Could the pandemic-spurred remote working trend be associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions? It depends.
The pandemic has forced many people around the world – with the exception of essential workers, such as health, transport, care and nutrition – to work remotely and maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. . An atypical form of employment different from the standard model based on the workplace, remote work existed before the Covid-19. Yet it has been carried out more than ever during closures and beyond, despite being associated with serious rights violations.
The International Labor Organization defines the phenomenon as work performed wholly or partially at a location other than the default workplace, including one’s own residence, co-work spaces or other sites and homes. As a general concept, it encompasses telework, where workers use information and communication technologies (ICT) to perform their work remotely. Telecommuting and working from home are sub-categories of remote work that can be designed and combined in several ways.
Remote work can be adopted every working day or only on certain days of the week (the hybrid model), temporarily or permanently, from the start of employment (as for couriers, drivers and other platform workers) or later. There are many related concerns including work-life balance, transportation, occupational health and safety, productivity and efficiency, gender equality, energy consumption, workload and flexible working time, as well as digital control and monitoring.
These concerns vary according to the culture and the employer’s point of view of work, the preferences and habits of the worker and the conditions of work organization, three factors which also condition the ecological impacts of all aspects related to remote working. . Two concerns play a major role in the sustainability of remote work, compared to other forms of employment: transport and energy consumption.
Transport for work and leisure has a significant impact on nature and both may or may not be environmentally friendly. Low-carbon, work-related transport includes commuting and / or business travel avoiding fossil fuel vehicles, such as bicycles or electric (or otherwise renewable energy) public transport, car or the motorbike. High carbon leisure transport covers social and cultural activities, vacation travel, recreation, visiting family and friends and all other privacy transport based on fossil fuel vehicles, such as airplane or non-electric car.
The greener the two modes of transport, the greener the remote working. If workers prefer, employers encourage and the organization of work facilitates environmentally friendly transport, remote work will have positive impacts on nature. These proliferate when it is carried out at home, since there will be no home-work trip, but leisure transport and business trips must be as carbon-free as possible. Otherwise, workplace employment is likely to be more environmentally friendly than remote working, as workers ‘habits, employers’ approaches and work organization favor environmentally friendly transport.
Likewise, energy consumption related to work and leisure has significant impacts and both may or may not be green. Environmentally friendly energy use consists of 100% renewable and low carbon electricity, heat and lighting, with energy efficient materials in addition to the sustainable use of ICT. Recent research shows that heavy use of ICTs – computers, telephones, artificial intelligence, blockchain and the âinternet of thingsâ – is causing serious damage to nature.
Since all kinds of electronic devices are made of chemical elements, precious metals and various materials such as plastic and glass, while connecting to the internet, sending e-mails and using âsocial mediaâ only increases data traffic on the network – the use of ICT in teleworking can result in more greenhouse gas emissions than expected. Indeed, emissions are increasing exponentially, not only in the use but also in the production and disposal of ICTs.
The more environmentally friendly the use of energy related to work and leisure, the more remote working becomes an ecological alternative. Again, if workers prefer, work organization facilitates and employers encourage clean energy consumption, remote working (even telecommuting) will be sustainable.
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These three factors become more crucial when remote work is performed from home as teleworking, as the energy consumption related to work and leisure will be closely linked to the use of ICT. Otherwise, workplace employment has the ability to be more environmentally friendly than remote working, provided that working conditions, workers’ habits and the employer’s point of view prioritize a environmentally friendly energy consumption.
Overall, working remotely has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it is not a green employment alternative. in itself. The requirements are:
- energy consumption for work and leisure should be drastically reduced and come from 100% renewable, efficient and low-carbon energy;
- environmentally friendly transport should be favored for work and leisure;
- tools and work equipment must not harm nature by being recyclable and durable;
- awareness and skills of workers and employers should be improved through training and education in sustainability;
- there should be no excessive workload and ultra-flexible working hours, and the right of workers to disconnect should be recognized and implemented in a fair manner;
- environmental / climate risk assessment should not be ignored when organizing remote work, and
- there should be fair legislation that respects nature, court decisions, government and workplace policies, supported by trade union organization.
These conditions are not exhaustive but all are essential. As we race against time to alleviate the climate crisis, all types of employment and work organization must contribute to ecological sustainability. A change of mentality is urgently needed for decent, goods-free and carbon-free work, with a work culture that values âânature and work rather than profit.