Counting down the hours: could a shorter working week raise productivity and improve our mental health?

In 1930, the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within 100 years the working week would have shrunk to 15 hours. He believed that as living standards rose people would choose to have more leisure time as their material needs were satisfied.

For a time, it looked as if Keynes might be right. In the post-war period, average working hours continued falling, and analysis by the New Economics Foundation has suggested that if this trend had continued we would currently have an average working week of around 34 hours.

But in the 1980s, labour market deregulation, reduced collective bargaining, and slower growth in pay for low income workers put the brakes on working time reductions.

In the UK, 74% of the workforce work an average of 42.5 hours a week. That’s longer than in any EU country, apart from Greece and Austria.

The benefits of a shorter working week

In recent years, the twin challenges of climate change and automation of jobs, along with growing concerns about mental health and work/life balance, have prompted a rethink on working hours.

For some, a shorter working week means compressing forty working hours into four days instead of five.  Others argue that a truly progressive four-day week involves fewer hours at work, with no reduction in pay.

While many employers may recoil at the prospect of paying the same wage for fewer hours, a growing body of evidence presents some strong arguments in favour of this approach:

  • Studies of working hours reductions have demonstrated increases in productivity over four days to compensate for the loss of the fifth working day.
  • Employees with reduced hours spend less time on inefficient tasks, such as meetings.
  • Fewer hours can mean less stress, greater work-life balance and increased motivation.
  • A 2020 study by Autonomy found that a four day working week could potentially reduce energy consumption for the extra non-working day by 10% and emissions intensity by 15%.
  • A shorter working week could have positive effects on gender equality.
  • Maintenance costs can be reduced if all employees are out of the office for an additional day each week.

The four-day week in practice: lessons from New Zealand

In May, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern encouraged employers to consider the four-day working week as one of the ways the country’s economy could be rebuilt following the Covid-19 pandemic. She suggested that reductions in working hours could boost productivity and domestic tourism and improve work/life balance.

In fact, one New Zealand firm has already demonstrated the positive effects of a shorter working week. In March 2018, financial services company Perpetual Guardian began a two-month trial in which its 240 staff worked four eight-hour days, but got paid for five. The experiment was monitored by academics at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.

The findings from the trial showed that supervisors were able to maintain performance levels, and most teams recorded a marginal increase. Meanwhile, employees reported improved job satisfaction and a better work/life balance. In addition, many employees expressed a sense of greater empowerment in their work because of the planning discussions that preceded the trial. The success of the trial has now resulted in the four-day week being adopted as company policy at Perpetual Guardian.

The cost of cutting hours

Another working hours trial, in Gothenburg, Sweden, involved nurses in a care home being offered the chance to work six-hour shifts instead of eight, on full pay. While the trial resulted in improvements in staff satisfaction, health and patient care, the city had to employ an extra 17 staff, costing £1.4m. Critics of the scheme said the need to pump additional taxpayers’ money into the trial proved that it was not economically sustainable.

Cost is a potential stumbling block to further working hours reductions. A 2019 report from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) estimated that the cost to the UK public sector of moving to a four-day week would be £45 billion if attempted immediately, or £17 billion assuming generous productivity gains from shorter hours. The authors argued that such costs would require spending cuts in public services or substantial tax rises.

However, the Autonomy think tank has put the net cost of a 32-hour week at no more than £5.4 billion. Autonomy has also pointed to improvements in job quality for millions of public sector staff, the creation of 500,000 new jobs and reductions in the sector’s carbon footprint as potential benefits of shorter hours.

Burnout or rethink?

In October 2020, the 4 Day Week Campaign, Autonomy and Compass published Burnout Britain, looking at the impact of longer working hours. The report noted that over the past three years the length of the working day has increased steadily, resulting in a 49% rise in mental distress reported by employees. Women are experiencing particular pressures, with 43% more likely to have increased their hours during the Covid-19 crisis.

The report warned that beyond the coronavirus pandemic, the UK faces another serious public health emergency:

“…as well as an impending recession and mass unemployment, we are heading into an unprecedented mental health crisis”

The existing evidence suggests there’s a strong case to be made for reductions in working hours. Apart from the potential productivity gains and improvements in the quality of life, there are savings to be made in the costs of treating mental ill health caused by overwork.

Even so, government and employers will require further proof of the tangible benefits of a shorter working week before committing to permanent changes.

Crisis often accelerates change, and the Covid-19 pandemic has injected new urgency into the debate. Remote working, restrictions in the workplace and the threat of mass unemployment have demonstrated the need to reconsider the old rules that only months ago seemed set in stone.

We are still a long way from Keynes’ vision of a 15-hour week. But 2020 has shown that shining a light on previously unthinkable alternatives to our current ways of working is not only possible, but essential.


Further reading: more on working conditions from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team.

Guest post: biodiversity: where the world is making progress – and where it’s not

Vlad61/Shutterstock

Tom Oliver, University of Reading

The future of biodiversity hangs in the balance. World leaders are gathering to review international targets and make new pledges for action to stem wildlife declines. Depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty person, you’re likely to have different views on their progress so far.

More than 175 countries agreed to 20 targets under the banner of the Convention for Biological Diversity, which was signed in 1992. The most recent plan, published in 2010, was to halt the extinction of species and populations by 2020 to prevent the destruction of global ecosystems and to staunch the loss of genetic diversity – the variety within the DNA of species’ populations, which helps them adapt to a changing environment.

