Could a 9-Hour Workweek Save Humanity?

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June 19, 2024 at 10:34AM UTC
You read that right. Nine hours. That’s likely a little bit more that a full day’s worth of work on your current schedule. But according to one new study, we need to dramatically shorten the workweek. Why? To avert climate crisis.
Here’s how the amount of time we spend (or waste) at work can affect humanity’s future.

The link between how much we work and the climate crisis

This summer, much of the U.S., as well as Europe, has experienced a severe heatwave. Accuweather reported that June 2019 was the hottest June ever recorded on the planet. Scientists have linked these record-breaking temperatures to climate change and an increase in carbon emissions globally.
“The research, from thinktank Autonomy, shows workers in the U.K. would need to move to nine-hour weeks to keep the country on track to avoid more than 2C of heating at current carbon intensity levels. Similar reductions were found to be necessary in Sweden and Germany,” wrote Matthew Taylor in a recent article in The Guardian.
While the nine-hour workweek may sound extreme — especially to your employer — Autonomy’s research merely points out just how far we need to make changes if we do nothing to offset our global carbon emissions. In other words, to zero out the amount of emissions we’re currently pumping into the world’s atmosphere (and thereby increasing global warming), we could simply work one day instead of five.
This is indicative of not only how bad the climate crisis is, but also just how much damage the average office does to the environment.
Autonomy writes, “the climate crisis forces us to change the conversation and raise the question: provided current levels of carbon intensity of our economies and current levels of productivity, how much work can we afford?”

Wait... what's climate change all about again?

Let’s put all this talk of an increased degree in global temps in perspective (even for those of us who measure our temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit). A degree is a very big deal in terms of global averages.
“So you know, a warming of 1 degree Celsius, which is what we’ve seen thus far, can lead to a 10-fold increase in the frequency of 100 degree days in New York City for example,” said Dr. Michael Mann, the director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, as quoted in the New York Times.
Climate change can make heat waves last longer. But climate change isn’t just about extended heat waves; it also produces extreme weather, like flooding (which the Midwestern U.S. saw this year in record amounts), bitterly cold winters and rising sea levels.
Climate change affects everyone on the planet, and there is a lot of disagreement on how to solve it. The United Nations has a summit planned for September 2019 to bring together the globe to come to some consensus on the issue.

Ways your average workweek contributes to the climate crisis

Your commute
The way you get to work can impact the climate, with air pollution from fossil fuel-burning vehicles. Transportation emissions count for the second largest producer of greenhouse gases in the U.S. at 26%, according to the EPA. If you can choose ways to use less (or really zero) fossil fuels on your commute, then that helps out the planet. When mass transit gets used, there’s that many fewer cars on the road with a single driver. When you bike or walk, you’re using zero fossil fuels, but not everyone has that luxury.
Can’t give up your single-occupant car ride to work? There are other ways you can make your carbon footprint smaller:
Office equipment
Power plants (i.e., where we get electricity for our buildings, air conditioners, copiers and computers) come in first in the top of the country’s carbon emissions at 31%. If we weren’t at work, using all these machines and electricity for lights, elevators, and such, we’d be causing a lot less of a problem.
In fact, when major cities see big heat waves, office buildings are often asked to conserve energy by dimming or shutting off lights, especially at night, as well as other like raising their thermostats. In July, New York City mandated that buildings over 100 floors set their thermostats at 78 degrees through the weekend to help conserve energy.
Paper use
All that paper we use makes an impact environmentally. While living trees help to trap carbon and reduce emissions, paper made from trees doesn’t do such a great job. Problem? It degrades too quickly.
“Paper is not a good option for storing carbon because it degrades too quickly,” resource economist Ann Ingerson said in Mother Jones. “Newsprint tends to last for a while in landfills, but office paper breaks down pretty quickly. In landfills it’s broken down as methane, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas.”
Recycling that paper is a great way to help lower your carbon footprint, but with limited local options and shrinking international takers for our recycling, it’s harder and harder to make that work. Still, recycling paper is a lot better than cutting down a tree to make new paper, as is buying products made from recycled paper.
According to the EPA, turning off just one 60-watt incandescent bulb that would otherwise burn eight hours a day can save about 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide over the lifetime of the bulb. Even if your office uses lights that don’t emit a ton of heat, like fluorescent bulbs or low-energy lights, can really cut down on carbon emissions.
The U.K. newspaper The Independent noted in 2006, that “the low-energy light bulb and other efficient lighting systems could prevent a cumulative total of 16 billion tons of carbon from being added to the world’s atmosphere over the next 25 years, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.”
What’s even better is when offices are built in ways to capture natural light (from actual windows!) for use during the day. It’s so rare (and valuable) that natural light is actually considered a top workplace perk, as noted in the Harvard Business Review last year.
“In a research poll of 1,614 North American employees, [the firm Future Workplace] found that access to natural light and views of the outdoors are the number one attribute of the workplace environment, outranking stalwarts like onsite cafeterias, fitness centers, and premium perks including on-site childcare (only 4-8% of FORTUNE 100 companies offer on-site child care).”

How the U.S. contributes to climate change

While the Autonomy study focused on the U.K.’s average workweek, the U.S. certainly contributes a huge amount to carbon emissions every year.
According to numbers from the EPA, “in 2014, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totaled 6,870 million metric tons (15.1 trillion pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalents. This total represents a 7 percent increase since 1990 but a 7 percent decrease since 2005.”
There were a few more years of decline after these data were compiled, but unfortunately, in more recent years, emissions grew even higher.
“Between 2005 and 2015, US emissions fell 11.5 percent, largely due to switching to less carbon-intensive fuels like natural gas,” wrote Umar Irfan recently at Vox. “However, US energy consumption hit a record high last year, and emissions are on the rise again after years of decline.”
Check out this animation of the global carbon emissions by country since the industrial revolution.
Despite the country’s ability to innovate energy efficiency with technology, and even trying to pass legislation that cuts emissions, it also leads the world in contributions to climate change.
“These relatively small steps now cannot offset more than a century of reckless emissions that have built up in the atmosphere,” wrote Irfan. “Much more drastic steps are now needed to slow climate change. And as the top cumulative emitter, the US bears a greater imperative for curbing its carbon dioxide output and a greater moral responsibility for the impacts of global warming.”

A shorter workweek might make you happier at work

Working too much is bad for you, just plain and simple. Either you wind up burned out and hating your job, or you see diminishing returns on your productivity.
  • A shorter workweek, like putting in four days instead of five, allows workers to dial-in their focus and get more done, instead of just kind of filling in that extra time with nonsense.
  • If you did a shorter workday, like just five hours instead of eight, you could also zero in on that elusive productivity point and find yourself feeling that sense of accomplishment, rather than resentment at work.
  • When you have a focused, productive workforce, lower burnout turnover, and lots of savings from not running the lights and utilities all the time, businesses can reap a lot of rewards.
Carbon emissions are serious for businesses in the U.S. but they’re also a global issue for which we all share responsibility.
— Anne Holub
This story originally appeared on PayScale

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