Can the trend to remote work spurred by the pandemic be associated with lower greenhouse-gas emissions? It depends.
The pandemic required many people around the world—except essential workers, such as in health, transport, care and nutrition—to work remotely and maintain social distance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As an atypical form of employment differing from the standard model based on the workplace, remote work existed before Covid-19. Yet it has been effected more than ever during the lockdowns and beyond, despite being associated with serious violations of rights.
The International Labour Organization defines the phenomenon as work performed fully or partly at a location apart from the default workplace, including one’s own residence, co-working spaces or other sites and houses. As an umbrella concept, it embraces telework, where workers use information and communications technology (ICT) to carry out work remotely. Telework and work at home constitute subcategories of remote work which can be designed, and combined, in several ways.
Remote work can be adopted on all working days or only certain days of the week (the hybrid model), temporarily or permanently, from the beginning of employment (as for couriers, drivers and other platform workers) or later. There are plenty of related concerns, including work-life balance, transport, occupational health and safety, productivity and efficiency, gender equality, energy use, workload and flexible working time, and digital monitoring and surveillance.
These worries vary with the work culture and perspective of the employer, the preferences and habits of the worker and the conditions of work organisation—three factors which also condition the ecological impacts of all the aspects linked to remote work. Two concerns play a prominent role in the sustainability of remote work, compared with other forms of employment: transport and energy use.
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Both work-related and leisure transport have important effects on nature and both can be eco-friendly or not. Low-carbon, work-related transport includes commuting and/or business trips avoiding fossil-fuel vehicles, such as by bicycle or by electric (or otherwise renewable-energy) public transport, car or motorcycle. High-carbon leisure transport covers social and cultural activities, holiday trips, hobbies, visiting family and friends and all other transport regarding private life based on fossil-fuel vehicles, such as by plane or non-electric car.
The more eco-friendly both types of transport are, the more ecologically suitable remote work becomes. If workers prefer, employers encourage and work organisation facilitates eco-friendly transport, remote work will have positive impacts on nature. These proliferate when it is conducted at home, since there will be no commuting, but leisure transport and business trips should be as low-carbon as possible. Otherwise, employment at a workplace is capable of being more ecological than remote work, as long as workers’ habits, employers’ approaches and work organisation prioritise eco-friendly transport.
Similary, both work-related and leisure-time energy consumption have significant impacts and both can be eco-friendly or not. Eco-friendly energy use consists of 100 per cent renewable and low-carbon electricity, heat and lighting, with energy-saving materials besides sustainable use of ICT. Recent research reveals that intensive use of ICT—the computer, the telephone, artificial intelligence, blockchain and the ‘internet of things’—causes serious damage to nature.
Since all kinds of electronic devices are formed by chemical elements, precious metals and various materials such as plastic and glass—whereas connecting to the internet, sending e-mails and using ‘social media’ merely raise data traffic over the network—ICT use in telework can lead to more greenhouse-gas emissions than expected. Indeed, emissions increase exponentially, not only in the usage but also in the production and disposal of ICT.
The more work-related and leisure-time energy use are eco-friendly, the more remote work becomes an ecological alternative. Again, if workers prefer, work organisation facilitates and employers encourage clean energy consumption, remote work (even telework) will be sustainable.
These three factors become more crucial when remote work is conducted at home as telework, since work-related and leisure-time energy use will be highly entwined with use of ICT. Otherwise, employment at a workplace has a capacity to be more ecological than remote work, provided that working conditions, workers’ habits and the employer’s perspective give priority to eco-friendly energy consumption.
All in all, remote work has potential for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions but it is not an ecological employment alternative per se. The conditions required are:
- work-related and leisure-time energy use should be drastically reduced and derive from 100 per cent renewable, efficient and low-carbon energy;
- eco-friendly transport should be preferred for work and leisure;
- work tools and equipment should not harm nature by being recyclable and long-lasting;
- the awareness and skills of workers and employers should be improved by sustainability training and education;
- there should not be excessive workload and ultra-flexible working time, and workers’ right to disconnect should be recognised and implemented fairly;
- environmental/climate risk assessment should not be ignored during the organisation of remote work, and
- there should be fair and nature-friendly legislation, court decisions, government and workplace policies, backed by union organising.
These conditions are not exhaustive but all are indispensable. As we are racing against time to mitigate the climate crisis, all kinds of employment and work organisation must contribute to ecological sustainability. A mentality change is urgently needed for a decent, decommodified and decarbonised work, with a work culture which values nature and labour over profit.
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Selen Uncular is an attorney at law and PhD candidate in labour law at Pompeu Fabra University, Spain. She is author of a book on the protection of workers’ personal data, İş İlişkisinde İşçinin Kişisel Verilerinin Korunması, and is interested in collective action, ecological sustainability and international labour law.