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As office workers stopped working in the office in 2020 and swapped their cubicles for living room sofas during COVID-19 lockdowns, many began to question the hours they spent commuting to work. Couldn’t all those hectic mornings in traffic have been spent getting things done? Life was often lonely for those stuck in their homes, but people found something to appreciate in the sounds of birdsong echoing through the quiet streets. And the temporary drop in travel had the side effect of global carbon emissions falling by 7 percent in 2020 – good news in an otherwise miserable year.

As Grist reports, emissions rebounded in 2021 as people began to resume some of their normal activities, but offices were never the same. While remote work was rare before the pandemic, today 28 percent of Americans work a “hybrid” schedule, going into the office some days and 13 percent working remotely full time.

Recent data suggests that remote work could accelerate companies’ plans to reduce their carbon emissions to zero. Yet companies don’t seem to be factoring climate change into their decisions about the future of office work. “In the U.S., unfortunately, it’s not at the top of the priority list,” says Kate Lister, founder of the consultancy Global Workplace Analytics. “It goes up, but then it goes down again because there’s the next shiny object.” Commuting falls under what’s known as a company’s “Scope 3” emissions, the indirect sources that are routinely ignored but account for three-quarters of the business world’s emissions on average.

A 10 percent increase in the number of people working from home could reduce carbon emissions by 192 million tons per year, according to a study published in April in the journal Nature Cities. That would cut emissions from the country’s most polluting sector, transportation, by 10 percent. Those findings are consistent with other peer-reviewed research: According to a study published last fall in the journal PNAS, switching to telecommuting instead of working in the office can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 54 percent, even when including non-commute travel and energy use at home.

“It seems like a very obvious solution to a very pressing and real problem,” said Curtis Sparrer, one of the principal founders and co-founder of PR agency Bospar, a San Francisco-based company that

Employees have been working from home since the program began in 2015. “And I worry that this whole ‘return to the office’ thing is getting in the way of that.”

Many companies require their employees to show up for work in person on a regular basis. Last year, major tech companies like Google, Amazon and Meta asked their employees to come into the office three days a week or face consequences like reduced opportunities for advancement. Even Zoom, the company that became a household name during the pandemic with its video conferencing platform, is forcing employees who live within 50 miles of the office to commute two days a week.

Of course, there are many benefits to going to the office and collaborating with other people there. Face-to-face contact with colleagues gives you a social boost (without the awkward pauses of Zoom meetings) and is a compelling reason to change out of your sweatpants in the morning. From a climate change perspective, the problem is that most Americans tend to get in their cars for their commute rather than riding a bike or taking the bus. A recent survey by Bospar found that two-thirds of Americans drive to work—and most of them are gasoline-powered cars. Although the number of electric cars is increasing, they only make up about 1 percent of all cars on the road.

The climate benefits quickly diminish when employees are called into the office. Those who work from home two to four days a week reduce emissions by 11 to 29 percent compared to working full-time in the office, according to the study in PNAS by researchers at Cornell University and Microsoft. Those who work from home just one day a week reduce emissions by only 2 percent. Another important factor is that maintaining physical office spaces consumes a lot of energy because they need to be heated and cooled.

So should companies be allowed to claim they’re being environmentally friendly while forcing their employees to commute? Many Americans disagree, according to Bospar’s survey. Well over half of millennials and Gen Z-ers said it’s hypocritical for companies to celebrate Earth Day while requiring their employees to come to work in person.

Sparrer points to Disney, which celebrated Earth Month in April with a campaign to promote its environmental efforts but ordered its employees to report to the office four days a week last year. Nike, for its part, promoted its Earth Day collection of “sustainable” leather shoes, while CEO John Donahoe argued that remote work stunted creativity. “In hindsight, it turns out it’s really hard to create bold, groundbreaking innovations, to develop a boldly groundbreaking shoe over Zoom,” he told CNBC in April.

“We’re in a time of magical thinking where people seem to think this is enough, but it’s not,” Sparrer said. “And what frustrates me is that we’ve all had to experience what it’s like to work from home, and we know how it works, and we know how to make it better.”

Working from home could bring its own environmental problems, however. Recent research examining trends before the pandemic found that if 10 percent of workers worked from home, U.S. transit systems would lose $3.7 billion each year, a 27 percent drop in fare revenue. That’s according to the study published in Nature Cities, conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Florida and Peking University in Beijing. Some experts worry that working from home could push people to the suburbs, where carbon footprints tend to be higher than in cities.

Currently, there are many workers who want to work from home full-time but are forced to go into the office, Lister said. She sees the call to return to the office as a result of corporate leadership wanting to return everything to the way it used to be. “As this generation retires,” she said, “I think a lot of these conversations will stop.”

This story was produced by Ground material and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

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