Working from home - what it means for sustainability
New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 has meant a significant upheaval to the majority of our lives. Many of us are now working from home, causing a drop in carbon emissions from reduced commuter travel on the ground and in the air. Whilst there are some short-term benefits to the environment (we explored this in a recent article), it’s also highlighted the long-term challenges to achieving genuine sustainability.
First let’s look at carbon. Air travel for work (along with for pleasure) is almost non-existent and there has been a corresponding positive impact on carbon emissions. This offers an unforeseen opportunity for organisations to investigate what travel is truly “essential” and apply that to business-as-usual. It’s also a chance to explore new ways of service delivery. We’ve been trialing remote auditing, with online webinars to help clients prepare. For other operators, from restaurants to yoga studios, it’s an opportunity to discover how online offerings could supplement or replace their standard business model.
Likewise, it’s also a chance for businesses to reconsider their more stationary sources of emissions, like their office carbon footprint. Huge office blocks are currently lying dormant, with corresponding energy savings from reduced air-conditioning, heating and electricity use, among other things. Businesses can now reconsider office space and usage, and how carbon emissions might be reduced by a more considered and flexible use of space.
The flip side to this is an increase in home data use, electricity consumption, online shopping and delivery. It’s too early to crunch the numbers of our Netflix and online shopping habits, but every Google search is estimated to use 0.2g of CO2e. If working from home becomes the new normal, it will be a challenge to responsible businesses to delve deeper into their dispersed impact – particularly as video conferencing, file sharing and cloud computing increase.
But we can’t look at such a significant workplace trend without considering the broader economic and social impacts. One less obvious challenge of working from home is psychological. It can be isolating and cause increased risk of depression or anxiety. It is stressful for those juggling the requirements of caring for children and maintaining a household, alongside job uncertainty or added pressure to perform. It’s important to note that while people are voluntarily making difficult changes to see off the threat of Covid-19, the onus will be on employers to help support their workers to make working from home a sustainable option in the future.
Further, it’s an option only for those who have roles that can be done from a different location (and are mostly computer bound), and who work for organisations that can weather the crisis. For many others lockdown has meant a drop in salary, or losing their jobs entirely. The drop in consumption from closed stores likewise has flow on effects to factory workers in developing nations who rely on large orders from the West.
It’s a stark reminder that climate action doesn’t exist in a void, and the answer to rising carbon emissions cannot be the wholesale elimination of certain industries or supply chains. Now, more than ever, the case for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) is at its strongest. Of these, Responsible Consumption and Production (Goal 12) and Decent Work and Economic Growth (Goal 8) related directly to the importance of a just transition in the workplace, and keeping people in useful and sustainable work as we decarbonise the economy.
The onus is also on the sustainability community to do a more successful job in painting a picture of why the carbon reductions and environmental benefits we have seen during their crisis are worth building on. The urge to return to normal is deeply understandable, but the uncomfortable truth is that achieving the UN SDGs means much more drastic carbon reductions and workplace changes. We need to show that building a sustainable low carbon and equitable future is feasible, achievable and will not leave the most vulnerable behind.