Is the Pandemic Good for the Environment?

The pandemic-induced shutdown forced many companies to change the way they work. Could keeping those changes bolster the environment?

Sandra Barrett
Aug 24, 2020 · 4 min read
Office floor in high rise with rows of empty cubicles
Office floor in high rise with rows of empty cubicles
Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash

Despite the horrible sickness and death suffered from COVID-19, there have been unexpected benefits for the planet. Developed countries, the biggest creators of pollution have had to slow down. And with that slowdown, came a massive drop in traffic and people going into offices. The initial shutdown also closed factories and slowed sales and demand for non-essential consumer goods.

The shutdown was widely proclaimed as catastrophic to businesses. But for many, that was because it was too hard to shift everyday work routines suddenly. Humans are creatures of habit, and they don’t like change. Especially forced change. Office workers are used to going into an office and seeing each other face-to-face during the workday. Bosses like “seeing” their people working to know that they are. Those issues were pointed to, even before the pandemic, as reasons why remote work wasn’t gaining much traction.

But the pandemic shutdown required many office workplaces to allow remote work or close. And from this forced experiment, we now see businesses acknowledging that remote work does work. They crunched the numbers and discovered that moving more of their workforce to at least part-time remote can save them a lot of money. And productivity doesn’t have to suffer.

Globally, a large part of the population is able to work remotely. A poll taken by Global Workplace Analytics found that 56% of people already hold a job compatible with working remotely. And a Gallup poll found “62% of employed Americans currently say they have been working from home during the crisis, a number that doubled since Mid-March.”

Some companies deciding not to go back to traditional workplace

Large corporations, such as Barclays, Mondelez, and Nationwide, are looking at closing offices globally as a means of cost-cutting. REI recently announced the decision to sell their new headquarters, without ever moving in. Instead, they’re opting for remote work and centralized offices. REI has long been a champion for the environment. This plan will help them cut costs and their carbon footprint.

This decision also provides REI with a greatly expanded pool of qualified candidates for positions. Working remotely will allow REI to hire workers from outside Puget Sound, a tiny inlet off of the state of Washington. Other companies would be wise to adopt this strategy to enable them to do the same. A larger remote workforce can also make it easier to build a more diverse and equitable workforce.

Remote work, done right, can be a great equalizer. This practice could lift many people out of poverty. Consider those who are capable of holding many of these positions, but couldn’t afford to live in areas that traditionally hold the highest paying positions. Take Silicon Valley, New York City, or San Francisco, for instance.

US EPA 2018 chart of total US greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector Transportation 28%, Commercial & Residential 12%
US EPA 2018 chart of total US greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector Transportation 28%, Commercial & Residential 12%
From U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Traffic implications

The U.S. EPA chart above reports transportation as 28% of the “2018 total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector.” An NPR article noted that in the shutdown:

…total miles driven dropped by more than 40% in the last two weeks of March…. The decline in late March appears to be without a peacetime precedent.

But consider that the pandemic isn’t likely to go away before sometime in 2021 (don’t shoot the messenger, it is just a hunch). If we continue to work from home, even partially, what kind of impact could that provide for emission reductions?

Emissions harming the environment aren’t just from personal vehicles though, we have also seen cuts from other types of transportation. Planes have been sidelined as passenger flights halted and later resumed on a reduced schedule. Companies had to cancel business travel, instead opting for video meetings with a much lower environmental impact.

All of these actions can, and should, be evaluated by companies who not only want to cut costs but also want to show they care about the environment. If they don’t need employees to come into the office every day, why go back to that way of working?

What to do with the commercial space?

It’s possible to convert commercial spaces to other uses, such as residential, especially in areas where housing markets are tight and apartments and condos are unaffordable. These areas disadvantage lower-income workers, yet they still need workers in retail, restaurants, and other service positions.

Repurposing commercial buildings could help the environment as well. Lower middle-class workers could take advantage of affordable housing, and give up long commutes. City living encourages fewer household vehicles, and gas consumption would go down. Once again, large cities come to mind, such as New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

Adaptive reuse of buildings instead of new construction can help lower environmental impact as well. Fewer construction materials would be needed, and they wouldn’t need to be shipped from factories and distribution centers, including those made by overseas vendors.

There are workable solutions for climate change. We just need to be flexible and creative to take advantage of them. Some readers may wonder why owners of these buildings would be willing to convert them at what may be lower profit. If the market for commercial space declines as companies switch to a remote workforce, adaptive reuse is better than vacant buildings.

Construction of new buildings comes at a high cost to the environment, even when built under green standards. Sometimes from a catastrophe, we get something good. If enough companies take action to change work practices, which then provides benefits to the environment, we will have gained this one bright spot from the pandemic.

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Sandra Barrett

Written by

Advocate for social justice helping others make a difference. Visit my website, read the blog, and sign up for the newsletter: https://makeachangeproject.com

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Sandra Barrett

Written by

Advocate for social justice helping others make a difference. Visit my website, read the blog, and sign up for the newsletter: https://makeachangeproject.com

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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