Currently the UK is living well outside the limits of air pollution considered safe, costing the economy some £40bn a year and resulting in 40,000 people dying each year of related conditions. The problem is particularly acute in London, where estimates are that up to 9,500 people die each year because of air pollution.
This is a public health crisis, on top of the array of broader environmental problems we face – not least of which is climate change. Happily, many of the things we need to do to tackle local air pollution are also things that help to address climate breakdown. The environmental activist Greta Thunberg last week said that “We have to start treating the crisis like a crisis – and act even if we don’t have all the solutions.” These urgent calls for radical policy changes are correct – but what if we already had a major part of the solution?
We know that across our economy as a whole we need to sharply reduce the environmental impact of how we work and what we consume – shifting in short order away from energy-intensive activities and goods. At the New Economics Foundation, we argue that working fewer hours, without losing pay – such as a four-day or 32 hour week – should be a central part of this.
Most immediately, closing offices and cutting the number of commutes would lower work-related energy use, carbon emissions, and the range of pollutants associated with driving. In 2008, the Utah state government carried out a mass trial of a four-day week with 18,000 employees (albeit working 10-hour days), in response to the financial crash and ensuing budget restrictions. By reducing the number of government employee commutes, it was estimated that the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with personal vehicle use – in relation to in-work behaviour – was the equivalent to taking a thousand cars off the road (which would have had a positive impact on air pollution too). This figure doubled when the energy savings from closing offices an extra day a week were taken into account. Other studies indicate that there are also decreases in other forms of local air pollution on non-working days.