This year’s Earth Day will take place on April 22 a few years after 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 had miraculously cleared up. While the human suffering caused by this disease is something no one wants to repeat, the environmental benefits of remote work were evident.
Celebrating another Earth Day has us seeing a little clearer when it comes to saving our planet. During the pandemic and the early days of the lockdowns, city dwellers noticed the biggest changes caused by the current stay-at-home orders. Bird song was harmonious, the air smelled sweeter, and a sense of stillness enveloped us when we opened our doors. In one way or another, we probably all noticed subtle and not-so-subtle environmental changes.
Until the pandemic, many of the societal and environmental benefits of large-scale telecommuting were results of estimates and projections. Since our lives were turned upside down because of COVID-19, we got some hard data that was eye-opening. 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 instead of being called back to the office post-pandemic.
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. 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 did we actually see when the world went home then the pandemic started?
The Skies Were Clearing
During lockdown, many of us saw the striking visual that illustrated 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 probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70.
China is not the only country that recorded notable reductions in air pollution levels during the pandemic. Reductions in Italy were similarly startling. When the country enacted stay-at-home orders, NO2 levels in northern Italy fell by about 40% and the waters in Venice became beautifully clear.
In the United States, San Francisco was one of the cities monitoring significant changes in pollution levels. The EPA even confirmed a year-to-year drop of over 30% in pollution levels when the city’s shelter-in-place order began. 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 were 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 showed marked reductions during the pandemic. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels fell 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.
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 ongoing 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, there are a couple of effects that are a little more subtle. One effect that perhaps only seismologists are completely aware of was the reduction in earth vibrations. Without the constant flow of traffic, subways, trains, and other human activity, tremors measured by seismologists were greatly reduced during the stay-at-home orders. This allowed researchers the opportunity to listen more carefully to the tremors created by the earth.
A related effect was a drastic reduction in noise pollution. The usual city noises quieted with scientists recording reductions in daily noise levels as much as 30 decibels. The unexpected quiet led to the feeling that everything else was getting louder. From the squeak of door hinges to strident birdsong, people reported noticing sounds that would normally be drowned out by ambient noise.
For many, spending time in nature was a valuable coping mechanism when our 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 was 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 during the initial lockdown of the pandemic will be the memory of the fresh air, quiet, and stillness we all experienced. Hopefully, the appreciation we gained will drive our actions in the future.
What are some of the other ways you’ve noticed that remote work is healing our Earth? Share your Earth Day stories with us! Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube to share your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you!
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