Telecommuting might save your butt, but will it save the planet?
Just as teleworkers in the Northeast were patting ourselves on the back for avoiding the hell commute, public radio has to go and harsh our buzz. Telecommuting may have many advantages, says Marketplace — cheap lunches, 24-hour pet snorgling, hefty savings on shampoo, the ability to sit snugly at home while others endure an endless purgatory of snowbound freeways — but it’s not actually the green option. For certain people. Maybe.
The plural of anecdote is not data: Marketplace reporter Adriene Hill talked to the following people:
- a woman who thinks the carbon costs from her antique furnace outweigh the 172 miles a week she doesn’t drive because of telecommuting.
- a woman who feels she doesn’t save anything by telecommuting because she used to bike to work.
Two people, and one of them lives in Brooklyn. What is this, a New York Times trend piece?
Still, there is some data: Brian Palmer of Slate wrote about this recently, too, with a few more numbers. Turns out inefficient home heating does counterbalance — though not outweigh — the carbon you save by not driving.
As much as you may hate your workplace, with its detestable politics, stale break-room coffee and interminable small-talk obligations, it’s a more energy-efficient work environment than the average American home. For one thing, that cramped cubicle farm means that less air has to be heated or cooled to keep the worker bees buzzing. Stay home, and you have to climate-control at least your own home office, if not the entire house. Office workers also share certain equipment, such as printers and fax machines. At home, you’re probably running your own peripherals.
These inefficiencies can significantly reduce the carbon savings of working in your pajamas, according to a 2005 study by Erasmia Kitou and Arpad Horvath of the University of California at Berkeley. On cold days, an office produces 1.3 pounds of CO2 keeping each worker warm, compared with 11.9 pounds for the average telecommuter. That means Mr. Wheeler’s furnace will give back 10.6 of the 20.9 pounds of carbon he saves by leaving his car in the garage.
(Is it possible that the “working in your pajamas” trope is what’s at fault here? Put on some damn clothes and you won’t have to keep your house so toasty.)
The point, telecommuters, is that it’s not time to pop the cork on your self-congratulatory champagne just yet — you still have to be mindful about heat and electricity use in the home office, even if you can write off your bills. You are, however, cleared to cluck maternally at the Twitter feeds of car commuters stuck in the snow.
And the conclusions are the same: Here’s how Hill wraps up her tale of two telecommuters:
But there are simpler answers for the ecologically minded that start with simpler questions: How do you use energy? Can you cut that down? According to the federal government, three-quarters of us, when we do go into work, drive in our cars all alone. And so, for three-quarters of us, the solution could be as simple as sharing a ride.
And here’s Palmer:
If you really want to help the Earth and you’re not just looking for an excuse to watch “Judge Judy” when you should be working, all of this points to one simple answer: Abandon your car first, then worry about whether you’d rather take the bus or stay home.
Stop the presses: Driving is worst!
What works for working? The best solution is dense urban living — bike accessibility, walkability, public transport, and the energy efficiency of multi-unit living mean that whether you go to work or stay home, your impact will be lower. But teleworking burb-dwellers, don’t despair: Local coworking can help reduce your footprint by allowing you to share resources without having to haul your ass to some distant office. Shareable has some tips on setting up a coworking space in your neighborhood.
Get Grist in your inbox