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Saving the planet by working less

Adopting the European approach of ‘more time off, 
less stuff’ could help mitigate climate change

Recently released research finds that significant reductions in carbon emissions are possible through reducing work hours, and that could help to reduce climate change.

The paper, Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change, by David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), finds that eight to 22 per cent of every degree of warming through 2100 would be cut by an annual half a per cent reduction in work hours.

Assuming 40 to 60 per cent of potential global warming is effectively locked in, about one-quarter to one-half of the warming that is not already locked in could be cut through this reduction of work hours.

“As productivity increases, especially in high-income countries, there is a social choice between taking some of these gains in the form of reduced hours, or entirely as increased production,” said economist David Rosnick, author of the paper. “For many years, European countries have been reducing work hours — including by taking more holidays, vacation, and leave — while the United States has gone the route of increased production.

“The calculation is simple: Fewer work hours means less carbon emissions, which means less global warming.”

But the concept works best in economies in which the gap between rich and poor is small. The pursuit of reduced work hours as a policy alternative would be much more difficult in an economy where inequality is high or growing.

In the United States, for example, just under two-thirds of all income gains from 1973–2007 went to the top one per cent of households. In this type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order to work less.

“Increased productivity need not fuel carbon emissions and climate change,” CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot said. “Increased productivity should allow workers to have more time off to spend with their families, friends, and communities. This is positive for society, and is quantifiably better for the planet as well.”

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