Working From Home During the Pandemic Has Environmental Benefits — But We Can Do Even Better - The R

For many Americans across the country, staying home to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) means adapting to long-term telework for the first time. We’re doing a lot more video conferencing and working out all the kinks that come along with it.

While this particular situation is not ideal for many — for example, I’m currently writing this with an infant in a baby carrier on my chest and our almost-three-year-old belting “Let It Go” in the background — in many ways we’re playing out a real-time experiment on whether telecommuting is possible on a large scale.

The coronavirus will pass, but it’s looking more and more like remote work will stick around. This time has demonstrated that, despite the ups and downs many of us have experienced, telework works for way more of us than we knew.

Even before this we knew that there were several benefits for both employers and employees to sidestepping the office. Studies have shown that it can lead to increased productivity, higher morale and lower employee turnover. It can also reduce real estate and office operation costs for employers.

We may now also be seeing some larger societal benefits that make the case for taking telework even further. Our current situation has provided a window into how a reduction in driving, buoyed, in part, by a greater adoption of telework, could relieve some of the stress on our overburdened transportation system and help heal at least a portion of the environmental damage it causes.

Today, roads that would normally clogged at all hours of the day are virtually empty, even during rush hour. And the reduced car travel leads to fewer crashes and less air pollution, which harms human health and contributes to global warming. Air that’s usually cloudy with smog has cleared. Los Angeles, which has notoriously pollution-choked skies, could recently boast having the cleanest air in the world. And this year, experts predict, the transportation transformation will contribute to the largest-ever annual decline in global carbon emissions.

Clearly not every job can be done from home, and it’s not just commuting for work that has come to a halt during coronavirus lockdowns. In 2017 only around 28% of total miles driven were work-related. Even if telework continues or expands on a much larger scale, non-work-related car trips — shopping, recreation, visits to doctors, and the like — can be expected to go back to normal.

Still, telework’s potential for taking cars off the road can clearly have an impact on global warming emissions and air pollution. Just how much of an impact could telework have? As it turns out, the answer is a significant one — and with a few important steps, the benefits can be even greater and more sustainable.

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