The carbon footprint at home

Dominic Walkling, carbon footprint lead at environmental consultancy RSK on why WFH isn’t always the greener choice.

Last week’s heralded return to the office notwithstanding, the majority of businesses remain committed to the homeworking or hybrid model. During the pandemic, many of companies’ fears about homeworking have been allayed and they’ve seen many benefits, including progress towards the crucial goal of corporate emissions reductions. Carbon reporting is increasingly an essential business tool for all, not just those for whom it’s mandatory. As homeworking is now far more commonplace, homeworking emissions should arguably be included in every company’s carbon reports.

On the face of it, it seems obvious that homeworking is greener. It greatly reduces emissions from travel related to commuting. The thinking goes that businesses could make progress towards net zero by embracing homeworking and providing incentives to homeworkers staff to ‘go green’. Staff could be encouraged to switch to renewable electricity, to put on a jumper and hug the dog rather than turning on the heating.

Unfortunately, that’s not how carbon reporting of homeworking works yet. It can’t be that granular and it is difficult to incentivise in this way. We’re not going to be able to look at the carbon footprints of individual homeworkers, asking them who their energy supplier is and whether they actually work at home or go to Starbucks, and then concluding that Samir is greener than Becky.

It’s actually a challenge to work out whether Samir and Becky were homeworking at all.

Because companies didn’t know Covid was coming, very few had measures in place to record homeworking. Many have not kept records of how many staff were working from home and for how many days. Carbon accountants are having to look at how busy offices were and then make a best estimate.

Right now we’re about to start calculating the carbon footprint of 20-21, the year when homeworking swept the world. Like many carbon accountants, our team has spent the past year working out how we’re actually going to report it. We’ve done this by developing benchmarks that show the average carbon cost on a homeworker in different countries. What’s striking is how much it varies.

The daily carbon cost of a homeworker is higher in Cyprus, about the equivalent of driving a petrol car for 6.4 miles, and far lower in Norway, the equivalent of driving 2.9 miles. This is because Cyprus gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels, as do India, China and Poland. Norway, however, gets nearly all its energy from renewables.

We won’t be alone in using the fixed figures of the average daily carbon footprint of an average homeworker. This footprint of the average homeworker is likely to become recognised standard for carbon reporting. Sadly, the data scarcely exists to account for whether an individual homeworker has the heating on. The only variable in the homeworker footprint is the country the homeworker is in, whether heating or air conditioning would normally be used in that country, and where that country’s energy comes from.

When they’re faced with the cold, hard books, some companies may find that homeworking actually added to their carbon footprint in 20-21, for example if they’ve had to keep office buildings running throughout or if they took little business travel before the pandemic.

Some companies may even conclude the greenest option is to bring all workers into the office and to focus on making that office building as green as possible. Unlike the carbon cost of a homeworker, the carbon footprint of an office is controllable. You choose the energy source, and you can choose a location that staff don’t need to drive to.

Other companies may choose to employ homeworkers in countries where their average carbon cost is lower. That will mean that using cheaper homeworkers in countries with fossil fuel dependant electricity grids won’t necessarily be an attractive option. It may have a lower financial cost, but it could devastate your carbon bottom line.

As the corporate world makes the essential shift from to thinking about turnover to thinking about emissions, homeworking has the potential to deliver savings, but maybe not as much as we expect.

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