How working from home helps the environment

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer

Working from home has many perks, but one of the most notable bonuses of telecommuting are the environmental impacts.

Tracey Holloway, an air quality scientist who serves as the team lead for the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team and is a professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, said working from home takes cars off the road, which reduces air emissions impacting both public health and climate.

Telecommuting has been around since the early 1970s; however, as technology improves, it allows more people to work remotely from the comfort of their own home.

"Working from home has pros and cons for companies and employees. Some of these are environmental, like reducing air pollution, and others are practical - from productivity to childcare," Holloway said.

Holloway said telecommuting could be part of the solution, but the benefits are likely greater for local air pollution and public health.

More companies like Dell continue to report on the positive environmental impacts and cost savings associated with flexible work options.

"Anything that reduces vehicle miles helps improve air quality and reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming," said Jack Williams, a professor who researches global climate change in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Freelancer working from home and playing with his dog

(Anchiy/Getty Images)

"First, there are fewer emissions of health-damaging pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Both of these pollutants have adverse health impacts on their own, and together they form ozone smog in warm, sunny weather," Holloway said.

According to Holloway, ozone leads to more asthma attacks and other respiratory disease, so it is a major health risk in many cities. Keeping cars off the road, especially on hot, sunny days, can help reduce ozone and protect public health.

"Second, cars are a major source of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main cause of climate change, so anytime people drive less, there is less CO2 released into the atmosphere," Holloway said.

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In the United States, transportation is responsible for 28 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Williams said that is also good news since that number can be easily lowered by changes in behavior, especially as videoconferencing solutions improve.

Not only is air pollution the fourth-largest threat to human health, a study from the University of Washington published in November 2017 found a higher rate of mental distress in high-pollution areas.

"Past work has shown that even modest reductions in emissions can reduce ozone and reduce the number of kids checking into the hospital with asthma attacks. For example, companies could encourage working from home on days predicted to be especially bad for ozone smog," Holloway said.

During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Holloway said there was a situation where traffic, ozone and health could be directly compared. In that case, peak traffic counts went down 26 percent, peak daily ozone decreased 28 percent and pediatric hospital admissions decreased 11 percent to 44 percent, depending on the data set.

Traffic jam in Los Angeles

Traffic jam in Los Angeles. (egdigital/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

"Each company, of course, needs to figure out what works best for its employees and business. That said, if there's room for flexibility, allowing employees to work from home is clearly a way that companies can contribute to helping solve the climate crisis," Williams said.

Through Dell's study, they found telecommuting worked great for the company. The report found that Dell avoided 6,700 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions and saved $12 million in 2013 through its Connected Workplace program.

They also found that telecommuting saves employees an average of about $350 in fuel costs per year.

"It's pretty simple: Fewer cars on the road mean less energy use and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. There's no silver bullet to solve climate change, but there are lots of silver BBs, and allowing people to work from home is one of them," Williams said.

According to Williams, one of the great policy goals in climate change is 'decoupling' which is enabling economic growth to continue while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Allowing people to work from home is one way to enable decoupling," Williams said.

In the U.S., per capita greenhouse gas emissions are falling.

The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show emissions have fallen 12 percent from 2005 to 2016. The Rhodium Group report estimates that by 2020, emissions will have fallen between 15 percent and 17 percent compared with 2005 levels.

"The trends are going in the right direction, but the problem is far from solved and we need to keep finding creative new ways to reduce our greenhouse gases," Williams said.

"Working from home has a lot to offer, for companies, employees, families and the environment. I think finding these 'win win' opportunities is essential for tackling big problems like climate and air quality," Holloway said.

Experts say if you aren't able to work from home and want to cut down on your environmental impact, consider carpooling, biking or walking to work.

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