Does Telecommuting Increase Carbon Emissions?

working from home image

Inhabitat's Ariel Schwartz headlines a post Tellecomuting, Online Shopping Increase Carbon Emissions, pointing to a Science Daily post that says "working from home can increase home energy use by as much as 30 per cent, and can lead to people moving further from the workplace, stretching urban sprawl and increasing pollution." Science Daily did not link to the study,but quoted Professor Phil Blythe, Chair of the IET Transport Policy Panel and Professor of Intelligent Transport Systems at Newcastle University, who says "We hear a lot about the environmental benefits achieved as a result of working from home. However, on closer inspection it does appear that any environmental benefits are marginal."

It is the second time in a week we have heard this from the UK, what is going on? I dug up the report to have a look.

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The report is entitled Rebound: unintended consequences of transport policy. It is primarily a reworking of the Jevons Paradox: " For example, as it costs less to drive one mile when vehicles are more energy efficient, many drivers respond by driving further." They carry this analogy to other sectors, such as the question about telecommuting, repeated here in full, emphasis mine:

Working from home is often quoted as one way to reduce the environmental impact. Telecommuting has been found to reduce the overall vehicle use by 50-70% Matthews and Williams, 2005). It allows the reduction of company office space and cuts done on the daily commute, which also has got a positive impact on congestion. It does however require energy to heat or cool the home office. It may also lead to people moving further from the workplace, which could stretch urban cities further apart (this is often referred to as sprawl). Aebischer and Huser (2000) reported that there would be a 30% increase in household energy use if one person in a household was working from home. It was also found that the number of non- commuting trips increases slightly with telecommuting (Mokhtarian, 1998).

OK, the first line quotes a 50-70% reduction in vehicle use from a five year old study. That's not news and doesn't make a headline. But then a ten year old study gets mention in a single line saying there would be a 30% increase in household energy use. Where do we start?

1) What kind of computer monitor did you have in 2000? What kind of computer? What kind of light bulbs did you turn on? People burned a lot more energy ten years ago when they worked from home. Can you really quote ten year old data in such a fast-moving, technology dependent field?

2) Why would anyone be surprised that having someone at home burns more energy? Do they cook? Use the hot water? How much energy would they have used at work, and more importantly, what are the emissions of them getting to work?

On the other issue about moving farther from the office, if they are telecommuting, who cares? Farther from one office may mean closer to a spouses office; it can rebound both ways.

When it comes to the E-commerce aspect of the study, the data are even worse and it gets even sillier.

Online-shopping also changes the structure of delivering freight towards smaller units, which increases packaging.

Plepys (2002) demonstrated that environmental savings can be achieved if online shopping replaces 3.5 traditional shopping trips, if 25 orders are delivered at the same time or if travel distance is longer than 50 km. Matthew and Hendrickson (2001) demonstrated that roughly the same amount of energy is used to distribute 1 million dollars worth of bestseller books in U.S. metropolitan areas by traditional retails (28-33 TJ of energy) as by online shopping (30 TJ of energy). A similar study in Japan concluded that traditional retail has a lower environmental impact in dense urban areas (Williams and Tagami, 2001).

OK, assuming that there have been no gains in efficiency in the online shopping world in ten years, or that the suburban big box retailer didn't kill the little neighbourhood store. The first study has the grabber headline, but the subsequent two studies essentially call them equal, without noting the energy used to drive to the store by the person buying the object. In 2001. Guess which one is in the blogs.

Reading the study in its entirety, one does not conclude that either of the facts in the headlines hold up. Yet all of us who promote telecommuting and homeworking are going to be hearing about that 30% number for years, and it probably is no longer valid, and never was in North America.

More in Science Daily
More on telecommuting and homeworking in TreeHugger
How to Go Green: Work from Home
Working From Home Increases Productivity, Keeps Workers Happy and is Good For the Environment
10 Reasons to Telecommute

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