A new way of working: why we should consider flexible working post-COVID-19, for the sake of the environment

Climate change poses a serious long-term threat to our planet and lives. It is often quoted that reducing travel and switching to a more plant-based diet are the two factors one can change in their personal life to have the greatest reduction in their carbon footprint, benefitting the environment. We have all faced changes to our daily lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly towards our working arrangements and subsequent reduction in travel. It is now worth considering if there are new habits that we can maintain, that will help us recover from the pandemic in a way that contributes long-term to a better future for the planet.

Transport is one of the biggest contributors to carbon-dioxide emissions, one of the greenhouse gases heavily responsible for harmful climate change. In the official UK government statistics from 2018, a staggering 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK were from the transport sector, almost entirely consisting of CO2. This was the leading contributor to overall greenhouse gas emissions, outweighing even energy supply which contributed 23%. Furthermore, as detailed in the statistics, the majority source of these emissions was from road transport, particularly from passenger cars.

A breakdown from the University of Leeds in 2012 shows that the most significant proportion of transport emissions are from personal transportation, as opposed to transport of food or clothes, or other factors. This emphasises that personal journeys taken in cars can have the greatest negative impact on climate change, rather than the arguably necessary use of freight transportation to deliver goods. It is well-known that changing our travel habits can reduce this impact by lowering the number of polluting cars on the road, whether that’s by utilising car shares, switching to alternative modes of transport, or simply travelling less.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how quickly we can make changes in our lives.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, there appears to have been an extreme reduction in traffic levels due to the number of people working from home, and generally travelling less, during lockdown. Most major companies across a range of sectors have enabled a flexible routine and encouraged working from home during the pandemic, thus people have not needed to commute to work daily like usual. Whilst the long-term environmental benefits of this are not clearly known, satellite images over major cities have shown reduced levels of a range of air pollutants during lockdown, demonstrating the immediate reduction in harmful gases. If this immediate drop can be sustained, there will surely be longer-term environmental benefits regarding the amount of detrimental greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Furthermore, from the figures above it is abundantly clear that reducing the percentage contribution of the domestic transport sector to the UK’s overall carbon footprint would have a massively beneficial impact. On an international level, whilst the statistics are not as transparent, reducing air travel could also be beneficial for the environment.

Is there something we can learn about our change in behaviours during lockdown that can help us tackle climate change in the longer-term? It certainly seems so. In a recent letter to the prime minister, the Committee on Climate Change, an independent advisory committee for building a low-carbon economy, highlighted that adapting to climate change should be a key part of rebuilding after the COVID-19 crisis and outlined six key points to do so. Importantly, one point was shifting long-term behaviours to set new social norms related to travel: by encouraging home working, increasing remote appointments, and providing infrastructure for more environmentally friendly transport, such as cycling. A report produced by the Committee in 2019 highlights that to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, changes need to come at the societal level, meaning these behavioural changes need to be in our everyday lives, to be aided by low-carbon technologies.

A recent article by the Carbon Trust suggests that until now, it was thought that changes to help the climate change crisis would have to happen slowly, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how quickly we can make changes in our lives. From working from home daily lessening the need for road transport, to replacing international air travel with video-conferencing, there are significant changes that have obvious climate benefits and have been rapidly implemented, that could be sustained.

A more flexible working lifestyle, not returning to everyday commutes and considering whether meetings can be taken online, are factors that will help to bring down our carbon footprint

As well as reducing emissions, flexible working could benefit well-being and productivity. In trials in some countries, a four-day working week has been linked to reduced stress levels, without impacting on the economy or productivity levels. Perhaps this is a possible option post-COVID-19 to reduce our amount of travel. Alternatively, a flexible working pattern and ability to work from home may allow people to reap the same benefits, by travelling into workplaces less and managing workload in a way that is tailored to personal factors.

Inevitably certain jobs such as vets, doctors, and manufacturers often require on-hand work, but many of us can consider working from home more regularly, only venturing into the workplace as necessary. Rather than travelling to conferences, we can also consider making the most of the online platforms we have used during the COVID-19 situation. If businesses can accommodate these new ideas post-pandemic, there may be many benefits, most importantly for the environment.

Tackling climate change is a task that will require approaches from many angles, but a good place to make an immediate start would be to build a more sustainable lifestyle, drawing from changes we have made during lock-down. Bringing in a more flexible working lifestyle, not returning to everyday commutes and considering whether meetings can be taken online, are factors that will help to bring down our carbon footprint from the transport sector, providing we sustain them. These changes might also create a more stress-free, accommodating working routine.

Sources and further reading

Title image by Penny Streatfield

Carbon Trust: https://www.carbontrust.com

Committee on Climate Change: https://www.theccc.org.uk

The University of Leeds ‘Exploring the UK’s carbon footprint’: · http://www.emissions.leeds.ac.uk/index.html (Homepage) · http://www.emissions.leeds.ac.uk/chart3.html (Chart used)

Government website page for statistics on climate change: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/uk-greenhouse-gas-emissions-statistic