Here Pascal Paillé, professor of sustainable Human Resource Management, NEOMA Business School, discusses telework and ecology, and explores whether telecommuting is actually good for the environment
Brought back to the fore by the health crisis, telecommuting has gotten a second wind for reasons that are far from its initial purpose and continues to fuel various societal discussions about the work-life balance and its ecological stakes.
Tangible ecological benefits of telecommuting
A recent ADEME study has shown an overall positive outcome when comparing the costs and ecological benefits of telecommuting. One of the tangible ecological benefits of telecommuting is associated with personal mobility, which is a complex question that is only loosely tied to physical commuting from home to work. Telecommuting leads to a reduction in the carbon footprint of various forms of transportation, resulting in a considerable drop in air pollution. Satellite observations indicate a net reduction in pollution episodes on a global scale (source: https://www.futura-sciences.com/). Each year, air pollution is the direct or indirect cause of one out of five deaths in the world (source: Reporterre). It would clearly be an exaggeration to attribute this momentary decline in air pollution to the singular practice of telecommuting, but it illustrates one of the main ecological principles of telecommuting if it was applied on a large scale.
An indirect environmental burden
Summarising telecommuting from the single interaction of one person with his or her IT equipment does not really provide a clear outlook at the scale of the ramifications that the practice has on the environment.
This necessary equipment generates a carbon footprint throughout its lifecycle, a factor that cannot be overlooked. The use of a piece of equipment in a certain time and space is only one part of a much large process that stretches from the extraction of the raw materials needed to produce the equipment all the way to the equipment’s final disposal. The entire process represents about one hundred and fifty kg of CO2 (source: ADEME). The ecological costs in the equipment’s end-of-life processing must also be included, the volume of which is estimated in France to be twenty-one kg per person per year (source: businessinsider.fr), not to mention the consequences stemming from electronic waste and other plastic material. At the end of the cycle, this waste and material are sometimes dispersed into nature. This impact on ecosystems is sometimes visible but difficult to precisely assess.
Telecommuting also involves infrastructure use (networks, data centre, required energy, farms, etc.), which is responsible for about four per cent of annual CO2 emissions (source: planetoscope.com). This carbon footprint is just higher than that of air travel, which has been estimated at about more than two per cent (source: International Energy Agency). In other terms, the ecological effects of telecommuting are far from negligible when including the contribution of infrastructures.
Drawing a distinction between telecommuting consumption and user consumption
One explanation viewed through the perspective of user behaviour offers additional insight. In practice, telecommuting is in essence simply transplanting the use of a piece of equipment from a professional setting to a private setting. Whether a person participates in a videoconference, looks for something on a search engine or sends an email, the generated carbon imprint is still the same. Regardless of the location, an hour-long videoconference produces sixty grams of CO2 (source: Greenspector) and web searches and emails produce about seven and twenty grams respectively (source: ADEME).
Telecommuting’s potential ecological gains are more connected with user behaviour than with their level of environmental awareness, which is unequally distributed in the population and does not appear to be associated with a generational effect (source: Pew research survey). Even when offered compensation and fiscal incentives, the private sphere is conducive to a more moderate use of resources because the cost of their use falls under the individual’s responsibility. Research in environmental psychology has taught us that economic and social reasons most often prevail over ecological considerations. Moderate use of material resources can be a means to an end vastly different than an ecological one. While not using the camera during a videoconference limits the ecological impact, several other reasons, such as the desire for privacy, can explain the decision to turn it off.