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Working from home might not cut energy consumption as much as we’d hoped

Person using mobile phone while working at home with laptop

Many hope that COVID-19 lockdowns could be a boon for the environment, by resulting in reduced energy consumption. But it seems the benefits could be far fewer than we’d like to think.

Despite mass home-working, some research suggests that overall energy savings are likely to be limited, and in many cases could be non-existent. In fact, we actually might be using more energy, according to a new report published in IOPscience.

The study’s authors reviewed existing research into the impact of home-working. They found of the 39 studies analyzed, 26 suggested that home-working cuts energy use through reduced travel to work and office energy consumption. Only eight studies suggest the impact was neutral or negative.

But once a wider range of impacts are included, such as non-work travel and home energy use, the savings are much smaller and more unpredictable. So despite assumptions about the energy-saving benefits of working from home, there is still a lot of uncertainty around how great they actually are.

"This lack of consensus on the energy and environmental benefits of teleworking has arguably contributed to the lack of coordinated promotion of teleworking by business or government, even in countries where multiple studies have been conducted," the authors say.

This lack of consensus on the energy and environmental benefits of teleworking has arguably contributed to the lack of coordinated promotion of teleworking by business or government...

Maximizing the savings

Available research suggests that the biggest energy savings are found when staff work from home full-time, rather than split time between the office and home. And even when home-working is full-time, other factors need to be considered, such as how commutes are often combined with other duties such as the school run and shopping.

For companies to see the biggest benefits from home-working, it needs to be widespread enough that they can downsize office space and maximize energy savings.

Swapping one thing for another

Among the reasons the drop in energy use is less than we might think is because time saved not commuting is often spent on leisure or social activities, which involve travel anyway.

People who usually work from home often live further away from their office, meaning that they have much longer journeys on the days they do commute. For example, one study of U.K. workers found that those who work from home have, on average, a 10.6-mile-longer commute than those who are solely office-based.

"The body of research on the subject shows that it is too simple to assume that teleworking is inevitably a more sustainable option. Unless workers and employers fully commit to the working-from-home model, many of the potential energy savings could be lost,” study author Benjamin K Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, told the Center for Research into Energy Demand Solutions.

"A scenario after the threat of coronavirus has cleared where workers will want the best of both worlds — retaining the freedom and flexibility they found from working from home, but the social aspects of working at an office that they’ve missed out on during lockdown — will not deliver the energy savings the world needs."

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