The topic of remote work has made waves like never before in recent months. The COVID-19 pandemic and the younger generations, who are increasingly gaining a foothold in the labor market and seem to be striving for a significantly different weighting and design of the combination of work and leisure time, have certainly contributed greatly to this.
Remote work and flexible working in general is seen as one of the big differences between New Work and classic forms of work. The freedom to work from the most idyllic places in the world with a laptop on a recliner is often propagated. That such experiences can have an enormously positive effect on personal work-life balance is certainly undisputed. However, one aspect that is all too often completely overlooked is the significance of remote work in the context of global warming. And thus also (in view of the current events in Ukraine and the heavy dependence on Russian gas) for the energy requirements for commuting and in office buildings.
50 million kilometers per day
According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, 40% of employed persons in Switzerland (so-called commuters, who according to the definition have a fixed place of work outside the home) used a car for their daily commute to work in 2020. On average, these commuters drive just under 30 kilometers per day. With a total of 3.5 million commuters, this means that around 1.75 million people travel a total distance of over 50 million kilometers by car every day (!). Again in words: Fifty million kilometers driven by car every day to reach the workplace in the relatively small country of Switzerland alone. This distance corresponds to 1235 times around the earth. Mind you, we are only looking at commuters here. All delivery traffic, tourists and other road users are not even included.
If we take the CO2 limits of 95 grams per kilometer that will apply to newly registered passenger cars in the EU from 2020 as a yardstick (and this is overly optimistic, since not every one of the 1.75 million commuters in 2020 will have bought a low-emission new vehicle), this means that just under 5,000 tons of CO2 will be emitted every day – or 1.15 million tons per year. Measured against the total CO2 emissions of the transport sector in 2020 in Switzerland, this is from a share of about 8%, which flows alone into the daily commute to work. This in turn corresponds to about 3% of the total Swiss CO2 emissions per year – this may sound little, but it is a huge amount.
Not everyone can work remotely
The somewhat hasty conclusion would now be to simply save 3% of Switzerland’s total CO2 emissions annually by having all commuters only work from home. But it’s not that simple: not every working person can (and wants to) work from home. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, if you add up all the people who worked at least occasionally in a home office in 2020, there are almost 1.8 million people in Switzerland who could work remotely. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any statistics or studies that would allow me to draw conclusions about the number of commuters with cars within the group of people eligible for remote work. Therefore, at this point I would like to shift the focus from the pure numbers (which already speak for themselves) back to my initially mentioned thought:
What impact can Remote Work have on personal contribution to reducing CO2 emissions?
Stop urban sprawl?
The argument for concentrating the population in cities is often brought into play as an important contribution to reducing emissions from traffic. This is intended to prevent further urban sprawl and, at the same time, to build more energy-efficient residential buildings.
On the one hand, this is understandable, but on the other hand it is too one-sided, because the resulting rural exodus has serious consequences for rural regions. In some cases, entire regions and towns are becoming deserted, the old are staying behind and the young are leaving (although a certain rethinking has now taken place, triggered by the Corona pandemic). Regional businesses are no longer profitable and fall by the wayside, which in turn is the perfect fodder for the conservative parties to catch votes with arguments against the “arrogant city dwellers“. In the medium to long term, this would be counterproductive to the maximum for the efforts against global warming in view of the party program of these parties.
Remote Work enables a completely different approach here. On the one hand, regional trade can be strengthened and supported, and on the other hand, the sheer volume of car kilometers not driven has a significant share in reducing CO2 emissions. Of course, the people who work at their place of residence are then missing as a source of income in the retail trade of the cities, but through their purchasing power they ensure stronger economic growth in the rural regions.
Energy guzzler office complex
Next, let’s take a look at the offices themselves: the huge office buildings take up an immense amount of space in cities, further reducing the often already limited living space.
In addition to pure spatial expansion, these buildings must be cooled in the summer and heated in the winter. The former will potentially consume more and more energy: anyone who has ever walked out of a pleasantly tempered office building in a city onto the street during one of the heat waves that have been increasing for years and run into a wall of heat knows what I’m talking about. During the winter months, on the other hand, additional energy is needed for lighting and heating. Energy, however, that in return is not saved in the apartments and houses of the employees, because normally no one turns off the heating at home during the day. After all, who wants to come home to a cold apartment after the workday?
