An increase in working from home (WFH) has the potential to save up to 3.7 million tonnes of climate-damaging greenhouse gas emissions per year in Germany – even if private cars are used for most commutes, as in 2021. However, if more people switch back to using public transport as soon as infection control measures permit, an even greater contribution to climate change mitigation can be made. These are the findings of a new Oeko-Institut study which assessed the environmental and social impacts of mobile working during the pandemic.
Greenhouse gas emissions from commuting and mobile working
During the coronavirus pandemic, up to 70% of employees in Germany have worked entirely or partly from home. As a result, commuting journeys decreased by an average of 38 billion kilometres in 2021 compared with 2017. As 93% of commuting journeys are made by car, their share of the emissions inventory is correspondingly high. Each kilometre driven by car emits 202 g CO2 equivalent (CO2e), as compared with 83 g CO2e from bus transport and 54 g CO2e from tram/underground rail journeys.
The researchers compared these transport-related emissions with the emissions from equipment and the operation of laptops, etc. in the home workplace. The study showed that the CO₂ emissions produced by working from home vary, depending on how the workplace is equipped. If a company laptop is used, the CO₂ emissions are low – just 18 kg per year. However, if a completely new workspace is fitted out at home, with heating and lighting requirements that are additional to those of the normal office-based workspace, CO₂ emissions increase to 307 kg per year.
“Our audit shows that regardless of the choice of transport, the emissions inventory can be reduced by working from home just one day a week,” says Konstantin Kreye, a climate and mobility expert at the Oeko-Institut, summing up the report. “A mixed form of office-based and mobile working may therefore be beneficial from an environmental perspective post-pandemic as well. Even in the most conservative scenario, with a 20% share for working from home, a reduction potential of around 1 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions can be realised. That’s roughly equivalent to the average annual emissions of 370,000 cars.”
The social effects: a mixed picture
Less commuting, more flexible working hours, location-independent working, greater compatibility of work with childcare: many employees have come to appreciate the benefits of working from home. This is now recognised by businesses as well: they see it as a new opportunity to increase their attractiveness as employers. However, the study also outlines some of the risks, such as a blurring of the lines separating work and the private sphere, feelings of isolation, and unequal access to suitable workspace at home. Rural living may become more appealing, potentially easing the pressure on urban housing markets. However, there is also a greater risk that employees will use their cars more often for private purposes.
“Overall, the study produces a mixed picture of the social effects of working from home,” says Cara-Sophie Scherf, a sustainable economy expert at the Oeko-Institut. “As many employees are saying that they would like to work from home on a regular basis in future, companies and organisations should look in detail at the opportunities but also the risks.”
The Working Paper was produced as part of the Compan.e: Pathways Towards Electric and Sustainable Corporate Mobility project and was funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection.
Arbeiten im Homeoffice – gut für die Umwelt und die Mitarbeiter:innen? [Working from home – good for the environment and employees?]: Oeko-Institut Working Paper