Decreasing carbon emissions without affecting the quality of life

There are a couple of simple ideas, which if implemented could make deep and long term cuts in our carbon emissions, while maintaining (or even increasing) the quality of life for all.

In no particular order, they are:

1. Immediately Implement a 4 day week (with obvious exceptions for emergency services etc.)

In 2008 Utah,spurred on initially by high gas prices and later by impacts from the global fiscal crisis, decided to do just this. One of the most conservative states in the US (approx. 60% of the population are Mormons) implemented one of the most radical solutions to the problems it faced – a mandatory 4 day week for 80% of state employees. Hours were changed from a 9-5 5 day week to an 8-6 4 day week.The results have been startling.

  • After initial fears, 82% of employees are supportive of the four day week, and do not want to return to a 5 day week (with a 3 day weekend, who would?)
  • Sick days taken fell by 9%
  • Air pollution fell as people were spending 20% less time commuting
  • Approx. 17,000 (13% of the total) tonnes of CO2 emissions were avoided

While many organisations promoting sustainability are busy promoting radical solutions like ‘Prosperity without Growth‘ or a ‘21 hour working week‘, the simplest and fastest way to reduce carbon emissions and increase quality of life at the same time is being overlooked – the immediate implementation of a 4 day week – and we have the results from Utah to prove it.

2. Deep and Meaningful Reform of the Financial System

The repeal by the United States of elements of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 is one act of lunacy that should be reversed as soon as possible. Glass-Steagal was enacted in 1933, and as well as establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, it prevented banks from purchasing other financial companies, ensuring a separation of commercial banking and the securities industry. Repealing this and allowing the sedate world of mortgage lending and the heady greed of Wall Street to meet led to the unrestrained casino capitalism of the noughties, with catastrophic consequences. Bringing back the firewalls that used to exist between normal mortgage and business lending by retail banks, and the ‘exotic’ financial instruments and shady business practices of the Wall Street sharks, is of the utmost importance.

While regulating banks may not be the most exciting way of fighting climate change, we simply cannot afford to have to bail out the banks again. With the cost of dealing with the current crisis being counted in the trillions, the amount spent to date on the banks dwarfs the spending on mitigating and adapting to climate change.

With this in mind, the second element of reforming the banking system should be a tax on speculative banking transactions – a Tobin Tax. This cause is one I had the opportunity to speak to Gordon Brown about shortly before the Copenhagen Conference – you can listen to his response here at about 26 minutes 30 seconds in. This cause has recently been taken up by Richard Curtis (of Comic Relief and Make Poverty History Fame) and has led to this rather effective ad, and also the rebranding of the ‘Tobin Tax’ as the ‘Robin Hood Tax’. Using the funds raised from this to combat poverty, pay down the national debt and fight climate change would give society some return on the trillions that have been thrown at the banks.

3. Reducing Obsolescence for Consumer Goods

This idea is simple – for cheaper/smaller consumer items a no quibble 5 year guarantee should be mandatory. For larger items like fridges, cars etc. a ten year guarantee.

Interestingly, I can find almost nothing on this online – no groups promoting it, no blogs suggesting it, no news items covering it as a suggested solution to climate. It seems the disposable consumer society has become deeply ingrained in the global psyche!

So there you have it – 3 ideas that could contribute to fighting climate change, and that would maintain or increase people’s quality of life – a 4 day week, a return on our taxes that have been thrown at the banks (along with measures to prevent the same mistakes happening again…) and an end to the throwaway culture of rampant consumerism with a decent guarantee mandated by law for all products.

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4 Responses to Decreasing carbon emissions without affecting the quality of life

  1. david walsh says:

    What about a tax on aviation fuel? There has been a delay on this issue
    for years. Should not the EU lead the way on this?

  2. Paddy Morris says:

    I agree with you, the lack of duties/taxes on aviation fuel is perplexing at this point. However, I would think that an across the board carbon tax would be of more use than specifically targeting aviation – we need to remove the externality of carbon from all economic activity, the simplest and probably most effective way to do this is a carbon tax.
    The other thing to bear in mind is that the EU is already leading the way on this – Aviation is being added to the EU emissions trading scheme. However, while we may be leading the field, the simple reason for this is that others haven’t even started the race. I am not sure that the EU should push itself further out in front of the field without making sure that we get something in return for that from other countries in legally binding agreements.

    If we learn one thing from Copenhagen, it should be that going to what is essentially the highest stakes game of poker in the history of the world,and then announcing your strategy before it starts, and playing with your cards face up on the table when the game starts leads to the other players simply taking what was offered and not agreeing to anything in return. While principled, and understandable, this strategy hasn’t worked to date. Perhaps we should change it before our next attempt at a global deal on this.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Interesting ideas, Paddy. Justice and social cohesion alone absolutely demands a Tobin Tax. There is simply no defence left on this one. And I’d like to lump in proper levels of taxes on gambling. The current ONE per cent betting tax remains a scandalous hangover from Charlie McCreevy era of back-slapping and cute hoorism, with the fulcrum of this chicanery appropriately enough at the infamous FF tent at the Galway Races.

    On the 4-day week, looks like our public servants are taking a lead here, and heading towards a no-day week. Am still waiting for David Begg or similar to come on the TV some evening and explain how we can expect to INCREASE our current borrowings of c.500 million a week just to keep the lights on, in order to put public sector wages/pensions back up again, while the actual tax base continues to decline as the private sector jobless numbers climb and consumer spending – sensibly – remains in the doldrums.

    The unions have clearly gotten wind of some extraordinary motherlode in the hills of Cavan, perhaps, that is going to finance us back out of bankruptcy. If so, they really should let the rest of us in on the secret.

    On the anti-obsolescence idea, you’d probably have to radically restrict – or ban – advertising, as that is the principal driver of our collective hunger for the ever-shiner newer version/upgrade (as long, of course as we can exempt genuinely innovative new technologies, ie. the ones we really like, including the iPhone/iPad, etc!)

  4. David McHugh says:

    One idea that I would add is to improve building insulation. As per a study released a few years back (, improving building insulation is the most cost effective abatement measure over the next couple of decades (although there may be an updated version of this greenhouse gas-abatement cost curve.)

    There’s scope in our building reg’s to improve the insulation in new buildings. What we should also be looking at is a retrofit programme and if there is a rationale for public funding of this, for domestic buildings at a minimum.

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