Bunk off work, save the planet
- 08 Feb 2013, 14:30
- Robin Webster
How should we stop global warming?
We should work less, announced the Daily Mail this week,
reporting on a paper produced by a "liberal thinktank" in the
We immediately turned off our computers and went to the pub.
When we returned to the office some time later, we cast a quick eye
over the text - and the optimistic-sounding claim that Americans
could prevent a temperature rise of up to 1.3 degrees by working
"0.5 per cent less each year". Sounds great, but could it really be
Work like a European
The Mail's report is based on a
paper by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in
Washington DC. Citing
studies showing that lower working hours are associated with
lower greenhouse gas emissions, the paper undertakes a number of
calculations to explore what that might mean in practice.
Using emissions scenarios created by the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) as a baseline, author David Rosnick
compares two different possible futures - one where the world
"converges on the work habits of those in the United States" and
one where everyone kicks back a bit more and works like a European.
A paper published by the same author
in 2006 argued that shorter working hours in Europe mean that
Europeans consume less energy, leading to lower greenhouse gas
Americans get to save the world? Not really
So what does the paper find? In a subheading, the Mail
"By working 0.5 per cent less each year,
Americans can prevent a temperature rise of up to 1.3 degrees."
It later adds:
"If the 'Western European' working model
was to be adopted in the U.S., it could reduce the global
temperature rise expected by 2100 with up to 50 per cent."
This is a pretty breathtaking conclusion. Sadly, it isn't
correct - for two reasons.
First, Rosnick's paper compares what might happen across the
whole world - not just in North America. In other words, it also
includes the developing world. Rosnick writes:
"For developing countries, [the European
working model] amounts to trading in one-tenth to one-quarter of
baseline income gains for increased leisure."
Parking for a moment the not insignificant question of whether
the developing world would be willing to trade quite a substantial
chunk of growth in income for fewer emissions, this does torpedo
the "Americans get to save the world" line.
Second, the European working style doesn't reduce global
temperature rise expected in 2100 by up to fifty per cent.
According to Rosnick's work, it reduces 25 to 50 per cent of
"addressable warming" - that is the warming that will happen anyway
from emissions from the rest of the economy.
In fact, Rosnick estimates that 40 to 70 per cent of warming is
already locked in by expected greenhouse gas emissions over the
A few complications
This is clearly a media-friendly story, and the Mail's article
is accompanied by some lovely stock photos of happy
(emissions-free) families on holiday and unhappy (emissions-heavy)
commuters and workers.
A family thinks about working less and reducing carbon
It does highlight an interesting point. Rosnick isn't the first
to float the idea that less work could be associated with fewer
greenhouse gas emissions, and doesn't necessarily result in greater
productivity or greater human
The Mail article also accurately reports Rosnick's conclusions
later in the article - highlighting both the role of developing
countries and that of 'locked in' greenhouse gases.
There are some questions that could be asked about the
real-world application of Rosnick's paper, however. The top-line
conclusion is based on the assumption that a one per cent reduction
in hours leads to at least a one per cent reduction in emissions.
In that sense the overall conclusion is not that
Meanwhile the question of whether developing countries would be
willing to constrain working hours for the sake of greenhouse gas
emissions seems like rather a large one.
That said, it is Friday afternoon, so let yourself be persuaded.
And with that in mind, we're off to the pub again.