But the targets were missed. An optimist might say that’s because they were laudably ambitious, and we’re making good progress nonetheless. The protection of land particularly rich in biodiversity has increased from 29% to 44% in just a decade, which is a huge policy achievement. On the other hand, we failed to halt global biodiversity loss during a previous round of global targets ending in 2010 and, a decade later, we are still far behind where we need to be.

A recent UN report compiled detailed assessments of the world’s progress towards each of the 20 targets. It highlights some small victories, and where the greatest gulfs exist between present action and necessary ambition.

The good news

The international community has made progress on several goals. We have improved our global capacity to assess biodiversity trends, and funding for conservation roughly doubled over the previous decade to USD$78-91 billion annually.

There is now an international protocol governing the fair sharing of genetic resources discovered in nature, so they cannot be plundered by companies from rich countries. This gives countries added incentives to protect their biodiversity, which might lead to new medicines or technologies for use in food production.

Two of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat destruction and invasive species. Through scientific research and monitoring programmes, scientists are now better at identifying the pathways by which invasive species colonise vulnerable habitats. Protected areas have expanded across the globe too. Achim Steiner, leader of the UN Development Programme, stated that the world is on track to achieve protection of 17% of land and 10% of marine areas identified under the programme by the end of 2020.

All this has had a tangible effect. Up to four times as many birds and mammals likely would have become extinct in the past three decades without such actions.

A large black-and-white vulture opens its wings on a tree branch, with a vast desert behind it.California condors were saved from extinction by humans. There were just 27 left in 1989; today, there are nearly 500.
FRAYN/Shutterstock

The bad news

So far, so good. But all these successes are partial and ambiguous. Yes, we have increased funding for biodiversity, but this is still swamped by more than £500 billion in environmentally harmful subsidies, such as aid for the fossil fuel industry. Although we have identified more of the ways in which invasive species spread, there has been limited progress in actually controlling them. Though a significant area of the world is now designated as “protected”, management within these areas is still often inadequate.

What’s more, for many of the other targets, things have actually got worse. The loss and fragmentation of the world’s forests continues, depriving biodiversity of habitat and exacerbating climate change. Deforestation rates are only one-third lower in 2020 compared to 2010, and may be accelerating again in some areas.

Essential ecosystem services – such as the provision of clean water, soil for farming and pollinating insects – continue to deteriorate, affecting women, indigenous communities, and the poor and vulnerable more than others. We are still unable to even track changes in the genetic diversity of wild species, meaning we cannot assess these hidden changes in biodiversity which are important for the long-term resilience of a species.

The fundamental problem is that we have failed to address the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss. Targets for reducing pollution, habitat loss and climate change all show negative progress. We have achieved several easy wins, but the tougher challenges remain. Overcoming these will mean stopping the activities that are at the root of biodiversity loss.

A traffic jam of cars with a bridge running over the road in the distance.Only drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect habitats will improve conditions for wildlife.
Aaron Kohr/Shutterstock

We need better regulation of harmful chemicals which pollute the environment. Of the over 100,000 chemicals used in Europe today, only a small fraction are thoroughly evaluated or regulated by authorities, despite many causing harm to health and the environment. We need strong trade policies that prevent the destruction of primary rainforest for products such as palm oil and soy. Perhaps most of all, we need radical action on climate change, which is expected to overtake other drivers to be the number one cause of biodiversity loss in coming years.

These systemic changes require action from states and industries. But we can also take action as citizens and consumers. We need fundamental changes in the way we live – how we invest our money, the food we eat and how we travel. Each of us, making internet orders at the click of a button, has hidden power to influence the state of the planet. What we choose to buy, or not to buy, can help decide whether wild species flourish across the globe.

If world leaders fail to regulate unsustainable markets, then we need to be even more savvy about potentially harmful connections to the natural world that lie behind our purchases. Perhaps then we can start to be both optimistic and realistic about the state of our planet’s biodiversity.The Conversation

Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange Blog

Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 2

A window of opportunity

In policymaking, there is a concept known as the “Overton Window”, which describes the range of policies that politicians can propose without being considered too extreme by the population at large. This window of opportunity can be shifted and can allow for policies that in the past may have been considered unthinkable and radical to become mainstream and even sensible.

The impact of Covid-19 and the public health measures that have been required to suppress the virus, have undoubtedly resulted in a shift in the “Overton Window”. Policy interventions, such as the Job Retention Scheme and national lockdown, which involved massive amounts of government spending and restrictions to every aspect of our day-to-day lives, suddenly became normal and were largely approved of by the public.

In these circumstances, the concept of the Green New Deal, a policy package which involves large amounts of government spending, designed to create green jobs, develop green infrastructure and modernise the economy, may no longer be such an unfeasible idea.

Build back better: a green recovery

The economic impact of Covid-19 is expected to result in a 5.2% contraction of global GDP, amounting to the deepest global depression since 1945. In order to recover from this contraction, governments are formulating unprecedentedly large economic stimulus packages, designed to mitigate the economic and social damage created by the pandemic. Already there are numerous examples of governments utilising aspects of the Green New Deal within their economic recovery plans.

