Environmental Technology Publications Limited

Could a four-day week help the environment?


A proposed four-day week has been gaining increased traction among governments the world over of late. Several cities around the globe have already trialled the idea, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour manifesto pledged to bring down the number of working hours to 32 per week within a decade, all without losing any pay. The supposed benefits on productivity and mental health are well-documented – but what about its impact on the environment?

Perhaps the biggest effect that one less workday would incur is the amount of vehicular traffic on our roads. In an attempt to understand how a four-day week might affect car use on British roads, one recent study (entitled Four Better or Four Worse?) asked 505 business owners and 2,063 adults across the UK about their traffic habits.

Fewer cars, fewer emissions

By cross-referencing the answers of the survey’s respondents against data collected by the Department of Transport, then extrapolating those findings for the whole of the UK, the study’s authors concluded that one less workday per week would result in 558 fewer miles being driven. That translates into 9% less mileage, meaning less fuel consumption, more savings from transport and, most crucially of all, fewer emissions.

Given that concerns over air quality monitoring (particularly in cities) is at an all-time high, that news is welcomed by environmentalists who are also proponents of the four-day week concept. It’s also in keeping with the conclusions reached by previous studies, too. A 2012 study found that reducing the working hours of people from 29 OECD nations by just 10% would bring down CO2 emissions by 4.2%, lead to a 14.6% reduction in carbon footprints and a 12.1% drop in ecological ones. That’s because besides fewer cars on the road, there is also likely to be fewer electrical appliances (such as computers, machinery and lighting) in use as well.

The other side of the coin

However, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Critics of the four-day week idea have pointed out that while it’s very easy to identify the potential savings made while people are not at work, it’s much harder to work out their energy use and carbon emissions in the activities that they will fill all that free time with. If, for example, the extra day was used to visit far-flung locations, jet fuel analysis shows us that the airmiles they would accrue would be far worse for the environment than any they might clock up on the road.

Meanwhile, there’s also the possibility that people would simply cram the same amount of work into four days instead of five, thus having a detrimental effect on their mental and physical health and potentially incurring higher medical costs as a result. “Measuring net impact – including non-transport related benefits – is fraught with several estimation challenges,” explained Anupam Nanda, one of the contributors to the study. “Anything related to human behaviour and collective net benefits is very difficult to predict.” But while caution is being encouraged with regard to interpretation of the results, the first signs are that a four-day week could well help the environment if managed properly.

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