You may feel bad about the days when you never leave the couch, but there is an upside to working remotely, watching Netflix, ordering food and consumer goods online, and lying around your house scrolling through Facebook. A new study in the journal Joule, spotted by Fast Company, finds that as technology allows people to spend more time at home, it's reducing American energy usage.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual American Time Use Survey, finding that between 2003 and 2012, people spent more time at home and less time traveling to and from stores and work. According to this data, Americans in 2012 spent a total of 7.8 more days at home than in 2003 and 1.2 fewer days traveling. That means they weren't getting in their cars and burning up fossil fuels to drive around town. And, if fewer people are working in offices overall, presumably those buildings require less energy to run (for example, they don't need as much power for lights or air conditioning). In total, the researchers estimate that Americans used 1.8 percent less energy as a nation because of this home-bound change in lifestyle.
Considering that these metrics are from 2012, it's likely that people are spending even less time traveling outside their houses these days. U.S. government data show that e-commerce has been a steadily growing portion of total retail sales for a decade.
There's reason to resist becoming a total hermit, though—and it's not just the need for Vitamin D or exercise. There are aspects of staying home that aren't quite so carbon-friendly—ones that aren't fully addressed in this study. You may be staying off the road, but the trucks delivering your groceries and goods aren't, and they require fossil fuel. Cities are currently overwhelmed with delivery trucks ferrying packages from Amazon, Peapod, Postmates, and all the other online services that people can now use as their go-to shopping destinations. The massive upsurge in people getting groceries, office supplies, home goods, clothing, and just about anything else delivered to their homes has led to an increase in freight traffic, because trucks still have to be deployed to get those packages to front doors. (At least until drone delivery takes off.)
Staying at home and watching a movie on Netflix instead of going out to the movies saves energy, but having your toilet paper sent to your home still requires some gas. Time will tell whether shipping services dropping off purchases, versus people going out shopping, significantly reduces carbon usage. One study found that results depend on whether the shopper lives in a suburban or urban environment, among other issues [PDF]. So enjoy your Netflix night, but don't get too smug about your Amazon purchases just yet.
[h/t Fast Company]