In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate campaigners have reignited calls for a ‘green jobs revolution’ to simultaneously address rising levels of unemployment and meet our pressing decarbonisation targets.
While the transition from jobs in high-carbon sectors towards green and socially necessary work is long overdue, the same goes for addressing our damaging work practices. A new study published by the 4 Day Week Campaign supports and strengthens the established evidence that moving to a 32-hour workweek comes with both benefits for workers and for the planet. According to this new research, moving to a four-day working week with no loss of pay could reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by a whopping 127 million tonnes per year by 2025.
For comparison purposes, this estimate corresponds to more than the full carbon footprint of Switzerland in 2015 or the equivalent of removing the entire UK private car fleet from our roads. These represent significant and non-negotiable gains in times where unprecedented action is required to address the climate and ecological emergency. Alongside other key measures, the policy of work-time reduction with no loss of pay serves an important function in the transition to post-carbon societies oriented towards human and planetary well-being.
There are several ways a reduction in the working week would translate into climate gains. The research suggests that these environmental benefits would mainly come from reductions in energy consumption at the workplace, fewer carbon-intensive commuting journeys and a greater uptake in more environmentally sustainable behaviours.
However caution is also waged at the potential negative environmental repercussions from downsizing working hours, which could then be used to more high-carbon leisure activities such as flying on holiday overseas. In energy economics jargon, this is called the “rebound effect” and has long been studied by researchers looking at behaviour and lifestyle changes. Their research shows that the financial savings resulting from conserving energy, by switching to more energy-efficient appliances or changing behaviours, are likely to be spent on energy-intensive consumption purposes. As a result, these energy-saving gains would often at best be cancelled out or at worst lead to greater energy consumption.
This should come as no surprise given the extent to which our modern societies are modelled upon and culturally shaped by excessive consumerism. Rather than arguing for a reduction in incomes to mitigate those effects, there is a far more equal and emancipatory way to address this issue: by redesigning our social infrastructure. The report offers several avenues for change to meet this ambition. They include proposals that support a new model of life in society based upon planetary and human well-being and others aiming at phasing out the excessive and conspicuous consumption driving climate breakdown.
Investments in low-carbon transport infrastructure coupled with the greening of public spaces, greater funding for the arts and culture, the creation of community spaces alongside the provision of a universal basic income and free public services in transport and education would form part of the main pillars to build the necessary infrastructure for convivial, non-wage work and play. In parallel, the introduction of shopping regulations and the removal of corporate advertising from public spaces could further curtail consumerist pressures and incentives. Research evidence finds that there is a strong correlation between advertising pressures and the “work & spend cycle” whereby the more we are targetted by advertising messages, the higher value we place on consumption and the less we spend time for non-work activities. Besides, adverts – and in particular those for the most polluting products and activities – are responsible for fuelling mass consumerism and driving us further into climate chaos.
Together, this set of reforms would contribute to building prosperous climate-resilient societies and ensure that our time freed from wage-work can be geared towards social, human development and creative pursuits.
Ironically, those at the forefront of the struggle for climate action are likely to be prone to long working hours and stressful work practices. Overwork and burnout is too often a common denominator among those in the NGO and charity sector. A lack of funding coupled with expectations that workers’ passion for the cause they serve justifies being subject to an intense rhythm of work and excessively long working hours is part of the problem. But if running workers into the ground is counterproductive in all instances, those organisations active in the climate and environmental field should certainly think twice about the kind of work practices they promote. The charity Stopaids is proof that the sector would strongly benefit from implementing a four-day week without a loss of income. As its Director, Mike Podmore, concedes “staff often drive themselves to go above and beyond at work because, as change-makers and campaigners, we believe passionately in the work that we do.” But after a successful 18 months trial in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, he is now a firm advocate of the policy and is “convinced that the NGO and charity sector should be leading by example when it comes to creating a better working life.”
It goes without saying that the ideal climate-friendly societies in which we all have more time to play, rest and care for one another are yet to be built. However, supporting an out-dated model of over-work will in no way bring us closer to this future. This is where the collective power of trade unions, central to winning the 5-day working week and the weekend, must similarly be harnessed to make the four-day week a reality for most workers.
There is something inherently radical about refusing a model of work that is rooted in the exploitation of workers and the planet. The vision for a 21st Century society is one that rewards work that respects and protects our natural foundations while rewarding our human capabilities. A four-day work week with no loss of pay is no silver bullet to fix the climate crisis but can play an integral part of the greater transformation to build post-carbon, resilient and socially just economies. To bring this future closer it starts now by moving to a shorter working week.
Emilie is an environmental campaigner who supports the 4 Day Week Campaign and a co-founder of SEEKonomics - a platform for the promotion of social ecological economics approaches and policies.