When the pandemic hit, the world as we knew it changed dramatically with everyone at home, transportation infrastructure stopped and heavy industrial production drastically curtailed. Emissions from driving, flying and industrial output were dramatically reduced. Air quality in cities around the world showed marked improvement, while global emissions plummeted.
In May 2021, environmental and social justice collective Platform London released a report detailing the ecological impact of a shorter work week. From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was apparent that fewer people commuting translated quickly to reduced pollution, clearer skies, and less congestion on the roads. The impact was global, with Americans reporting less smog in Los Angeles and Europeans famously spotting dolphins in the canals of Venice. While some of this may be exaggerated, the benefits of fewer rush hour commuters are not. Fewer people heading to the office also means a reduction in electricity consumption from fewer lights, air conditioners and elevators running.
Many estimates put the reduction in carbon footprint at around 30% simply by offering one full day off per week. A more modest 10% reduction in hours (roughly three to four hours a week for most full-time workers) still translates to a 14.6% decrease in carbon emissions.
“The one thing we do know from lots of years of data and various papers and so forth is that the countries with short hours of work tend to be the ones with low emissions, and work time reductions tend to be associated with emission reduction,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College who researches work, consumption and climate change.
It’s what you might call a “potential triple-dividend policy, so something that can benefit the economy, society and also the environment,” said Joe O’Connor, chief executive of the nonprofit group 4-Day Week Global. “There are not many policy interventions that are available to us that could potentially have the kind of transformative impact that reduced work time could have.”
Part of the problem is that we can’t forecast what workers will do with that additional day. Many believe, and international studies like those recently done in Iceland prove, that people will eventually gravitate into more eco-friendly activities like hiking, camping and other outdoor activities. But, if people choose to spend their extra time off traveling, particularly if they use planes or automobiles, we may not see any material eco-related benefits.
“When we talk about the four-day workweek and the environment, we focus on the tangible, but actually, in a way, the biggest potential benefit here is in the intangible,” O’Connor said. “It’s in the shift away from a focus on hard work to a focus on smart work. It’s the cultural change in how we work and the impact that could have on how we live, and I think that’s the piece that’s really revolutionary.”