People working from home during COVID-19 lockdowns are damaging the environment more than if they were all sitting in offices, a new report has revealed.
While carbon emissions from commercial office buildings have plummeted with staff working remotely, those from homes have rocketed, far outstripping any benefit, global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield has found. The final toll has been an overall increase of over 20 per cent.
The problem is that those at home are keeping the lights, heating, cooling and electricity on for long periods of the day in a much less energy-efficient setting, and without the big economies of scale that large offices with concentrated workforces generate.
“When you think about your home environment, and how inefficient it is compared to new big corporate offices, and the higher density of people in offices rather than in houses, it isn’t such a surprise,” said Rebecca Jinks, Cushman & Wakefield head of sustainability Australia. “We wanted to look at the comparison of the built environments with the new model of hybrid working.
“We’ve never really looked at the carbon emissions of people working from home before, and we’re trying to look forward to the consequences if hybrid working continues after the pandemic.”
The study was conducted using an algorithm that measures work-from-home energy consumption across a business’s workforce to quantify energy-related emissions produced. It was developed to examine how the 30-50 per cent falls in office energy consumption following the first 2020 lockdowns were being redistributed to home workplaces, factoring in home type, geography and seasonal settings.
The data was then modelled for a large corporation with more than 30,000 employees nationally in the first quarter of 2021. It found that carbon dioxide emissions from offices fell by 2500 tonnes, but those from homes rose by more than 4000 tonnes, a net rise of 21 per cent.
The emissions saved from less commuting to work weren’t measured in the study but it’s expected they will rise again as restrictions ease, with hybrid working still remaining.
Ms Jinks said that the current rising carbon load was worrying, especially in light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that signalled a “Code Red” for humanity, saying a climate catastrophe could only be averted with major cuts to the emission of greenhouse gases.
“This rise isn’t insignificant,” she said. “So if we don’t return, long-term, to the office, we hope that companies will come up with ways to make their employees’ homes more sustainable places to work.
“They have responsibility to both their employees and their total volume of emissions, so we’d hope they’d come up with innovative and creative ways to help, like tools employees can use to measure their energy efficiency at home.”
The chief executive of the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), Davina Rooney, said the findings weren’t surprising, and that a recent international study had also found that residential emissions increased substantially in lockdown, with the inefficiency of average homes a key factor.
“Office buildings in Australia are leaders in sustainable practices, both in energy and efficiency,” she said. “Owners of corporate buildings strive to have the highest environmental credentials through initiatives like [the] Green Star rating, and they’re also obliged to disclose their energy ratings to tenants through the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS).
“But in the residential sector, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Australia needs both mandatory and voluntary standards for newly built homes and better disclosure standards for existing homes. This would help home-owners to better understand whether and how their house is energy-inefficient, and take the option to upgrade if they want to.”
This week the GBCA released a Green Star certification to the home building industry that aims to transform the residential building market and reduce household energy costs by 75 per cent.
In addition, this week an enhancement to the National Construction Code (NCC), which aims to move from a six to a seven-star Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS), went out to industry for consultation, with the GBCA strongly recommending that higher efficiency standards for homes are mandated as part of the NCC.
Meanwhile, Cushman & Wakefield head of integrated facilities management Jon McCormick said that, as more organisations worked towards net zero targets, they also had to take heed of emissions from hybrid working.
“Accurately tracking those emissions is the first step in developing appropriate mitigation strategies,” he said. “The reality is that hybrid working has become the norm in most corporate office settings, led by employees’ desire for flexibility and employers’ focus on staff safety and wellbeing.”