Is working from home more climate-friendly than commuting?

Close up up person's working from home supplies



This is a guest blog post from past CitiesIPCC Legacy Research Grant Program grantee, Rebecca Fiissel Schaefer, CEO of RFS Energy Consulting and Research Group, and Board Chair of the Alberta Energy Efficiency Alliance.

In 2021, Statistics Canada reported that 32% of Canadians were working from home (i.e. ‘remote work’) and 80% were interested in continuing this practice post-pandemic.

When the lockdowns began in early 2020, the City of Edmonton was already 3 months into designing a Remote Work Program. The City was ahead of the curve in recognizing the benefits of offering their staff the option to work from home, such as work life balance, flexibility and corporate cost savings. 

Meanwhile, as many workers adapted to the new work from home landscape brought on by the pandemic, a group of researchers were wondering if a case could be made for the environmental benefits of this shift. With funding from the CitiesIPCC Legacy Research Grant Program administered through the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, a research team consisting of the Alberta Energy Efficiency Alliance, RFS Energy Consulting, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) and Dunsky Energy & Climate Advisors began investigating the social, environmental and economic impacts of remote work.

The project set out to understand the challenges and opportunities presented by more people working from home, using the City of Edmonton as a case study. The team was particularly interested in the environmental, social and/or economic impacts through a combination of desktop research, GHG modeling and a staff survey.

What we learned

As we expected, more people working from home means fewer drivers on the road and results in fewer commute-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Our study estimated that for every City of Edmonton employee that works from home instead of commuting, an average of 1.08 tCO2e could be saved annually - the equivalent of taking 280 passenger vehicles off the road. 

Despite this estimate of direct impacts, the broader implications of remote work policies on GHG emissions are still uncertain and complex and highlight an overall lack of existing Canadian data. 

The project team recommends further research on indirect effects, including rebound effects, increases in home energy use, additional daily mobility, relocation, lifestyle changes, and office energy use. Some of these recommendations include:

  • Analyzing facility usage and building energy profiles to identify downsizing, space re-design and retrofit opportunities to better accommodate more collaborative work spaces when staff are in office.

  • Assessing the impacts of remote work on equity, diversity and inclusion through additional and ongoing data collection such as in-depth staff surveys capturing demographic information and/or expanding survey participation to the wider Edmonton community.

  • Incorporating GHG data from remote work into community energy planning as a way to help achieve municipal GHG reduction targets.

Download the Report to learn more.

What’s next?

Over two years later, many folks are still working from home while businesses are reconsidering whether having staff return to the office from 8 to 5, Monday to Friday is necessary or worthwhile. Remote work remains a hot topic for employers and employees alike, and Canadian-based data is still lacking. 

Getting to the bottom of these questions is the focus of two new studies launched in early 2022:  

  • Remote Work: An In-Depth Assessment of Impacts at Community and Municipal Levels” funded by the Alberta Ecotrust Climate Innovation Grant Program builds on the previous study to explore the community-level impacts of the shift to remote work in Edmonton.

  • Telework Impacts on the Real Estate Industry in Alberta” funded through the Alberta Real Estate Foundation takes a look at how remote work is impacting the Alberta real estate market.

While there is still much we don’t know about the impacts of working from home, what we do know is that programs that are designed to maximize the benefits and weigh and mitigate the risks, have the potential to contribute to reducing GHG emissions at a community level. If integrated into municipal climate action plans, remote work offers another tangible tool to achieve energy and GHG reduction targets locally and nationally.