How the return of workers to the office could impact climate change

Despite their commitment to combat climate change, President Biden and some other Democratic elected officials are promoting an idea that could exacerbate the problem: white-collar workers returning to their offices.

“​​People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices,” Biden said in his State of the Union address. A few days later, he repeated this point, adding that Americans “can go to the office and safely fill our great downtown cities again.” In keeping with that message, late last month, the federal government revealed plans to send more of its own workforce back to the office.

President Biden, seated in the House Chamber, holds forth during his State of the Union address.
President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress on March 1 to give his State of the Union speech. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams have also struck a similar tone. Adams shamed telecommuters with the quip: “You can’t stay home in your pajamas all day.”

In fact, millions of Americans have been working from home since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether pajama-clad or otherwise. This, at least in terms of automobile emissions, has prevented the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas to cause global warming. Experts say that a return to regular commuting for workers currently working from home could increase carbon emissions, at least in the short term. However, continued remote work could also have unintended consequences, including increased suburban sprawl.

“If everyone started going back to the office, that would most likely be bad for climate change,” said Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at the Yale University School of the Environment.

The primary reason for this is that 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, more than any sector of the economy. Most of those emissions come from personal cars, SUVs and light trucks, since Americans overwhelmingly drive to work. According to the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), 76% of commuters drove alone and 9% carpooled, meaning that a total of 85% traveled by private vehicle.

In recent decades, Americans have also been commuting for increasingly longer distances. Between 1981 and 2017, annual vehicle miles traveled per U.S. resident shot up from 6,767 miles to 9,880 miles. The average American drives more than twice as much as the average resident of France, Germany or the U.K. Not coincidentally, since 1990, U.S. transportation emissions increased faster than emissions from other sectors, such as electricity generation and industrial production.

Three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic crawls through Brooklyn. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A traffic jam in Brooklyn on Aug. 9, 2021, in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Americans’ reliance on cars is a major reason that the United States has the highest emissions per capita of any major economy except Canada. That makes American transportation trends especially important. According to a study published in Nature in 2020, despite all the economic disruption of the pandemic, global carbon emissions were only 6.4% lower than in 2019. But they dropped far more in the U.S.

“The United States contributed the most to the global dip, with a nearly 13% decrease in its emissions, due mostly to a sharp decline in vehicle transportation that began with lockdowns in March,” the journal reported. Transportation emissions were down 15% in 2020.

Last year, U.S. emissions increased 6.2% from 2020, while remaining 5% below 2019 levels. “After falling 13% in 2020, gasoline demand — indicative of demand for on-road passenger travel — rose steadily through 2021, ending the year 10% above 2020 levels,” noted the Rhodium Group, a research firm, in a recent report. After plunging at the beginning of the pandemic, vehicle miles traveled have gradually rebounded. Since last summer, they have been just barely below their levels in fall of 2019.

Of course, U.S. emissions aren’t supposed to be going up, according to Biden and the commitments that the federal government has made to slash emissions dramatically in this decade. “The uptick in GHG emissions in 2021 moves the country even further from meeting its Paris Agreement climate target of reducing emissions 50%-52% below 2005 levels by 2030,” the Rhodium Group dryly observed. That cut is also what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found is needed to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, in order to prevent catastrophic consequences for the planet.

A man looks at his cellphone in front of two large screens with economic data.
A currency trader on a video call in his home office. (Getty Images)

As of December, 26% of workers were still fully remote, according to a Gallup survey, compared to 5.3% percent in the 2018 ACS. One would think that change would have reduced driving and oil consumption more than it has, but there are a number of complicating factors. For one, people in car-dependent areas do much of their driving for other purposes than going to work.

“The story about whether work from home really significantly reduces emissions is not as simple as you might think it is,” Elizabeth Irvin, senior transportation analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Yahoo News. “There's actually a fair amount of evidence that people don't so much drive less when they work from home as they drive at different times.” For example, someone might stop at the grocery store or to pick up kids on the way home from work. “If they're not doing that long work trip, they end up doing the smaller trips as separate trips.”

A Georgia Tech study from 2005 modeled looked at telecommuting that had occurred in the 1980s and 1990s and found that it had reduced vehicle miles traveled, but probably by as little as 1% or less. Still, it noted, since it costs the government nothing for companies to let workers work from home, it was a relatively cost-effective way of reducing emissions.

There’s also evidence, according to Gillingham, that the rebound in driving has partially been caused because long drives, like road trips, have increased since the pandemic began. Those drives are sometimes replacing airline ridership, which last year, despite increasing from 2020, was still 27% below what it was in 2019. Flying creates especially intense amounts of emissions. But if driving has already returned to near-pre-pandemic numbers, with five times as many workers as in 2019 still being fully remote, then if employers force them all to go back to the office, total driving would be sure to increase above what it was before COVID-19.