European Union

Next Generation EU – A European Green Deal

Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission was already working on creating a European Green Deal, which would support the EU transition to climate neutrality by 2050. After the onset of the pandemic, the European Commission moved to position the Green Deal as a key pillar of the EU’s €750 billion recovery package, known as Next Generation EU. 25% of the recovery package has been dedicated to funding climate action, whilst the entire package features a commitment that any money spent as part of the EU’s economic recovery must “do no harm” to the EU’s climate neutrality goal. The recovery package includes policies that are similar in nature to other Green Deals, including:

  • a €40 billion ‘Just Transition Fund’, to alleviate the socio-economic impacts of the green transition and diversify economic activity;
  • a €91 billion a year fund to improve home energy efficiency and develop low carbon heating;
  • the introduction of an EU-wide border tax on carbon-intensive industrial imports with the potential to raise €14 billion.

French Government

France Relaunch

The French government’s recently announced €100 billion stimulus package, includes a €30 billion package of measures designed to aid France’s transition to carbon neutrality. The measures set out within the package incorporate core elements from Green New Deals, such as developing cleaner forms of transport and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. The package includes the following green measures:

  • a €11 billion investment in developing and encouraging the use of green transport methods, nearly €5 billion of which will be used to upgrade rail lines to encourage freight traffic from road to rail;
  • a €6 billion investment to help improve the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings;
  • A €2 billion investment to help develop the hydrogen sector.

Scottish Government

Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland

Within this year’s Scottish Government Programme, it is evident from the first page that it views the need for economic recovery as an opportunity to create a  “fairer, greener and wealthier country”. The programme explicitly describes the measures contained as “the next tranche of our Green New Deal” and borrows extensively from existing Green New Deals, with policies including:

  • a £100 million green Job Creation Fund;
  • a £1.6 billion investment to decarbonise the heating of homes and other buildings;
  • a £62 million Energy Transition Fund to support businesses in the oil, gas and energy sectors over the next five years to grow and diversify;
  • capitalisation of the Scottish National Investment Bank with £2 billion over ten years, with a primary mission to support the transition to net zero emissions.

UK Government

A Plan for Jobs

A key element of the UK Government’s plans to support and develop the labour market is the creation of green jobs, through investment in infrastructure, decarbonisation and maintenance projects. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a principle which is at the core of the Green New Deal. The Plan for Jobs includes similar proposals, such as:

  • a £2 billion Green Homes Grant scheme that will provide homeowners and landlords with vouchers to spend on improving the energy efficiency of homes across the UK;
  • a £1 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme that will offer grants to public sector bodies, including schools and hospitals, to fund both energy efficiency and low carbon heat upgrades;
  • a £40 million Green Jobs Challenge Fund for environmental charities and public authorities to create and protect 5,000 jobs in England.

Final thoughts

The concept of the Green New Deal is one that appears to evolve and shift as time goes on. This is unfortunately to be expected as time runs out for governments to take meaningful action to avert rising global temperatures. The transition to carbon neutrality is one that will undoubtedly result in massive changes to almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and therefore it is not surprising that the journey to reach this point may require bold and unprecedented action.

However, prior to the Coronavirus pandemic, it would have been unimaginable to consider the levels of spending and intervention that governments would be required to take in order to implement a Green New Deal. The shift to carbon neutrality involves a complete reimagining of the economy and requires a great deal of public support, in particular when the energy transition may threaten the jobs of those who work in carbon-intensive industries.

In a post-Covid era, the concept of governments spending huge sums of money and making unprecedented interventions is now our everyday reality. The economic consequences of the pandemic will require an extraordinary response to ensure that its legacy is not one of increasing levels of unemployment, inequality and stagnation. In this new world, the ambition and wide-ranging nature of the Green New Deal may no longer be seen as unfeasible. In fact, as can be seen in the UK and Europe, governments are already looking to implement various elements of the Green New Deal as part of their economic recovery packages. Perhaps the Green New Deal is about to have its time.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Part one of this blog post was published on Monday 14 September.

Read some of our other blogs on climate change and the impacts of Covid-19:

Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 1

From the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement to the pressure placed on governments by worldwide school strikes, the issue of climate change and its effects on the world around us has increasingly risen to the top of the political agenda. Across the world, governments have begun to take various forms of action in an attempt to prevent further rises in global temperatures.

In particular, the concept of a package of measures designed to address climate change and economic inequality, known as the Green New Deal, has gained particular prominence in the past few years.

This two-part blog looks at the concept of the Green New Deal, how it has influenced global policy and its relevance as a means of economic recovery in a post-Covid world.

What is the Green New Deal?

The original concept of a Green New Deal was proposed in a report published by the New Economics Foundation in 2008. The report set out a range of policy proposals that would allow the UK to recover from the global financial crisis, whilst tackling the threat posed by climate change. The scale and ambition of the Green New Deal was largely inspired by the wide-ranging New Deal package of reforms and investment carried out by President Roosevelt, that enabled the United States to recover from the Great Depression.

In a similar vein, the report made recommendations that addressed a wide range of policy areas,  these included:

  • a £50 billion per year programme to create a low-carbon energy system that will involve making “every building a power station” by maximising energy efficiency and renewable energy generation;
  • creating and training a “carbon army” of workers to provide the human resources required for a vast environmental restructuring programme;
  • re-regulating the domestic financial system to ensure that the creation of money at low rates of interest is consistent with democratic aims, financial stability, social justice and environmental sustainability;
  • minimising corporate tax evasion by clamping down on tax havens and corporate financial reporting.

