May 6, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The push for post-coronavirus telework to help fight climate change

Illustration of plants sprouting from inside a suitcase

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's at least a small movement brewing to ensure telework remains widely permitted and encouraged in the post-pandemic era as a way to help the climate.

Why it matters: Driving creates lots of air pollution, and transportation (not just from passenger cars) is the nation's largest source of CO2 emissions.

Driving the news: "The vanishing of the daily commute has brought to light the burden of cars and trucks on health and the environment," Matt Butner and Jayni Hein of NYU's Institute for Policy Integrity wrote in Quartz yesterday.

The big picture: Their piece calls for tax incentives for companies that support working from home, with the benefits "proportionate to carbon emissions avoided."

  • They also say private sector policies that support telework "can be a meaningful part of corporate emissions-reductions goals."

Where it stands: It adds to a growing list of efforts to ensure that changes now occurring for tragic reasons remain in place.

  • Two Brookings Institution analysts want business groups and big companies to promote flexible work, especially in congested areas, to curb driving.
  • A related movement is springing up around maintaining street-design changes occurring worldwide to allow more walking and biking space during the pandemic.

What we're watching: Just how much the push to make telework the new normal will affect government and corporate policies, and become part of growing calls for "green" economic recovery efforts.

  • But it's hardly emerging from scratch, and carbon emissions are just one argument for telework, which surveys suggest is already popular with many workers.
  • For instance, New Urban Mobility Alliance director Harriet Tregoning was already engaging with employers on telework pre-crisis.
  • "Now everyone has been part of an involuntary 'pilot project' and many employers who thought they couldn’t or shouldn’t allow it, have been surprised at the results of this foray into telework," she said.

But, but, but: While his mammoth unplanned experiment should yield lots of data, a new peer-reviewed paper that surveys existing studies finds benefits but also sounds notes of caution about their size.

  • The University of Sussex researchers, writing in Environmental Research Letters, find that 26 of 39 studies suggest telework cuts energy use, largely through reduced driving but also lower office energy needs.

What they found: "Despite the generally positive verdict on teleworking as an energy-saving practice, there are numerous uncertainties and ambiguities about its actual or potential benefits," they write.

  • They cite the potential for "unpredictable increases in non-work travel and home energy use that may outweigh the gains from reduced work travel."
  • One drag on energy savings, they say, is that telework can encourage living further from workplaces, so people drive more when they do visit the office.
  • E&E News ($) has more on the study.
Reproduced from Becker Friedman Institute; Map: Axios Visuals

A recent analysis from University of Chicago economists concludes that 37% of U.S. jobs can be performed at home, although this varies across industries and regions and is generally far more feasible for high-income workers.

Worth noting: The analysis reveals the large potential for maintaining the practice post-pandemic.

What's next: Tregoning says the case for telework is even stronger as companies are under more pressure to curb costs including rent and power bills.

  • She said one near-term driver is that mass transit systems must continue operating with vastly fewer passengers in order to maintain distancing, even as economies reopen.
  • "All the cities that have big transit systems are going to have to have these conversations with these major employers," Tregoning said. "You are going to have to do this with some kind of plan."

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