The most effective way to slash climate-changing gases and fossil-fuel burning is to electrify the economy, spending untold millions of taxpayer and utility customer dollars to help move people in electric vehicles and warm buildings with heat pumps. That’s the conventional thinking among many environmental advocates, although the process could take decades.

Over the past several weeks, though, another idea has been under discussion.

Because transportation accounts for half of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions, how about permanently shifting a high percentage of office work to the home?

Letting people work remotely, at least part of the time, could be a much less expensive solution. And it won’t take years to implement. The potential impact on climate-warming pollution could be immediate and substantial.

The idea has rapidly gained prominence because, during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s already happening.

The average Maine worker commutes 50 miles round trip. Reducing the miles driven by just 30 percent could keep 92,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each week, according to early draft figures developed for the Maine Climate Council. That alone could accomplish two-thirds of the council’s transportation goal for emissions reduction targets in state law, which are 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.

Such a decline could, on a small scale, perpetuate the sort of carbon dioxide reductions that researchers have found globally during the pandemic. A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change calculated a 17 percent drop in daily emissions in April compared with a year earlier – equal to more than a billion tons – as the world abruptly parked cars, closed factories and shut down offices.

“We are doing a rapid, large-scale experiment on what telecommuting could be like, what works and doesn’t work,” said Hannah Pingree, who heads the council and directs the Governor’s Office on Policy Innovation and the Future. “We’ve certainly learned that more people can telecommute than we thought.”

EXCEEDING THE GOAL

Pingree is waiting for a set of recommendations due next month from a working group of experts studying transportation strategies, such as more ride-sharing and public transit. Meeting the overall climate challenge is probably going to require an all-of-the-above strategy, she said. But Pingree also noted that Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order last fall asking state agencies to lead by example with policies that encourage energy efficiency.

“This is giving the state a perspective on what’s possible,” she said of the dramatic shift to mass telecommuting spurred by the pandemic.

The outcome will be of special interest to Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.

Berry introduced a bill last year aimed at reducing emissions and costs through telecommuting. The goal was to get 30 percent of the state’s workforce working remotely by 2030. That’s 10 years from now.

The bill passed as a resolve, and formed the basis for a study that’s now underway at the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services. The results are due back at the Legislature in October, and another bill will be crafted based on those findings.

No one could have anticipated last year that today, roughly 87 percent of the state’s 9,293 nonpublic-safety employees – and many thousands more in the private sector – would be doing their jobs remotely.

“Because of the way the state launched into working from home, this experience will help inform the anticipated bill,” said Kyle Hadyniak, a department spokesman.

Also pending are further-refined estimates of the impacts and obstacles around remote work. A consultant hired by the Climate Council’s transportation group was still preparing information in mid-May, according to Joyce Taylor, chief engineer at the Maine Department of Transportation and a co-chair of the working group.

Nationally, just 4 percent of workers were telecommuting prior to the pandemic. But suddenly, putting 30 percent of the state’s workforce at home doesn’t seem like a big stretch.

“The great irony of this pandemic is it has catapulted our remote work goals into the stratosphere,” Berry said.

The lawmaker said state government has “an incredible opportunity” to be a leader in remote work. Beyond reducing emissions, Berry said, it could improve employee health and cut costs, while increasing productivity.

“I don’t think we’re going back to the way things used to be,” he said.

NO SIMPLE SOLUTION

At first glance, it may seem obvious that driving fewer miles to work would lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But Jonathan Rubin, an economics professor and director of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine, said the calculation isn’t so simple.

“It’s important to remember all the places people travel every day,” Rubin said. “Travel to work is only 25 percent or so.”

Rubin, who has been serving on the Climate Council’s transportation group, said personal behavior is a complicated variable. People who work from home may choose to live farther away from service centers, for instance, and drive greater distances to shop and socialize. Another unknown is the impact of near-term job losses in a pandemic-induced recession. That would likely lead to less driving over the next few years. But researchers found that after the 2009 recession, vehicle miles rebounded and then hit new peaks.

“I’ll be studying this for years,” Rubin said about the pandemic’s impact on travel patterns.

Studies aside, two forces are key for propelling remote working in Maine, according to Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments. The first is large employers taking the lead; the other is increased government and private efforts to expand broadband connections.

Egan, who also has been serving on the transportation group, said she’s getting a firsthand look at the impact of remote work at her agency. Her 22 workers are busier than ever and highly productive, she said, and morning check-ins via the videoconferencing service Zoom are keeping everyone connected and engaged.

“In some ways, we’re in better touch across the agency,” Egan said. “It’s working great for us.”

The agency also has periodic meetings with municipal and transit officials from 18 member communities. They typically have to drive to Portland, but often, some can’t make it. Participation is actually better now, Egan said, by holding the meetings on Zoom.

“I think we’ll all be eager to go back to some office time,” Egan said. “But as an employer, we’ll probably offer two to three days when people are working remotely.”

But connecting workers who live where high-speed internet is spotty will be a challenge, she said. Rural residents also tend to have the longest commutes, with the associated climate impact.

Maine has a proposed broadband action plan to improve access to high-speed internet service in the state, and voters will see a $15 million bond issue request on the ballot in July for internet expansion in underserved areas.

In the 1930s, the federal government began a major investment program to help bring electricity to rural America, at a time when most farming communities lacked power and the economic benefits it offered.

 “Broadband,” Egan said, “is like electricity was a century ago.”

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