Does telecommuting help the planet?

September 1, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
High gas prices are making many more people consider working from home. The idea is to save some money on gas and as an added benefit, to be kinder to the environment.

But one Bay Area professor says, that's actually not the case.

"I'm not sitting in a car, and I love that," said telecommuter Tanya Henry.

Avoiding traffic is one of the many joys of telecommuting.

Henry works for a boutique marketing agency in San Francisco, but does her job from home two days a week.

Like millions of Americans who telecommute part or full-time, Tanya believes she's also helping the environment by driving

Less, so as a result, using less gas and taking a load off congested roadways.

"I also really like to not have to drive when I'm home on these days. I ride my son to school by the bike," said Henry.

But according to UC Berkeley engineering professor Arpad Horvath, telecommuting can also hurt the environment.

"So for example, if we reduce the daily commute but increase the non-work related travel, for example shopping trips or vacation trips, we actually haven't saved a whole lot," said Horvath.

For many years now, Horvath has been researching the environmental impacts of telework, and says that driving less does lower emissions, like carbon dioxide.

But the problem is many telecommuters end up driving just as much as those who work in an office running errands, or going to lunch meetings.

"The environment doesn't care whether we drive in the morning or drive over the weekend, what it cares about is we reduce the miles we travel," said Horvath.

At home, employees have to equip and power their work area, and often end up duplicating what's also shared at a company office.

All this extra electricity used in telecommuting produces energy-related emissions, like methane and nitrous oxide.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, nitrous oxide for example is 300 times worse for the environment over 100 years than carbon dioxide

"Our intent was not to label anybody good or bad, our intent was to give help," said Horvath.

That's why Professor Horvath and his research team also developed a web-based tool that can help you track the environmental impact of your telecommuting. The online calculator asks data about your use of transportation and electricity, and then it determines the type and amount of emissions you generate.

Horvath says smart telecommuting also means limiting your induced energy usage as a result of working from home.

Tanya Henry already happens to be one of those ideal, environmentally-conscious telecommuters.

Part of that is not you know running the dryer, not doing laundry in the middle of the day, not you know leaving the lights on, and really consciously being aware of not using you know more resources than I have to," said Henry.


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