A worker in a surgical mask at his keyboard.
A worker at his keyboard. (Getty Images)

That’s especially true because many Americans stopped taking public transit during the pandemic. In recent days, New York City’s subway system has been getting between 52% and 69% of its pre-pandemic ridership. Los Angeles’ Metro is at 65% of its pre-pandemic ridership, while Washington, D.C.’s system has just 29% of its 2019 riders.

“It’s a really complicated story, and it will be different in different places,” Irvin said. “New York City, for example, is a place where a really large percentage of people commute by public transit, and [emissions] sort of depends on: Are people going back to the same mode of transportation that they were before?”

Working from home could also have lower-than-expected climate benefits if workers take advantage of the opportunity to move farther away from the city centers, where jobs are often located. Residents of rural and suburban areas have a higher carbon footprint, on average, than city dwellers.

“If everyone’s comfortable working from home, will that lead to greater dispersion and fewer people living in central cities?” Gillingham asked. “Cities, in general, have much lower carbon emissions per capita. If you have one large building with many people living in it, the per capita emissions for heating it, the per capita emissions for cooling it, are lower.Then there are the effects on electricity, the production of which is the second-largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. On the one hand, Gillingham noted, there could be a net increase in demand for electricity or home heating if workers stay home and need to heat and cool their house all day. On the other hand, if a company drops its office space entirely, that will mean not having to climate-control, light and power that space. During the spring of 2020, when remote work was at its peak, compared to the previous year, residential electricity consumption increased 7.9%, but commercial consumption decreased 6.9% and industrial demand dropped by 8.0%, according to an analysis published in Joule, an academic energy research journal. In total, aggregate electricity consumption decreased by 1%.

Back view of male employee speaking on video call with diverse colleagues on online briefing with laptop at home. (Getty Images)
A worker participates in an online briefing on his laptop at home. (Getty Images)

But, while these factors make the exact effect on emissions hard to predict, it’s still likely that if everyone returned to their pre-pandemic office attendance, emissions would increase, at least a little.

“In the short run, the overall emissions from commuting would outweigh any of these other aspects,” Gillingham said, referring to electricity demand.

Biden, Hochul and Adams have all said they are determined to reduce emissions, and Biden and Hochul have laid out ambitious agendas for doing so by boosting clean energy production. But, right now, more than 98% of the America auto fleet still runs on internal combustion engines. And even electric vehicles still result in emissions, as the vast majority of electric utilities burn at least some coal or natural gas to produce electricity.

There are, of course, other social costs and benefits to telework that are preoccupying these politicians. Cities and states like New York that depend heavily on commercial property tax receipts will see revenue decline if demand for office space never fully recovers. That is clearly a motivating factor for both Hochul and Adams. (They are also both major recipients of campaign donations from commercial real estate developers and landlords.) But New York City also features the longest average commutes of any region, at 43 minutes.

Surveys have shown that workers mostly report that they devote some of the time they save on commuting to working longer hours than they would if they showed up to the office in person. Recent Pew and Gallup polls showed that most remote workers would prefer to keep working from home, and Gallup found that 30% reported that if necessary, they would look for a new job to avoid going back to the office.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces that David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center will be completed in October 2022, two years ahead of schedule and on budget.
Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The privilege of remote work hasn’t been equally shared. Blue-collar workers have overwhelmingly been back at work in person since the summer of 2020, if they ever stopped working at all.

Public transit systems were largely designed as a hub with spokes, bringing residents of outlying areas to and from a city center at rush hours. This does not serve the needs of many blue-collar commuters, who go to jobs around the urban periphery and work shifts outside the standard nine-to-five, and are not able to take advantage of such transit systems.

Ultimately, to significantly reduce the amount Americans drive will require more than just retaining remote work for white-collar employees. It will mean redesigning mass transit service to meet the needs of the people who still travel to work, rather than clinging to the hope that white-collar workers will go back to offices they’ve been functioning without. Irvin pointed out that the recently passed infrastructure law contains billions of dollars that could be used for that purpose. Doing so might be essential to preserving mass transit systems that will inevitably see some ongoing loss of ridership from white-collar workers who don’t return to downtown offices.

“There certainly are people for whom work-from-home could reduce emissions,” Irvin said. “But it’s just not clear how that all is going to play out on a large societal scale — especially when you think about the number of people who can’t work from home and haven’t been working from home throughout the whole pandemic. There are a lot of folks who have been commuting the whole time and for whom transit may or may not have been really designed to suit those jobs. So there’s a real emissions benefit from thinking about: How do we make it so people can get around and get to the places they need to go without needing to drive a car?”

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