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Four-day workweeks benefitting the climate

To fight climate change and create a sustainable world for us all to live in, we must revise the fundamental concepts of society. Through our everyday actions, we need to reduce our impact on the planet. Reducing the working week could be one way of doing this. In the UK last December, 70 firms took part in the biggest ever four-day workweek trial. This follows a trial in the US and Ireland over six-months with 33 companies that demonstrated a positive impact on employee wellbeing, productivity, and company performance. In the UK trial, 86% of the companies that took part said they intend to keep the four-day week in place after the trial ended. Several other countries have also run pilots with similar promising results, including Japan, Spain and New Zealand. But how does this impact the climate?

Slashing working hours could reduce carbon emissions. One study looked at the role of work hours in achieving environmental sustainability and discovered that if work hours were reduced by 10%, carbon dioxide emissions could drop by 4.2% with a carbon footprint reduction of 14.6%. Studies over the years have indicated that countries with shorter working hours are often those with the lowest emissions. Mark Weisbrot stated that this change in working hours could cause people to adopt more environmentally friendly habits as they have more time. While it won’t save climate change it could be a powerful contributor and enabler.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the transport sector is responsible for 24% of carbon dioxide emissions – three quarters of this is produced by road vehicles. During the pandemic we noticed the benefits of cutting down on travel and commuting as emissions decreased and air quality in cities decreased. In November 2021, a survey conducted with 500 business leaders and 2,000 employees discovered that if they all implemented a four-day week, the reduction in employees commuting would be over 691 million miles a week. During the abovementioned UK trial, the time spent commuting reduced by 10% with bigger declines possible.

However, we need to consider what people will do with their additional time off. If it involves travelling, then there could be adverse effects. The newly found time off needs to be compared with what they would’ve been doing to understand the extent of the impact.

A four-day week means businesses will be operating one less day, leading to potential reductions in energy usage as less resources are required to heat and cool buildings. In 2008, Utah state government ran a four-day workweek trial. Post the trial, a study reported that if the buildings were shutdown on Fridays, a decrease of at least 6,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide could be achieved annually. However, this relies on all employees taking the same day off and doing activities that have a lower footprint than at the office.

While there is the concern that out-of-hours activities may be more energy intensive, it is believed that when people have more time they make sustainable lifestyle choices – intense working leads to an intense life. The benefits to the planet and to people that working from home could have is immense. This solution to the climate crisis is different in that it is not seen as a sacrifice, instead people are getting time back to spend how they want to. It isn’t the solution to saving the planet, but it could help bring down global emissions.

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