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The Coronavirus’s Lesson for Climate Change

What society can learn from the tragedy’s impact on carbon emissions

Nearly empty streets in Beijing (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

This week, analysis from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air estimated that government-directed quarantines and other restrictions due to the current coronavirus outbreak have temporarily reduced China’s greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter. China is currently the world’s largest emitter, even though the carbon footprints of most Chinese residents remain minuscule compared to Americans’. Much of the country’s carbon spews from energy-intensive industrial activity. Now people are staying home from work and consuming less, as wages remain unpaid, and commutes remain untraveled. Manufacturing and construction in some places have slowed or ground to a halt, and air travel throughout the country has decreased by 70 percent.

It’s no secret that certain types of misery and societal upheaval can reduce emissions—from recessions to the collapse of the Soviet Union to epidemics such as the current coronavirus. Those are hardly formulas activists should cheer, much less try to replicate going forward. But the recent statistics out of China are a reminder of the remarkable impact of working patterns on emissions levels. There is a policy that could mirror some of the emissions reductions from undesirable events such as outbreaks, while improving quality of life: a four-day, 32-hour workweek.

Though it hasn’t featured prominently in policy debates in the United States, reducing working hours is a widespread demand among unions and progressives in Europe, where workweeks are generally shorter than they are here. Reducing hours could have enormous benefits for the climate, drastically cutting the energy needed to light, heat, and cool offices—and power computers. Furthermore, eliminating one round-trip commute week after week for millions of Americans could radically reduce nationwide transportation emissions—the biggest source of carbon dioxide pollution in the U.S.

With successes like the weekend and eight-hour day, reducing hours has been a demand of labor movements since their inception. As one famous campaign slogan for the former went, “Eight hours for rest, eight hours for work, and eight hours for what we will.” For many workers, though—who piece together poorly paid part-time jobs and precarious gig work to make ends meet—even a 40-hour workweek might now sound like a luxury.

Americans are notoriously overworked. Annual working hours in the U.S. are well above the average in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, and the average American works 53 days more than the average German, whose unions—which enjoy formal representation on company boards—have reliably pushed for shorter workweeks. In France, workers fought for and won protections against answering emails from the boss on any device after business hours—the so-called “right to disconnect.” Employers are required to provide 28 days of paid vacation per year in European Union member states, and countries from Ecuador to Eritrea guarantee at least two weeks of paid leave annually. The United States has no laws mandating employers provide vacation, and many offer none at all. Last fall, the four-day workweek with no pay cuts was taken up as a demand by the British Labour Party at its annual conference, prompting a viral chant that some supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have now adopted as their own: “Jeremy Corbyn / No surrender / Four-day week / And a three-day bender.” Analysis by economists David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot in 2006 found that, had the U.S. “adopted European standards for work hours, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2000 would have been 7 percent lower than its actual 1990 emissions,” thus meeting targets outlined in the Kyoto Protocol.

Working less won’t get us to “net-zero” emissions, at least not on its own. But beyond the more direct planetary benefits listed above, a four-day week could have a ripple effect throughout the economy on how Americans—a notoriously carbon-intensive bunch—consume. Rather than mindlessly scrolling Amazon or bingeing Netflix shows with our zonked-out after-workday brains, we could spend more time with friends and family, lounge in the park, and learn a language or how to cook a new dish. There are all manner of complementary policies that could help amplify a four-day workweek’s carbon impact. More affordable and widespread public rail networks would encourage people to explore a nearby city on their long weekends rather than take planes to some far-flung locale. Even a modest fee on carbon-intensive imports could encourage someone to buy a salsa class instead of another Ikea rug. A well-paid federal job guarantee could institute a four-day workweek as the economy-wide standard for millions participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy, spurring the private sector to compete on both wages and hours while fulfilling the longtime demand of full employment.

The design of such a policy would be key, to ensure it’s not used as an excuse for lowering wages or to make workers pack the same amount of productivity into more condensed hours. There would need to be transitions to allow firms to adjust to the new system, particularly in public agencies that provide essential services. And enforcement would be a key challenge, given how sparse even 40-hour weeks are becoming. Ultimately, making four-day workweeks the norm could be as much about cultural shifts as what laws are on the books.

Citing climate as a key consideration, the British think tank Autonomy has worked with the Valencian Regional Government in Spain to explore phasing in a four-day workweek there, piloting the program in the public sector first while building in a lengthy and well-supported transition period that recognizes “the plurality of working practices and cultures in the economy as a whole.”

All of this is wildly ambitious, to be sure. But so is transitioning to a zero-carbon economy along the timeline science demands. Politically, inserting a four-day workweek into the climate debate could be a helpful counter to right-wing fearmongering about the bleak, hamburger-free world climate activists are allegedly plotting to create with a Green New Deal. The original New Deal, after all, established the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set the standard workweek at 40 hours, established a minimum wage, and formally outlawed child labor, to protect employees from “starvation wages and intolerable hours.” A new suite of climate policies could enact a twenty-first-century update, bringing the way and amount we work in line with planetary boundaries—no recessions or pandemics required.