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Working 9 to 5 has been a double climate change whammy

October 23, 2020

Our analysis of lockdown commuting and carbon emissions in the UK indicates that a better work-life blend is good for the planet

By Keith Mitchell, and Ridhima Sharma

Two legacies of the global post war economy are the five-day working week and the rise of suburbia. Until recently, this has seen the majority of the United Kingdom, driving in and out of suburbia, to clock on at nine and clock off again at five. We know the story: traffic jams and gridlock as we all pile into, and out of, our towns and cities at the same time.

As Dolly Parton put it in her 1980 hit song, “Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin' - barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin.'”

Now that lockdown has given us a new perspective, we can see first-hand what the benefits would be if we removed this 65-year old habit of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. There has though been an additional unseen benefit…

Until recently, our addiction to the 9 to 5 routine has seen us collectively switch off from work, return home and switch on life. Cookers, washing machines, televisions, phone chargers, lights, and even the emerging electric car charger all get flicked on between 5pm and 7pm which sees a surge of power demand across the UK. Our globally revered national grid seamlessly manages this peak in power demand by switching on instantaneous fossil fuel generation – and a mix of coal, diesel, oil and gas power swings into action.

This type of generation capacity has been an essential part of the mix as the energy industry ensures its customers benefit from an uninterrupted supply, a situation exacerbated by the need to balance the intermittency of renewable energy and the peak demands caused by the way we live. Creating the flexibility to meet unlimited peak demand comes at a cost, and importantly represents a large proportion of our national greenhouse gas emissions. Basically, working 9 to 5 creates a double whammy: emissions from peak hour traffic jams and emissions from meeting peak power demand.

It doesn’t have to be like this

Stantec has been undertaking a comparison of pre and post data from the UK-wide lockdown in early 2020 as part of our response to the climate challenge, and our data has shown a clear correlation between the reduction in peak hour commuting during lockdown and a reduction in the need for fossil fuel power generation on the grid.  In fact, there was no coal power generation for over two months, and the ‘peaky’ wider fossil fuel use has been…well…less peaky and carbon intensive.  

Analysis undertaken by Stantec into the relationship between commuting and carbon intensity of electricity.  The data shows the dramatic reduction in car use at the beginning of the ‘lock down’ with a corresponding drop in the use of coal and gas which has in turn helped reduce the carbon intensity of the grid.

Government data showed that during the lock down we saw a 73% reduction in motor traffic and a 90% reduction in rail travel, driven by the vast majority of non-key workers observing Government guidance to work from home. The reduction in car travel alone could represent approximately 10% of our National Green House Gas Emission Inventory if maintained over the entire year. 

The combination of avoiding brown peak energy generation needs and renewable energy supply saw the carbon intensity of the grid drop as low as 21gCO2/kwh. 

That’s a staggering 90% reduction in energy emissions, supporting the idea that the shift towards a way of working as a work life blend, is significantly better for our planet, not just through a reduction in work related travel but also by smoothing out demand for power generation.

Promoting a work life blend

This leads to a very interesting proposition.  For the last two decades we have been striving to reduce our impact on the planet through expensive infrastructure and technological development. This has become the backbone of the UK Industrial Strategy’s Clean Growth Grand Challenge and is set to be central to a build back, better styled economic recovery plan. This is not necessarily wrong, but progress over the last 20 years has been slow, often because being green costs too much and creates constraints on viable economic growth.

But now, it turns out that the post war 9 to 5 model has been truly as Dolly sang ‘all takin’ and no givin’’, and that a simple adjustment could have a substantial impact on our greenhouse gas emissions. More interestingly, there are now many reports suggesting that the financial and professional services sector in particular are seeing the benefits of reduced real estate costs and greater productivity. Many businesses are also moving to a flexible working model, creating the additional benefit of a carbon reduction policy that is economically attractive to those that would need to implement it.

Of course, the idea that everyone is going to stop travelling to work is ridiculous. Some jobs simply don’t allow it, and for others – the need for collaboration and social interaction will continue to drive economically agglomerative behaviour and consequential travel demands. But now we know that we don’t need to travel to work every day, nor at peak times, we can begin to plan places to take account of different travel requirements, with different carbon emission outcomes.

Creating investable places by putting places first

Nor is this the only significant change happening, with structural changes also taking place across retail, logistics, manufacturing, health and education, creating more challenges to those of us involved in the planning, design and delivery of new communities. We believe that there is the need for a fundamental rethink across a range of policy areas to ensure we are doing more than shuffling the deck with roughly the same outcomes, and instead transforming how we work to meet the needs of new and existing communities. This will need a holistic approach, cutting across economic, land use, infrastructure and service planning. Over the next few months, we will be focussing on some of the key challenges:

  • How we better support the repurposing of town centres, change suburbia and edge of centre sites to reflect the needs of occupiers and customers as they change.
  • How we better reflect the importance of the neighbourhood as a ‘unit of place’, to provide for people who want to spend more time within their communities.
  • How we develop our infrastructure systems to support the work life blend – aligning our transport and energy to provide low carbon connectivity between communities.
  • How we establish a better basis for spatial planning and infrastructure investment decision making beyond traditional environmental and economics appraisal techniques.
  • How we transform our approach to planning and viability to recognise the need for changing investment priorities, and the need to support lower economic output areas.

Whilst the challenge for sustainable development might seem to have infrastructure and technology at its heart, we need to find ways of delivering better community outcomes which are also viable and deliverable – investable places.

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