This year’s Earth Day will take place on April 22 during an unprecedented lull in human activity. A time when—due to the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide economic shutdown—a significant portion of the world’s air pollution has miraculously cleared up. While the human suffering caused by this disease is something no one wants to repeat, the environmental benefits of remote work are evident.
Earth Day 2020: Environmental Benefits of Remote Work Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Celebrating its 50th birthday, Earth Day 2020 has us seeing a little clearer when it comes to saving our planet. City dwellers may notice the biggest changes caused by the current stay-at-home orders. Bird song is harmonious, the air smells sweeter, and a sense of stillness envelops us when we open our doors. However, in one way or another, we have probably all noticed subtle and not-so-subtle environmental changes.
Until now, many of the societal and environmental benefits of large-scale telecommuting are results of estimates and projections. Now that our lives have been turned upside down because of COVID-19, we’re getting some hard data. Not all changes noted are attributable to remote work. However, it does give us a preview of the world if more people had stay-at-home jobs.
The Biggest Anticipated Benefits of Remote Work
One of the most cited benefits of remote work is the reduction or elimination of the daily commute. Currently, the average commute in the United States is over 27 minutes one-way and rising according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Several factors contribute to increases in commute time, including the growing concentration of companies and jobs in expensive metropolitan areas. A lack of nearby affordable housing results in families moving farther away from centralized urban areas to find a reasonable cost of living.
Research indicates that long commutes contribute to a host of environmental problems produced by vehicle emissions. Two of these pollutants that have been widely reported are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM). The EPA estimates that over 55% of total nitrogen dioxide emissions in the U.S. and less than 10% of PM2.5 and PM10 emissions are caused by transportation.
These pollutants have critical consequences for both human health and the natural world. NO2 aggravates and contributes to the development of asthma and other respiratory conditions, particularly small children and the elderly.
PM is also a cause of health problems often associated with cardiovascular issues such as heart attacks and strokes. It also causes several environmental problems including visible haze and particulate settling. Particulate settling makes lakes and streams more acidic and depletes nutrient balances in a variety of ecosystems. It also stains stone and rock, including historic monuments.
Given the above information, a significant reduction in vehicle emissions should result in lower levels of both NO2 and PM2.5. So, what are we actually seeing since the world went home?
The Skies Are Clearing
By now, you have probably seen the striking visual that illustrates a startling reduction in air pollution over China. After the government imposed stay-at-home restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, NO2 measurements dropped substantially. In addition, measurements indicate significant reductions in other pollutants across the country, including PM2.5. An analysis conducted by Stanford Professor Marshall Burke indicated that the reductions in PM2.5 experienced in China has probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70.
China is not the only country recording notable reductions in air pollution levels during the pandemic. Reductions in Italy have been similarly startling. Since the country enacted stay-at-home orders, NO2 levels in northern Italy have fallen by about 40% and the waters in Venice have become beautifully clear.
In the United States, San Francisco is one of the cities monitoring significant changes in pollution levels. The EPA recently confirmed a year-to-year drop of over 30% in pollution levels since the city’s shelter-in-place order. Perhaps more shocking is the 50% drop in NO2 recorded just one week after the order was implemented.
Similar declines in pollutants caused by vehicle emissions have been detected in major cities across the U.S. including Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York.
More Environmental Benefits of Remote Work from Fewer Commutes
In addition to reductions in NO2 and PM2.5, other air pollutant measurements have shown marked reductions during the pandemic. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have fallen 25% across China and 16%in San Francisco. Researchers at Columbia University measured a 50% reduction in carbon monoxide (CO) emissions in New York City.
It is too soon to make any real conclusions about the long-term benefits of remote work on our environment. However, research shows that staying at home may have negative impacts. The reductions in pollution have come with considerable economic hardship and are currently unsustainable. Once the results are in, the legacy of Earth Day 2020 will include evidence-based conclusions regarding the environmental benefits of remote work. This may foreshadow a societal shift to remote work for long-term, measurable impacts on air pollution levels worldwide.
Additional Environmental Benefits of Remote Work to Explore
In addition to the expected benefits of reduced traffic congestion, gas and oil consumption, and air pollution as a result of telecommuting, there are several other potential environmental benefits to working at home.
The jury is out on whether energy usage will decrease due to remote work. This is because offices tend to have more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems than homes. So, while offices won’t use as much energy, home energy usage may offset any benefits achieved. An earlier study conducted by Sun Microsystems also found that their office equipment energy consumption rate was twice that of home office equipment which is another factor to consider.
Actual results will indicate a variety of factors that we can now begin to understand. These new understandings will shape our remote work policies to maximize environmental benefits. A look at the initial data from China indicates that offsetting energy may indeed be present. Especially if heating or cooling of individual homes is required. So, we know that geographic location will play an important part in that equation along with access to energy-efficient equipment.
Reduced Paper Usage
Another often-cited benefit of remote work is a reduction in the use of paper and plastic products. One estimate puts the paper usage of an average officer at 10,000 sheets of copy paper per year and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that paper and paperboard account for almost 40 percent of our garbage despite widespread recycling efforts. Reduced paper usage means fewer trees cut, less energy used, and reduced pollution emitted to produce, distribute, recycle, and dispose of paper goods.
Remote workers tend to complete most of their tasks on the computer, using email, telephones, and video conferences to communicate and sending files electronically. It is therefore inferred that without the need to print hard copies for colleagues or meetings, the need for paper is greatly reduced.
Reduced Plastic Usage
Modern society has a stunning reliance on plastic products. Plastic garbage litters our land and water and takes over our landfills. It also invades the bodies of birds and marine animals and disrupts the hormonal systems of humans. Overall, plastics have become a planetary scourge. Some researchers are even suggesting that there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans in terms of weight by the year 2050.
Since most remote workers are at home, the use of disposable plastics should be greatly reduced. There is no need for plastic cups or lids, straws, utensils, take out dishes, water bottles, and so on.
Unexpected Environmental Benefits of the Stay-At-Home Orders
In addition to the effects on the environment that are expected, there are a couple of effects that are a little more subtle. One effect that perhaps only seismologists are completely aware of is the reduction in earth vibrations. Without the constant flow of traffic, subways, trains, and other human activity, tremors measured by seismologists have greatly reduced. This is allowing researchers the opportunity to listen more carefully to the tremors created by the earth.
A related effect is a drastic reduction in noise pollution. The usual city noises have quieted with scientists recording reductions in daily noise levels as much as 30 decibels. The unexpected quiet is leading to the feeling that everything else is getting louder. From the squeak of door hinges to strident birdsong, people are reporting noticing sounds that would normally be drowned out by ambient noise.
For many, spending time in nature has been a valuable coping mechanism in a world turned upside down. Taking long walks and bike rides in an effort to escape cabin fever and finding solace in the fields and forests on the outskirts of our cities has been a literal breath of fresh air. Research has found that these activities help us reduce stress and anxiety. Perhaps the greatest legacy of Earth Day 2020 will be the memory of the fresh air, quiet, and stillness we are currently experiencing. Hopefully, the appreciation we gain today will drive our actions tomorrow.
Share your Earth Day stories with us! What are some of the other ways you’ve heard that remote work is healing our Earth? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to tell us what you think. We’d love to hear from you!
iStock image: CHUYN
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