The working arrangements of millions of us around the world changed dramatically after COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect globally in March of 2020. Suddenly, working from home (WFH), which was a relative uncommon practice, become essential to limit the spread of the virus; people who reported doing at least some WFH jumped from 12% to nearly 50% in the UK between typical 2019 practices and April 2020. The implications of this on our concept of work were substantial, but also worth noting are the environmental impacts, specifically greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy estimated that emissions from transportation and businesses dropped 20% and 24%, respectively between 2019 and 2020 (homes only say a 2% decline). But in our journey to net-zero, we have been reflecting on whether the UK can make deeper and long-lasting emissions reductions through WFH.

First, we need to consider the impacts our commuting culture has on our economy, our environment, and our society. Most people recognise that time spent in a commute by motorised transport can reduce the time available for other (physical) activities can get us out of the house.  However, commuting can help us avoid isolated, sedentary, home-based lifestyles, with the most positive impacts if we’re commuting by active forms of transportation; cycling and walking are associated with lower levels of all-cause mortality, specifically improving outcomes for cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes (Laird et al, 2018). The economic impacts of commuting are also substantial, with a UK average of ~£150/month, and up to £300/month for those travelling into London (Murray-Nevill, 2016). Finally, the carbon costs of commuting/business travel are substantial with an estimated 25% of all car travel in the UK being made for work in 2019 (National Travel Survey, 2021).  Given these baseline figures, there is certainly room to reduce some of the negative impacts of work trips through WFH; but what are the cumulative energy and carbon implications of doing this?

The expected direct impacts of WFH are mixed. The Carbon Trust (2021) estimates that by avoiding work commuting, an average UK worker can save ~300 kgCO2e per year (roughly 5% of our territorial emissions, on a per person basis; BEIS, 2021); if we avoid the need for an office altogether, they estimate we can boost this to nearly 1300 kgCO2e/person. We can also save energy from travelling to work/meetings, heating/cooling/lighting our offices, and the embedded carbon associated with ICT equipment. Further, the ICT benefits can be boosted further if we switch off a video camera, potentially reducing emissions by over 90% on a remote meeting. However, we will require more energy for space conditioning in our homes (if there wasn’t already a daytime occupant, of course) and new ICT equipment for remote work. It is estimated that energy demand for UK houses (176 kWh/m2 on average) is generally higher than for offices (150 kWh/m2), and occupant density of offices is generally higher. A switch to WFH may also provide added impetus to retrofit our housing stock, as was highlighted in Barcelona during the first lockdown. Finally, we need to consider if we will be conditioning our offices spaces to the same degree whether there are some staff WFH or not. This emphases savings that can be realised through zonal HVAC systems.

We also need to consider indirect impacts of WFH. As has been highlighted in the popular press, there has been an increase in demand for larger houses that are further from urban areas (lower population density; e.g., Florida & Ozimek, 2021). Whitaker (2021) observed that the rate of urban-to-rural migration in the United States doubled in 2020; will these migrants still require travel to workplaces from these more remote locations? What mode of travel will they select? What will be the net energy impact? Overall, the scale of this impact on carbon is limited, with the monthly net out-migration only hitting around 60,000 people at the start of the first US lockdown (considering an US urban population of 250 million in 2010; US Census, 2021), and the overwhelming majority (83%) of UK residents still living in urban areas in 2020. Therefore, what may be more consequential is the potential economic rebound effect of money saved from WFH; if costs saved from avoided commuting were redirected to more environmentally impactful activities (e.g., overseas holidays). Further, there may be a coincident “temporal rebound” effect, where reduced commuting or business travel can translate into more free time. Will people spend this time doing relatively more energy/carbon intensive activities?

All things considered, it is very unlikely that we have seen the death of our cities. They still have a crucial role to play in our post-COVID economic climate-led recovery, and not everyone can work from home. Here in Reading WFH figures are about 40% of workers, but in Burnley it is only 20%, and car commuters themselves may be less likely to work at home. The picture is also complicated by the fact that most car journeys (about 45%) are for shopping and leisure and there may be a further rebound effect in car use which might raise emissions in some instances. Further, while the number of motor vehicle trips in Great Britain has recovered to match pre-COVID levels (exceeding in the case of freight), reliance on train and bus are down, at mid-60% and ~80%, respectively. However, as the UK economy recovers, cycling trips frequently top pre-COVID levels, and we have also seen an increase in footfall in many UK towns and cities, including Reading. Moreover, as we move into a period of crucial action on climate change in our towns and cities and a renewed focus on net-zero by 2030, we will see a growing focus on decarbonising transport systems; for example, by rapidly reducing urban emissions through greater EV use and promoting active mobility (walking and cycling), which in some cities (especially those which are denser and more compact) may partly counteract the carbon emissions benefits of WFH.

The long-run impacts of our switch to WFH are yet to be seen, and the measures taken to manage our buildings, our travel and our personal consumption that will dictate this are likely to be heavily dependent on future net zero and climate action policy impacts nationally and locally. Recent partnerships such as The Walker Institute’s (University of Reading) with Microsoft is a great example of how academia and business can collaborate in real world research . Building on this, we believe that more detailed research is needed to examine this important and complex WFH picture in more detail.

Eugene Mohareb is a Lecturer and Tim Dixon is a Professor in the Department of Construction Management and Engineering, Manny Spelman is a NERC sponsored summer student and Andrew Charlton-Perez is a Professor in the Department of Meteorology.