Since the novel coronavirus struck last year forcing countries into lockdowns and social distancing measures, businesses and governments adopted new policies for working remotely. These lockdowns have caused an unprecedented experiment where more people than ever before have been teleworking to reduce the risks of spreading and contracting the virus.
While much has been written on assessing how teleworking is shaking up how we work, there has been little attention on how working remotely could contribute to achieving a sustainable recovery after the pandemic and getting to net-zero emissions by around 2050.
While the positive environmental impacts of cutting air pollution and fossil fuels from reduced traffic by commuters driving to work will be short-lived as economies reopen, there is huge potential for continued teleworking to contribute to achieving a more sustainable future.
Teleworking is a necessity for all regions and a viable option for some sectors but not all
Many of us fortunate enough to be able to work safely from home have seen how teleworking does not undermine productivity in those sectors able to do so. Teleworking, distance training and on-demand digital platforms have become more widespread in the region. Thanks to technological advances, a significant share of the workforce was able to keep working.
In LAC, around 25 percent of all jobs can be carried out remotely, ranging from 17 percent in Peru and Guatemala to 33 percent in Brazil and Argentina. In cities reliant on renewable energy and long daily commutes by car, this shift could have helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions and shows what a more sustainable future could look like.
Many workers feel they can also be more productive teleworking especially since they save time otherwise stuck in traffic. Likewise, employees of such industries are in a privileged position in this crisis compared to others that need to move to be able to secure their income.
Such is the case of those in the informal and gig economies. Close to half of workers in LAC are part of the informal economy. The International Labour Organization says that the region has suffered the largest percentage loss of working hours globally relative to 2019 with 16.2%, or the equivalent of 39 million full-time jobs lost. Women have been disproportionately affected since they tend to have more precarious and informal jobs, which had been hit hardest.
The digital gap has also adversely affected small and medium-sized enterprises. Although there has been an increase in connectivity in LAC, closing the digital gap remains a challenge in the region where only 53 percent of the population has Internet access, and only 4 out of 10 households have a fixed broadband connection. Millions of small and medium-sized businesses, which lack access to widespread quality and stable network services, have struggled enormously with the forced lockdowns. According to IDB research, 57% of households with a small business have had to close them.
Despite the negative impacts of the lockdowns on some sectors, the pandemic has also been an opportunity to advance labor reforms in the region. Countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Panama have implemented legal mechanisms so that teleworking could not only be an exemption or a possibility but could also become a formal modality of work.
Embracing a more digitalized society
As countries look towards the recovery phrase, they should invest in infrastructure, which can drive job creation and support inclusive economic growth. Investment in the digitization of infrastructure services, for example, can also increase income levels.
There are many opportunities to improve infrastructure, technology, devices and software we use to connect and work remotely. Building a more digitalized economy can help us get on a more sustainable path that leaves no one behind and eliminates regional disparities of digital access and coverage within countries.
If we embrace digitalization, we can rethink investments in traditional infrastructure such as roads and highways and reallocate resources to improve Internet access. A more digitally connected society translates into less need for road expansion and maintenance as fewer people would drive to work. More flexible work schedules can also reduce the demand for transport at peak hours and allow for transport services to increase the efficiency of infrastructure use.
This could result in reductions in congestion, air pollution and emissions. Transport is the largest and fastest growing source of energy-related emissions accounting for around one third of total carbon dioxide emissions in the region. While private vehicle ownership remains low compared with more developed regions, it is growing leading to more deadly air pollution. A drop in commuting and business travel could lead to a reduction in costs related to respiratory diseases, allergies, and other chronic conditions aggravated by pollution. Fewer lost days to illness would also help improve productivity.
The expansion of digital infrastructure and services can be a key economic driver and add tremendous progress and competitive advantages to developing economies. However, digital infrastructure comes with big investments needs. These will compete with other priorities in national and subnational budgets and will require governmental institutional capacity to attract investments, develop proper regulation, healthy markets and implement adequate supervision.
Governments and the private sector should be bold and look beyond traditional infrastructure and think about enhancing investments in digitalization. This infrastructure evolves faster and demands constant investments in research and development and in the updating of physical assets. This is important to consider as competition for limited resources will continue to be a major concern for the public sector.
It is key to strategically prepare a pipeline of investments and prioritize projects accordingly. Public investments must provide the intended benefits, in the best possible manner, and to the largest number of beneficiaries, and serve, as much as possible, as multipliers and accelerators of other development engines. The IDB’s Sustainable Infrastructure Framework is an essential tool to support the preparation of upstream planning and the preparation of pipeline investments, as well as to ensure proper downstream execution and delivery of services, throughout the whole life cycle of projects, up to their decommission.
The pandemic is a historic opportunity to rethink the future of work and shift towards a more digitalized economy including through teleworking for those able and willing to do it. This can contribute to a sustainable recovery and getting to net-zero emission economies.
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