How a 4-day work week could benefit the environment

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According to proponents, reducing the working week to four days could have a beneficial effect on the climate. As well as improving worker well-being, they say reducing working hours can reduce carbon emissions.

It’s what you might call a “potential triple dividend policy, so something that can benefit the economy, society and also the environment,” said Joe O’Connor, chief executive of the non-profit group 4 Day Week Global. “There aren’t many policy interventions available to us that could potentially have the kind of transformative impact that working time reduction could have.”

Over the years, studies have documented a link between fewer working hours and fewer emissions – the reductions which experts say may be the result of changes in travel, energy consumption and habits. of life. An analysis of data from more than two dozen countries from 1970 to 2007 predicted that if working hours were reduced by 10%, there could be declines in ecological footprints, carbon footprints and emissions of carbon dioxide by 12.1%, 14.6% and 4.2%, respectively.

A story of the invention of the 40-hour work week, the current burnout crisis, and the alternatives employers use today to attract their workforce. (Video: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

“The one thing we know from many years of data and various papers etc. is that the countries with short working hours tend to be the ones with low emissions, and the reductions in the working time tend to be associated with reducing emissions,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College who studies work, consumption and climate change.

For example, reduced working hours could affect people’s lives outside of work, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He suggested that this type of change could lead people to adopt more environmentally friendly habits. “They get used to a different way of life that consumes less because they have more time.”

But those benefits would depend on a number of factors, experts point out, including how people choose to spend their free time. It is also essential, they said, to remember that reducing working hours is only one strategy among many to combat climate change.

“No one is claiming that the four-day work week is a silver bullet that will address all of our environmental concerns all at once, far from it,” O’Connor said. “But can he be a very powerful facilitator and a very powerful contributor? I think it’s absolutely possible.

No one wants to be in the office on Friday

Transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, Schor said, “and commuting is a big part of that.”

In 2020, the transportation sector accounted for about 27% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The potential benefits of reduced travel and travel were perhaps most visible during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. When widespread stay-at-home orders were in place, emissions from driving, flying and industrial production were significantly reduced. Air quality in cities around the world has improved markedly, while global emissions have fallen.

Global emissions fell an unprecedented 17% during the coronavirus pandemic

Largely fueled by the pandemic, widespread adoption of remote and hybrid work models may mean many are already commuting less even if they work five days a week, O’Connor said — but the official adoption of a four-day workweek could benefit industries that are still largely in-person.

A November 2021 survey of 2,000 employees and 500 business leaders in the UK found that if all organizations introduced a four-day week, reducing travel to work would reduce travel overall by more than 691 million kilometers per week.

But the climate benefits of reduced travel could be negated, experts say, if people choose to spend their extra time traveling, particularly if they do so by car or plane.

Schor said it’s important for people to ask themselves, “What are they going to do on day five, and what is the power consumption associated with that, and how does that compare what they would have done?”

Shorter working hours could lead to reductions in energy use, experts said.

According to a 2006 article, if the United States adopted European labor standards, the country would consume about 20% less energy. And if Europeans gave up these shorter working weeks, the authors wrote, they would “use 25% more energy.”

“There is a definite relationship between production, consumption and carbon emissions,” said Weisbrot, who co-authored the 2006 paper.

Energy could also be conserved if fewer resources are needed to heat and cool large office buildings, Schor said, thereby reducing electricity demand.

When the Utah state government launched a four-day-a-week trial among its employees in 2008, a report predicted that closing buildings on Fridays would reduce emissions by at least 6,000 metric tons. of carbon dioxide per year, reported Scientific American.

However, any potential gains in energy savings depend on how businesses and individuals use resources, Schor said.

For example, if an entire workplace closes on the fifth day, it would help reduce consumption – less if the office stays open to accommodate employees taking different days off. Energy consumption could also increase overall if people spend their day off at home or elsewhere doing activities that would use more resources than if they were at work.

It’s possible that working fewer hours could lead some people to have a bigger carbon footprint, but experts say research suggests most people are likely to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.

“The majority view revolves around the idea that hard work often leads to hard life,” O’Connor said. “By giving people extra time, you allow people more time to make sustainable life choices.”

One theory, Schor said, is that people who work more and have less free time tend to do things in more carbon-intensive ways, such as choosing faster modes of transportation or buying convenience foods. “Convenience is often carbon-intensive and people opt for convenience when pressed for time.”

Meanwhile, some research suggests that those who work less are more likely to engage in traditionally low-carbon activities, such as spending time with family or sleeping.

“When we talk about the four-day work week and the environment, we focus on the tangible, but in fact, in a way, the biggest potential benefit here is in the intangible,” said O’Connor. “It’s in the shift from a focus on hard work to a focus on smart work. It’s the cultural shift in the way we work and the impact that might have on the way we live, and I think that’s the piece that’s really groundbreaking.

But the decision to drastically reduce working hours should not be made in isolation, he and other experts said.

“It doesn’t matter how many days you work if we’re still using fossil fuels,” Schor said.

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