As businesses grapple with return-to-work strategies – office, fully remote, hybrid? – a new UK study finds that a 32-hour work week could help fight climate change by reducing emissions more than 20%.
Using data from numerous government and academic sources, the report illustrates that shifting to a four-day working week by 2025 could shrink the UK’s annual carbon footprint by 127 tonnes of GHG emissions, address some of the hardest to decarbonize emissions from international transport and manufacturing, and reduce the outsourcing of pollution to poorer countries.
The analysis includes insights from existing case studies and research. For instance, a large-scale experiment from 2008-2009 in Utah with public sector employees showed that by eliminating Fridays as a work day, huge energy savings could be made by reducing the use of office lighting, elevator operating, heating or air conditioning. A study by the University of Reading – drawing on interviews with over two thousand workers and business owners – highlighted that two thirds of employers already offering a four-day working week say that their employees make fewer car journeys. A 2018 study published by Boston College University used model estimation techniques to review U.S. data over 6 years. The authors of “Working Hours and Carbon Dioxide Emissions in the United States, 2007–2013” concluded in their own words, “working time reduction may represent a multiple dividend policy, contributing to enhanced quality of life and lower unemployment as well as emissions mitigation.”
At the same time, the UK study notes the potential risks associated with a shorter work week. For instance, reduced working hours could lead to greater consumption of more carbon-intensive goods and services as consumers have more leisure time. Additionally, if work hours are reduced for individual employees but there is no change in the overall hours and days that offices or shops are open, then reduced working hours would likely lead to more employees being hired by companies to ensure the work is done. Depending on how working hours are structured, this could lead to higher levels of overall commuting. Finally, depending on the sector, it is possible that reduced working hours could lead to employers compensating for the tightening of their workforce availability by increasing the use of automated equipment, which could lead to greater energy consumption.
To ensure the full positive impact of a shorter working week are realized, the study suggests the adoption of several government policies:
- No pay loss.
- Provision green space, especially in disadvantaged areas, including new planting of woods and forests near urban centers.
- Promote the cultural conditions for voluntary observance of the extra day such as regulation of shopping hours or planning of festivals and public cultural, sports and community events.
- Increase funding for theatres and arts to encourage public participation.
- Expand libraries, community centers and sports grounds to offer more zero-carbon activities in local neighborhoods.
- Greater support for educational and training possibilities for adults can be combined with more free time to boost skills.
- To support a cultural shift away from carbon-intensive consumption, introduce policies limiting ecologically harmful advertising
- Provision more free and low-carbon leisure activities at the local level to support a shift towards more neighborhood-focused lifestyles with less commuting and more socializing and community building.