Measuring the Gains and Pains of Homeworking… for the Climate

Last Updated 28 avril 2022

What are homeworking emissions? How does a company measure them? And how are they likely to affect different companies’ footprints? To mark the recent inclusion of homeworking emissions as a required emissions source for CarbonNeutral® company certification in the 2021 CarbonNeutral Protocol, we talked to two of our carbon footprinting partners to find out more.

Those of us homeworking will have noticed the changes it has caused. For me it was new plants rescued from the office, extra tea-stains on my table, an increased waistline from losing my commute and the creation of an office in a corner of my home. But how will these changes add up when it comes to a company’s climate impact, both in the short term and its future trajectory as the social impact of new practices is likely to alter homeworking vs. office working and business travel for good?

A clear definition of what homeworking emissions are is a good starting point: “The additional emissions that result from employees working from home, either permanently or temporarily, on top of a baseline scenario that would occur regardless of whether or not the employee was at home.”

Emissions from homeworking are a subcategory of Scope 3 Employee Commuting. They were previously a recommended emission source for CarbonNeutral company certification under The CarbonNeutral Protocol, as the percentage of homeworkers has typically been fairly low. With the dramatic shift in working locations in 2020 in response to Covid-19, and after consulting with two of our trusted assessment partners – Ecometrica and RSK – we adapted the Protocol so that the 2021 version made homeworking emissions a required emissions source for CarbonNeutral company certification.

A blurred background

With so many different homeworking set-ups and behaviours, how does a company go about calculating this, and keep the effort dedicated to it proportionate to its value? If you were one of many of us who found yourself talking to colleagues about when you turn the heating on vs. get a blanket, vs. (my preferred option) a hot-water bottle – that is what this refers to: your household’s increase in footprint will depend on your behaviour. As Charlotte Wylie, Senior Sustainability Analyst at Ecometrica put it: “We appreciate there are a lot of situations at play here, not everyone's jumper-wearing efforts will be rewarded.”

Our assessment partners navigate this variety and complexity by building processes to conservatively calculate homeworking emissions from the simple input of how many employees you have in each country and what percentage of their time they have been working from home for each quarter. This approach recognises that obtaining primary data at the employee level could be very time intensive. Of course, the assessment experts encourage you to go the extra mile and also consider whether employees buy green energy or what new equipment they’ve bought, because this information can also be factored into the calculations.

Assessment partners then input that data into the models they’ve created to calculate the footprint. Ecometrica used research from the UK Government designed to inform tax allowances to consider what extra electricity and heating spending can be attributed to homeworking. It found that 58% of a homeworker’s electricity and heating should be allocated to the homeworking activities. This enabled Ecometrica to develop its existing model for homeworking emissions that was being used in 16 countries, expanding it to produce calculations for countries where reliable electricity, heating and cooling data was not readily available.

RSK built a homeworking footprint for each employee day for different countries based on office benchmarks for: electricity from having a separate space, a laptop, monitor, lighting, broadband, appliance, or air conditioning in those countries where it’s used; heating, based on an assumption of a 15m2 space; waste; and water. It undertook extra research into the electricity consumption of laptops and household lighting.

These methodologies are two of many from respected independent emissions assessment providers. Wylie expects that the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard/WRI will produce more guidance: “I can't see how it won't be on the next list of revisions within the next year.”

What will it all mean for footprints of companies that have increased homeworking?

At its most basic, our partners estimate that homeworking emissions will add 0.3-0.6t in Europe and 0.5-1t in East Coast US, for each full time equivalent (FTE) working from home for a year. However, the change in your corporate footprint from homeworking emissions will most likely be far outweighed by the impact of homeworking practices on other emissions sources already covered in The Protocol.

Did you shut your office? Dominic Walkling, Environmental Consultant at RSK: “If companies permanently give up office space, any emissions from the office will not be attributable to them. But remaining empty offices continue to have residual emissions that should be accounted for – some studies have shown utilities bills only reduce by a maximum of 40%, meaning companies are paying twice for their footprint.”

Were your offices using renewable electricity? If so, even if you closed, footprints could increase as employees will likely use a mix of non-renewable and renewable electricity. As Walkling puts it “companies don't have their way over it” when workers are at home.

Both Walking and Wylie agree that for many services companies, the biggest change in footprint from Covid-19 will not be from the homeworking emissions but from the dramatic reductions in business travel and commuting emissions.

When it comes to commuting, the extent of the change will depend on how your employees were previously travelling to and from work. Wylie mentions the geographic differences at play: “European cities with good public transport will lessen the climate gain from homeworking given commuting emissions were low in the first place. Whereas in North America commuting is much more likely to involve lots of gasoline, so homeworking will have caused a big reduction in those emission sources.”

Shot in the arm? Will lockdowns lock in lower emissions going forward?

On the eve of lockdown in London, I heard Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, at University of Cambridge, speak about behaviour change and climate change.

“Suddenly, we're being told do you really need to go to that meeting? Do you need to fly there? If this goes on for three months I think it would be the best thing for climate change that you can imagine… People have forgotten, the most powerful way of changing behaviour is not to go in through the attitudes, but to change their behaviour, then the attitudes change and then they feel happy about their behaviour. So, this could be the biggest unintended experiment that you could imagine that could do more for the planet than any of the attempts by government.”

If only it had just been three months! It is of course, too early to say whether new homeworking, business travel and commuting practices will be a one-off wonder, become a new normal, or lead to something in between the two.

There might be new norms for company expectations on homeworking and business travel, depending on how they were viewed in the first place, and how the new normal was valued by all the stakeholders – work/life balance and productivity will be major considerations. But as assessments take place this year, we hope footprints will help inform those decisions and perhaps mean that, in the words of Julian Popov, "coronavirus is a severe blow, certainly; but it need not be a blow to our hopes of building a more sustainable future."

If you would like to find out more about becoming CarbonNeutral, or to discuss your environmental goals for 2021, please contact us.

We are grateful for input from Ecometrica and RSK, two of our assessment partners. You can find out more about how we work with our assessment partners as part of CarbonNeutral certification.