In addition, there are other power guzzlers such as the PC under the desk that runs continuously. People usually only change their behavior by adapting to social, economic or legal norms. In this case, changing behavior would depend on whether the electricity bill would have to be paid by the employee. However, if this economic drive is not present, the willingness to change something themselves and turn off the computer before leaving the office is correspondingly low.
On average, a typical office building is assumed to consume more than 120 kWh per m2 of office space per year. A publication by the German Energy Agency here impressively lists the energy requirements of a typical office building for heating, ventilation and the operation of electrical appliances. For comparison, the typical size of the battery of a modern electric car is equivalent to 60-70 kWh. If we take an office with an area of 200 m2 (which can rather be described as small) that is not used and thus does not require any energy, the energy saved would be sufficient for each 200 people to cover a distance of around 800-1000 kilometers in an electric car.
“Second properties” and status symbols
Few people realize that office buildings are ultimately a type of second property provided by employers. So by using offices, we involuntarily become users of second properties, even though we could do the job from home. We are afforded the luxury of huge energy consumption that (assuming typical office hours between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.) goes unused over half the time. We remember: in the vast majority of apartments and houses, the heaters, the refrigerator and other energy-consuming appliances run just as much during working hours.
If we then also drive to work by car, the status symbol par excellence, we must seriously ask ourselves whether we are not setting the wrong priorities here. Anyone who consciously or for financial reasons decides not to live within public transport, cycling or walking distance of their employer should honestly ask what price the daily journeys to the office alone have for our climate. Because it does not only consist of the financial part. It also consists of resources (oil, gas, electricity) that are consumed and emissions (primarily CO2) that are produced. It is also made up of the space required, which makes it difficult for “weaker” means of transport such as bicycles in the inner cities. More cars, fewer bicyclists. Fewer bicycles, tends to mean even more cars, because somehow these people have to get to their jobs, too. It’s a vicious circle in which even electric cars are of only limited use. Because even if they are emission-free, they still need the same amount of space.
And what about the social effect?
One of the biggest criticisms of remote work is often the argument of social isolation. I personally find this difficult for various reasons:
Are we now only able to maintain a circle of friends and acquaintances that have developed in the context of the workplace? Doesn’t this tend to create a kind of bubble in which one moves around and gets one’s views confirmed among like-minded people? In many companies, certain cultural and political profiles consciously emerge over time, because the assumption of social responsibility is an integral part of many companies. The probability of interacting with like-minded people is therefore quite high. Shouldn’t it therefore be possible to build up an equally large but at the same time more diverse circle of friends in the vicinity of one’s home office location?
Secondly, these arguments are countered by the figures evaluated by countless surveys and studies (linked is a long-term survey by the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT from September 2021), according to which the majority of professionals would like to work at least partially in a home office. Considering the sometimes almost desperate argumentation from the entrepreneurial side regarding the aspect of social isolation (especially without Corona-related lockdowns), the question arises whether this is really the point. Or is this somewhat emotional issue more of a pretext to escape the clear trend for a while longer? Apart from that, social isolation in companies and the feeling of a lack of belonging to the team are rather indicative of deficiencies in the team culture and thus in the management, and the lever should first be applied at this point.
Thirdly, the days of the Corona-based home office are over, at least in Europe. It is understandable that this constellation could lead to a certain isolation, but this is no longer the case. After all, the discourse on remote work against climate change is not about the fundamental isolation of people, but about a different approach to working for all professions in which this would basically be possible without any problems. This is likely to result in new contacts, which may even be more valuable due to the more flexible daily schedule and the general gain in time due to the elimination of commuting.
## In the end only renunciation helps
In the context of global warming, many people keep giving the same reasons why climate protection is ineffective at the individual level: the rich elites and politicians should lead the way, the others aren’t doing anything either, what can I do as an individual, and anyway, the Chinese with their coal-fired power plants. Anyone who wants to take a look at the reasons for this behavior should study cognitive dissonance.
However, it is also a fact that there are a number of ways to improve one’s own CO2 footprint. A CO2 calculator, for example, can help with the assessment. In the vast majority of cases, the results show personal mobility and real estate as by far the largest emitters. Whether or not the specified emission quantities are correct in detail is of secondary importance at best. What is important are the relative proportions of the individual components. If a commuter can avoid driving several thousand kilometers per year and work more frequently or even completely from home, the individual effect in combination with the energy savings in the building sector can certainly be described as significant.
This attitude is not popular (yet), but being honest with yourself is. The personal financial incentive should be given by significant savings (fuel, tickets, eating out) anyway, especially in the current time when inflation is increasing and many products and services are becoming more expensive.