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Will working from home help save the environment?

New research shows remote working, reduced car commuting and effective policy design could improve the Irish environment

By Frank CrowleyHannah DalyJustin Doran and Geraldine Ryan.

Dr Frank Crowley is Director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre (SRERC) at Cork University Business School (CUBS) at UCCDr Hannah Daly is a lecturer and researcher at the SFI Centre for Climate, Energy and the Marine (MaREI) at the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at UCC. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Justin Doran is Director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre (SRERC) at Cork University Business School (CUBS) at UCCDr Geraldine Ryan is a senior lecturer in the Department of Accounting and Finance at Cork University Business School (CUBS) at UCC

A draft of the new programme for government between Fianna Fail, Fianna Gael and the Green party was released this week. It's crammed with a green agenda and a strong focus on transport. Some of the highlights include spending €360 million a year on cycling and pedestrian projects; a 2:1 ratio of spending on public transport projects and roads; reviews of public transport fares and promotion and training for cycling. There is also a proposal for the development of a national remote working policy to facilitate employees to work from home or from co-working spaces in rural areas. Many would argue that this unprecedented focus on sustainable transport and the environment by a potential incoming government hasn’t come soon enough and that it needs to go further.

To date, transport policies in Ireland for reducing road transport emissions have failed to address structural mobility patterns, which encompass the number and distance of trips people make and their choice of mode. Our transport C02 emissions per capita are 40% higher than the EU average. Irish cities are amongst the most congested in the world; Dublin is the 17th most congested city in the world and the 5th most congested in Europe.

The most common reason for making a journey in Ireland is to travel to and from work (66% of work trips are made in a car). One-way commuting times average 28.2 minutes, with around 10% of commuters spending more than an hour travelling to work in each direction. Transport accounts for about 40% of Ireland’s energy consumption. Private car activity grew by 50% between 2001 and 2018 and, despite efficiency gains in the vehicle fleet, emissions from road transport have grown by nearly 150% since 1990.

Even with policies designed to mitigate this growth (including a carbon tax and regulations to mandate and incentivize electric vehicles, biofuels and engine efficiency), the emissions from road transport are projected to grow in the future. This contradicts Ireland's European Union obligation of reducing emissions from transport, heat and agriculture collectively by 30% on 2005 levels by 2030. The Government's plan to reduce road transport emissions by introducing 840,000 electric vehicles by 2030 has also been widely regarded as implausible. Simply, our love affair with the private car is an unsustainable and growing problem.

The Covid-19 lockdown caused a dramatic change in mobility patterns. Within two days of the first stage of lockdown on March 12th, the number of cars counted by traffic cameras halved and car traffic fell by nearly 80% in April. Nitrous dioxide pollution detected from air quality monitoring stations halved, while it is estimated that the reduction in road traffic this year will reduce Ireland’s energy-related CO2 emissions by an estimated 1.5 million tonnes, representing 5% of all energy-related emissions.

Much of this reduced energy consumption can be attributed to a collapse in the Irish economy, workers being furloughed or made redundant or making the switch to working from home. As a result of lockdown measures, 34% of workers have started working from home. Prior to the pandemic, only 14% of the Irish workforce worked remotely in some formal capacity. Previous research has identified a high potential for many jobs to be conducted at home, particularly in the educational services, professional, scientific and technical services, finance and insurance, and technology sectors.

Remote work has often been proposed by policymakers In Ireland as a solution to the growing and unsustainable problem of mobility patterns and transport emissions. In 1998, the Minister for Science and Technology and Commerce Noel Treacy, established the National Advisory Council on Teleworking. But so far, remote work as an alternative to the office place has failed to reach its full potential, remaining marginalised by businesses and lacking appropriate regulation and guidelines.

As part of research looking at the impact of Covid-19 on the world of work, our new study examines the relationship between how a person travels to work, their ability to practice social distancing at their workplace and their ability to work from home. Using data from the 2011 Census, we examine if a person who commutes to work using one of the following methods - (i) walking, (ii) car (driver), (ii) car (passenger), (iv) motorcycle/ moped, (v) bicycle, (vi) bus or trolley bus, (vii) railroad or train - is able to practice socially distancing in the workplace and if they are able to work from home.

Our research shows that those who drive to work are less likely to be able to practice social distancing in the workplace than those who commute by any other means. However, these commuters are more likely to be in jobs which allows them to work from home than those who walk, cycle or travel as a passenger in a car or by motorcycle/moped.

Individuals who commute by train or bus are more likely to be able to work from home and to practice social distancing in the workplace than any other type of commuter. Since the perceived risk of contracting the virus is higher when travelling by train or bus, these commuters may switch to car commuting, which could have a negative impact on the environment. This is something policymakers will need to consider in the short run, as the economy starts opening up.

However, if the Covid-19 structural break to working location and mobility patterns for car commuters was to be incentivised for the long term, there would be potential to continue to reduce car commuting for work purposes, without a negative impact on employment outcomes. This would result in significant benefits for the environment, reducing the contribution of car transport to greenhouse gas emissions.

Although increased remote working can have immediate and direct environmental benefits, as seen during lockdown, policymakers would need to watch out for unintended consequences in the longer run. "Rebound effects" associated with people choosing to live in the countryside but working partially from home, such as an increase in non-work related trips, car dependency and a modification of consumption patterns for remote workers, could diminish any benefits. That said, with effective policy design, remote working could be a boon for the Irish environment.