TORONTO (REUTERS) – Tech and financial firms leading efforts to cut climate changing emissions are finding a new challenge from remote work: the carbon dioxide (CO2) spewing out of home offices.
A few companies have begun counting what happens when employees boot up computers at home, turn up gas furnaces and ignore the world’s most energy-efficient corporate campuses. It turns out that home set-ups popularised by the coronavirus pandemic are eroding some of the climate benefit of abandoned commutes.
“Emissions didn’t go away,” said Ms Amanda von Almen, head of emissions reduction at Salesforce.com. “They just shifted to another area.”
Half of 20 big companies Reuters spoke to, including Salesforce, have estimated emissions from home offices.
Six of those reported detailed figures, showing that their half a million workers collectively emitted the equivalent of 134,000 tonnes of CO2 in about the first year of the pandemic. That is equivalent to 15 million gallons of oil or burning 67,000 tonnes of coal.
While there are benefits to the climate from millions of employees not commuting when they work from home, the findings underscore that remote work is not a simple solution to cutting corporate emissions.
“Remote working has not delivered the environmental benefits that some people expected,” said professor of energy policy Steve Sorrell from the University of Sussex. “But they should probably have paid more attention to the decades of work in this area that suggest that environmental impacts may be less than expected.”
Companies reported varying benefits from the recent shift to telework. Salesforce found that remote work has cut emissions by 29 per cent per employee, while the Boston-based fund manager Fidelity Investments found that moving to mostly remote work wiped out 87 per cent of its emissions cuts in 2020.
Facebook, now Meta Platforms, calculated that staff through commutes and remote work produced more than a tonne of CO2 per person in 2020, down from two tonnes the year before – when just commuting was counted.
But half of those companies Reuters surveyed are not counting home office emissions, including tech and finance leaders Apple, Amazon.com and Wells Fargo.
“We anticipated these emissions are small relative to our carbon footprint and we are still evolving our methodology,” Apple said in explaining its decision.
And even companies estimating the output from homes are divided on what to do about it. To honour its pledge to operate on 100 per cent renewable energy, Meta has bought enough renewable energy credits to match remote workers’ use, but it is not offsetting home-office natural gas.
Salesforce and Alphabet’s Google excluded home-office electricity from their 100 per cent goals as they weigh different initiatives for home use. Both, though, buy carbon credits to offset estimated emissions from telework.
Climate experts say those solutions scratch the surface: After pouring billions of dollars into offices decked with rooftop solar, bathed in natural lighting and equipped with water recycling, employers transitioning to hybrid work need clear plans to make every location just as green.
“If we are serious about meeting our targets, then the corporate world needs to take the lead and think about homes as areas of improvement,” said assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Eleftheria Kontou from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.