How Green is telecommuting?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Sept. 7 2010 10:08 AM

How Green Is Telecommuting?

I need help convincing my boss ...

Does telecommuting save energy? Click image to expand.
Does telecommuting save energy? Not always.

I'd love to stay home in my pajamas rather than fight through traffic so I can sit in a cubicle all day. I need help convincing my boss that working from home is a good idea. How much greener is telecommuting than dragging my sorry bones to work?

The Lantern has been enjoying the pleasures of telecommuting for years, and its advantages are many—that is, unless you like exhaust, tiny workspaces, dress codes, and wasting your time. Working from home is a win-win situation for workers and employers. Cisco recently surveyed 1,992 employees who telecommuted an average of two days per week. Sixty-nine percent of them cited productivity increases, and 80 percent said the quality of their work improved from home. The company also noted that telecommuting increases retention rates.

Unfortunately, the environmental benefits aren't quite as clear. How much carbon dioxide you save, if any, depends on how far you live from work and how you get there, among other things.

Let's consider Mr. Wheeler, the average American car commuter. According to the American Community Survey, 86 percent of the nation's workers drive to work, with three-quarters of those going solo. The average commuting distance is 32 miles roundtrip, according a 2005 poll by ABC News, Time magazine, and the Washington Post. If Mr. Wheeler's car is in compliance with the EPA's upcoming 2012 carbon dioxide emissions guidelines, his drive will produce 20.9 pounds of CO2 per day. Mr. Wheeler works 235 days per year, since he takes three weeks of vacation and stays home on all 10 federal holidays, so the annual output of his commute is 4,890 pounds of CO2—that's more than an electric furnace generates heating the average American home for a year. (A car's emissions aren't limited to CO2, of course. Mr. Wheeler will also be responsible for nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and other gaseous and particulate nasties.)

Sounds like a huge win for telecommuting, right? The bleary-eyed walk between bedroom and home office requires no fossil fuels at all.

Not so fast.

As much as you may hate your workplace, with its detestable politics, stale break-room coffee, and interminable small-talk obligations, it's a more energy-efficient work environment than the average American home. For one thing, that cramped cubicle farm means that less air has to be heated or cooled to keep the worker bees buzzing. Stay home, and you have to climate-control at least your own home office, if not the entire house. Office workers also share certain equipment, like printers and fax machines. At home, you're probably running your own peripherals.

These inefficiencies can significantly reduce the carbon savings of working in your pajamas, according to a 2005 study by Erasmia Kitou and Arpad Horvath at University of California-Berkeley. On cold days, an office produces 1.3 pounds of CO2 keeping each worker warm, compared with 11.9 pounds for the average telecommuter. That means Mr. Wheeler's furnace will give back 10.6 of the 20.9 pounds of carbon he saves by leaving his car in the garage. (On hot days, the office actually emits slightly more CO2 to cool each worker. Many people have single-room air conditioners to cool only their office, are reluctant to turn their A.C. on, or simply don't have an air conditioner. Moreover, in the Lantern's experience, most office buildings could keep raw salmon steaks fresh during the summer.) Running your own office equipment also makes a big difference. At the office, your computer and shared peripherals produce 0.9 pounds of CO2 per day, according to the Berkeley study, compared with 4.9 pounds for the same gadgets at home. So Mr. Wheeler loses another 19 percent of his CO2 savings to his printer and fax machine.

There's more. People who work at home do a whole bunch of energy-intensive things they probably wouldn't do if stuck at the office, a phenomenon that researchers call "rebound effects." They take trips to the grocery store, run the dishwasher, or even sneak in a little TV-watching. The carbon emissions associated with these extracurriculars can be hard to quantify, but Kitou and Harvath found that rebound effects generate around 6.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per day, another 30 percent of Mr. Wheeler's total.

Altogether, on the average day in which heating is required, Mr. Wheeler produces almost exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide, whether he goes to work or stays home.

That doesn't make telecommuting a loser, of course. Depending on where Mr. Wheeler lives, there may be very few days in which he actually needs to turn on the heat. On warm days, staying home saves an average of 13.5 pounds of carbon dioxide. And there are lots of little changes he could make to tip the telecommuting lifestyle in the Earth's favor, even in the dead of winter. For example, he could improve his home's insulation (or just wear a sweater in the winter), ditch his personal fax and printer, and behave more like he's in the office and less like he's lounging around the house.

The scenario is a little different for the 5 percent of Americans who commute to work by train or bus. If they commuted the same distance as Mr. Wheeler, their rides would each generate about 7.1 pounds of CO2 per day, or 1,658 pounds annually. In that case, the inefficiencies of working at home clearly outweigh the transportation savings on cold days. On warm days, it's better to work at home, and on those that don't require climate control, it doesn't really matter whether you go into the office.

If you really want to help the Earth, and you're not just exploiting the Lantern for an excuse to watch Judge Judy when you should be working, all of this points to one simple answer: Abandon your car first, then worry about whether you'd rather take the bus or stay home.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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