On June 5, the world celebrates World Environment Day. The only difference is that 2020 had some interesting plans. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders, self-isolating, and other mandates have cut pollution immensely. As a result, the global environment has started to heal itself. While governments begin to reopen societies, one trend that may remain is remote work. Free from commutes, using less energy, and reducing the consumption of single-use products, remote work is just what the world needs on World Environment Day.
So one question moving forward: What would the world look like if we continue the trend of working remotely?
No one’s quite sure of the answer. But there are some interesting ideas.
What Is World Environment Day?
Before we dive into the burning question of remote work and the environment, let’s take the chance to explain the importance of World Environment Day. Started in 1974, World Environment Day is a United Nations-sanctioned day that raises awareness and encourages action for the protection of the global environment.
The theme of the day changes each year. In the past, themes have been marine pollution, global warming/greenhouse gases, and overpopulation. In 2020, the theme is “celebrating biodiversity.” Interestingly enough, biodiversity is a crucial part of ecosystems around the world. To maintain ecological balance and ensure sustainability, global awareness is a necessity. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental to mankind, Mother Nature has taken the chance to recover. Moreover, the sudden improvement in the environment has inspired curious individuals to question how more remote workers—a product of the pandemic—would change the environment for the better.
Examples of Environmental Improvement During COVID-19
During mandatory quarantines and shelter-in-place orders around the globe, the world has shown the remarkable ability to heal itself. Some examples include:
- Residents of Punjab, India, seeing the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years thanks to the lessening of air pollution
- Water cleared and some fish returned to Venice, Italy, due to a reduction in tourism
- Large-scale reduction in air pollution throughout China’s major cities
- An increase in fish around the globe from a sharp decrease in the demand for fish
These are just a few instances of environmental improvement around the globe. But as governments reduce restrictions, no one’s sure if the positive environmental impact will continue. While greenhouse gas-producing industries will start back up and many people will go back to work, some workers will remain remote. What type of effect this will have remains to be seen. But telecommuting does show signs that a mass exodus out of the office will improve not only worker happiness and productivity, but also improve the world we all call home.
Fewer Commutes Would Lead to a Reduction in Gasoline Usage
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), vehicles in the United States are responsible for:
- 75% of carbon monoxide pollution
- 33% of smog
- 27% of greenhouse gases
In addition, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that Americans use around 390 million gallons of gas per day. The U.S. Census estimates that the U.S. has 331 million people. Thus, each American uses about 1.18 gallons of gas per day.
For an interesting calculation, assume then that half of America’s 113 million workers suddenly became remote. They’d use alternative forms of transportation to boot. As a result, Americans would cut 66.7 million gallons of gas usage each day. With fewer greenhouse gases spewed into the air and less gas production—which could mean less refining—the impact could be beneficial nationwide.
A Reduction in Greenhouse Gases From Lower Office Heating and Cooling Costs
According to the U.S. EIA, the average electricity cost for businesses in the United States is around $660 per month. Why does this dwarf most residential bills? Simply because offices are larger buildings, and employers want their employees to feel comfortable to increase productivity.
When businesses learn that they can save up to $8,000 per year in energy costs and possibly cut the size of their office building—thus saving them lease or mortgage costs—they may push remote work even more. As a result, the burning of fossil fuels will take a downward turn. This comes as 81% of U.S. energy comes from these sources.
With lower heating and cooling costs due to telecommuters working from home, the reduction in emissions and greenhouse gases will be markedly improved.
The Use of Disposable Products (and Energy) Would Fall
Fewer people in the office equates to less use of single-use plastics, paper products, and other disposable products. Even the energy that’s typically used from computers or printers can significantly reduce energy consumption. At home, consumption of paper and disposable products may continue to go down as consumers search for more environmentally friendly and recyclable products. In addition, the use of fossil fuels as an energy source may be partially offset by people looking to lower their power bills and the advent of residential solar panels.
People Would Lower Their Reliance on Vehicles
Ever since the rapid expansion of suburbia and the low cost of vehicles, Americans have been moving farther and farther away from urban centers. As a result, the reliance on vehicles has increased exponentially. Today, the United States has 273 million registered cars from coast to coast. That’s a staggering amount of vehicles, especially considering how much pollution they produce.
But as remote workers stay at home, this trend could see an alarming reversal. Even if remote workers still run errands in their car, they’ve cut their commute immensely, effectively saving a few gallons of gas a day. Not only will this reduce the amount of gasoline used, but also the amount of air pollution.
Although it may be wishful thinking, remote workers may also be more likely to use non-polluting forms of transportation. If the only trips a person has is to the grocery store or the library, perhaps they may resort to using a bicycle or a (less-pollutive) electric scooter. But if remote workers don’t miss the commute, perhaps the idea of garaging their car more often can become deep-rooted in their subconscious. If there’s a silver lining, evidence points to Americans making fewer trips in their cars, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Air Pollution Would Go Down Extensively
According to the EPA, the average passenger car emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. (This number assumes that the average vehicle gets 22 miles per gallon and drives 11,500 miles per year). If each person travels 11,500 a year, that’s roughly 31 miles per day.
Suppose that a remote worker drives only on weekends, and stays out of their vehicle five days a week. This would reduce their driving by 8,120 miles per year. Subsequently, carbon emissions would drop 70.6% (or 3.2 metric ton reduction).
So what does a reduction in carbon emissions mean? A significant drop in carbon emissions could help reduce global warming, which leads to an increase in droughts, rising sea levels, flooding, and a host of other natural disasters. By reducing these emissions on even the smallest level, humankind can reduce the type of scenarios that can cause famine, water shortages, and other catastrophes.
More Awareness About the Impact of Energy and Vehicle Usage
World Environment Day is the ideal time to discuss environmental issues. But once the day has passed, how many will place the health of the planet in their daily decisions? Probably very few.
That’s what makes the shift to remote work all the more important. As people continue to breathe cleaner air, see smog clouds thin out, and see the cost savings on things such as energy bills and gasoline, environmental awareness will increase. Whether that awareness will permeate to everyday decisions or non-remote workers is unknown.
But when traditional workers—who may envy the flexibility and work-life balance—have friends or family that are more cognizant of environmental issues due to remote work, they may follow suit.
Environmental Benefits and Other Advantages of Remote Work
If you’re not currently a remote worker, you should consider the many benefits of virtual employment. In addition to a reduction in pollution from less driving, remote workers also enjoy:
- An improved work-life balance and work-life integration
- Get more exercise by turning to alternative forms of transportation such as biking or running
- Reduce the amount of office waste in the form of single-use plastic products and paper products
- Set a positive example for future generations and your peers
- The independence that you just won’t get from traditional work arrangements
These aren’t all the perks of working from home. But for the self-disciplined, the self-motivated, and the burgeoning environmentalist, telecommuting offers a working opportunity that provides a positive impact for mental, physical, and environmental health.
On World Environment Day, take the time to think about the importance of global biodiversity, and what you can do to improve it for future generations. If part of that equation is working remotely, you just might find that your contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases and lessening of your carbon footprint is closer than you might think.
Do you think that remote work can bring harmony between the environment and the job market? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you!
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