Harnessing the work-from-home transition | The hill
The recent shift to remote working has created a loophole in the way companies calculate their carbon footprint. Fixing this loophole is a huge – and about to be missed – opportunity to fight climate change.
Working from home (WFH) has changed the way we work a lot. From being treated to unexpected visits from children and pets during virtual meetings, to putting on the “Zoom uniform” (business up, comfort down ), to disruptions of traditional office cultures, the WFH transition has fundamentally changed the typical workday and the economy, including how people commute to work and the types of homes (and home offices ) in which we live. But when companies calculate their total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, most companies include emissions from heating and cooling their offices but do not include emissions from employees who heat and cool their office. home. Even with a new law containing important climate provisions, the Cut Inflation Act and other public and private sector measures, estimates suggest the United States will be 10-20% below the US target of 50% reduction by 2030. the transition can reduce household energy loads, bringing us closer to that target while slowing inflation and reducing Russia’s energy leverage.
Our new research shows the importance of the remote working transition for climate policy, but also the conceptual obstacles that companies and governments must overcome to take advantage of this opportunity. For example, if I work in a large office building or factory, my emissions from office heating and cooling, lighting, use of office equipment and other activities are reported by my employer. But when I switch to telecommuting, the shows from my office now move to my house. For the employer, it seems that the emissions have disappeared, whereas they have simply moved outside the reporting perimeter. Emissions reporting creates pressure for emission reductions. Thus, if the displacement of emissions is reported as emission reductions, the incentive for actual emission reductions has been missed.
FMH can cause emissions to decrease or increase. If I reduce travel and work more efficiently from home, I can make significant GHG reductions. However, if I drive at lunchtime from home instead of walking from my office – which seems to happen – I will increase my transport emissions. Increases in emissions can also occur if I use inefficient household equipment, have poor energy habits, or if telecommuting allows me to move somewhere with a dirtier energy grid. For better or worse, energy habits and technologies will solidify and set the pattern for the next decade.
Changing these energy habits with education and behavioral counseling can reduce emissions and energy bills at minimal cost – and the opportunity is now. Decades of research show that habits are hard to break. When patterns are disrupted, as has happened in workplaces across the country in response to COVID-19, new actions can become habits and new technologies can be adopted to reinforce those habits. A massive WFH transition is now underway that could help the United States and millions of employers meet their climate goals while making work more enjoyable and rewarding for millions of workers. But governments and the private sector risk missing out on this opportunity, and once it is gone, it will be gone for a generation.
The opportunity is substantial. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 27% of total US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from transportation; a quarter of which come from commuting. Household electricity consumption accounts for an additional 15.4% of total GHG emissions once you include the emissions resulting from the creation of that electricity. Including commuting and electricity consumption, households contribute more than a quarter of all GHG emissions in the United States.
We can close the loophole by attributing telecommuting emissions to employers. This would allow employers and employees to better understand the effect of telework on emissions and create public pressure for employers and employees to take action. The most common emissions reporting framework, the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard, could be easily adapted to include FMH emissions. Armed with even rough estimates, corporate responsibility leaders could create valuable incentives for reductions that would reduce pollution, save employees money, and reduce pressure on our power grid and transportation networks. .
Employers have two major tools to exploit the transition from remote working. The first is simply to report WFH emissions. Whether required by government or private standards, nothing stands in the way of establishing the standard for reporting employee telecommuting emissions.
Even if GHG reports are not up-to-date, employers can engage employees using Employee Energy Benefits (EEBs). This could include providing employee benefits for installing more efficient heating and cooling systems, subsidizing public transport, or providing employees with easy-to-use systems for real-time feedback. on home energy consumption. This list is far from being exhaustive ; companies have access to dozens of effective and inexpensive methods to reduce the carbon footprint of remote working. Employers have incentives to improve employee recruitment and retention, as well as an easy way to compensate employees in pre-tax dollars is to reduce their energy load by reducing transportation and energy usage costs at residence.
When properly implemented, GES can incentivize households to reduce their annual emissions by up to 20%, or about 5.8 metric tons per household per year. EEB initiatives can also overcome scale issues that plague other household initiatives. Large employers include hundreds of thousands of employees who are a ready audience for the energy benefits.
Now is the time to close this gap and reduce GHG emissions and energy burdens on US employees. But the effects of lockdown on behavior and technology are already happening. As the transition to remote working continues, public and private organizations have the opportunity to tackle the climate issue while reducing energy loads and improving employee lives and business profitability. We must not let it slip through our hands.
Michael P. Vandenbergh is the David Daniels Allen Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University Law School. He is also Director of the Climate Change Research Network and 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. He is a former Chief of Staff for the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Sharon Shewmake is an associate professor of economics at Western Washington University’s College of Business and Economics and a member of the Washington State House of Representatives where she serves on committees dealing with energy, the environment, Agriculture, Rural Development and Capital Budget and is running for re-election.