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The Four-Day Week Can Help Save the World

A four-day week with no loss of pay would have an environmental impact equal to taking the UK's entire private car fleet off the road – and make us happier and healthier, too.

Credit: Malte Mueller / Getty

Following last week’s IPCC report, it’s clearer than ever before that avoiding climate catastrophe will require a bold, expansive, and holistic plan of action. Tinkering around the edges won’t be sufficient. Fundamentally, bringing our economies into line with urgent climate targets requires a fundamental rethink of the capitalist status quo and the way it influences our lives, from the moment our alarm clock rings in the morning until we turn off the light at night.

For most people living on the planet, the majority of that time in-between is taken up by work. Since the early twentieth century, the nine-to-five, five-day working week has been the dominant model of work across much of the world – but there are signs it is beginning to change.

Today, this model is outdated. It keeps us locked into unsustainable working practices that continually feed the capitalist machine, using up the planet’s finite resources and damaging our environment in the process.

Research published recently by the environmental organisation Platform London showed that moving the economy to a four-day, 32-hour working week—crucially, with no reduction in pay for workers—would reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year. This represents a reduction of 21.3 percent, which is more than the entire carbon footprint of Switzerland. It’s equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road – effectively the entirety of the UK’s private car fleet.

The report, ‘Stop the clock: the environmental benefits of a shorter working week’, found that a reduction in working hours correlates with more sustainable energy and consumption, as well as reductions in carbon-intensive commuting, and would enable people to draw more value from ‘low-carbon’ activities such as rest, exercising, or community-building.

Moving towards a shorter working week would help break the habit of living to work, when we should be working to live. With more free time on our hands, people would have the opportunity to become more attached to relationships, family life, hobbies, communities, and places that absorb less money and less emissions – and to organise for the formal end of the fossil fuel capitalism burning our world.

Calls for a four-day working week have gained momentum since the Covid pandemic, with the governments of Spain, Scotland, and Ireland announcing national-level pilot schemes. In Iceland, the world’s largest ever public sector shorter working week trials were found to be an ‘overwhelming success’, with 86 percent of the country’s working population gaining the right to permanently shorten their hours.

In the US, a state legislator has tabled a bill in Congress to reduce the standard work week to 32 hours. The bill has been endorsed by some of the US’s biggest trade unions, including the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Responding to the publication of the bill, the Economic Policy Institute said: ‘Shorter work weeks have important environmental benefits. Reducing Americans’ average work week is a key step towards achieving a better society.’

Closer to home, there has already been some indication that dramatic changes to working life as a result of the pandemic are leading to good outcomes for the environment. In July 2020, a survey by green energy provider Bulb found that more than a third of the UK public lived more sustainably during lockdown. This shift in collective consciousness indicates that changing where and how workers spend their time could enable us to align our lifestyles to the growing awareness and concern about climate change, and to move away from the system under which we currently live, which requires us to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of our employers’ profit.

The polling on a four-day working week shows that the idea is more popular in the UK than ever before; one petition on in support of adopting a four-day week to slash carbon emissions has been signed by over 50,000 people.

It’s very clear that high working hours, as well as being seriously detrimental to health and wellbeing, encourage energy-intensive consumption. The ecological damage resulting from daily consumption in the UK is tied to working life under capitalism; it does not only translate into carbon emissions within the UK, but also fuels the production of goods and services from abroad that would not be produced without UK demand. These also generate significant emissions and pollution elsewhere.

Instead of returning to business as usual at work—as some ministers have demanded—we cannot ignore the quick and significant benefits that a shift to a four-day week could make to the UK’s climate efforts. In the wake of the IPCC report, with all eyes trained on our planetary wellbeing, it’s time to make the change.