Staying in place to save the planet: How remote working could help Canada reduce emissions

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After a year of extreme weather events, it is becoming increasingly clear to more and more Canadians that the country cannot afford to continue to miss its promised emission reductions.

While the federal government claims that the measures it has taken or will take will allow Canada to meet its Paris climate goals, those goals are not compatible with avoiding a warming of more than 1, 5 degree Celsius. Exceeding that 1.5 degree target would drag the planet into dangerous territory with unknown side consequences and frightening feedback loops.

But what if Canada could dramatically reduce its emissions just by encouraging people to work from home – something millions of Canadians have grown accustomed to since the start of the pandemic?

Could remote working, even part-time, block the transportation emissions reductions seen in 2020 and help bridge the gap to a zero-emission vehicle future 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 Statistics Canada researchers who analyzed this proposal this year using the 2015-2016 census as a starting point.

They concluded that 36 percent of Canada’s workforce in 2015 were “potential teleworkers” – people who could have worked from home but did not.

“It was really the first time someone had done these calculations on the back of the envelope to see what the effect would be,” Morissette told CBC News. Fifteen percent of these potential teleworkers used public transit to get to work; most of the rest drove their own vehicles.

“In the maximum scenario, where everyone who can work from home does so five days a week, you would see an 11% reduction in emissions produced by households for transport,” he said.

This represents 6 percent of total household emissions in Canada. Bonus: StatsCan calculations also indicate that the “maximum scenario” would save each commuter on average nearly an hour per day in transit time and reduce transit demand by 18%.

In gross terms, the total decline in emissions from this scenario amounts to 8.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, Morissette said.

This represents over one percent of Canada’s total emissions in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the equivalent of 730 megatonnes.

The federal government says it is still considering letting more of its own employees stay home at least part of the time to reduce emissions.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to moving forward,” Martin Potvin of the Treasury Board Secretariat told CBC News. “As heads of their organizations, deputy heads are responsible for the safety and well-being of their employees, and department heads will define next steps in an incremental manner that includes sustained employee engagement.

“The Government of Canada will also continue to build flexibility into our work models, including hybrid work, where possible and makes sense.

Companies say remote working works

Many large companies attributed significant emission reductions to remote working even before the pandemic hit.

Xerox, one of the first to embrace remote work, says it has cut emissions by nearly 41,000 tonnes by keeping 11% of its workforce at home. Dell estimates that its home-based employees save nearly 26 million kilometers per year, for an annual reduction in emissions of 6,700 metric tonnes.

Statistics Canada reports that in 2020, the pandemic has lowered gasoline and diesel consumption to levels not seen in 20 years. This drop in consumption may have been due in part to lockdowns – and even curfews – imposed in some jurisdictions to control the pandemic.

But the relationship between remote work and emission reductions is not so straightforward. Morissette said that reducing the time Canadians spend commuting may just be part of a very complicated equation that must also take into account the extra energy use in the home and behaviors that can offset commuter emissions savings.

Behavior is the unknown variable

“The big unknown is to what extent these emission reductions would be offset by changes in behavior,” said Morissette. “For example, people working from home are likely to use more energy for heating and cooling.”

It is obviously more efficient to keep 100 people warm in an office than to heat 100 different private households.

And behavior changes could go beyond numbering the thermostat. A city dweller freed from the need to report to a downtown office every day could move further into the suburbs and get a bigger house.

“You might end up driving further on the weekend to do your shopping,” Morissette said. “You might decide that you now need to buy a used car so that your daughter can get around.”

Researchers warn that remote working may not reduce emissions if it encourages people to buy more things or engage in emissions-intensive activities. (Monkey Commercial Images / Shutterstock)

JB MacKinnon, author of The Day the World Stops Shopping, said remote working could all too easily end up driving existing cycles of urban sprawl.

“Maybe you don’t get to work anymore, but instead you get to all the other things you used to do by bike, on foot or by public transport,” he said.

There is also the question of how people would use the time and money they save by staying put. “If we’re just redesigning the way this money is spent, then there’s not necessarily an improvement,” MacKinnon said.

“If commuters save money on gasoline and spend it, for example, to increase the number of flights they take in a year, then they could very well worsen, rather than improve, their contribution to emissions. . “

“Office space is a very efficient way to bring a whole group of people together in a workplace. As more and more people do remote work, they realize that they don’t want to work at the kitchen table. So you have people moving. in larger forms of housing with more rooms and by converting these rooms into offices, with all the necessary consumables. “

New office, new printer

This year, researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carleton University conducted interviews with 297 knowledge workers from Ontario and Quebec who began working from home during the pandemic.

They found that working remotely led many people to a large number of initial purchases.

“Participants were asked whether they should start using or whether they should purchase more office equipment to improve the functionality of their home office or workspace since the lockdown began,” the report said. study.

“More than half (52.9%) had to start using more appliances or electrical devices than they already owned, such as computer monitors, computers, lights, headphones and tablets Almost a third (32.3%) bought electrical appliances and appliances, including computer monitors, headphones, keyboards and mice, computers, laptops, microphones and built-in speakers. speakers. ”

MacKinnon cites a rough formula that estimates an average of 250 grams of emissions for every dollar spent in the consumer economy in North America.

“All of those kinds of things reduce the initial advantage,” MacKinnon said, adding that he still believed there would be a net advantage left.

Energy consumption in the event of a pandemic

Workers interviewed for the Carleton study were generally optimistic about the environmental impact of their new working life.

A majority (73 percent) said their household electricity consumption had increased as a result. And indeed, Ontario saw a 4% increase in residential electricity use in 2020 over the previous year, a 14% increase during peak hours.

Most of the 297 Canadians surveyed who worked from home during the pandemic told Carleton researchers that they “probably” or “absolutely” reduced their energy use as a result. (Carleton Department of Economics)

But when asked to consider their total energy consumption, including transport, a majority of teleworkers felt that they consumed less.

It’s not just because there are fewer commuting trips. U.S. data shows residential electricity demand increased during the pandemic, while industrial and commercial electricity use saw sharp declines.

In the long run, MacKinnon said, redesigning cities to reflect the new reality could ensure that the environmental benefits of working from home are not wasted.

“Right now a lot of areas are designed with the idea that everyone will be in their car anyway,” he said. “There are a lot of people coming and going from work, so why not put all your grocery stores, malls, and big box stores along these roads so people can hit them back and forth?

“But if people stayed put in these communities and you designed these communities accordingly, you could probably reap a lot of benefits, and that would improve the quality of life as well.”

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