Following COVID-19 lockdown measures, many people went from working in offices to being unemployed or furloughed or working from home. We don’t yet know what future working behaviour looks like in the UK, but there are strong indications that many people will continue to work from home, even if there are no longer pandemic-related concerns.

New research by Future Climate for Environmental Defense Fund Europe examines how this shift could impact air pollution from heating, cooling and powering homes and offices, offering recommendations for how offices can keep emissions from rising as workers return.

Pollution from homes and offices

The pandemic has laid bare one of the by-products of modern living: the air pollution created by our day-to-day activities. Air pollution has a detrimental impact on health and is attributable to the early death of thousands of people in the UK.

Much has been said about how the lockdown-related reduction in traffic and congestion in UK towns and cities led to lower levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. We have not heard as much about the pollution that comes from buildings – namely air pollution created by the way we heat and power our homes and businesses.

Across the UK, NO2 pollution from heating and powering buildings is one of the main sources of air pollution alongside road transport, manufacturing and construction. Proportions vary depending on where you are in the country and in some areas building emissions are the main source. For example, in central London buildings are the largest source of NO2 emissions – 10% higher than emissions from road transport.

An increase in home working

Data reveals that those working from home in the UK went up from 6% in January 2020 to 41% in April. Although many people were no longer going into offices, office energy consumption shrank by only 16% during that time.

With more people at home, the use of boilers in domestic settings also increases, resulting in higher NO2 emissions from residential buildings. The research by Future Climate estimates that NO2 pollution from the average home could increase by 3-5% on average. In London, where there is a higher proportion of home workers, the increase could be as much as 7%, which could result in higher gas bills as well.

Returning to the office

As restrictions ease and those of us who have been unable to work or have been restricted to working from home return to offices, people are looking at how we can do so safely.

Ventilation guidance – intended to make buildings safer to reduce the chance of virus transmission – could lead to a rise in energy usage if not managed well and, in turn, a rise in pollution. For example, the guidance advises facility managers to avoid energy-saving settings and to run ventilation units two hours before office use. Carbon Intelligence, sustainability experts that help companies move toward zero-carbon, estimates that these sorts of measures could increase energy demand in offices by 70-90%.

Additionally, since office energy consumption only went down slightly during lockdown measures, it is likely consumption will return to normal levels or higher – even before you consider the ventilation guidance.

Carbon Intelligence highlights short-term recommendations for facility managers to reduce heat and energy needs, operating costs and pollution, including:

  • Ensure that scheduling of heating and ventilation systems match the building’s occupancy, e.g. reducing operation during out-of-office hours.
  • Ensure that boiler combustion systems are calibrated to maximise efficiency at low firing rates during times of reduced demand.
  • In less occupied areas, consider providing comfort heating with standalone units (e.g. radiant heaters or fans) to avoid the need for central heating/cooling plant operation.

A healthier future

With many offices buildings still not back at full occupancy, this could also be a good time to think more long-term and invest in low-pollution heating systems. Heat-pumps, geo-thermal energy and solar collectors are all supported by the government’s non-domestic renewable heat incentive and have zero local emissions.

In the recovery from COVID-19, everyone wants safe ventilation and cleaner air to stay healthy. Changing dynamics likely mean more people working from home in the UK, while offices use the same or more heat and power even with fewer people. By taking short and longer-term measures to prevent a rise in air pollution, building and facilities managers can help protect people’s health.