Significant cuts to the duration of the working week are required to decarbonise the planet’s atmosphere and combat climate change, according to a new report from future-of-work think tank Autonomy.


Penned by researcher Philipp Frey, The Ecological Limits of Work states in its introduction: “Faced with accelerating technological progress and a deepening [climate] crisis, a growing discussion sees a reduction in working hours as a multiple-dividend policy, increasing – among other things – individual wellbeing, productivity and gender equality while simultaneously potentially contributing to a reduction in unemployment and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”


Frey explains: “Rather than discussing how to maximise economic performance (all too often a code for forcing the vast majority of the population to work long hours to the benefit of capital owners), 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?”


To tackle that question, Frey harnessed recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data on carbon productivity per industry sector, drawn in part from 2018 National Inventory submissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


He notes: “As this data links GHG emissions to units of GDP, and because GDP maps closely on to waged working time in one form or another, I will assume a proportional relationship between labour time and GHG emissions.” On that basis, Frey concludes, “cutting the workweek by, for example, just one day would fail to decrease carbon emissions to a sustainable level by itself.”


As such, he argues, the climate crisis “calls for an unprecedented decrease in the economic activity that causes GHG emissions … this confronts us with – to adapt Paul Lafargue’s phrase – the ‘necessity to be lazy’. If ecological sustainability requires an overall decrease in material consumption, a vast expansion in terms of leisure time and thus an increase in ‘time prosperity’ would be less of a luxury and more of an urgency.”


To what extent is Frey’s position economically tenable? And how dangerous would it be for leaders to make knee-jerk policy shifts in response to such messaging, given the risks of damaging their businesses with impulsive changes to the working week?


The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Greta Thunberg called for corporations to address the problem of climate change – correctly identifying that if you want swift and sweeping change, that’s the direction it has to come from. The existence of a broad base of support for radical change is proven by the impact of the recent Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, which attracted participants from many different backgrounds.


“But the real test of ideas such as those set out in the Frey report is how compelling they can be as part of a business case, and which sorts of alternatives may emerge for reducing carbon emissions.”


Cooper points out: “A shorter working week would undoubtedly please many people, for all the reasons that Frey outlines. At the same time, though – as we have said before when commenting upon rationales for a shorter working week – there are certain economic considerations around steps such as leaving plants still, or offices closed, for ever greater lengths of time. So those sorts of issues remain unresolved.”


She notes: “Another dilemma is that when you shorten the working week, you provide staff with increased leisure time – and that, of course, is not carbon neutral. Especially not the mode of transport they are most likely to use to journey to and from their leisure pursuits, which is the car. So for those reasons, I think it is unlikely that there will be any immediate responses to the calls to action that Frey has signalled. However, his report does play an important role in putting these issues out there and offering what some may view as an extreme set of solutions to the carbon emissions problem.”


Cooper adds: “This report broadens the debate, and impresses upon even the most resistant that they have a part to play, and must do something to help. So it will definitely have an impact. As time goes on, it will be interesting to see how all the various different awareness campaigns around climate change come together and deliver results for the greater good. As charity advisers Pro Bono Economics have advocated, if we use wellbeing as a measure of societal success, then factors such as carbon emissions, the length of the working week and flexible hours will all need to be take into account.”


For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on social responsibility


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