Does Working From Home Benefit the Environment?

by Seth Brown

I work from home. As I commute up the stairs to my home office, I confess to a certain smugness. Steaming coffee in hand, I think of those poor souls and their wasteful commutes, trudging out in the snow to scrape windshields, or those who commute from suburb to city. One of Lullabot’s clients, let’s call him John, commutes 2.5 hours one way by train and subway from Succasunna, NJ, to 30 Rockefeller Center. Every. Single. Work day. That’s close to 1,200 hours of commute time each year. To meet with John, as I do frequently, I merely walk up the stairs and spin up a Google Hangout.

But this smugness extends beyond the time savings. I’ve always assumed that not using a car to get to work—not even owning a second car—put me squarely atop the moral high ground when it came to the environment. I’ve long harbored the belief that the communication tools and techniques we’ve pioneered in distributed companies like Lullabot will eventually enable all knowledge workers to work from home. And, together, we’ll save winter. I live near Aspen, Colo., after all.

According to the most recent US Census, about 4% of the US workforce telecommutes and that number is rapidly growing. That keeps a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. A 2007 IBM study showed that having a distributed workforce saved the company five million gallons of fuel, preventing more than 450,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. Companies like Aetna, Dell, and Xerox use their telecommuting programs to market their environmental credentials.

But what does this all mean? Does telecommuting actually make an impact or does the need to heat and cool a house that would otherwise be empty during the day offset the savings? What about having to fly to meetings and company retreats? Does living in a lifestyle destination like the Roaring Fork Valley with our relatively low population density help or hurt?

To explore these questions, I called on one of Lullabot’s clients, Lisa Altieri, president of GoCO2Free, a Palo Alto-based company that is working with the cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Fremont to reduce their carbon footprint. She’s been working with Lullabot Juan Olalla to build a new carbon calculator that will help each household quantify their footprint. Altieri helped me do the math.

The Commute

According to the most recent US Census data, the average worker commutes for 50 minutes a day over an average of 32 miles. Burning a pound of gasoline produces about 19.4 pounds of CO2. What?! Taking a very dense form of energy, a hydrocarbon like octane (C8H18), and burning it for energy adds a lot of weighty oxygen. (Remember combustion is just really, really fast oxidation.) The result of burning one of these octane molecules—remembering the law of conservation of mass—is eight molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nine molecules of water (H2O). Turns out this carbon dioxide is heavy, voluminous stuff. But 19.4 pounds isn’t the extent of CO2 burned. We also have to factor in the energy used to extract the crude oil, transport it, refine it, and then transport it again. Taking this “embodied energy” into account, Altieri gave me the constant of 28.3 pounds of CO2 emitted per gallon of gasoline used.

So, back to our math. A typical American probably works 235 days per year. If we multiply that by our average commute of 32 miles we get 7,520 miles. My Chrysler Town & Country gets a pretty average 25 mpg, meaning I’m saving about 300.8 gallons of gasoline by not commuting, or (multiplying by our constant), I’m preventing about 8,513 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. To calculate your own carbon footprint exactly (taking into account your model of car, energy usage, etc.) try the following calculator.

Burning 128 gallons of gasoline produces enough CO2 to fill the Washington Monument, and I’m saving more than twice that! I’m feeling pretty smug about saving all that smog. But hold on…

Heating the House

To work from home, I have to stay warm in the winter by heating my 1,484-square-foot home with our inveterate 1974 Slant | Fin stainless steel boiler. Despite what Harry and Lloyd say, Aspen is not warm. As you can imagine, this is less efficient than heating an office with many people occupying a small space. In fact, the average North American office employee occupies 150 square feet, so about 1/10th of the space.

Altieri instructed me to subtract the total “therms” from my July natural gas bill from the total on my January bill to get the extra therms I use just for heating. What the heck is a therm? Apparently it’s enough for English majors like me to just grab these handy numbers from our bill and then multiply by the constant 17.4 pounds of CO2 per therm. So I multiply the 90 therms I use to heat the house in winter, times five cold months, times 17.4 pounds of CO2 per therm. That yields 7,830 pounds of CO2. I can subtract the 1/10th I might have used if I was in an office to derive 7,047 pounds of CO2.

But, I’d have to heat my house anyway in the winter, right? But let’s say I’m parsimonious and turn down the heat during the day. The average worker is away from home about 50 hours a week, taking into account commuting, lunch and working hours. That’s about 30 percent of the time. So claiming 30 percent of that 7,047 as my carbon footprint, I use an extra 2,114 pounds of CO2.

So I’m still feeling good about myself for telecommuting with a net savings of—8,513 (no commute) minus 2,114 (extra heat)—6,399 pounds of CO2.

Air Travel

What about air miles, Altieri asked me? Ruh roh! Turns out flying is the cardinal carbon sin of modern life. For every mile of air travel, figure about .58 pounds of CO2 emissions, says Altieri. I get together with other Lullabots at four retreats per year. Assuming the pattern of two retreats on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and one in the Midwest, I’m probably traveling around 10,000 air miles per year that can be directly attributed to working for a distributed company. Plus, shorter flights, like my favorite Aspen-to-Denver trip, result in greater emissions per mile because a larger portion of the trip is spent in the energy-intensive takeoff and landing. Suddenly, I’ve got another 5,800 pounds of carbon footprint to worry about.

Living the Dream

Finally, there’s life in the Roaring Fork Valley, with its relatively low population density. Dense urban areas tend to have much lower per capita emissions than less dense ones. Turns out our zip code in Carbondale, 81623, comes in way above the already astronomical US average carbon footprint. Carbondale residents average an annual carbon footprint of 57.8 metric tons of CO2, whereas the American household average (astronomical by world standards) is 48 metric tons of CO2, about 20% higher.

Carbondale Emissions

I used the carbon calculator on Terrapass to calculate my total carbon footprint in a given year and came up with 36,585 pounds of CO2. I have to assume this is about 20% higher than if I lived in an area with average population density where knowledge worker jobs are usually found, which means another 7,317 pounds of carbon.

In my example, living the “distributed” workforce lifestyle means a net increase of 6,718 pounds of CO2 are being pumped into the atmosphere. That's not a blanket condemnation of working from home as each person's situation will vary, but I'm guessing additional air travel will offset many of the benefits of not having a commute. Smug smile wiped off my face, I turn to Altieri for absolution.

Sounds like it’s time to purchase some offsets, she says, referring me to Terrapass. I could either plant 426 urban trees, which sounds time consuming, or purchase offsets at $5.95 per 1,000 pounds of CO2 or about $42 worth. Terrapass uses the money to do things like buy anaerobic digesters for animal waste, to capture landfill gas, and to derive clean energy from wind power.

Altieri also suggested that I could cut my impact by looking up my local utility provider to see if they have a local renewable energy pool. While this may increase your power bill a bit, it’s likely the single simplest way to reduce your carbon footprint short of buying a plugin electric car. Perhaps a Tesla Model 3 will absolve my sins?

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