Teleworking: less travel, less carbon?

5 minutes of reading
When health conditions required the widespread use of teleworking – wherever possible – in 2020, the sudden drop in travel, especially by car, was obvious to everyone. Some have been quick to conclude that teleworking has a beneficial impact on the environment. But what are the real effects of teleworking on mobility, and as consequence, on the carbon footprint of occupational activities?

Reduced travel time

ADEME looked at the effects of teleworking on mobility in 2020.[1] They observed various effects. First of all, the main effect of teleworking on mobility is immediate and very easy to understand: it is the elimination of commuting, a so-called modal shift effect. The impact of teleworking is of course good for the environment. However, apart from the environment, it also affects the well-being of teleworkers – this is generally considered to be one of the main beneficial effects of teleworking, in a broad sense. On average, in France, commuting time in 2019 was one hour per day (i.e. an average of 30 minutes per one-way journey) and an average of 1 hour 28 minutes in the Île-de-France region.[2] It is therefore easy to understand that this time saved is valuable, especially for those for whom it represents a significant cost, nuisance and fatigue on a daily basis. For 51% of employees surveyed by APEC in 2017, the main perceived benefit of teleworking is therefore the reduction in travel time. Some of this saved time is transferred to sleep, according to a 2016 INSEE-DARES study, which estimates that sleep time increases by an average of 45 minutes per day worked remotely, resulting in health benefits.

What is the carbon impact?

Taking all modes of transport together, ADEME estimates the reduction in CO2 emissions at an average of 271 kg CO2-eq over a year, per day of weekly teleworking. This is not insignificant: compared with air travel, the most carbon-intensive means of transport, a flight from Paris to Nice corresponds to 166 kg CO2-eq per passenger. If we now compare with the carbon emissions of train journeys, which are much lower – Paris-Nice by TGV represents 1.681 kg CO2-eq per passenger – this saving linked to teleworking corresponds to more than one round trip by TGV per week per person. In addition to this direct impact, there are systemic effects that are positive for the environment: the facilitation of staggered working hours and reduced congestion in transport infrastructure during peak hours, potentially improving the attractiveness of public transport, and a drop in the number of certain business trips involving for face-to-face exchanges, replaced by video-conferences. At first glance, a single day of teleworking per week appears to significantly reduce the carbon impact of travel. However, the comparison is actually not as simple as it appears.

Rebound effects

Teleworking has direct knock-on effects that can have a negative impact on the environment. Firstly, while teleworking can lead to savings, for example on fuel, it all depends on the nature of the expenditure made with this saved purchasing power: a shift to carbon-based or polluting expenditure can be just as bad. Furthermore, eliminating the home-work trip may lead to hub-and-spoke mobility rather than chain mobility, and ultimately to more trips. For example, instead of dropping off kids at school or shopping on the way to work, you end up making several trips during the day from home. There may also be a temptation to make additional trips to take advantage of the time freed up by the daily commute: a quick trip to the shops, giving a lift to a relative, new sports or family activities, etc. This direct rebound effect is evaluated by ADEME at an average of 67.7 kg CO2-eq per person over a year, per day of weekly teleworking. Another adverse effect of teleworking is the increased energy consumption at home during the teleworking day. Indeed, a person who works remotely from home uses computer tools that consume electricity; he or she maintains his or her home at a comfortable working temperature during the day… All of these emissions are evaluated by ADEME at an average of 20.7 kg CO2-eq per person over a year, per day of weekly teleworking. Then there is the issue of how to finance this increase in energy consumption. Does the employer have to contribute to the payment of bills when the employee works from home? Let’s take the logic a step further: could teleworking lead to the construction of larger dwellings, extensions to existing dwellings, in which case the carbon emissions associated with construction might also increase? Finally, remote working is leading to an increase in the use of digital technology, which in turn is a source of energy consumption. Data centres, which form the main nodes of digital infrastructure, and centralised data storage facilities consume a great deal of energy: according to the French electricity transmission grid (RTE), the energy consumption of data centres in France amounted to 3 TWh in 2015 and accounted for 8% of national consumption in 2016. It is estimated that a single data centre consumes as much energy as 30,000 European inhabitants.[3] The carbon impact of teleworking-related video-conferencing is estimated by ADEME at an average of 2.6 kg CO2-eq per person over a year, per day of weekly teleworking. To this can be added surplus IT equipment, where office equipment has been purchased specifically to enable employees to work from home.