Green New Deal: 2.0

Over time the Green New Deal has evolved and has spread internationally. Following the 2018 US Elections, the concept gained increasing prominence in the United States. Advanced by newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the Green New Deal set out a vision for the United States to transition to become carbon neutral in just ten years.

In a similar vein to the ambition of both the New Deal and the original Green New Deal, the package proposed included a variety of measures that crossed a range of policy areas, including:

  • meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources;
  • upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification;
  • providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature;
  • guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.

Criticism of Green New Deals

The concept of the Green New Deal is often criticised for being too expensive to be implemented. Opponents of the US Green New Deal believe the timeline for the United States to become carbon neutral in just ten years is unrealistic, and the estimated cost of  $12.3 trillion is too high. Critics also argue that the proposals are too vague and often fail to consider the seismic changes the measures may have on wider society, particularly for those who work in industries directly impacted by the energy transition.

In short, critics of a Green New Deal believe that as a package it is simply too large, both in ambition and price, to be implemented successfully. The level of government action required to implement such wide-scale reform would be unprecedented in peacetime and could potentially require citizens to make substantial changes to the way they live their lives. Until wider society is willing to accept a substantial increase in government spending and changes to their way of life, it is unlikely that a Green New Deal will be able to be effectively implemented.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

Part two of this blog post is available now.

Read some of our other blogs on climate change and the impacts of Covid-19:

Food for thought: is Covid-19 a watershed moment in the fight against food waste?

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Much has been said about the reduced air pollution levels during the coronavirus lockdown as a result of the drastic reduction in travel but what about the impact other sectors are having as a result of recent changes? With eating out not currently an option, more of us are tucking in to takeaways as an alternative, which has had an impact on food waste.

Food waste in restaurants rises but waste at home is on a downward trend

New research released by Just Eat and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has found that “fluctuations in demand and unpredictable ordering patterns” have led to a slight increase in food waste generated in takeaway restaurants during lockdown. According to the analysis, food waste from restaurants has risen from an average of £111 to £148 per week per restaurant. This means food waste has increased from 9% of all waste to 10%, since pre-lockdown – which equates to a £16.7m rise for the sector as a whole during lockdown.

As well as the variations in demand and unpredictability of ordering patterns, the survey found that disrupted supply chain and business models also had an impact on waste. Almost half (45%) of the restaurants surveyed said they throw most food waste in the bin, which is not good news for the UN target of halving global food waste by 2030.

On the flip side, however, consumers have seemingly become more aware of the food they waste at home and are now wasting less of their takeaway, down from 9% on average to 7.2%. The research estimates that, as a result, households have saved an average of £3.2 million per week during lockdown which adds up to £22.4 million all together.

Over half (59%) of consumers say that they have a greater oversight over how much food is wasted since Covid-19. And there is also agreement that food shortages have heightened awareness of food waste, with 84% agreeing that: “Stockpiling and empty supermarket shelves showed me how important it is to make the most of what we have”.

Changing behaviours and attitudes to food waste

Another recent survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) of more than 4,000 participants found that almost a third of consumers said they were cooking more creatively while staying at home, while 30% have started saving leftovers. As a result of these new behaviours, the research shows that the public are throwing away a third less in food waste when compared to the average across 2018-2019, across four key products – bread, milk, potatoes and chicken.

Other changes in consumer behaviour and attitudes during lockdown, highlighted by the research include that:

  • 63% are shopping less often
  • 59% are buying more to create more meals at home
  • there has been a shift to more fresh produce and long-life products and less pre-cut veg, salad packs and ready meals
  • almost half (47%) are checking their cupboards more often before shopping, and 45% their fridge
  • 37% have been organising the food in their cupboards and the fridge
  • around 9 in 10 agree that “food waste is an important national issue” (87%) and that “everyone, including me, has a responsibility to minimise the food we throw away” (92%)

This shows there has been a small but significant change in attitudes towards food waste, according to WRAP, as this represents a 23% increase since November 2019 in the number of citizens that strongly agree with the above two statements.

Sustaining such behaviour and attitudes post-lockdown could certainly help in the fight against food waste, something the UK is already on target with.

Progress in reducing food waste

Indeed, before the current crisis, the UK had been making good progress in reducing food waste according to data from WRAP, with total levels falling by 480,000 tonnes between 2015 and 2018 – the equivalent of 7% per person and a reduction in emissions of 7.1 million tonnes CO2e.

The data shows there was a 27% reduction in food waste between 2007 and 2018, which has saved 1.7 million tonnes of food waste, equal to £4.7 billion. There was also an increase in the number of people that see food waste as an issue, rising from 26% in 2015 to 69% in 2019.

It is clear from the figures that we are moving in the right direction to meet both national and international targets on food waste, and that the current crisis has accelerated this, at least in the short term.

Final thoughts

It has been suggested that the current health crisis could perhaps be a catalyst for lasting air quality improvements. Could it also be a catalyst for a food waste revolution? The report from WRAP suggests it could be:

“This could be a watershed moment in the fight against food waste. There is a unique opportunity to embed these good habits into a ‘new normal’ – a culture which values food and reaps the maximum benefit from it. This makes good financial sense, at a time of economic uncertainty, but will also deliver significant benefits for the planet.”

