Telecommuting reduces the need to travel to work, and this can have an impact on the energy consumption of the entire economy.
Collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions involve both technological innovation and behavior change.
Persistent skepticism about the social implications of telecommuting could be reduced by the broader knowledge of the environmental benefits it can bring.
Telecommuting leads to a net reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions
A study published in August 2020 by Andrew Hook, Victor Court, Benjamin K. Sovacool, and Steve Sorrell synthesizes the results of 29 empirical studies and a comprehensive search of 9,000 published articles.
The study provides a systematic review of the current state of knowledge on the energy impacts of telecommuting. It summarizes the results, particularly from the United States and Europe.
The majority of the results suggest that telecommuting results in a net reduction in energy consumption and/or emissions.
These benefits include the elimination of commuting and the reduction of office energy consumption.
The transportation sector in the United States accounts for approximately 33% of final energy consumption. The picture is different for Europeans, who use public transportation much more than Americans.
The study finds an average reduction of 2.3 to 30% in weekly commutes due to the implementation of telecommuting in Europe and the United States.
The reduction in traffic congestion ranged from 1.9 to 30%; traffic congestion is a waste of energy and therefore an unnecessary emission of CO2.
The reductions in energy consumption due to telecommuting are estimated to be between 0.01 and 14%.
Finally, the study suggests that telecommuting, if applied routinely over 5 days for the whole population, could reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% (Kitou and Horvath, 2003).
CO2: an "additive" effect of telework if companies do not reduce their energy consumption
One area where the benefits of telecommuting could potentially be negated is energy use at home and at the office.
Telecommuting may result in increased energy use at home (for heating, cooking, and lighting) without offsetting the reduction in energy used at work (offices may continue to be heated and lit as much as before).
Telecommuting could have an "additive" impact if companies do not move to smaller offices (which have a smaller energy footprint) or close their offices altogether in response to widespread telecommuting.
Most studies argue that telecommuting contributes to energy savings, but some conclusions are ambiguous. Indeed, these savings are not fully effective when telework is carried out partially (part-time or by only part of the teams). In this case, it becomes an accumulation of consumption in the office and at home.
In conclusion, 26 of the 39 studies considered suggest that telework leads to a net reduction in energy consumption and/or emissions. Only 5 studies found a net increase.
Source : Hook, A., Court, V., Sovacool, B. K., & Sorrell, S. (2020).
A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking.
Environmental Research Letters, 15(9), 093003