Living further away from work?

This is an assumed indirect rebound effect, which may have a further negative impact on the carbon footprint of teleworking. Although teleworking, by allowing employees to commute less often, encourages them to move further away from home, it also creates longer commutes… and may ultimately cancel out the benefits of commuting. While it is difficult to put a figure on this trend at the moment, a 2017 APEC study estimates that 21% of teleworkers perceive the possibility of “living further away” from their workplace as a benefit of teleworking. This includes moving further away from the office within the same catchment area and the possibility of moving to another region further away. Employers could also recruit further afield through teleworking. Apart from the possibility of living further away, some consider opting for a second home: a pied-à-terre in the city, close to the office, is then supplemented by a more spacious, more comfortable residence further away. This can be a way of getting closer to various amenities, such as family surroundings or natural areas, or of simply having a larger living space in an area where property is less expensive. However, despite the triumph of medium-sized cities and their suburbs announced by certain sections of the press, it seems difficult at the time of writing to have sufficient data to measure the extent of this trend and its precise geographical scope. It should be noted that this dual residence leads to more frequent long distance travel and may therefore lead to an even more negative environmental impact. It might even tip the overall carbon footprint of teleworking into negative territory. We might also consider the phenomenon of teleworking from a holiday location (family weekends, city breaks, etc.) leading to a new attraction for long distance travel.

A move towards reduced energy consumption in the office?

Among the indirect effects of teleworking, ADEME also mentions reduced energy consumption in offices and the positive impact of this on the carbon footprint. However, this decrease is still difficult to quantify. Indeed, it all depends on how the company adapts its office property after implementing a degree of teleworking for its employees. The carbon footprint of offices depends partly on their day-to-day use, but mainly on the amount of office space occupied. If this is optimised, for example by adopting a smart and adapted flexible office model, or through the use of shared or pay-per-use offices, the company reduces its need for office space and therefore its carbon footprint.

Complex decisions

It is understandable that teleworking is not sufficient on its own to bring about major environmental benefits. Achieving significant benefits involves thinking collectively about the use of office space and the use of housing for work. In addition to these two types of place, we must also consider the use of third-party workplaces: co-working spaces, telecentres, cafés, hotels, mobility spaces and new nomadic work offers, etc. In addition to companies’ CSR departments, the property management department, the human resources department and all senior management must reflect together on changes in working methods and workplaces, particularly aimed at reducing carbon emissions. The way people work in the office also influences carbon emissions: ADEME evaluates the total rebound effect of teleworking on greenhouse gas emissions in a different way depending on whether or not a flexible office system has been set up and how it is shared. The overall effect is therefore evaluated positively when flexible office spaces are implemented (general improvement of the carbon footprint) and negatively where flexible office spaces are not implemented. It should also be remembered that decisions regarding teleworking, and more generally working methods, should not be taken solely based on environmental or mobility issues. Other considerations are central, such as social issues, particularly those related to well-being and health (for example, a Malakoff Humanis study in March 2020 estimated that teleworking creates risks for psychological health), issues related to working methods (57% of teleworking employees questioned during an Obergo survey in 2018 believe that their working time is increasing, an increase that INSEE and DARES estimated at an average of 2.5% in 2016), as well as economic, management and innovation issues. It is a complex debate, and one which depends on company culture, business sectors and professions. Teleworking must be considered as part of a genuine, multidisciplinary consultation in companies, one which includes environmental issues and their carbon impact.   [1] ADEME. 2020. Study on the characterisation of rebound effects brought on by teleworking (In French). https://www.ademe.fr/caracterisation-effets-rebond-induits-teletravail [2] Statista, https://fr.statista.com/statistiques/1024681/temps-trajet-travail-etude-region-france/ [3] http://citygreen.eu/consommation-electrique-data-center/#:~:text=According%20to%20estimates%20of%20l,%20national%20consumption%20in%202016.