Can Working From Home Help Reducing Air Pollution? Experts Say Maybe.
Working from home as an alternative solution
The UK has been struggling with the air pollution problem over the past years. Despite the important regulatory efforts, the problem remains unsolved and it continuously threatens both the public health and the environment.
Air pollution can have devastating effects especially if the individuals are constantly exposed to it. Researchers agree on the fact that long- term exposure to air pollution can trigger various diseases, such as heart and lung problems, which may result in hospitalization or death. In London alone, where the level of air quality is the lowest, thousands of people die every year. And the numbers are only increasing.
There are several main causes of air pollution, but one of the major one is diesel cars, the production and usage of which have been increasing gradually. In addition to that, the vast majority of British are still commuting to work by car, which has a direct impact on the pollution. British loves their cars, thus they are reluctant to use public transportation or cycling when going to work, which only worsens the problem.
Within this context, doing work from home is considered as a possible alternative, which might in fact help controlling air pollution. Some researches suggest that working from home, at least couple of days a week, can help reducing the air pollution by 20%. This can only be successful when the great number of companies allow their employees to work from home.
This might help to reduce the number of commuters, which in return affects the environment positively and lowers air pollution risks.
Given the importance of the problem, we have asked some experts’ professional and personal opinion regarding the problem and possible alternative.
Alberto Gonzalez Ortiz- Project Manager, European Environment Agency
The most effective measures to reduce air pollution are those abating emissions at the source (that is, reducing the amount of air pollutants put into the atmosphere). So, in the case of pollution coming from traffic, reducing the number of circulating cars and the total emissions of every car are effective measures. Teleworking could therefore help to improve air quality if it reduces the number of people using emitting vehicles. Since, as you say, it is a behavioural measure, it can have also the additional effect of raising people’s awareness about air quality and how their way of living may impact on it.
Denise Carlo- Councillor, Green Party
Home working has the potential to reduce air pollution from vehicle emissions to a some degree. However, the downside is that people who work from home tend to compensate by going out more frequently. If they travel using walk, cycle, bus or rail, this minimises vehicle emissions, but if they undertake their extra non-work journeys by car, this clearly isn’t a good thing unless they use an electric vehicle (powered by renewable sources of energy).
Frank Kelly- Professor of Environmental Health, King's College London
The answer will vary (a) depending on location in the UK and (b) depending on wither the people who change commute by public transport or car. For example, many people who work in London commute by public transport thus pollution levels would only be affected if (1) thousands of people stopped using public transport and the number of buses, trains etc were then reduced in parallel or (2) only those who commuted into town by car switched to working from home.
Gary Fuller- Air Pollution Scientist, King's College London
It’s a good and interesting question but one that is surprisingly hard to answer. I think working from home could reduce traffic and travel in urban areas but it is unclear to me how well this works in practice. In terms of energy and air pollution people working from home might have to light and heat their home which could offset some of the pollution savings from travel. I’ve seen a short study that worked out break even distance where the pollution saved from decreased travel was greater than that emitted from home heating but I can’t recall the source for this at the moment. Many of my colleagues commute long-distances (Wales, Cornwall and Yorkshire to London) and working from home some days per week enables them to do this while maintaining a family life and without being exhausted. So it is unclear if working from home decreases the total distance travelled. Someone needs to put some real data to this to go beyond my perhaps unrepresentative observations.
Jethro Redmore- Director, Redmore Environmental
In my opinion increasing the number of people that work from home certainly has the potential to reduce vehicle emissions associated with commuter traffic, though clearly this depends on the mode of transport originally used to travel to work – reducing the number of public transport journeys would not have any beneficial effects for example. However, as the majority of people travel to work in single occupancy vehicles removing these from the highway network would have two benefits, first it would remove primary emissions from the vehicles themselves, and secondly it would reduce congestion which would increase the proportion of free flowing traffic and cut associated emissions. Obviously this opinion is from an air quality perspective only and does not take into account the practicalities and other relevant factors of home working, though in terms of atmospheric emission reduction, this can only be a good thing.
Paul Monks- Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, University of Leicester
As to many of these things you have to be careful re straight trade-off and look at air pollution in a holistic way. Air pollution in total is not just kerbside pollutant emissions but also those from power and heat generation. So while working from home might reduce cars it might increase home heating costs displacing pollution to the power stations. In many ways office environments served by public transport are relatively sustainable. The final question I would ask is what scale of home working would be required to achieve a change. I would imagine there is a practical limit.
Philip Flaxton- Chief Executive Work Wise UK
I think with 25 million commuters in the UK, any reduction in the 18 million who commute by car is a very positive step. Furthermore, when one considers the fact that annual UK Office commuting produces 19.7 million tonnes of CO2 emission, working from home once or twice a week presents a real opportunity to change our attitudes and thinking in relation to commuting and the environment.
Robert Watson- Chief Scientist at Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Reducing the number of cars on the road would clearly reduce air pollution, so greater use of mass transportation, car pooling and telecommuting ( working from home) would all contribute. Air pollution would also be reduced by using more efficient cars, e.g., hybrid cars.
Seb Dance- Member of the European Parliament
It can help to work from home. But we shall never eliminate all need for travel. Travel can have huge social benefits. Therefore I would want to see new technology to allow us to travel without poisoning the air.
As the experts reflect, working from home might in fact be a positive step towards reducing air pollution. However, since there is not enough research on this subject, we cannot conclude that it will definitely solve the problem. But it is definitely worth trying!
By Liliana & Serpil