Study: Global Warming Can Be Slowed By Working Less

A new analysis suggests that a more 'European' schedule would reduce the effects of climate change.

A New Yorker braves the scorching sun for a nap on the empty Sheep Meadow of Central Park, July 18, 2006.
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Want to reduce the effects of global warming? Stop working so hard. Working fewer hours might help slow global warming, according to a new study released Monday by the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

A worldwide switch to a "more European" work schedule, which includes working fewer hours and more vacation time, could prevent as much as half of the expected global temperature rise by 2100, according to the analysis, which used a 2012 study that found shorter work hours could be associated with lower carbon emissions.

The Center for Economic Policy and Research is a liberal think tank based in Washington.

"The relationship between [shorter work and lower emissions] is complex and not clearly understood, but it is understandable that lowering levels of consumption, holding everything else constant, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions," writes economist David Rosnick, author of the study. Rosnick says some of that reduction can be attributed to fewer operating hours in factories and other workplaces that consume high levels of energy.

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Rosnick says that as developing countries' economies grow, they have two choices—they can have a "European" work schedule, or an "American" schedule of little vacation and 40-hour work weeks.

"There's a lot of controversy—should the developing world follow an American or European model?," he says. "If the world were to follow a more European model of work, we would expect fewer hours, less output, and lower emissions of greenhouse gases."

Rosnick says a move toward the European system would result in a trade-off of up to one quarter of income gains in exchange for increased leisure time and vacation. His best-case scenario, which predicts prevention of up to a 1.3 degree Celsius temperature increase, assumes that Americans would begin working about 0.5 percent less each year, starting with a 10-hour reduction in 2013. "We can get a similar amount of work done as productivity and technology improves," he says. "It's something we have to decide as a country—there are economic models in which individuals get to decide their hours and are still similarly productive as they are now."

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He admits there are flaws to his analysis—the study didn't take into consideration the rise of telecommuting, which has and will continue to cut down on transportation emissions, and there is no way to know what a person would do with their increased vacation or leisure time. Working fewer office hours is unlikely to have much of an impact on carbon emissions if a person were to then take a vacation, for example.

"If people are taking a vacation, that means they're not commuting, but it might mean they're taking a plane ride," he says.

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