Currently the UK is living well outside the limits of air pollution considered safe, costing the economy some £40bn a year and resulting in 40,000 people dying each year of related conditions. The problem is particularly acute in London, where estimates are that up to 9,500 people die each year because of air pollution.
This is a public health crisis, on top of the array of broader environmental problems we face – not least of which is climate change. Happily, many of the things we need to do to tackle local air pollution are also things that help to address climate breakdown. The environmental activist Greta Thunberg last week said that “We have to start treating the crisis like a crisis – and act even if we don’t have all the solutions.” These urgent calls for radical policy changes are correct – but what if we already had a major part of the solution?
We know that across our economy as a whole we need to sharply reduce the environmental impact of how we work and what we consume – shifting in short order away from energy-intensive activities and goods. At the New Economics Foundation, we argue that working fewer hours, without losing pay – such as a four-day or 32 hour week – should be a central part of this.
Most immediately, closing offices and cutting the number of commutes would lower work-related energy use, carbon emissions, and the range of pollutants associated with driving. In 2008, the Utah state government carried out a mass trial of a four-day week with 18,000 employees (albeit working 10-hour days), in response to the financial crash and ensuing budget restrictions. By reducing the number of government employee commutes, it was estimated that the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with personal vehicle use – in relation to in-work behaviour – was the equivalent to taking a thousand cars off the road (which would have had a positive impact on air pollution too). This figure doubled when the energy savings from closing offices an extra day a week were taken into account. Other studies indicate that there are also decreases in other forms of local air pollution on non-working days.
There is also a close link between high working hours and energy-intensive, environmentally-damaging patterns of consumption. High working hours encourage energy intensive consumption and goods, and favour conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles. It is easy to think of the environmentally damaging things we do when we are resource rich but time-poor: driving instead of cycling, buying ready-made meals, weekend vacations, and energy intensive consumer products. A four-day week, combined with other policies which disincentive carbon intensive activities, could help shift our society towards one which engages in more sustainable behaviours.
Crucially, a sustainable future of this kind would also make us happier, as well as address income inequality and the productivity puzzle. The move towards a shorter-working week should go some way to helping transition from a materialistic consumer culture which is damaging for both wellbeing and the environment, and create the space needed to take part in time-intensive activities relating to personal growth and community connection.
Over the past few weeks the climate emergency has been forced to the front of the public agenda – and we know we have just over a decade to cut emissions in half to stop irreversible climate breakdown. We also know that air pollution is killing us in our thousands.
However, if the four-day week were a central part of a raft of sustainable policy changes within a Green New Deal, it could result in a change which cuts our ecological footprint in a way which could improve wellbeing, public health, and revitalise our communities. It would be like having a bank holiday every week. Now that doesn’t sound so bad.
Aidan Harper is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation.