Remote work is a huge opportunity for high-impact climate policy
No single activity contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than driving to and from work.
Amid the immense hardship of the Covid-19 pandemic, one unexpected bright spot has emerged: residents from Los Angeles to New Delhi are reporting unprecedented smog-free skies—the result of a drastic reduction in vehicle-based and industrial air pollution.
The vanishing of the daily commute has brought to light the burden of cars and trucks on health and the environment. As an intentional effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at low cost to society, policymakers and businesses should continue to encourage working from home for jobs that allow it, even after the coronavirus crisis has receded.
We now know remote-work policies can be more broadly applied than previously thought. Maintaining them would provide meaningful air-pollution, health, and well-being benefits to employees and communities, and business benefits through the talent-retention power of remote work and improved environmental performance.
The experience of the past month has shown the sheer magnitude of pollution generated by everyday life. Satellite data shows an astounding reduction in nitrogen dioxide—a pollutant primarily generated by cars and trucks that aggravates respiratory diseases—in the northeastern United States, for example, as state and local governments have adopted prudent stay-at-home measures.
Along with the reduction in nitrogen dioxide in the US, as well as in Europe and China, analysts are predicting an unprecedented reduction in associated greenhouse gas emissions. The US government predicts a 7.5% reduction in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, for example, as gasoline sales have crumbled by half despite record-low oil prices.
Of course, this is no time to rejoice. Many of these air-pollution improvements have come at an enormous cost to society: businesses are closed, and millions of jobs have been lost. But once business returns to normal, lessons from the pandemic can help spur innovative policies to reduce transportation emissions.