Science·What on Earth?

Coronavirus work-from-home policies give climate plans a boost

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how concern about the coronavirus is forcing employers to consider the work-from-home option - and what that might mean for climate efforts.

Also: Which mode of transport has the most emissions?

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Coronavirus work-from-home policies give climate plans a boost
  • Planes, trains and automobiles: What mode of transit has the most emissions?
  • Climate change in N.W.T. is endangering cemeteries

Coronavirus work-from-home policies give climate plans a boost


Google has asked all of its North American employees to work from home until at least April 10 to stop the spread of COVID-19. It's the most drastic in a spate of similar recommendations from Facebook, Twitter, Apple and many other big tech companies.

These companies employ hundreds of thousands of people. Given the scale, it could have a big impact on the climate.

Transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in North America, and a lot of that comes from commuting. 

For example, if the four-million-plus people in Canada whose jobs could be done from home did so twice a week, it could remove the equivalent of 385,231 cars from the road and cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1.9 million tonnes, according to a 2011 report from the Telework Research Network commissioned by the City of Calgary.

"There's no quicker, easier, cheaper way to reduce your carbon footprint than not drive," said Kate Lister, lead author of that report and president of Global Workplace Analytics, a U.S.-based firm that helps companies plan for the future of work.

In the longer term, emissions savings can be even greater, as telework policies allow companies to reduce the amount of office space they must heat, power and equip. That also saves money.

That's why many cities, including Calgary, Vancouver, Saskatoon and even smaller communities like Halton Hills, Ont., include telecommuting as one of their plans to reduce climate change.

But the climate benefits go beyond mitigation. Telecommuting infrastructure also instils resilience against the extreme weather that's increasing with climate change. And it's part of the climate change adaptation plans for some cities, such as Waterloo, Ont.

A decade ago, the federal government invested $800,000 in WORKshift, a program to support telework throughout the Calgary region. When the city was hit with a massive flood in 2013 that forced a lot of people to work from home, many were already equipped to do so.

"It played a big role in the continuation of government in that flooding situation," Lister said. "Employers already had the experience, and that's really key."

She noted that enabling telework isn't necessarily simple. It means buying and configuring equipment like laptops, enabling secure file and resource access in the cloud and, importantly, training. "The biggest thing is training managers to manage by results rather than butts in seats," she said.

She added that the longer employees work from home, the more likely it is that employers start to realize other benefits. That can include cost savings, higher productivity, fewer unscheduled absences, better employee retention and greater flexibility to scale up and scale down, because doing so doesn't hinge on costs like office space. 

Lister said support for telework often fizzles after events like floods are over. But coronavirus could be different. "It almost feels like this one could be a tipping point," Lister said, noting that up until now, telework has been growing slowly and steadily at about 10 per cent a year.

She said she's already hearing hints from companies such as global office real estate giant CBRE that this could "fundamentally change" the nature of workplaces and offices in Asia. And it seems to be spreading to other continents.

 "I do think," Lister said, "this coronavirus is going to leapfrog the trend."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

One theme that has emerged with What on Earth? readers in recent weeks is the unfortunate intersection of sustainable consumption and concern about the coronavirus. 

Nicole Fallon wrote about visiting her local Starbucks in Ajax, Ont., where she was told the store would not fill ceramic mugs. "They informed me that … a new policy had been implemented whereby no reusable cups of any kind, whether the ceramic mugs they have in store or ones customers bring themselves, can be used now.... The barista specifically stated that this policy was a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. 

"Needless to say I was shocked and dismayed to think that this policy will not only generate a whole lot of extra garbage, but it may also discourage customers from the practice of using reusable vessels in future."

Jennifer Peach wrote about a similar experience at Bulk Barn. "When I arrived at my local Bulk Barn on the weekend I discovered a sign on their door indicating they've temporarily suspended their reusable container program due to an 'overabundance of caution' surrounding coronavirus."

Peach said she was concerned about this change "because it is really difficult for people to change their habits to reduce their production of garbage, [and] it's really easy to fall back into the habit of single-use plastic bags."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Transportation emissions

Coronavirus fears have dampened the desire of many people to travel this March break (Italy, anyone?), but tourism will surely bounce back, leaving environmentally conscious travellers to contemplate the least polluting way to get to their favoured destination. Here's a comparative look at the emissions of various modes of transportation, based on the amount of carbon dioxide released per kilometre travelled. (At high altitudes, planes also create other, non-CO2 emissions, such as nitrogen oxides.) The higher the number of people in any given vehicle, the lower the per-person emissions.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Climate change in N.W.T. is endangering cemeteries

(Weronika Murray)

People in the Northwest Territories are worried about the impacts of climate change — and that includes the location of their cemeteries.

The issue was raised by multiple representatives at the recent annual general meeting of the NWT Association of Communities, in Inuvik.

"Due to climate change and the melting of the permafrost, our cemetery in Dettah is currently at its end of life," said Jason Snaggs, chief executive officer for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. He said most people now prefer to be buried in the nearby Yellowknife cemetery.

Snaggs said the cemetery in Dettah is facing issues with both slumping and overcrowding. He said the community hopes to work with researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik to identify "the right permafrost" on which they can build a new cemetery. 

"We don't want to face this issue in the next five to 10 years or 20 years. We want to have a cemetery that can last another 40 years."

At the meeting, representatives from Tuktoyaktuk, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic said they're facing similar issues with their cemeteries.

Tuktoyaktuk is already facing worries about houses falling into the ocean because of the eroding shoreline at "the Point," the most northern area in the hamlet.

Erwin Elias, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk, said the community is in a state of emergency because of the rapid coastal erosion. Its cemetery is located about 24 metres from the beach.

"Obviously that's one thing we want to make sure that we never lose to the ocean," Elias said. "We all understand that we can't compete with Mother Nature. But we want to preserve [the shoreline] as long as we can."

Tuktoyaktuk will be opening a new cemetery further inland this year, Elias said. He said they won't be closing the current cemetery, but noted they risk a situation where they don't have room for some families.

A representative from the NWT Association of Communities said they're aware of at least two communities that have received federal climate change adaptation funding to address threats to cemeteries.

Behchoko received $65,000 in 2018-19 to investigate flooding of its cemetery and develop remediation options. Fort McPherson's Rat River Development Corp. received $4,600 in 2017-18 to work on several initiatives, including work on its cemetery, which is located near the escarpment edge.

Elias said he's not surprised N.W.T. communities are facing the same problem. He said it's in the last decade that the effects of climate change have "been starting to show."

Mackenzie Scott

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty