Over the years, studies have documented a link between fewer working hours and lower emissions – reductions that experts explain can be the result of changes in commuting, energy use and lifestyle habits. An analysis of data looking at more than two dozen countries from 1970 to 2007 predicted that if working hours were reduced by 10 percent, there could be drops in ecological footprint, carbon footprint, and carbon dioxide emissions by 12.1 percent, 14.6 percent, and 4, 2 percent, respectively
“One thing we know from years of data and various papers and so on is that the countries with short working hours tend to be the ones with low emissions, and reductions in working hours tend to be associated with reductions in emissions,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College who researches work, consumption and climate change.
For example, reducing work hours can affect people’s lives outside of work, said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He suggested that this kind of change could lead people to more environmentally friendly habits. “They are getting used to a different lifestyle which is a lifestyle with lower consumption because they have more time.”
But these benefits will depend on a number of factors, experts stress, including how people choose to spend their time away from work. It is also important, they said, to remember that reducing working hours is only one strategy to combat climate change.
“No one is arguing that the four-day work week is a silver bullet that will solve all our environmental concerns at once – far from it,” O’Connor said. “But can it be a very powerful enabler and a very powerful contributor? I think it certainly can.”
Nobody wants to be in the office on Fridays
Transportation is the biggest contributor to greenhouse emissions, Schor said, “and commuting is a big part of that.”
In 2020, the transportation sector accounted for around 27 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The potential benefits of cutting back on commuting and travel were perhaps most noticeable in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. When widespread stay-at-home orders were in place, emissions from driving, flying and industrial production were dramatically reduced. Air quality in cities around the world showed marked improvement, while global emissions fell.
Global emissions plunged by an unprecedented 17 percent during the coronavirus pandemic
Driven largely by the pandemic, widespread adoption of remote and hybrid work models may mean many people are already commuting less even if they work five days a week, O’Connor said — but officially adopting a four-day work week could benefit for industries that are still largely personal.
A November 2021 survey of 2,000 employees and 500 business managers in the UK found that if all organizations introduced a four-day week, the reduced journeys to work would reduce total journeys by more than 691 million miles a week.
But the climate benefits of less commuting could be negated, experts said, if people choose to spend extra time traveling, especially if they do so by car or plane.
Schor said it’s important for people to ask themselves, “What are they going to do on the fifth day, and what is the energy use associated with that, and how does that compare to what they would have done?”
Shorter working hours could lead to reductions in energy use, experts said.
According to a 2006 paper, if the United States adopted European labor standards, the country would consume about 20 percent less energy. And if Europeans gave up the shorter work weeks, the authors wrote, they would “consume an additional 25 percent more energy.”
“There is a clear link between production, consumption and carbon emissions,” said Weisbrot, who co-authored the 2006 paper.
Energy can also be saved if fewer resources are needed to heat and cool large office buildings, Schor said, reducing demands on electricity.
When the Utah state government launched a four-day work week trial among its employees in 2008, a report estimated that closing buildings on Fridays would lead to a reduction of at least 6,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, Scientific American reported.
However, any potential energy-saving gains depend on how companies and individuals use resources, Schor said.
For example, if an entire workplace is closed on the fifth day, it will help reduce consumption – less if the office stays open to accommodate employees who take different days off. Energy consumption can also increase overall if people spend their day off at home or elsewhere on activities that will use more resources than if they were at work.
It’s possible that fewer working hours could lead to some people having a bigger carbon footprint, but experts say research suggests most people are likely to switch to more sustainable lifestyles.
“The majority view coalesces around the idea that intense work often leads to intense life,” O’Connor said. “By offering people extra time back, you enable people to have more time to make sustainable life choices.”
One theory, Schor said, is that people who work more and have less free time tend to do things in more carbon-intensive ways, such as choosing faster modes of transportation or buying prepared foods. “Convenience is often carbon intensive, and people choose convenience when they are pressed for time.”
Meanwhile, some research suggests that those who work less may be more likely to engage in traditional low-carbon activities, such as spending time with family or sleeping.
“When we talk about the four-day work week 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 can have on how we live, and I think that’s the piece that’s really revolutionary.”
But moving to greatly reduce working hours should not be done in isolation, he and other experts said.
“It doesn’t matter how many days you work if we’re still using fossil fuels,” Schor said.