There’s plenty of news about the environmental benefits of lockdown. Pollution levels have dropped, skies are clearer and the roads are teeming with bicycles and pedestrians rather than the usual rush hour jams. Although we all face struggles with the isolation and uncertainty brought on by COVID, many people relish the newfound freedom to work from home.
Flexible working patterns have been on the rise in recent years, and there are proven health and productivity benefits from avoiding the daily commute. Companies have increasingly encouraged remote working as a cost-saving exercise, seeing benefits as the same employees occupy less space and consume less company-purchased energy.
However this energy is still being used – lights and laptops are still on and fuel is still being burned. Which raises the question: How does working from home really affect an organisation’s greenhouse gas emissions? It’s not a clear-cut answer. Working from home isn’t necessarily “better” or “worse” for a company’s carbon footprint, but it definitely is a challenge to measure, understand and report. It comes down to a balance between emissions avoided by not going in to the office, and additional emissions generated at home.
What is the carbon balance of working from home vs working on-site?
At an individual level, it’s a balance that can be measured. You may ditch your daily 40 mile drive, but keep the heating on an extra three hours to keep you cosy until the sun hits the kitchen window. Rather than grabbing a sandwich on the way in, it’s suddenly easier to cook a proper lunch on a stove. Many things don’t change much – a laptop will use the same power wherever it’s plugged in, and you will probably need the same number of cups of coffee to get through that last phone call in the afternoon.
Scaling this up to an organisation level becomes much more difficult. Organisations and Facilities Managers have an opportunity during lockdown to reduce energy use at low or unoccupied sites as much as possible. In many cases, however, a small number of people are still using the space, or lease agreements state that it must remain ready for occupancy, limiting the scope for savings. Control systems, zoning arrangements and occupancy patterns are all under scrutiny.
As well as trying to understand and reduce emissions, responsible businesses should be considering how to report the impact of employees working from home. It’s analogous to outsourcing services – a company should not claim a carbon reduction from moving to externally hosted servers but should bring this service in scope as part of their operations. For emissions from working from home this has been done very rarely in the past, and comes with a number of challenges.
The reporting challenge
Challenge 1: Relevance
Emissions from employees working from home are not covered by the fifteen reporting categories of Scope 3 emissions under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. This creates an uncertainty for organisations. Should these emissions be reported? Will other organisations include them? Where should they sit?
Defining an inventory boundary is an important aspect of emissions reporting, and separating company-related emissions from a household setup is not straightforward. How can these emissions be separated from “normal” household consumption? And how should responsibility be split between multiple household members working for different organisations?
Challenge 2: Accuracy
The difficulty of defining which household emissions are attributable to the organisation makes it almost impossible to measure actual energy consumption data from working from home. Figures will therefore largely be based on estimates, necessitating a range of assumptions. A company traditionally occupying one medium-sized office building may now be spread across several hundred domestic dwellings with a plethora of heating systems, lighting arrangements and daily routines. Benchmark data and “rule of thumb” assumptions will be essential.
Challenge 3: Consistency
Reporting emissions from home working has very rarely been done in the past. But in many organisations, flexible arrangements are nothing new. Bringing a new emissions category in to scope to include these emissions creates a risk of inconsistency with previous years. Companies should consider whether restating past emissions is necessary under their internal reporting procedures.
Although reporting the impact of working from home is a challenge, by calculating and being transparent about emissions companies can understand the greatest area of impact and focus their reductions efforts. The following examples may contribute to emissions targets in the short to medium term:
- Improved understanding of company building set-backs when not in use. These changes may be implemented over Christmas breaks, bank holidays or even weekends and evenings going forwards.
- Users have become more comfortable using collaborative technology (for example team chats and videoconferencing) which should reduce the need for face to face meetings in future, saving business travel emissions.
- More time at home, where individuals are paying their own bills, may encourage better energy efficient routines and ways of working.
- After months of rarely going anywhere near a car, individuals may seek lower carbon methods of commuting.
There is little doubt that flexible ways of working will be commonplace in the future. At the same time, organisations will be under more scrutiny to report their impact in a comprehensive and transparent way – including emissions from working from home. Responsible businesses on a pathway to zero carbon will need to collaborate with employees to reduce emissions wherever they work. As we have seen with schemes to encourage low carbon commuting (e.g. cycle-to-work, lift-sharing and rail ticket loans), perhaps incentive schemes will arise for home energy improvements.
Wherever this transformation takes us, it will be important to embed a culture of sustainability that every member of the organisation takes home.
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BY JO BURTON