Photo: Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden, summer 2022.

The net impact of work-from-home on the environment is actually quite complex, and depends on a number of factors such as commuting patterns and energy consumption at home and at workplace, both before and after the switch.  But let’s first discuss where the potential positive and negative effects come from.

In terms of positive effects, those are mainly: (a) Less greenhouse gas pollution from reduced commuting, and better air quality; (b) Less heating, cooling and lighting needs in offices, and therefore less energy usage and less greenhouse gas emissions, and (c) Reduced paper, plastic, and food waste from the office.

There are of course potentially negative impacts: (a) Increased home energy and water usage; (b) Increased consumption and waste at home. As we have experienced, with more people working from home, there has been an increase in the demand for work-at-home-related purchases from furniture to electronics. This could lead to an increase in waste, especially if some of the waste is not properly recycled or disposed of, which can have a significant environmental impact. (c) There are some longer term effects to worry about too.  For example, there might be less people living in the city, and there may be less people using public transit less, and those trends tend to contribute to more energy usage and more pollution. 

So where do all those lead us to?  Well, here are some takeaways.

First, there could be, on the aggregate, some positive net impact on the environment from work-at-home, but the magnitude of such an impact may not be as great as people thought. Work-at-home alone will not save the planet.

Second, the net impact in a certain area is highly dependent on a host of local geographical, meteorological, and socio-ecological factors: How far do people commute? What are the main modes of transport, and how efficient are they? How energy-efficient are people’s homes as well as their home appliances?  So there can be huge differences in the impact of work-at-home across different regions.

Lastly, to all of us, whether we work at home or in offices, pay attention to our own  resource-consumption patterns.  Can we turn down the thermostat by a couple of degrees in winter (and put on a sweater instead)?  Can we use a reusable bag next time we go shopping?  Make an effort to conserve energy and minimize all kinds of waste.  Individually, we can all make a difference no matter where we are.