The recent shift to remote work has created a loophole in the way corporations calculate their carbon footprints. Fixing this loophole is an enormous — and about to be missed — opportunity to tackle climate change.
Working from home (WFH) has changed much about how we work. From being treated with unexpected drop-ins by kids and pets during virtual meetings, to the establishment of the “Zoom uniform” (business on top, comfort on the bottom), to disruptions of traditional office cultures, the WFH transition has fundamentally altered the typical workday and the economy including how people get to work and what kinds of homes (and home offices) we live in. But when companies calculate their total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), most companies include the emissions from heating and cooling their company offices but do not include the emissions from employees heating and cooling their home offices. Even with a new law with important climate provisions, the Inflation Reduction Act, and other public and private sector actions, estimates suggest that the US will fall 10 to 20 percent short of meeting the U.S. goal of 50 percent reductions by 2030. Harnessing the WFH transition can reduce households’ energy burdens thereby moving us closer to that goal while simultaneously slowing inflation and reducing Russia’s energy leverage.
Our new research shows the importance of the WFH transition for climate policy, but also the conceptual barriers that companies and governments must overcome to take advantage of the opportunity. For example, if I work at a large office building or factory, my emissions from heating and cooling the office, lighting, using of office equipment and other activities are reported by my employer. But when I shift to WFH, my office emissions now shift to my home. For the employer, it looks as though the emissions have disappeared, when they’ve simply moved outside the reporting boundary. Emissions reporting creates pressure for emissions reductions. So, if shifting emissions are reported as emissions reductions, the incentive for actual emissions reductions has been missed.
WFH can lead to decreases or increases in emissions. If I reduce commuting and work more efficiently at home, I can make major GHG reductions. However, if I drive around at lunch from home instead of walking from my office — which appears to be happening — I will increase my transportation emissions. Emissions increases also can occur if I use inefficient home equipment, follow bad energy habits or WFH allows me to move somewhere with a dirtier energy grid. For better or worse, energy habits and technologies will solidify and set the pattern for the next decade.
Changing these energy habits with education and behavioral nudges can reduce emissions and energy bills at minimal costs — and the opportunity is now. Decades of research show that habits are hard to break. When patterns are disrupted, as happened to workplaces around the country in response to COVID-19, new actions can become habits and new technologies can be adopted that reinforce those habits. A massive WFH transition is now underway that could help the U.S. and millions of employers meet their climate goals while making work more enjoyable and more remunerative for millions of workers. But governments and the private sector risk missing this opportunity, and, once it is gone, it will be gone for a generation.
The opportunity is substantial. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 27 percent of the US’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from transportation; one-quarter of which are from commuting. Household electricity use accounts for an additional 15.4 percent of total GHG emissions once you include …….