How much cleaner is the air if most of us work from home every day?

A blog written in relation to C4C's 100% remote work policy in Jakarta, currently one of the most polluted cities in the world.

By Kedung Soejaya
October 03, 2023
In the days when remote work has become more accessible and necessary than ever, the benefits of working from anywhere are undeniable. Communication for Change (C4C) firmly believes that this newfound flexibility enhances work effectiveness and tackles the woes of daily commuting in Jakarta. This shift allows individuals to plan their work hours according to their rhythms, creating a healthier work-life balance1. The morning person type can seize the morning hours, while night owls can be more productive at night while maintaining productivity and sanity.

The positive impact on mental well-being is significant, which has been clear since the pandemic. Remote work allows people to balance their personal and work lives better, which reduces stress and makes them feel happier overall. However, there are some concerns, as with any new way of working. One big concern is productivity, especially after the pandemic. The other concern is about social life. Many young people, especially Gen Z, really value talking to others while they work because it's essential for their well-being. Science has shown that talking to people directly helps us stay healthy, reduces stress, and gives our lives meaning2. To address this, C4C makes sure we have perfect working tools and arrange both online and in-person meetings so we can still talk to each other and stay connected even when we're not in the same place.
Jakarta in the summer of 2023 is one of the most polluted cities in the world
Recent weeks have brought a dark reality about Jakarta—the alarming levels of pollution. Jakarta consistently ranks among the most polluted cities globally3, causing respiratory distress and infections among its residents. The city's polluted air has triggered extensive discussions among the government, media, activists, and the public. The magnitude of the issue has attracted significant attention. Even some of my friends flew across the city, in search of better air quality.

Although recent rains and the ASEAN conference have temporarily alleviated the situation by encouraging remote work and online education, the underlying problem remains. Without substantial changes, the situation will deteriorate further, demanding revolutionary actions from the government, such as reducing coal burning at power plants or imposing strict limits on cars and motorcycles.

Measuring the extent of air pollution requires the use of the Air Quality Index (AQI), which quantifies air pollution levels based on the concentration of five key pollutants. Ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are the primary components used to calculate AQI4. This index ranges from 0 to 500, with higher values indicating heightened pollution levels and greater health risks. The AQI is derived from pollutant concentrations over a specified timeframe, with the highest sub-index value determining the overall AQI for that location and time.

The contribution of each pollutant to the AQI varies depending on the location and time period. Urban areas typically experience elevated AQI levels due to primary pollutants like particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Conversely, rural regions often see high AQI values primarily driven by pollutants such as ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM2.5). As we focus on Jakarta, we'll investigate how restricting our mobility can influence the particulate matter (PM).
Do you know that particulate matter decreases life expectancy by up to 3 years globally? Do you believe that being inside a car while driving provides 100% protection from particulate matter?
A compelling study conducted in January 2021 across ten global cities by 24 scientists from renowned research institutes, including GCARE UK, the School of Architecture at Southeast E-University in Nanjing, and the Stockholm Environment Institute in Nairobi, highlights a surprising revelation. Sitting inside a car with closed windows exposes individuals to the second-highest levels of particulate matter inhalation, trailing only behind driving with open windows5. This occurs due to the recirculation of air within the car when the fan is on.

So, how much particulate matter enters our lungs while we're in a moving car? On average, it's four to eight times higher compared to staying indoors in a non-ventilated room. This shocking fact underscores the misconception that being inside a car offers protection from outdoor air pollution.
Then, what do we do now?
While it may be impossible to eliminate daily movement entirely in Jakarta, this situation pushes us to limit our activities and advocate more for remote work. If outdoor movement is unavoidable, public transportation, such as buses or trains, is a more environmentally conscious choice. So, if you ask, "How much cleaner is the air when working from home?" the answer may be elusive. However, by decreasing unnecessary movement, you not only reduce your contribution to a worsening Air Quality Index but also protect your lungs from hazardous pollutants. It's a small change that can have a significant impact on both personal health and the environment.
Kedung Soejaya
Written by
COO and Partner

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