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Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change

By David Rosnick - Center for Economic and Policy Research, February 2013

As productivity grows in high-income, as well as developing countries, social choices will be made as to how much of the productivity gains will be taken in the form of higher consumption levels versus fewer work hours. In the last few decades, for example, western European countries have significantly reduced work hours (through shorter weekly hours and increased vacation time) while the United States has not. Western Europe had about the same hours worked per person as the U.S. in the early 1970s, but by 2005 they were about 50 percent less.

This choice between fewer work hours versus increased consumption has significant implications for the rate of climate change. A number of studies (e.g. Knight et al. 2012, Rosnick and Weisbrot 2006) have found that shorter work hours are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and therefore less global climate change. The relationship between these two variables is complex and not clearly understood, but it is understandable that lowering levels of consumption, holding everything else constant, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This paper estimates the impact on climate change of reducing work hours over the rest of the century by an annual average of 0.5 percent. It finds that such a change in work hours would eliminate about one-quarter to one-half of the global warming that is not already locked in (i.e. warming that would be caused by 1990 levels of greenhouse gas concentrations already in the atmosphere).

It is worth noting that the pursuit of reduced work hours as a policy alternative would be much more difficult in an economy where inequality is high and/or growing. In the United States, for example, just under two-thirds of all income gains from 1973–2007 went to the top 1 percent of households. In this type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order to work less. The analysis in this paper assumes that the gains from productivity growth will be more broadly shared in the future, as they have been in the past.

The analysis uses four “illustrative scenarios” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and software from the Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse-gas Induced Climate Change to estimate the impact of a reduction in work hours. As would be expected, the amount of global warming that could be mitigated by reducing work hours depends on the baseline scenario, as well as the range of sensitivity of global temperatures to greenhouse gas emissions.

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