What is the environmental impact of teleworking?

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State of telework

A huge increase in the number of teleworkers has been seen with the arrival of the pandemic and containment. But what about before?

In 2016, in Canada, about 14% of employees reported regularly doing at least some teleworking. Elsewhere in the world, the rate varies widely between countries, with Denmark, for example, at about 37%.

The typical teleworker profile

The teleworker often has a management or teaching job. They have a high income and a university degree.

Not just virtual

Teleworking relies heavily on access to digital technologies that use the Internet. It’s often forgotten, but digital is not just virtual and it has real environmental impacts.

What is the environmental impact of digital technology?

The digital sector represents 4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and could double by 2025 (9%/year increase according to The Shift Project). 80% of these GHG emissions are for video use (streaming, porn, tubes, videoconferencing, etc.).

Where do these impacts come from? 

In order to access data via the Internet, various parameters are essential. First of all, you need data centers that store all the data in servers as well as a network of routers to circulate the data. Then, you need a computer or a phone to consult the data and, above all, electricity to make it all work.  

Greenhouse gas emissions over the digital lifecycle are mainly due to the electricity consumed over the entire lifecycle (56%) as well as to the manufacturing of the users’ electronic equipment (40%). 

Of course, the more data is exchanged, the greater the impact will be, as is the case for videos which require the exchange of a large amount of data. To give an order of magnitude: 10 hours of high-definition (HD) video is equivalent to as much data as ALL of Wikipedia’s English content in text format.

What about the impact of technologies used for teleworking?

When you have a job that allows you to telework, you often already use a lot of digital technologies without actually teleworking. The main thing that changes when you telework is that you use more digital communication tools: more video conferencing, more instant messaging, more email, more phone calls. 

Let’s compare the carbon footprint of these different means of communication:

  • 1 minute of video conferencing = 16 gCO2eq. This impact can vary greatly depending on the equipment used and the quality of the video.
  • 1 average email = 4 gCO2eq and up to 50g for an email with large attachments. 1 instant message corresponds to the same order of magnitude as an email.
  • 1 minute of phone call or 1 text message sent is about 0.01 g CO2eq.

For example, the additional carbon footprint of my typical teleworking day: 3 hours per day in videoconference + 300 instant messages = 3.3 kgCO2eq/day.

Can teleworking help reduce our travel footprint?

Personal transportation accounts for 8% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

About half of our daily commute is to work. 70% of people use cars, 20% use public transit, and 10% walk or bike.

The average commute to work ranges from 6 to 18 km in Canada. In Montreal, for example, the average carbon footprint of the commute corresponds to 2t CO2eq per year per person (for a person commuting 13km and working 5 days a week).

In general, teleworking allows to travel less and therefore to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fine particles impacts linked to road transportation. If we stay at home to work instead of driving to work, we observe two effects. First of all, we will avoid the impacts of our own travel. Secondly, we will reduce congestion by putting one less car on the road during rush hour. This means that other vehicles spend less time at a standstill, so less pollutants are emitted.

However, the environmental benefits of teleworking will depend on several factors:

  • The distance from home to work: the further a person lives from his or her workplace, the more greenhouse gases will be saved by teleworking.
  • The usual hours of travel (point of time or not)
  • The usual mode of transportation to get to work: car transportation emits three times more greenhouse gases than public transportation (per passenger and per km).
  • The intensity of use of digital tools when a person is teleworking.

I live 6 km from my work and I did the calculation for a typical day. If I drive to work, my daily transportation will represent 3.6 kgCO2eq/day. So the additional impacts of my teleworking would be just about offset by not driving to work. On the other hand, if I take public transportation, the additional impact of my teleworking will be greater than the avoided impact of my transportation. In my case, there is no environmental benefit to teleworking.

Some authors also point out that teleworking can have negative rebound effects. For example, the ability to teleworking causes some people to choose to live farther away from their workplace and end up increasing their weekly commute.

Some tips for a more carbon-efficient teleworking

There are several concrete actions that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions during our teleworking days. 

  • Limit the impact of video conferencing by:
    • Not using HD ;
    • Cutting the video when it is not necessary: this allows to use 1000 times less bandwidth (we say hello at the beginning and at the end of the meeting for example).
  • Sending emails and messages that are not too large.
  • Extending the life of your electronic devices to reduce their environmental impact.
  • Avoiding watching online videos during breaks!

Click to see an infographic on how to telework lightly.

Some tips for a more carbon-efficient telecommute.

This blog post is from a column presented on April 14, 2020 by Laure Patouillard, Scientific Coordinator and Research Associate at CIRAIG, on Radio-Canada’s Moteur de recherche.


Bibliography

Bordage, F. (2019). Empreinte environnementale du numérique mondial, 40. Retrieved from https://www.greenit.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/2019-10-GREENIT-etude_EENM-rapport-accessible.VF_.pdf

Ferreboeuf, H. (2019). Lean ICT – towards digital sobriety (The Shift Project), (March), 90. Retrieved from https://theshiftproject.org

Ravalet, E., & Rérat, P. (2019). Teleworking: Decreasing mobility or increasing tolerance of commuting distances? Built Environment, 45(4), 582–602. https://doi.org/10.2148/benv.45.4.582

Tanguay, G. A. (2018). Impacts potentiels du télétravail sur les comportements en transport, la santé et les heures travaillées au Québec.

Ong, D., Moors, T., & Sivaraman, V. (2014). Comparison of the energy, carbon and time costs of videoconferencing and in-person meetings. Computer Communications, 50, 86–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comcom.2014.02.009

ADEME. (2017). Éco- Responsable au Bureau, 28. Retrieved from http://www.ademe.fr/sites/default/files/assets/documents/guide-pratique-ecoresponsable-au-bureau.pdf

BBC. (2020). Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think

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