It sounds far-fetched. It sounds counterintuitive. Nevertheless, analysts from the International Energy Agency (IEA) say that the work-from-home trend that the coronavirus pandemic has encouraged may not be as good for the environment as one might think.

In a study based on energy consumption modeling, the IEA team found that while working from home led to lower emissions from the commute, it could actually lead to more emissions than working from an office because of the increase in residential energy consumption–at least for those who live close to work.

The authors of the study analyzed labor market data and commuting trends from around the world, and based on that data, they projected that if everyone who could work from home did so for one day per week, it would shrink oil demand for road transport by 1 percent, and overall Co2 emissions by 24 million tonnes annually. 

While not much, this would be the reduction for just one day per week, and the authors suggested that if it was to be multiplied by five, for a full work week, the reduction would be proportionately larger. 

This won’t get the world very far down the path of meeting its lofty climate goals.

“Our analysis shows that for people who commute by car, working from home is likely to reduce their carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint if their journey to work is greater than about 6 kilometres,” the study authors wrote. “However, for short car commutes or those done by public transport, working from home could increase CO2 emissions due to extra residential energy consumption.”

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The reason for this somewhat surprising outtake from the modeling is that data from the lockdowns shows increased energy consumption for households as their members worked from home. Citing data from the United States and the UK, the IEA analysts said that energy consumption during the lockdown had risen by as much as 20 to 30 percent in some parts of the U.S.—during the weekends, it must be noted—and by 15 percent in the UK, in the first days after the lockdown began. Related: Second Covid Wave Could Send Oil Prices Into “Tailspin”

That was, of course, to be expected. Before the lockdown, people would spend just a few hours of their day at home. During the lockdown, people tended to spend all their hours at home. As a result, residential electricity consumption rose, but overall electricity consumption fell by some 20 percent, according to the IEA’s data.

This overall drop is important. It means that as people left offices and started working from home, electricity consumption in these offices was much lower than before. It would be most interesting to study whether an individual’s energy consumption patterns change based on where they are working from, but for now, it’s safe enough to say that one consumes energy where he or she is. In other words, if one works at an office, they would consume energy for work there. If they work from home, they would consume the same amount of energy there, for work purposes.

Of course, there are considerations such as air conditioning in warm parts of the world and heating in the colder parts. But, again, the energy spent on heating an office building will be eliminated if all the people working in that building stayed home. Granted, their personal heating or cooling bill will be higher, but on balance, it will be better for the planet because the commute would be eliminated.

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Of course, the above situation is hypothetical. It is highly unlikely that everyone will suddenly start working from home. It would, for starters, be devastating for the commercial real estate industry. But work patterns are changing, and the changes will be long-term.

A number of tech majors have already made it optional for their employees to work from the office. More companies could follow the approach. This would certainly reduce traffic, whether by car or by public transport. It would increase residential energy consumption, certainly, but it would also decrease office energy consumption.

“Many companies are learning that their workers are just as or even more productive working from home,” the senior VP of staffing company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Andy Challenger, told the AP last month. Productivity is important for employers, so it’s safe to say that more companies will likely encourage permanent remote work.

This will change transport patterns. It will therefore change demand for fuel. And as a result, it will lead to a change in emissions. This change will most likely be a positive one, given that the average one-way commute in the U.S. is 18 km, that in Europe is 15 km, and the average one-way commute in China is 8 km, according to the IEA study.

Of course, there are wide variations between different parts of different countries, major differences in fuel consumption and efficiency. Even with these, the overall effect of changing work patterns with a wider spread of remote work will likely be positive for the planet’s emission levels. According to the IEA, this effect will be largely modest, nowhere near the Paris Agreement targets. In the end, however, every little bit helps.

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By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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