Of course, the report also acknowledges that there are a range of behaviours that may require some level of support post-lockdown (particularly when citizens once again are more time-pressured). Similarly to the issue of air pollution, there will be a need to maintain certain changes and for new ways of thinking around tackling climate change across sectors when we once again shift focus back to the enduring climate emergency.

One thing is for sure, while we may begin to breathe more easily in the UK’s urban areas, it is no time to take our eye off the ball when it comes to tackling carbon emissions.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our other recent posts related to food waste:

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team.

‘Veganuary’ – could a plant-based lifestyle really save the planet?

As we leave behind the indulgences of the festive period, an increasing number of people are signing up to ‘Veganuary’, a campaign encouraging people to try vegan for the month of January and beyond. Already, the campaign has reached its target of 350,000 participants as it continues to grow in popularity; increasing its support every year since its launch in 2014.

Participants sign up for a number of reasons, with major drivers being health, animal welfare and the environment. It’s perhaps no surprise that health is a major driver, given the time of year, but increasingly people are turning away from animal products in a bid to help protect the planet.

Indeed, animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and while it hasn’t received the same attention as others such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport, it is now receiving increasing media coverage.

Impact of animal agriculture

“The food industry is destroying the living world”. These were the words of environmental journalist George Monbiot, also a supporter of Veganuary, in the recent Channel 4 documentary Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet.

With the increasing population, there has been much discussion in recent years of the effects of urban sprawl and how to tackle this, but Monbiot suggests that attention should be turned to ‘agricultural sprawl’, which he asserts is a much bigger cause of habitat destruction. While ambling through the indisputably scenic Lake District, he describes the landscape as a “sheep-wrecked desert”, which was once home to a rich mosaic of trees, shrubs, plants and animals.

It is also noted that while deforestation in the Amazon is a topic of much current discussion and concern, Britain is actually one of the most deforested landscapes in the world, with agriculture one of the biggest drivers.

The documentary highlights that 51% of land in the UK is currently used for livestock or growing food for livestock, while less than 20% is used for growing cereals, fruit and vegetables for human consumption, and just 10% is used for trees – the one thing that is “essential for both nourishing living systems and preventing climate breakdown”.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the UK and 10-12% of emissions globally; the fourth highest GHG emitting sector in the world.

Monbiot makes a radical suggestion that all farming could be eradicated in the future as we look to other sources of food and more sustainable practices. This may be somewhat extreme and undoubtedly something with which the farming community would disagree.

Nevertheless, the extent of the current climate crisis warrants drastic measures and as one of the largest contributors, it would make sense for action to be taken to reduce the impact agriculture currently has.  And it has been argued that a change in diet is the easiest and fastest way to reduce our own personal emissions.

Impact of reduced meat consumption

According to calculations based on the current Veganuary participation figures, 31 days of a vegan diet for 350,000 people would equate to the following savings:

  • 41,200 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere – the same as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin;
  • 160 tonnes of PO43 equivalent (eutrophication) from waterways – the same as preventing 650 tonnes of sewage from entering waterways; and
  • 5 million litres of water, which is enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In addition, it is suggested that 1 million animals could be saved.

Analysis of the Veganuary 2019 campaign results by Kantar suggests that going vegan for January also leads to sustained meat reduction. Drawing on data from January to June 2019, it was found that there was a sustained reduction in consumption which is estimated to have saved approximately 3.6 million animals in Britain alone.

Still just 3% of the population identify as vegan according to Kantar. Nevertheless, those who participated in Veganuary but did not stay vegan beyond January, did maintain reduced consumption levels at least until July, suggesting a long-term impact on consumption habits.

With increasing numbers pledging their support to Veganuary each year and the resulting reductions in sales of red meat, it would seem that reducing meat consumption may well be a way forward.

Indeed, the United Nations (UN) has also emphasised the need for significant changes in global land use, agriculture and human diets. The UN-commissioned special report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods, “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. By 2050, it suggests that dietary changes could free several million km2 of land and considerably reduce CO2 emissions.

Final thoughts

The ‘Veganuary effect’ has clearly been significant and one that sees no sign of dissipating any time soon.

Of course, changing diets isn’t the only way to reduce the environmental impact of food production. Reducing food waste and changing farming and land management practices can also help reduce emissions. The IPCC report also calls for an end to deforestation, the planting of new forests and support to small farmers. It does not call for an end to all farming.

So while we wait for the many governments to take meaningful action on climate change, perhaps picking up our knives and forks as the weapon of choice against the climate crisis is an effective way of making a difference now.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of our other posts related to the environment and climate change:

Follow us on Twitter to see what topics are interesting our research team.

Rivers are changing all the time, and it affects their capacity to contain floods

Houses alongside the Saigon river in Vietnam. Tony La Hoang/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

This guest post was written by: Louise Slater, University of Oxford; Abdou Khouakhi, Loughborough University, and Robert Wilby, Loughborough University.

The rainfall that has inundated the North of England is the latest in a long line of flood events that are becoming the country’s new normal. Indeed, across the world, flooding is expected to become more frequent and more extreme as the planet heats up.

