Given the urgent action that must be taken to fight climate change, it is important to be searching for ways to cut our harmful emissions. One particularly simple, yet important area that has not received much attention thus far is work hours. Is it possible that we could curb our emissions significantly just by working a few less hours per week?
According to a study led by Harvard economics professor Mark Weisbrot, it’s very possible. The study, conducted for the Center of Economic and Policy Research and titled Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment?, claims that if Americans adopted European standards for work hours, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2000 would have been 7% lower than its actual 1990 emissions. This assumes U.S. workers would average 35 hours of work per week, as is typical throughout much of Europe.

Not only would this help the world’s worst global warming offender curb its emissions, it would provide workers with the equivalent of seven weeks of additional time off per year. This is time that could be spent with families, friends, relaxing, or even getting more sleep. Sound unrealistic? A survey issued by the Center for the New American Dream found that half of all Americans with full-time jobs would prefer to work a four-day week at 80% of their current pay.

Perhaps even scarier, though, is if the inverse were to occur. According to the study, if Europe was to move in a new direction and adopt the American standard of work hours, it could consume 25-30% more energy per year. However, this isn’t just a US vs. Europe issue. As the economies of developing countries grow, they will almost certainly move in a direction to adopt either the American or European standards for work hours. If these countries were to choose the American standard, they would likely consume between 15% and 30% more energy than if they had adopted the European standard. What’s the significance? All the extra carbon emissions could result in a devastating 1-2 degrees Celsius of additional warming.

Considering that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90% this century, changing the American standard of work hours deserves some serious consideration. Perhaps at a minimum, we should be given a choice of whether we want to to take an “hour cut” or not, as is argued by the Preservation Institute.

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2 Responses to Can Working Less Fight Global Warming?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I could use more sleep. Europe is having difficulty competing because of their numerous vacation days, and that has hurt them economically, but it appears that they are doing ok.


  2. Anonymous says:

    The willingness of Americans to work long weeks and take short (though not necessarily *few*) vacations is the #1 reason why the American workforce is still halfway competitive with foreign workers, despite making a lot more money: we’re more expensive, and we’re (generally) worth it.

    Anyone who’s ever had to deal with European companies quickly learns that you don’t want to do business with them. They have employees who drop off the earth for a month, or close the entire office for weeks at a time. A few months ago I had to run a small circuit board order through a Bulgarian company that’s normally pretty reliable… then found out they were closed for the last 2 weeks of December, and first 2 weeks of January. Jesus God. That was when I learned to really, really appreciate the fact that it costs $15 for 2-day FedEx from China to the US (and be even more thankful for the international date line, so I could call them in a state of complete panic on Friday afternoon, and have the prototype boards on my desk, ready to reflow, by Monday morning for less than a hundred bucks).


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