Between not having to commute to the office and not having to shiver in overly air-conditioned rooms once arriving there, it’s no wonder that the home office has a significant effect on the carbon emissions of working life. According to a study published on September 18 in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” fully remote workers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by up to 58% compared to on-site workers.
While reduced carbon emissions have a net benefit for society, the study shows that there are other benefits that these more climate-friendly remote workers gain — and much like eating organic, local food or driving an electric car, they’re much more readily available to people who are predominantly white and well-off.
The PNAS study, which looked at a range of work situations, found that office energy use is the largest source of carbon emissions for on-site and hybrid workers. For fully remote workers, the largest source of emissions came not from work but “non-commute-related travel.”
“Specifically,” the study reads, “we observe substantially more total travel miles for remote workers to drop off/pick up friends, conduct recreational activities, visit healthcare facilities, visit friends/relatives, and exercise.”
In other words, not working in the office frees people up to have richer family and social lives, and, it can be assumed, a better work-life balance — and still with a much smaller carbon footprint even with the increase in recreational travel.
So, who are the workers living these more sustainable, rewarding lives thanks to remote work?
A study published last year found that 22% of workers were fully remote in the first year or so of the pandemic — but white workers were overrepresented at 24%, while just 19% of Black workers and 14% of Latinx workers were remote.
Why is this the case? “This study demonstrated that around 80% of the difference in teleworking between White workers and Black and Hispanic workers could be explained by differences in four-year college education and occupation,” according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blog post.
The CDC noted that “the percentage of Black workers with a four-year college education was 27% lower” than their white peers.
You probably don’t need the CDC to tell you what you see in the community: Black folks are overrepresented in jobs that don’t require a college diploma, like healthcare support, transportation, protective services, and building maintenance jobs. It seems the racial disenfranchisement baked into the nation’s education system has a trickle-down effect on climate change.
And, thanks to the racial wealth gap and housing segregation, Black folks can’t always live close to work, which leaves plenty of drive time for more toxic car emissions to spew out of tailpipes during long commutes.
An analysis published in 2022 by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on the racialized difference in commute times found that “Black commuters who drive to work face longer commutes than White drivers even when both groups have similar demographic characteristics (such as income levels and educational attainment).” The findings “reflect an embedded race-based marginalization by which Black drivers are likely to live farther away from their jobs than White workers.”
So, as we saw in that first year of the pandemic, the difference between working remotely and working on-site could be deadly (and still can, though to a much lesser degree), as the far higher COVID-19 mortality rates for non-white Americans showed. While a smaller carbon footprint and a richer social life are less stark advantages to remote work compared to…continuing to be alive, they’re still advantages that everyone should be able to enjoy.