Why the Green New Deal should include a four day week

Less of this. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.