Building robust flood defences and modelling vulnerable areas is crucial if we are to avoid loss of life and livelihoods from these devastating weather events. But our new research reveals that the capacity of rivers to keep water flowing within their banks can change quickly – and in failing to acknowledge this, some flood models and defences may be under-equipped to deal with the consequences when they do.

Many assume that flooding is due to heavy rainfall. This is true, but only part of the explanation. Floods also occur when the amount of water running off the land exceeds the capacity of rivers to carry that flow – as was the case when the River Don breached flood defences in the Sheffield area recently. So, floods are partly caused by the amount of rain falling, partly by the moisture that is already in the ground, and partly by the capacity of rivers to contain water within their channels.

This means that if the capacities of river channels change, then two identical rainfall events falling on similarly wet ground can cause flooding of very different severity.

Most rivers are forever changing. They are shaped by the sediments and water they carry. Humans have modified most of the world’s rivers in some way. In some cases this is through direct influence, such as dam construction or river engineering. Other influences are indirect – building on nearby land reduces the capacity of ground to absorb water, agriculture draws water from rivers, and deforestation leaves more water to flow elsewhere.

After the River Don burst its banks in places, multiple roads in urban centres such as Rotherham flooded. DnG Photography/Shutterstock

Rivers respond to changes in climate as well. During drier periods, less water flows through river systems. This means that there is often less energy to move the sediments at their beds, so riverbed levels may progressively rise, decreasing the capacity of the river. Abundant plant growth within the channel can also reduce a river channel’s capacity by slowing the flow.

But it is not always easy to predict how rivers will change. Extreme shifts in channel shape and capacity can occur very rapidly. After a recent flash flood in Spain, one river rose almost a metre as huge volumes of sediment from upstream were displaced and dumped further along. In tropical river systems, which tend to carry more sediment than temperate rivers, these changes can be several metres.

Uncertain risk

Unfortunately, such changes are typically ignored by flood engineers and modellers, who generally treat the channel as a fixed feature. If rivers actually change their capacity in space and time, then estimates of flood probability may be incorrect, putting people and property at risk.

Motivated by these concerns, we investigated the pace at which channel changes occur, and to what extent these alterations might be driven by climate. We began with a simple conceptual model: climate controls rainfall, rainfall affects river flow, and river flow shapes channel capacity.

Direct observations of this link were lacking in river systems over short timescales. So, we took 10,000 measurements of the capacity of 67 rivers in the US, covering a period of nearly 70 years. We also gathered rainfall and river flow data, to assess how climatic changes affected the capacity of the rivers.

We discovered that temporary shifts in river capacity, lasting years to decades, were far more frequent than had previously been assumed. Overall, river capacity tends to increase during periods that are wetter than average due to greater erosion of river channels, and decrease in drier periods.

The flood-prone Ganges river is a lifeline to millions who live along its course. Joachim Bago/ Shutterstock

We also found that multi-year climate cycles that affect regional precipitation patterns – such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation – can cause channel capacity to expand and contract too, perhaps on a global scale. Armed with this knowledge, we may eventually be able to predict how the capacity of rivers changes, and hence better understand flood risk.

In temperate regions such as the UK, where rivers tend to be vegetated, heavily engineered and relatively stable, delicate changes in channel capacity are hard to detect and unlikely to be life threatening. However, in river systems that carry high volumes of sediment, or in parts of the world where rainfall varies considerably during the year, sudden reductions in river capacity may dramatically increase flood risk for nearby settlements. For example, the Ganges-Brahmaputra river in India and Bangladesh falls under this category. Its capacity is already changing, and its floodplains are some of most densely populated in the world.

Unfortunately, we still have very poor understanding of the nature and causes of channel capacity changes in most regions – and it is the most at-risk places that tend to have the least data. To better understand what’s happening, we need to use satellite imagery to monitor how fast rivers are responding to changes in the climate. What we can’t yet do though is monitor river adjustment in real time. Developing technologies that do this would greatly improve our understanding of how changes in river shape and capacity affect flood risk across the world.

Until this information becomes apparent, flood models and defence structures should build this uncertain risk into their designs. Doing so could make all the difference for those living in vulnerable areas.


Louise Slater, Associate Professor in Physical Geography, University of Oxford; Abdou Khouakhi, Research Associate, Climate and Weather Data Analysis, Loughborough University, and Robert Wilby, Professor of Hydroclimatic Modelling, Loughborough University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Further reading from our blog:

Future proofing Scotland’s road network

How can we ensure Scotland’s roads are fit for the future? That was the challenging question facing a panel of experts at this year’s Traffex Scotland exhibition. The exhibition – held for the first time at the SEC in Glasgow – attracted a large number of contractors, consultants, manufacturers and suppliers involved in the design, management and maintenance of Scotland’s roads and bridges.

Future-proofing the roads network was one of several seminars at the exhibition covering highway maintenance and development. The speakers on the panel were: Eddie Ross and Andy Thomson from BEAR Scotland (which maintains Scotland’s roads), Mark Arndt from Amey (a leading supplier of consulting and infrastructure support services both in the UK and internationally) and Evan Ferguson from Scotland Transerv (which manages and maintains more than 600 kilometres of trunk road and motorway network across South West Scotland).

The panel highlighted the challenges facing road maintenance engineers in assessing the current state of Scotland’s road network, and agreed that one of the key factors driving successful future development was to gain an understanding of the travel habits of the future. Gathering and sharing data will form the backbone of this understanding, enabling traffic managers to model, monitor and control the effects of travel as well as reducing congestion.

