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5 June 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 12:29pm

Could working less save the planet?

By Laurie Laybourn Langton

There’s a growing consensus that many of the problems fuelling climate change should be tackled simultaneously, improving people’s lives while rapidly reducing environmental impact. Yet increasing wellbeing often leads to more environmental destruction; more food, for example, results in the unsustainable use of soil, while access to high quality healthcare means deploying more diesel ambulances.

A growing body of evidence suggests that longer working hours lead to greater environmental damage, from increased commuting in dirty vehicles to people purchasing wasteful goods. These findings have bolstered campaigns arguing that a shorter working week could result in a range of benefits, from improved wellbeing to increased economic productivity.                                                                          

A new report from Autonomy, a think tank focussed on the future of work, has made a provocative contribution to the debate around carbon emissions. The report’s author, Philipp Frey, used OECD and UN data on the carbon intensity and hours worked in countries across Europe to calculate how much the working week would need to be reduced in order to avert climate breakdown, if other changes – such as the creation of more green jobs, or decarbonising energy sources – weren’t made.

The results are startling. In the UK, the working week would have to fall to as little as nine hours in order to limit warming to the planetary boundary of 2°C. Across OECD countries, the 40-hour average working week would have to fall to just over five. Reducing the working week, as the report notes, is only one tool among many that could be used simultaneously to slow environmental breakdown.

And while working less might improve personal wellbeing, there’s no reason why people with more time wouldn’t buy more single-use plastics and drive more petrol-guzzling cars. This is why other support mechanisms are needed to help people make the most of working less, such as a universal basic income and investment in the public realm to limit environmental damage.

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Policymakers implementing a shorter working week as an environmental remedy would also need to weigh this decision against the possibility that, in order to halt environmental breakdown, people may actually need to work differently, not less.

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Talk of a green new deal aimed at creating swathes of “green” jobs in industries that support decarbonisation around the world is one example of the work that may be necessary, particularly in nations that have contributed most to greenhouse gas emissions, to confront the enormity of the environmental crisis.

And rethinking both why and how we work should be central to overcoming environmental breakdown, while also improving wellbeing and building a more just society. More wealth has not, on average, made rich nations happier. Studies show that the better a country performs on a range of social measures, the higher its contribution to environmental breakdown – precisely the opposite of what we need.

These problems are characteristic of an economic system that prioritises GDP growth above wellbeing and environmental stability. The growing campaign to rethink work imagines a future where an elite addiction to growth is replaced by a collective commitment to social and environmental flourishing. That’s why it’s at the forefront of a growing movement of campaigners, workers and politicians seeking a new economy.