Working from home may not save as much energy as we think

“A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking”  appeared as an “accepted manuscript” for Environmental Research Letters in April.  Written by four academics from the University of Sussex, the article aims to identify the conditions under which teleworking can lead to a net reduction in overall energy consumption, and the circumstances where the benefits from teleworking are outweighed by the unintended impacts” (rebound effects)-  such as greater private travel or increased non-work energy consumption by home workers.  It does not consider the large research about other impacts of telecommuting or homework – such as gender effects, or health and mental health impacts.

The authors identified and examined the results of 39 academic studies from around the world, some dating back to the 1990’s. Of those, 26 suggest that teleworking reduces energy use, and 8  suggest that teleworking  has a neutral impact, or even possibly causes an increase  in energy use.  The authors provide a thorough discussion of the topic, and note great variation in methodology and scope. They also note that most research focusses on the U.S., with some from the EU and only three from the Global South. From Canada, only 2 studies were included:  (1.  Bussière and Lewis (2002) . “Impact of telework and flexitime on reducing future urban travel demand: the case of Montreal and Quebec (Canada), 1996-2016, and 2.  Lachapelle, Tanguay, and Neumark-Gaudet. (2018). “Telecommuting and sustainable travel: Reduction of overall travel time, increases in non-motorised travel and congestion relief?”) .

Both Canadian studies were part of the group which was ranked as average or poor in methodology, and which found neutral or mixed impacts. Relying on the  “more rigorous studies that include a wider range of impacts”  the authors conclude that, despite a widely-held positive verdict on teleworking as an energy-saving practice, “the available evidence suggests that economy-wide energy savings are typically modest, and in many circumstances could be negative or non-existent.”

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