But the basics of road maintenance will always apply. Scotland has a diverse road network, and while trunk roads in the north of the country are often single carriage, requiring considerable improvements, elsewhere the challenges relate to capacity. Maintaining those roads, developing them for the future and ensuring minimum disruption to travellers and the economy are all exercising the minds of traffic engineers.

The climate and the weather are also important drivers of change. The panel wholeheartedly agreed that water is the road engineer’s enemy, and the increasingly wet weather experienced by Scotland can often lead to disruption for travellers.

The Scottish Government’s recent consultation on its National Transport Strategy highlighted extreme weather events, such as 2018’s “Beast from the East”, which cost the UK economy at least £1 billion per day as gridlocked roads, along with no trains and no buses meant many workers were unable to access employment.

The Traffex panel welcomed the National Transport Strategy as a good first step in future-proofing Scotland’s roads network. It highlights the need to enhance the resilience of the transport network, to enable new transport projects and policies to deal effectively with the predicted changes in climate and to adapt existing networks to allow for increased rainfall and extreme temperatures.

The panel also discussed some of the technological advances that are set to revolutionise travel patterns in the coming years. One notable development is the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

AVs need roads without impediments, and therefore need clear and well-maintained road surfaces, as well as road markings that are kept at high standards. At the same time, the ways in which AVs use roads may be different from conventional traffic, and this will have significant effects on the resilience of road surfaces.

Electric vehicles also herald profound changes to our roads, with implications for road pricing and infrastructure.

With only 20 minutes to cover the future of Scotland’s roads, the panel had their work cut out. But they ended, as they began, by stressing the need to understand the travel habits of the future. There was widespread agreement that the travelling public will be open to innovations such as AVs and electric vehicles, but will also expect improvements in connectivity options, including cycling and public transport.

Our road engineers will have a vital role to play in maintaining the roads network, while being flexible and open to new developments to keep Scotland moving.


Idox Transport delivers bespoke, cost-effective solutions to support strategic and localised transport control. Innovative services and solutions enable complete management across all forms of transport, supporting the safe and efficient movement of people and vehicles – whatever the end goal. To find out more, please contact the Transport team at transport@idoxgroup.com

Lessons from Norway: Deposit Return Scheme

by Scott Faulds

Last year, following the screening of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, the issue of single-use plastic and its effect on the ecosystem rose to the forefront of the public’s mind. Research conducted by Waitrose & Partners found that 88% of people who watched Blue Planet have now changed the way they use plastics, with 60% of viewers now likely to use a refillable water bottle. The “blue planet effect” has even influenced the work of various legislatures, with the introduction of new laws designed to ban single-use plastic in the Scottish Government, UK Government and European Commission. Additionally, both the Scottish and UK Governments have been looking into ways to reduce use of single-use plastics through the introduction of what is known as a deposit return scheme (DRS).

What is a deposit return scheme?

The basis of a DRS is relatively simple: when you purchase a drink in a single-use container you pay a nominal fee as a deposit. On returning the container you receive your deposit back. The Scottish Government have recently announced that they have set the deposit for their scheme at 20p. DRSs have been successfully operating across the world for several years and are particularly common in the Nordic countries, where container return rates are between 88% to 96%. However, whilst the basis of the DRS is often the same, each country has a different set of operating criteria that determines which single-use containers can participate in the scheme, the level of deposit and the places where people can return their single-use containers.

The Norwegian Model

The most effective DRS in the world can be found in Norway, colloquially known as “panting”, which has been in operation since the early 2000s. 97% of all plastic drink bottles are returned and less than 1% of all plastic bottles sold in Norway end up in the environment. Most impressively, it is estimated that 92% of all plastic bottles returned are recycled back into plastic bottles, with the chief executive of Infinitum (the private, not-for-profit, operator of the DRS owned by retailers and producers) estimating that some bottles have already been recycled more than fifty times.

Within the Norwegian model, the legislation underpinning the scheme is a single page, with the industry owned body Infinitum entrusted to decide how best to operate the DRS. Infinitum is incentivized to make the scheme as efficient as possible due to an environmental tax placed on all producers of plastic bottles, which is lifted if 95% of all single-use containers are returned.

The Norwegian scheme accepts all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and aluminium containers if packaging has been designed in line with Infinitum’s guidelines, which ensures that all containers entering the scheme are able to be easily recycled. These guidelines are fundamental to ensure the circular nature of the scheme. For example, it is critical that labels attached to bottles are easily removed without leaving any residue which could inhibit their ability to be recycled.  The level of deposit charged varies, with all aluminium and small PET containers set at 2kr (17p) and large (500ml+) PET containers at 3kr (26p). All retailers that sell beverages eligible for the scheme are required to act as a collection point, either via reverse vending machines or as a manual collection point. Additionally, it is also possible for schools/charities to act as manual collection points, which enables them to collect additional revenue. Reverse vending machines also feature an option for the deposit to be donated to the Norwegian Red Cross.

In short, the design of the Norwegian DRS has largely been left in the hands of the industry itself, who are incentivised to ensure it operates effectively in order to receive a tax reduction. This has enabled the creation of a truly circular system where everything from the design of the packaging itself to how containers are collected has been meticulously planned. The statistics speak for themselves:  with 97% of all plastic drink containers returned and 92% of these containers then re-purposed into new containers, it is fair to say that Norway’s DRS is world leading.

