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Due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns in multiple countries, there have been reports of marked decreases in day-to-day pollution hanging over cities, such as this report on Beijing. This is being attributed in part to the lack of commuters going to work, with lots of workers across industries staying home under quarantine lockdown.

For some people, there is still the option to work from home. My question is, does working from home offer much from a sustainability perspective?

Take for example, a small office of 10 people, where:

  • The building is lit by fluorescent bulbs that supply light for the whole office.
  • Heated/cooled by a single HVAC system.
  • Communal shared appliances (printers, fridges, dishwashers etc).
  • Office supplies ordered in bulk (paper, pens etc)

vs those same 10 people working from home, having individual lighting, heating/cooling, appliances and supplies. There may be more points of comparison but these are the ones I can think of.

Which option is more sustainable, taking into account commuter transport, utilities, and so on? Have there been any studies done to this effect?

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    Three weeks ago, just after the start of the lockdown here in the Netherlands, the media reported that the power consumption of people working at home versus in an office is more or less the same. AFAIK hardly any factories are closed here, but the first results on air pollution published a few days ago reported that the air is now 20-60% cleaner because of the reduction in emissions from transportation. If only I could find the scientific studies this is based on..... – THelper Apr 1 at 6:33
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    The US Energy Information Agency just published an update on electricity sales -- the total for all sectors was down 4% this year compared to last April. Data on natural gas and petroleum sales for April weren't available yet. – LShaver Jun 30 at 16:12
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Here's a piece of the answer for the U.S. Hopefully others can provide additional details covering other countries or regions.

MAJOR EDIT: Comments pointed out that something seemed fishy. I double-checked my numbers, and at one point I multiplied by 1,000 when I should have divided. Turns out that makes a HUGE difference.


Office building emissions

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (from Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey 2012), there are 33.8 million office workers using 1.5 billion m2 of non-vacant office space in the U.S. (looking at office work only since it is the most likely candidate for the switch to telework).

CBECS also provides data on energy usage for office buildings:

  • 773 TWh of electricity (including transmission and distribution losses)
  • 83 TWh of natural gas (for heating and cooking)
  • 5 TWh of fuel oil (diesel, also for heating)

On average in the U.S., emissions factors for each of these fuels are as follows:

  • 0.45 kg CO2 per kWh -- total 347 million tons of CO2 (source)
  • 53.07 kg CO2 per million Btu of natural gas -- total 15 million tons of CO2 (source)
  • 78.79 kg CO2 per million Btu of fuel oil -- total 1.4 million tons of CO2 (ibid.)

Thus total annual emissions from office buildings is 364 million tons, or 10.77 tons per office worker per year.

Office commute emissions

According to a 2005 poll, the average American commutes 32 miles (51 km) a day. According to the same poll, 4% use public transit, and 8% carpool. If we assume the average carpool is two people, this means that 92% of office workers are driving 51 km a day -- about 31 million workers driving a total of 1.6 billion km per day. There are about 250 working days per year, so that equates to 400 billion km per year.

In the U.S., the average efficiency of vehicles on the road was 22.3 miles per gallon in 2017. This equates to 10.6 L per 100 km. Combined with km driven, this means Americans are using 42 billion L of gasoline per year to commute.

Combustion of gasoline results in emissions of 8.89 kg CO2 per gallon, or 2.35 kg CO2 per L.

Thus total annual emissions from workers commuting to offices is 99 billion tons, or 2.93 tons per office worker per year.

Comparison

There are series of assumptions and approximations here (please check my math, again!), but for the average office worker who commutes in a private vehicle in the U.S., emissions from the office are nearly triple the emissions from the drive.

If we say (for arguments' sake) that emissions from a home office per capita are the same as an office building per capita, then eliminating the commute results in a 20% reduction in emissions.

To fully understand the question, we'd need data on increased residential energy usage from teleworking. There are some estimates (here and here), but nothing thorough that I could find.

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  • This is good info, thanks! It would be good to get some numbers for places where the mass transit usage is higher, as the commute may factor in differently. But for now, I'll accept this as you've covered the majority of what I was asking :) – Robotnik Apr 1 at 23:09

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