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Work less, save the planet?

Cooling it off
photo courtesy flickr user stevecadman

(MoneyWatch) Complaints to the contrary, Americans are not working more hours than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans in private, non-farm jobs averaged 34.4 work hours per week in January.

It doesn't seem too taxing, but according to a new paper from economist David Rosnick, published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, if we worked even less, we could do the planet some good. Crunching the numbers, Rosnick found that a 0.5 percent annual reduction in work hours could lead to a reduction of a quarter to a half of the additional global warming expected up to the year 2100.

The mechanism for this isn't exactly clear. Perhaps when people work less, they stay home more and don't drive around. If they earn less money, they don't spend as much on things that require carbon emissions to produce. The idea is that as productivity rises, Americans and others in developing nations could take more of the benefits in the form of leisure (much as some European countries have pushed, with shorter workweeks and more vacation days) than in the form of pay.

It's an interesting idea, though there are a few things to keep in mind. First, few of us would produce as much in, say, 25 hours, as we would in 40. There is a point of diminishing returns, but there's no reason to think that point is 20 hours per week. So if people work less, employers will have to pay people less, or go out of business. Many Americans live pretty close to the line anyway, so the only way many people would be interested in taking a pay cut is if they got the equivalent in living standards back through transfers of some kind. Rosnick's analysis assumes that inequality will be more adequately addressed in the future than it is now, but it's unclear why this would be the case.

Second, there are other ways to reduce carbon emissions, even without cutting work hours. One way? Compress those hours to fewer days. Driving accounts for a big chunk of carbon spewed into the atmosphere. If a major proportion of people worked four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days, they could spend less time on the road, even accounting for the inevitable errands and trips on the days off. It would also make people feel like they had more time for other things that need to be done during the day. That's one reason Gambia recently moved to a four-day week for government workers.

Or better yet, move more to virtual work. Not all the time, perhaps, but two to three days per week is plenty of time in the office for face-to-face relationships. If organizations could rotate people through office space, they might even be able to reduce their real estate holdings. Fewer buildings powered and heated means less carbon emitted. All without changing working hours.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user stevecadman