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 States.

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 true?

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 emissions.

Americans get to save the world? Not really

So what does the paper find? In a subheading, the Mail reports:

"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 next century.

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.

Screen Shot 2013-02-08 At 14.01.49

A family thinks about working less and reducing carbon emissions.

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 happiness.

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 surprising. 

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.

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