Distance education and telecommuting can slow climate change

Although the recent IGI Global academic anthology that I am a co-editor of, Handbook of Research on Emerging Practices and Methods for K–12 Online and Blended Learning, does not mention climate change at all, in fact virtual schools can help slow down climate change. Teaching and learning from home, also known as distance education, like working from home, which is referred to as telecommuting, reduces carbon emissions by reducing travel.

As I have written previously, the United States emits over five billion tonnes of CO2 per year, almost a third of which are from transportation. Preventing transportation from occurring, therefore, is an important way to slow down climate change. Although an enormous amount of CO2 is nonetheless being emitted and has already been emitted, this does not mean we should succumb to the “all or nothing” fallacy and concede that it is pointless to do anything offering amelioration.

Research has shown that distance education produces similar academic achievement to in-person education. Florida has pioneered and continues to lead in K–12 distance education with Florida Virtual School, through which students of all grade levels can take some or all of their classes from home. Distance education is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is perfectly sensible for online learning to involve occasional face-to-face meetings and for a mix of online, face-to-face, and blended courses to be offered.

Although broadband Internet connectivity and computers are widespread, and many workers are now “knowledge” workers rather than doing location-dependent work, the majority of workers and students continue to show up in-person, and are often obliged to. Online work is perennially criticized for stifling valuable in-person interactions, but it is perfectly reasonable for many schools and firms to meet once a week or even biweekly rather than five days a week.

As a student and instructor at University of Central Florida, I have taken and taught the majority of my courses in fully online or blended modalities. Although I did elect to take mixed-mode courses several times, particularly in my Master’s program, even when fully online courses were available, the weekly or occasional meetings allowed me to make friends, ask questions in person, and participate in many educational projects. Commuting from almost 60 miles away in the Daytona Beach area, I was always aware that each round-trip emitted almost 100 lbs. of carbon dioxide, however (2,205 lbs. is a tonne).

Especially in the current strong economy, construction is booming. New housing, commercial buildings, and road expansion projects are happening everywhere. None of this is sustainable and much of it is ill-advised. Cement, concrete’s key ingredient, produces about three tonnes, or 8%, of annual global CO2 emissions. Steel production produces another 5% of CO2 emissions. Buildings, bridges, and roads are often made out of concrete and steel. Distance education and telecommuting can reduce the demand for cement, steel, cars, and fossil fuels.

Particularly in the United States, but throughout the world, most of the costs of driving a car are not assessed to the motorist. Of course, the carbon footprint and damage to the earth is not priced in, but also, the costs of roads and infrastructure are borne collectively by taxpayers but not charged incrementally. If these costs were all priced in, people would be traveling far less and clamoring for distance education and telecommuting. Any competent transportation planner knows of the phenomenon of induced demand, where widening a road results in more motorists miraculously turning out, making trips they wouldn’t have before due to congestion. Although Tesla drivers are helping reduce carbon emissions and increase production of lithium-ion battery cells, driving still requires roads made out of asphalt and concrete, and more driving prompts more expansion and repair of roads. Reducing travel is important.

Picture this: Children going to school one day a week instead of five, while the rest of their learning is done at home. Schools are much smaller in size, because each student has a certain day of the week when they go to school in-person and only about 20% of the student body shows up on any particular day. Children learn 21st-century skills while continuing to get valuable in-person interactions with other students and teachers, which are rendered special and precious due to only occurring once a week. Although parents previously relied on schools for childcare, now many of them are working from home too and only going to the office one day a week or even less. People are getting out for walks, talking with their neighbors, and organizing neighborhood events instead of driving out-of-town for work and socialization.

Going to the cubicle or classroom five days a week was a downer anyway, so people are now feeling happier and more well-adjusted while also emitting far less CO2. In Orlando, a massive freeway expansion project called I-4 Ultimate was just completed, but the 12-lane highway is never used to capacity and the congestion-priced toll lanes are producing little to no revenue. Attorneys for the 40-year public–private partnership to pay for the $2.5 billion project via toll revenues are currently working from home, drafting papers for a bankruptcy filing.

The recent, catastrophic destruction by Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida was a call to action on several levels. One of these was to improve the building codes. Although building codes have already gotten far more rigorous in south Florida to withstand higher categories of hurricanes, Central Florida and the panhandle have lagged behind due to strong hurricanes rarely if ever striking. Due to climate change, this has changed. Ironically, building stronger structures emits more carbon dioxide, which turns into a vicious circle. Wood structures are replaced by masonry, and concrete blocks become solid and reinforced with steel. More trees are cleared and structures must be rebuilt from scratch after each disaster, emitting even more CO2, while the oceans reach their CO2 saturation point and polar ice melts releasing fantastic quantities of CO2 and methane. It’s pure madness.

The CO2 situation is dire, and the idea of “slowing” climate change is not unlike saying we cut the U.S. national debt by merely slowing its rate of increase. But, we are not even cutting the rate of increase; in fact, 2018 CO2 emissions increased 3.4% in the United States in 2018. The levels have already been outrageous for decades and continue to go up.

When we are at school or work, our house or apartment, in whole or part, is going unused. When roads are expanded, peak demand is being accommodated at the busiest times of the day, while the roads remain almost unused at night and below capacity during mid-day. When a new concrete mega-church is planted to go unused and locked most of the week, with a massive asphalt parking lot to boot, it is a travesty. There are eight parking spaces for every car in America—a CO2 nightmare—but of course, none of them are ever in the right place at the right time. The time for distance education and telecommuting is now.

I know that schools in Florida are also used as hurricane shelters, but even if we were to stop building and replacing schools due to distance education, churches can pick up some of the slack.

Like many Bay Area workers, my mother lives near Fremont, California and commutes on BART to San Francisco, 4–5 days a week. She works for the San Francisco government in a job that is completely computer-oriented, but only gets to work from home occasionally. Although she fully relies on walking and BART to get to and from work, there are plenty of days when she would prefer not to get up before 7 a.m. and be gone 12 hours due to over two hours of commuting. No one can actually afford to live in San Francisco, so technology workers, teachers, and countless others commute from cheaper areas each day, to do work that could be done from anywhere. Why?

Automattic, Matt Mullenweg’s company that is behind WordPress and many other interesting and useful projects, has about 700 employees, the vast majority of which work remotely. (You are currently reading a WordPress-powered blog by a 27 year old who developed a popular WordPress plugin as a teenager, with over a quarter-million downloads, but then got bored with it and abandoned the project.) Although Automattic’s employees do fly to 1–3 meetups per year, which is horrible for the earth (there are no electric airplanes), in principal this fits with my idea of having occasional face-to-face meetings with most work being by telecommute. If you get lonely, you can always go to the nearest Starbucks, which probably isn’t much of a commute because they are almost everywhere.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my ideas here, many of which were regurgitated from other sources, although I have not seen many suggest distance education and telecommuting as a multi-pronged approach toward reducing CO2 emissions. As further reading, I suggest Losing Earth at the Pulitzer Center’s website.

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