Advocates propose every person in UK be given a monthly carbon budget to balance between heating, travel, energy and food – but could something so radical ever work in reality, asks Colin Drury?
You click the heating on and receive an app notification telling you how much of your carbon allowance you’ve used today. Outside in the drive, your car’s fuel is linked to the same account. In the fridge, the New Zealand lamb you’ve bought has cost not just pounds and pence but a chunk of this monthly emissions budget too.
Welcome to the world of personal carbon allowances – a concept that is increasingly gaining traction among experts as a possible response to the climate crisis.
Such a scheme, advocates reckon, would get more of us making the link between our own behaviour and global warming. Because consumers would seek greener energy, fuel and goods to stretch their allowance further, it could also help fundamentally restructure the economy in favour of low- or no-emission businesses.
“Individuals accounts for about 45 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions,” says Dr Tina Fawcett, acting leader of Oxford University’s energy programme and a researcher who has spent almost 20 years studying this concept. “Personal budgets could be a relatively simple, straightforward tool for reducing that.”
Now, in the wake of Cop26, many feel the concept – radical, perhaps, but demonstrably do-able – has never been riper for consideration. So, could this be our future?
Personal carbon allowances are not, it should be said, a new idea.
Academia started exploring the possibilities of such schemes in the late 1990s, while between 2006 and 2007, the then environment secretary David Miliband commissioned two reports into their potential use. The concept, he enthused, had a “simplicity and beauty that would reward carbon thrift”. In those days it was not an app that was envisaged but a carbon credit card.
In the intervening years, a number of local authorities, including Oxford City Council, have explored if such schemes could work regionally. In the Finnish city of Lahti, a voluntary scheme for transport use has widely been praised. Crucially, amid rising concern about global warming, studies suggest there is anecdotal evidence of a growing public willingness to embrace personal limitations
“They two key issue for people tend to be: can it be implemented fairly and can it be implemented effectively,” says Fawcett. “If both those questions can be answered yes, the idea that people can then manage their own allowance in accordance with their own priorities does appear to have appeal.”
While there is no real agreement on how a UK-wide scheme would work, proposals tend to share certain common characteristics. it would be mandatory, it would cover energy and transport at the very least and possibly food and consumer goods; allowances would be tradable to reward lower use; and the quotas would, ultimately, be reduced over time to reach net zero.
Technologically, most agree the idea is achievable. It may be more difficult than creating, for example, a vaccine passport – but not hugely so.
For Fawcett and other supporters – which includes the Green Party – this should be a no-brainer. CPAs, they say, would drive our behaviour by appealing to both our self-interest – that is to say our pockets – and to our sense of community.
“By establishing an equal monthly budget for everyone, you create a sense of a shared effort to address a shared problem,” says Fawcett.
Yet others who are equally interested in reducing carbon use are less convinced that this is a suitable way forward.
“As a thought-experiment, it’s interesting but I think people have got carried away without necessarily thinking of all the practicalities,” says Simon Roberts, chief executive at the Bristol-based Centre for Sustainable Energy. “The problem is the effort required to deliver something like this creates almost insurmountable obstacles. There are a lot of other ways to achieve very similar outcomes – getting carbon down – that are more in line with what we already know how to do.”
His view is especially worth considering because he was one of the co-authors of the 2006 report for the Labour government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Back then, he concluded that CPAs came with numerous issues – and, in the 15 years since, he has not seen anything to convince him otherwise.
For critics like Roberts and Gross, far better ways to reduce carbon use would come through more systemic change: heat pumps and electric vehicle subsidies, an end to all fossil fuel expansion in the UK and – crucially – a carbon tax.
“This is something that could be done almost instantly,” says Roberts. “That’s where we should be putting in the hard yards. If you add a carbon consumption tax to consumer goods, for instance, then goods produced using lower carbon systems become cheaper, which encourages more people to buy them instead of their competitors. That would drive change without having to work out something that is politically difficult to swallow for so many people.”
So-called nudge policies could also be better employed, some reckon. Carbon counts on restaurant menus and rewards for using public transport are among a raft of ideas that have been put forward to influence people’s behaviour.
All of which suggests the debate over the relative merits of CPAs is only set to continue.
Ron Clutz: “This all sounds like one’s entire life would be recorded and regulated and monitored and meddled with by politicians who’ll punish or praise, all in pursuit of a vague utopia. … A world in which every consideration is now suffixed with ‘to save the planet.’” … “You can define the confidence of a culture by the pettiness of its laws.” … “We shouldn’t feign surprise. A stubborn one-third of any population harbors latent authoritarian tendencies. All they need is a little nudge and a wink from someone in a lab coat or a pinstripe suit.” …
“As Mencken wrote, they’re governed by the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. … That’s the problem with do-gooding. There’s always more good to do. … What happens when we reach Net Zero and the weather doesn’t change? I can only guess… ‘That wasn’t real Net-Zero. Real Net-Zero has never been tried.’”
Journal Nature: COVID lockdowns are key to begin ‘personal carbon allowances’: ‘Restrictions on individuals…that were unthinkable only 1 year before’ have us ‘more prepared to accept tracking & limitations’ to ‘achieve a safer climate’