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Shorter week, save the planet? Scotland to trial four-day working week

9 September 2021


Last week, Scotland announced that they plan to continue trialling a four-day working week, without loss of pay. The program, which is the result of a campaign promise made by the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), will be funded by a £10 million fund.  

A survey carried out by think tank IPPR Scotland was met with overwhelming support from the public, with 80% of respondents preferring a shorter working week, believing it would have a positive impact on their wellbeing.

A number of countries have already experimented with an abbreviated workweek, including Iceland, New Zealand and Japan. A happier workforce and an increase in productivity are the main drivers behind shifting to a four-day working week, but could this help tackle the climate crisis too?

In the ‘Stop the clock – The Environmental Benefits of A Short Working Week’ report, Platform London argues that a shorter working week would reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes of CO2e per year by 2025, which is the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road.   

Microsoft Japan’s “Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer” experimented with a four-day work-week and experienced a decrease in electricity costs by 23%. It proves electricity consumption could reduce by a lesser use of office lighting, heating and air condition units. Considering there are 26.5 million working people aged 16 – 74 in England and Wales, 15.3 million people drive to work and 1.4 million people catch a lift. Therefore, a large-scale reduction in working time would have a direct impact on carbon emissions in relation to commuting, as road transport from passenger cars is the main source of emissions in the UK. 

Would a shorter working time reduce Greenhouse gas emissions?  

A US study combined calculations of carbon intensity of goods with spending data and found strong evidence that households with longer work hours have significantly larger carbon footprints. Examples include the buying of ready-made meals, weekend vacations, household equipment, and van-delivered items bought online when there is too little time to go shopping locally. A similar study from Sweden showed that a 1% decrease in working hours may reduce energy use by 0.7% and greenhouse gas emissions by 0.8%.  

There are potential risks associated with a shorter workweek. Some could argue that increased leisure time may lead to greater consumption on carbon-intensive goods and services. Additionally, if work hours are reduced for individuals, but no changes to overall hours shops/offices are open, it could lead to more employees being hired therefore higher levels of commuting. Depending on the sector, a tighter workforce availability could increase the use of automotive equipment leading to higher energy consumption.  

A four-day work-week has its merits but may not be the optimal solution. Government policies and strategies would be needed to support a transition into low carbon activities and tackle the negative environmental impacts. Investment in less carbon-intensive infrastructures such as better public transport, more parks, libraries, community centres and sports facilities could play a crucial role. Organisations would also need to invest and provide support in a new approach to work with appropriate training. Finally, employees would need to be willing to make positive behavioral changes for the environment. 

Every business has a role to play in tackling climate change. To find out how we can help you lower your carbon emissions and start your journey to a net zero future, please contact one of our experts. 

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