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Working from Home – Air Pollution over Winter

London Smog
29 October 2020

In one of the biggest occupational shifts in the 21st century, working from home is the new normal for most that work with a personal computer. How is this expected to affect our environment this winter?

Although there is always seasonal difference in pollution, the change that has seen offices close across the world could easily fool the majority into thinking that there will be less emissions in general this winter. Less people are commuting of course – this has been found to have a counter intuitive effect, as research shows home workers are taking more frequent drives to reach facilities away from homes in rural areas, where they might have had short journeys from their city workplace to meet these same requirements. Those that are commuting are more often choosing their cars than public transport, as advised by the government. Lots are happy with the changes to their routine and working environment, but that doesn't mean it's positive on a larger scale.


Gas Emissions and Air Quality

Many offices have re-opened since the initial lockdown with increased health, safety and hygiene measures in place. Some are left operational 24 hours a day, with lights, machines and heating left on where they are rented at a static rate, where night cleaners are common or as a theft deterrent. Although there are reduced staff numbers in most cases, this reduces body heat in the building even further, meaning we can expect them to be consistently heated over the colder months to come. 

That combined with those keeping their own homes warm as they operate in private has provided the basis for computer analysis that predicts a 56 per cent rise in boiler use this winter. Gas boilers and cookers account for 21 per cent of total NOx emissions across Greater London, so it's easy to see how this in a cause for concern. The report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) shows that this increase in energy use has implications for urban air quality, driving up NOx emissions by approximately 12 per cent in towns and cities, which is enough to offset the last two years’ worth of progress on reducing traffic emissions. There is a worry that this may breach the air pollution restrictions that the UK has set.

An update to the Environment Bill confirms responsbility on two targets for 2020:


  • the first is to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter in ambient air. This will deliver substantial public health benefits.
  • the second air quality target must be a long-term target set a minimum of 15 years in the future, which will encourage long-term investment and provide certainty for businesses and other stakeholders.


The Bill Committee will review and report again on the first of December.


Health of the People and the Planet


Compromises have been made during the pandemic in many ways, where the environment has suffered by re-prioritisation. The amount of disposable plastic used in PPE sadly contradicts the efforts against one-use bags and straws we have been seeing recently. WRAP UK found in Recycling Week via a survey that people were still making a good effort to recycle where they could in the home. Despite this, a report published shortly after by Rubbermaid Commercial showed the negative impact in commercial recycling, with three-quarters of businesses indicating current recycling efforts were not always successful. 

Nitrogen Oxides – specifically NO₂ – are the most prominent chemicals released in gas burning, and these act as a greenhouse gas catalyst with an impact comparable to Methane. A serious pollutant, it also contributes to acid rain and city smog. Multiple studies have linked air pollution to shortening life expectancy especially in those with heart or lung problems. Gas cooking equipment is a source of indoor pollution and can be an irritant in large doses without proper ventilation, causing adverse health effects over long durations – this also eventually joins outdoor pollution. Individuals and businesses switching to electronic alternatives will reduce the risks. In response to the much more common boilers, we can, of course, wrap up in warm clothes and use less hot water. Facilities managers have many options in terms of smart systems to manage their heating so that it is not left on all day and night.

NOx influence does fall second to that of Carbon Monoxide, both of which are emissions of vehicles. Campaigners are hoping that local councils will push ahead with Clean Air zones to help tackle the problem. Andrea Lee, from the environmental law charity ClientEarth, said to the BBC: "Road transport remains the biggest source of illegal levels of air pollution across the country. Evidence shows that Clean Air Zones, alongside help and support for people to move to cleaner forms of transport, are the most effective ways to slash harmful nitrogen dioxide pollution coming out of vehicle exhausts. The lockdown reduced levels of some pollutants but we're racing back to exactly where we were – people's health needs protection now more than ever."

Picture: air pollution in London.

Article written by Bailey Sparkes | Published 29 October 2020


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