52.9 per cent) had to start using more electric devices or appliances that they already owned, such as computer monitors, computers, lights, headphones, and tablets. Nearly a third (32.3 per cent) bought electric devices and appliances, including computer monitors, headphones, keyboards and mice, computers, laptops, microphones, and speakers."
MacKinnon cites a rough formula that estimates an average 250 grams of emissions for every dollar spent in North America's consumer economy.
"All of those kinds of things chip away at the initial benefit," said MacKinnon, adding that he still thinks some net benefit would remain.
Power use in a pandemic
The workers surveyed in the Carleton study were generally optimistic about the environmental impact of their changed work lives.
A majority (73 per cent) said that their domestic electricity consumption had increased as a result. And indeed, Ontario recorded a 4 per cent increase in residential power use during 2020 compared to the previous year — a 14 per cent increase at peak times.
But when asked to factor in their total energy use, including transportation, a majority of telecommuters felt they were using less.
That's not just because there's less commuting going on. U.S. data show that residential power demand increased during the pandemic, while industrial and commercial power usage saw big declines.
In the long run, said MacKinnon, redesigning cities to reflect the new reality could ensure that the environmental benefits of working from home are not frittered away.
"Right now, a lot of areas are designed with the idea in mind that everyone's going to be in their car anyway," he said. "There's a lot of people going back and forth from work, so why not put all your grocery stores and malls and big box stores along those routes so people can hit them coming and going?
"But if people were actually staying in place in those communities, and you designed those communities accordingly, you could probably reap a lot of the benefits, and it would make quality of life better too."