Commentary: Telework could lead to environmental solutions

EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 29, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing, “Lessons Learned from Remote Working during COVID-19: Can the Government Save Money Through Maximizing Efficient Use of Leased Space?” Below is ranking member Sen. Carper’s opening statement.

By Sen. Thomas Carper

Good morning. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing to focus on some of the impacts of telework. I would also like to welcome and thank our witnesses for joining us this morning.

Sen. Tom Carper

It goes without saying that just about every aspect of our lives has radically changed over the last six months. As individuals and as a country, we have been forced to adapt to the “new normal” in our lives, from wearing masks and coughing in our sleeves, to practicing safe social distancing and much more. For millions of Americans, one of the biggest changes and challenges has been adjusting to the “new normal” of telework.

When it comes to finding solutions for tough problems, I often say that we should find out what works and do more of that. The sudden shift to implementing flexible work strategies like telework across the federal government has given us an opportunity to examine how those alternative methods actually work — or do not work. This is our opportunity to find out what works and do more of that. What we learn about telework today will fundamentally shape how we view and implement telework as a country, from now into the future.

One of the agencies under the jurisdiction of our committee is the General Services Administration, which operates federal building space. I hope that the testimony we hear today will shed some light about the use of private space, like people’s homes, during telework, which could provide new insights about how we operate federal buildings. With more than 350,000 buildings, the federal government is the nation’s largest consumer of energy. What we learn about telework today could help us figure out how to occupy and operate federal building space more efficiently and, ultimately, reduce our nation’s carbon footprint.

Another area of concern for this committee is the impact of telework on our environment — specifically on air quality. As our witness from California will describe in greater detail, across the country communities that are normally cloaked in smog are now breathing cleaner air and experiencing the positive effects of widely reduced travel.

For too long, we have witnessed the harmful effects of air pollution on public health and quality of life for so many Americans, especially those in our most vulnerable communities. I believe we should be doing whatever we can, as soon as we can, to reduce emissions associated with how we travel. That can include reducing travel demand during rush hour, through telework policies. It also includes reducing vehicle emissions through fuel economy standards and through the electrification of the cars, trucks and vans that we drive, the largest sources of global warming pollution in our country.

Another important way to reduce travel-related emissions is by investing in multimodal, low-emission transportation choices, such as transit, biking and walking. Put together, these policies of telework, transit, Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, and electrification can make a major difference in alleviating smog, easing congestion and reducing climate-changing emissions, both during a pandemic and later on, when this scourge is a fading memory.

As you know, Mr. Chairman, I often like to quote Albert Einstein, who once said, “In adversity lies opportunity.” I have been thinking about that quote a lot over the last few months, because our nation is facing tremendous adversity. While extremely challenging and tragic, this pandemic has also provided us with a real-life case study on the effects of reduced travel-related emissions. I look forward to learning more about how we can translate those successes into long-term strategies to help us address climate change.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal workforce issues, held a hearing yesterday on issues very similar to the ones we’re taking up today. I look forward to drilling down on it again today with you, members of this committee, and members of the HSGAC Committee as we continue adjusting to this “new normal.” Working together, I hope we can identify best practices that will maximize the use of federal building space, improve worker morale and productivity, and reduce harmful air pollution.

Thomas Carper, a Democrat, is the senior U.S. senator from Delaware.