10.1 Work: Work from home revolution

Author: Nyashia James

ABSTRACT: The work from home revolution has existed for some time now. Beginning from the early 19th century. Recently, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed working from home in an impactful manner. How has remote work and telework impacted our carbon emissions? And how beneficial and long lasting are these changes?

Source: Carbon Monitor programme/Nature analysis


History. In the early 19th century, the main room, in the family home, was a functional space used as a place of labour. People worked from home in multi-use spaces and used multipurpose furniture suitable for many needs. However, a change occurred when the Second Industrial Revolution, from 1870-1910, introduced the modern office space (Lloyd, 2020). This was a period of extreme growth which introduced electricity, internal combustion engines, running water, and the launching of oil extraction and chemical industries (2020). After the Third Industrial Revolution and the introduction of digital technology, the way we work has transformed completely. In recent years a shift began to occur as the internet allowed people to start working from home. With the surge of COVID-19, and the development of new software, we are working from home more, and having our homes become our offices. The knowledge economy is no longer bound to traditional office existence. Our domestic lives have been restructured to fit work, where work was once left separate from living.

Currently. In the past, both Vancouver and Toronto’s office-vacancy rate had been the lowest in North America (Todd, 2020). However, CBRE, a real estate services company, reported that office vacancies in both Vancouver and Toronto have sprung to five per cent in September of 2020 (2020). Others project that about ten percent of North American office spaces will become useless for a long while. In March 2020, over 6.8 million Canadians, four out of 10 workers, were performing their weekly task from the comfort of their own homes (2020). Which is a drastic increase from the previous 2.1 million before COVID-19 emerged. In the U.S., one out of three individuals are teleworking full time, in comparison to one out of 30 in the beginning of 2020 (2020). The work from home revolution has been a long time coming, for approximately two decades. But many companies were not prepared to transition to what was once known as telecommuting, however, COVID-19 has pushed the system forward (2020). Urbanization and the downtown office notion will not be eradicated, but rather this new age of telework may very well stay a while longer, especially for the 40 per cent of the workforce who are prepared to do their jobs at home.

Impact. There are several benefits of remote working, not having to commute is one of the largest. The daily commute to work measures more than 98% of an employee’s work-related carbon footprint (Chen, 2020). For the average American that accounts to approximately 3.2 tonnes of CO2 per individual yearly. Global carbon dioxide emissions have been rising for decades, but in 2020 it has dropped by 6.4%, or 2.3 billion tonnes, as the COVID-19 pandemic has cancelled many economic and social activities across the world (Tollefson, 2021). Shockingly, the decline is huge, but still not as large as many climate researchers had predicted, and it is not believed that once COVID-19 has been brought under control, that this drop will be maintained. The US has contributed the most in this global decline, due in large part to a decline in vehicle transportation (2021).

The pandemic has offered a distinctive opportunity to acknowledge the challenge that is present for nations who are actively trying to combat climate change. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that globally we would need to cut carbon emissions by 7.6% per year for over the next decade to stop the globe from warming more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, as per the 2015 Paris climate agreement (2021). Inevitably it would need to be much larger than 2020’s drop in emissions. This 6.4% decline simply was a result of COVID-19 restrictions and remote working, and if more action is not brought about to transform emissions, 2020 will be little more than a hiccup in the global carbon record (2021). The pandemic, although unwelcomed, has shown a quantitative indication of what extreme measures could bring, such as a higher rate of working from home. Moreover, this unique opportunity can help to inform government responses to avoid future emissions trajectories in carbon-intensive pathways (Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al., 2020).

In essence, most changes that have occurred in 2020 are most likely going to be temporary because they do not reflect structural changes in transport, energy or economic systems (2020). However, the social trauma associated with prolonged social distancing may change the future of carbon emissions in ways unknown yet. The prolonged and sustainable reductions required to reach net-zero emissions requires low-carbon changes over time.

Chen, J. (2020, April 24). Is Remote Work Greener? We Calculated Buffer’s Carbon Footprint to Find Out. Buffer. https://buffer.com/resources/carbon-footprint/

Douglas, T. (2020, November 20). The work-from-home revolution has staying power. Vancouver Sun. https://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/the-work-from-home-revolution-has-arrived-finally

Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. (2020). Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nature, 10, 647–653. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

Lloyd, A. (2020, November 17). How Working From Home Will Change Its Design.
Treehugger. https://web.archive.org/web/20201117215430/https://www.treehugger.com/working-from-home-change-design-5088024

Tollefson, J. (2021). COVID curbed carbon emissions in 2020 – but not by much.
Nature. Retrieved February 28, 2021, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00090-3

Nyashia James is a first year Creative Industries student at Ryerson University living in Ajax, Ontario. Her passion is painting/photography and design. She hopes to later study urban planning and better sustainable living in an urban context.

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