Lessons to Learn

With both the Scottish and UK governments at various stages in their development of a DRS, there are some lessons to be learned from the successful scheme operated in Norway.

Both governments could look at how best to ensure industry engagement when implementing their DRSs. Encouraging citizens to recycle more is unquestionably a good thing for a responsible government to do. However, containers returned can only be recycled if industry is engaged and able to make appropriate changes to their containers to ensure they are as recyclable as possible when returned.

Additionally, it will be important to ensure that there is enough infrastructure in place to allow people to return their single-use containers. This will be of particular significance to more rural areas of the country. Both governments could consider how Norway dealt with this issue, where any business which sells items eligible for the DRS must also act as a collection point. Furthermore, both governments could consider if it is viable to enable schools and charities to act as manual collection points, allowing citizens to donate their deposit to worthy causes. This will provide citizens with options in how they wish to make use of their deposit whilst also providing additional collection infrastructure.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, it is evident that Norway operates the most effective DRS in the world, with over 95% of all plastic and aluminium containers recycled via the scheme. Both the Scottish and UK governments would be wise to look at what lessons can be learned from Norway when designing DRSs which will help to tackle the climate emergency. As shown by the experience of Norway, the most effective DRSs are more than just recycling, they are entire system changes.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on recycling and climate change:

A rising tide: the growing importance of the blue economy

Wild Surf

There has been much focus on the green economy in recent times as the international community attempts to address the current ‘climate emergency’. According to the United Nations (UN), “an inclusive green economy is one that improves human well-being and builds social equity while reducing environmental risks and scarcities.” Over the past decade, many governments have highlighted the green economy as a strategic priority, and since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C in 2018, action has been stepped up across the globe.

However, green economy strategies tend to focus on the sectors of energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, which leaves out an important part of the world’s environment – the oceans. It has been argued that “a worldwide transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy will not be possible unless the seas and oceans are a key part of these urgently needed transformations”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, a new buzzword in the international sustainability agenda is gaining momentum – the ‘blue economy’. Since the turn of the 21st Century, there has been an increasing commitment to growing the blue economy but what exactly is it and why is it important?

What is the blue economy?

Similarly to the green economy, there is no internationally agreed definition of the blue economy. Its origins stem from the Rio+20 outcomes whereby member states of the UN pledged to ‘protect, and restore, the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, to maintain their biodiversity, enabling their conservation and sustainable use for present and future generations.’

It is further explained through the UN General Assembly support for Sustainable Development Goal 14: ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ as set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Various definitions have been used by different agencies.

According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Conservation International has suggested that, “at its simplest, ‘blue economy’ refers to the range of economic uses of ocean and coastal resources — such as energy, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture, mining, and tourism. It also includes economic benefits that may not be marketed, such as carbon storage, coastal protection, cultural values and biodiversity.”

Like the green economy, the blue economy model aims for improvement of human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

Why the blue economy is so important?

Clearly, ocean health is vital to the blue economy. With over 70% of the world’s surface covered by ocean, almost half of the world’s population living in close proximity to the sea, the majority of all large cities being located along the coast and 90% of global economic trade travelling by sea, it is not difficult to see why the ocean and its resources are seen as increasingly important for both sustainable and economic development.

It is also a source of food, jobs and water, and contributes to the protection of the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been estimated that the global blue economy has an annual turnover of between US$3 and 6 trillion and is expected to double by 2030. It is also estimated that fisheries and aquaculture contribute $US100 billion annually and about 260 million jobs to the global economy. In addition, over 3 billion people around the world, mostly from developing countries, rely on the world’s oceans and seas for their livelihood.

It is therefore not surprising that ocean pollution and the threat to marine resources have ascended the sustainability agenda in recent years, attracting increasing global attention and high-profile interest.

Sir David Attenborough’s popular Blue Planet II series highlighted the devastating impact pollution is having on the world’s oceans. It led to drastic behaviour change – 88% of people who watched the programme reported having changed their behaviour as a result, with half saying they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, and half saying they had “somewhat changed” it.

The recently heightened concerns over climate change have also highlighted the importance of the blue economy. The IPCC report warned that coral reefs would decline by 70-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99%) would be lost with 2ºC.

Momentum building

Governments and organisations from across the world have been taking action to address the climate emergency with many strengthening commitments to growing the blue economy in particular.

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships.

A new High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy was also established in September, the first time serving heads of government have joined forces on a global pact to protect the world’s oceans.

The UN’s Decade for Ocean Science (2021-2030) will also soon be upon us and the World Trade Organisation has been tasked with ending harmful fisheries subsidies by 2020. New approaches are also helping countries value their small-scale fisheries. Scotland’s economic action plan, for example, makes a specific commitment to grow the blue economy which includes a new, world-leading approach to fisheries management with a focus on inclusive economic growth.

Way forward

The increasing awareness of the blue economy and the threats it currently faces provide an opportunity to change things for the better. As the global conference on the sustainable blue economy suggested, a sustainable blue economy strategy needs to be people-centric with ocean-centric investments. If momentum keeps building towards growing the blue economy across the globe, perhaps this will go some way to mitigating the global climate emergency bringing benefits for all.


Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs