Gabriel Tynes

(CN) — While the Covid-19 pandemic has caused death and other detrimental health implications around the globe, a group of researchers published a report Monday suggesting a silver lining may be found in benefits to the environment.

The growth of remote and hybrid work during the pandemic, spurred by guidelines on social distancing, can reduce the carbon footprint of simply working by as much as 58% in the United States.

In a review of more than 100,000 models, researchers compared remote, hybrid and onsite workers. While results may vary depending on participants’ vehicle choice, commuting behavior, and energy efficiency in homes and offices, the drop was apparent: Simply limiting trips to the office to one to three days per week, for example, can lower greenhouse gas emissions by 11 to 29%.

The main contributor to the carbon footprint of onsite and hybrid workers is office energy use, according to the study. On the other hand, the increased use of information and communication technology to enable remote and hybrid work appears to have negligible effects.

“This highlights that people should shift their focus from [technology] usage to commute decarbonization, facility downsizing, and renewables penetration for office buildings to mitigate GHG emissions of remote and onsite work,” the study says.

Researchers analyzed five elements of greenhouse gas-producing activities associated with work: residential energy use, non-commute related travel, commuting, office energy use and technology services.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicates hybrid and remote workers tend to live farther from the office than onsite workers — so working remotely for just one or two days a week “may not provide significant climate change mitigation benefits for hybrid workers.”

More frequent opportunities for remote work may see emissions go up in residential home energy use or other types of travel, but such increases are “not significant enough to alter the environmental profile of remote, hybrid, and onsite workers.”

So even though remote and hybrid workers surrender a daily commute, they often travel more frequently than onsite workers performing personal tasks and errands, the study found. Specifically, non-commute travel is responsible for 79%, 33 to 50%, and 31% of greenhouse gas emissions for remote, hybrid, and onsite workers, respectively.

As a result, some measures employers can take to decarbonize office energy “may make light remote work more carbon-intensive than onsite” work, the researchers found.

The study takes into account variables including the number of people in a household, how office buildings are configured, a company’s remote and hybrid work policies and personal decisions about traveling.

It also accounts for onsite workers who may use mass transit, noting they may have a lower carbon footprint than hybrid workers who drive alone to work.

The study focuses on employment patterns in the United States but the authors included recommendations where the data can be applied to other countries.

“Switching from traditional buses or trains to electric versions could advance climate change mitigation with the power grid decarbonization,” the paper says. “Replacing conventional cars with electric ones may cut workers' carbon footprint by 13 to 19%, and progressively decarbonized US power grids could enable a further 38% reduction by 2050.”

Office managers can also use building space to maximize efficiency by creating shared workspaces for several employees on a rotating basis, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28%.

“Individuals, companies, and policymakers can implement coordinated sustainable practices to maximize the environmental benefits of remote and hybrid work, such as choosing public transit over driving, encouraging car sharing, assigning multiple headcounts per seat, reducing or eliminating office space for remote workers, and improving energy efficiency for office buildings,” the study concludes.

“While remote work shows potential in reducing carbon footprint, careful consideration of commuting patterns, building energy consumption, vehicle ownership, and non-commute-related travel is essential to fully realize its environmental benefits.”

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