Decreases in (i) land transportation (such as by cars, trains, and buses), (ii) air transportation and (iii) emissions generated by various industries accounted for nearly half of the decrease in carbon dioxide emissions.
Since 2020, many industries and their employees have since returned to their respective formal offices, and as expected carbon dioxide emissions increased, which seems to suggest that working from home might actually accelerate the just transition to net zero by the year 2050 as set out in the United Nations Paris Agreement.
In a study conducted by WSP Global, an environmental consulting company, WSP found that companies in the United Kingdom may contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gases if they allowed employees more flexibility to work from home when the country’s general energy consumption was higher, typically being during the colder months of autumn and winter.
Orion Growth, an independent consulting firm, has also found that digital nomads - persons who earn a living by working remotely from different locations of their choosing - who constantly travel may largely reduce their carbon footprint by working remotely instead of using air travel to travel to the various locations, as air travel produces higher quantities of carbon emissions per flight.
Watershed Technology Incorporated, an enterprise climate platform that measures and reports carbon reductions for businesses, have also noted in their study the carbon footprint of a company and its employees should be considered within the context of whether or not the employees working from home are living more sustainable lifestyles at home as opposed to the office.
Watershed found that employees working from home should be cognisant of their indirect carbon footprint when working from home, specifically in relation to their contribution to scope two and scope three carbon emissions. Scope two carbon emissions refers to the indirect carbon emissions that are associated with purchasing electricity, steam, heat, or cooling from service providers, whereas scope three carbon emissions refer to the carbon emissions derived from activities and assets not owned or controlled by a person, but the person indirectly impacts on the value chain of such assets.
In this regard, Watershed uses the following two examples to illustrate scope two and scope three carbon emissions, namely:
Interestingly, the WSP Study has also found that employees are more likely to print documents while working from the office, which may also be associated with scope two and scope three carbon emissions. The overarching consensus in the various studies is that what is “green” for one company is not necessarily “green” for the next company.
South Africa, as a signatory to the Paris Convention and under the National Development Plan and the Climate Change Bill (which is yet to come into effect), has undertaken a just transition to a low-carbon, resilient economy by 2050, which will ultimately culminate in achieving the net zero carbon emission target. South Africa should, therefore, be conscious of all the arguments in favour of and against working from home from a sustainability perspective.
In South Africa issues such as load shedding and interrupted internet connectivity may hamper any general shift by companies towards adopting a more permanent and flexible workplace policy as not all employees have the financial means to power their homes and even fewer have the means to do so using sustainable energy sources such as solar energy. Employees may also opt to make use of small generator units or inverters to power their homes during loadshedding, while working from home, however, it has been found that the larger industrial diesel generators (which are often installed at the office of the employer) generally produce fewer emissions due to their more efficient design.
Therefore, companies in South Africa should be urged to create a suitable and appropriate tailor-made sustainability framework for their specific sector and/or industry to promote a reduction in greenhouse gases if and when requiring employees to work from home. The sustainability framework for working from home may include
As a result, South Africa’s needs to make working from home more sustainable may differ from what is relevant elsewhere in the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact that working from home has on the number of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, however, working from home may not be more sustainable than working from the office if not carefully considered by all affected parties.
Employers and employees should work together to facilitate a flexible and sustainable ‘workplace’ solution that balances the benefits of working from the office and working from home to employers and employees with the benefits arising from reduced carbon emissions and the just transition to net zero.