Since lockdown began there has been a seismic shift in how Britain works, with millions of workers having shifted their place of work from the office to their homes. At the end of 2019, the Office of National Statistics reported that 5% of working adults said they worked primarily from home. By the end of April 2020, that number had jumped to 49%.
With huge numbers of people no longer taking their daily commutes, it has been suggested that working from home (now commonly referred to as WFH) could potentially offer dramatic decreases in emissions. Even David Attenborough has expressed that he hopes WFH becomes the norm after lockdown. But how much better is it for the environment than going to the office? The answer, at least in the short term, seems to be quite a lot better. But as we reach the end of 2020 and colder weather arrives, that may no longer be the case.
While it’s impossible at this stage to say just how much of this is attributable to commuters staying at home, the fact that 68% of UK workers drive to work every day suggest it is having a clear environmental impact. One study by Monster found that working at home, rather than driving to work, could reduce the average UK citizen’s yearly carbon footprint by up to 20%. While not quite as dramatic, there are also likely to be reductions in emissions for the 17% of us who are WFH instead of using public transport, with train services across the country cut back. However, with the need for physical distancing, which could mean trains filled with just 15% of the passengers before, operators may need to increase services to previous levels once again.
It is over the long term however that the picture gets more complicated. The first impact to consider is what will happen when lockdown restrictions loosen, and workers start splitting their time between the office and home. With a recent Ipsos Mori poll finding 61% of Brits are worried about using public transport again, there is a concern that many may switch from a train to their car to commute part of the week, potentially increasing personal footprints.
But what is potentially more concerning over the long term is the extra energy needed for WFH, particularly when colder weather arrives. While we have not had to face turning on the boiler too much yet due to the hot weather, studies comparing the environmental impact of heating lots of individuals' homes, versus one individual office, have shown that the former is more energy-intensive. Looking at 39 studies from the last 20 years, Sussex University found that WFH over the winter could increase personal emissions by 80%, potentially cancelling out other gains and resulting in a ‘negligible or possibly negative impact’ on emissions reductions.
Additionally, while UK electricity demand is currently down by a fifth overall, largely due to the temporary closure of premises such as factories, home energy consumption has actually increased by 30%. This is a particularly worrying development if you’re one of the 5.2m customers of a ‘Big Six’ energy company like Scottish Power, which usually relies on coal for 71% of its energy (though fortunately, Britain has been on a coal-free streak recently!).
So how can WFH be made more sustainable? On a personal level, we should check our energy providers are sourcing as much renewable energy as possible at websites like Earth Day Switch, and switch over to a greener tariff or provider if they’re not pulling their weight. For those of us who can, we should also commit fully to working at home - employer permitting - rather than replacing our public transport commutes with car journeys. If we do have to physically be in our place of work and public transport isn’t an option, we should consider whether we can make the journey on foot or by cycling, rather than using a car.
But it’s also essential that our government takes measures to better equip Brits for keeping green at home. In 2019, the Committee on Climate Change told the government that UK homes were ‘unfit for the challenges of climate change’ and needed urgent action. One of the most effective proposals they put forward was replacing gas boilers (which are installed in 83% of UK homes) with heat pumps, which can reduce heating emissions by two thirds and make working at home during the winter far more sustainable. However, at the current rate of installation, it would take 1,500 years to reach the target of 19 million that the committee has targeted. Greater government ambition is needed around this, as well as on issues like retrofitting and insulation to make our homes even greener.
Overall, there seems a clear case that working from home right now is having a positive impact. However, it is important that both we, and more importantly, the government, take the steps needed now to ensure that working from home is as sustainable in the future as it is now.
Stuart Neaverson is a campaigner at The Climate Coalition, the UK's biggest group of people dedicated to action against climate change.