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Climate crisis: UK should dramatically cut working hours to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, study says

Impacts of economic activity confront us with ‘necessity to be lazy’, authors say

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 22 May 2019 23:28 BST
‘Time prosperity’ could become less of a luxury and more of an urgency if we are to tackle climate change, the report suggests
‘Time prosperity’ could become less of a luxury and more of an urgency if we are to tackle climate change, the report suggests (Getty)

Europeans all need to work far shorter hours each week to help combat the climate crisis, a study has said.

The think tank Autonomy said with the existing carbon intensity of our economies and current levels of productivity, the UK would need to adopt a nine-hour working week in order to cut emissions by enough to meet the Paris climate agreement targets and keep global warming below 2C.

The paper suggests Sweden would have to cut its working hours to 12 a week, and Germany to just six. The paper says “cutting the work-week by, for example, just one day would fail to decrease carbon emissions to a sustainable level by itself.”

The report’s recommendations are based on UN and OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) data on greenhouse gas emissions, and examines the UK, Germany and Sweden.

The data, the report suggests, indicates all three countries require drastic reductions in working hours to decarbonise the economy to prevent climate breakdown, while also pursuing greater efficiency in other areas.

“The climate crisis calls for an unprecedented decrease in the economic activity that causes [greenhouse gas] emissions, and this confronts us with… the ‘necessity to be lazy’,” the report says.

The report notes the economists Paul Lafargue and later, John Maynard Keynes spoke of the prospect of three-hour shifts and a 15-hour working week as targets to aim for in order for humans to live a better life.

“If ecological sustainability requires an overall decrease in material consumption, a vast expansion in terms of leisure time and thus an increase in “time prosperity” would be less of a luxury and more of an urgency,” the authors say.

As the climate crisis worsens, the necessity to take action is becoming greater, the report argues.

Last year the UN’s scientific body the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the most urgent and far-reaching call yet for world governments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and stop global warming.

But the authors warned “limiting global warming to 1.5C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

There have already been calls to reduce working weeks as a means of improving productivity, but working less hours as a means of also reducing economic activity is more radical.

Earlier this month Momentum urged Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to back a four-day working week. The Labour 4 Day Week group said it was “an opportunity for the party to take the lead on a policy gaining a growing consensus across the world, and one that will become increasingly necessary in the future.”

Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said: “We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet. In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less.”

Mat Lawrence, director of the Common Wealth think tank said: “This new paper from Autonomy is a thought experiment that should give policymakers, activists and campaigners more ballast to make the case that a Green New Deal is absolutely necessary.

“The link between working time and GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions has been proved by a number of studies. Using OECD data and relating it to our carbon budget, Autonomy have taken the step to show what that link means in terms of our working weeks.”

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