Smart carb quota

10th November, 2004 by Anonymous

Exploring the rationing route to emissions control, Roger East gets down to the personal level – and swipes his carbon card for the opposite of air miles.

“Seen this pop-up on the webwall, Peter? ‘Let 2015 be the year you cuddle your grandkids in California.’ Look, special offers on flights until June. Oh, Peter, can we afford it, for Paige’s birthday?” “It’s not just the money, Mary – the flight takes 200 points off the carbon ration chip, and that’s if you go alone.

We’ve no points saved since we drove to Edinburgh. If only you’d had more luck on the Carbolottery lately.” “We could buy in some credits, surely? There’s whole African villages crying out for the cash, and Dan says those international trading sites are much more secure since they closed down the Carboncongo scam.

And if you got that old mini-turbine working properly again, we could earn some credits too. Plus we’d be using less heating anyway, while I was away – you’re always on at me to turn it down and dress up warmer.”

A science fiction future? The carbon dioxide emissions crisis is science fact already. And, a decade hence, weighing up travel (and energy) choices in a personal carbon budget could be more than merely a matter of green conscience.

It might be a fact of life – rethinking our lifestyles in a meticulously carbon-controlled world, learning how make the best use of limited ‘rights to emit CO2’. Forecasting is a dodgy business, but there are two things you can take as read – those rights will be in pretty short supply, and it’ll cost us dear if the ‘free market’ is the only mechanism we have to share them out.

Emissions quotas for countries will be international law under the Kyoto treaty next year. And we’re getting the hang of the idea of trading those carbon quotas – between nations, and between companies too. But individual quotas – isn’t that too mind-boggling to contemplate?

Not for a small (all right, tiny) number of enthusiasts, who have a cunning plan. They believe it can bring equity, urgency and collective commitment to the battle against climate catastrophe. Sadly, they’ve saddled it with a name that must be a publicist’s nightmare. ‘Domestic tradeable quotas.’ DTQs to you.

Every adult resident in the UK, the idea goes, would get a DTQ, corresponding to an equal share in a national CO2 emissions target set by the government each year. Denominated in ‘carbon units’, it would be credited without charge to a special swipe-card. A nationwide system with the requisite electronic wizardry would debit units whenever you bought fuel or power.

It would also administer some sort of instantaneous eBay auction house, so the energy-extravagant could buy extra units from those who were frugal enough to have a surplus. Just a boffin’s dream? Richard Starkey and Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research freely admit that it’s in the ‘blue skies phase’, and that many problems need to be overcome before a fully functional system could be set up.

Starkey, however, told Green Futures that it could be feasible by 2010 – especially if the carbon card could be piggy-backed on a national ID card system, ensuring that everyone entitled to free carbon units had one. Picking up on these ideas, Labour MP Colin Challen put forward a DTQ Bill in parliament this autumn. It suffered the usual fate of the kite-flying private member’s bill – it failed to get a second reading – but achieved his objective of giving the arguments some public profile.

Talk this over with someone whose bugbear is state control, or who’s pathologically protective of their ‘right to consume’, and they’ll probably want the whole thing strangled at birth. But talk to Mayer Hillman, maverick veteran of many a social and environmental campaign, and you’ll see the light in his eye: here’s someone utterly at home with organised austerity. Wartime rationing, to him, is a heroic precedent, accepted by an embattled nation not as desirable, but as necessary, and above all as fair.

It wouldn’t have been acceptable, when food was scarce, to let the free market drive up prices so only the rich could afford essentials. The spirit of equity represented by the ration book, as Hillman sees it, did much to reinforce a wartime sense of common purpose. In a similar spirit he makes carbon rationing a central focus of his book How we can save the planet. Here, at its most explicit, is the link between rationing individual carbon and reducing global emissions.

The aim, simply, is to push us to progressively lower carbon lifestyles year on year. We’d have to make do with 1-2% fewer units in our DTQ each year to meet the current government’s target of 60% lower emissions by 2050. Hillman wants a tighter ratchet.

Global carbon emissions, he argues, need to shrink by more than 60%, sooner than 2050, if we’re to make the grade on managing climate change. And as a fan of ‘contraction and convergence’, he insists that average consumption per person in the UK must simultaneously be brought down to converge with the (much lower) per capita average in the world as a whole. These carbon rationeers bring a novel take to a vital issue.

The ethical foundation’s attractive, and they depict a system operating with disarming simplicity. But their trust in technology won’t be universally shared, and there are other hurdles to acceptance, too. Some of us struggle to manage a household budget, and not everyone even has a bank account.

Short of introducing a compulsory combined ID/carbon card, it’s hard to see how we achieve the near-comprehensive take-up which the system will need if it’s to work properly. Nor can we blithely assume a common set of values. David Fleming, one of the first to develop the DTQ idea, believes that a collective commitment to lower carbon lifestyles could develop so strongly that “heavy users would have the disadvantage that their conspicuous consumption exposes them to public rebuke and ridicule”.

Now that, you’d have to say, would be quite a sea change from current attitudes. A free and equal carbon ration would be income-redistributive, putting a saleable scarce resource in the hands of the less well off, but what about people who flogged off all their mobility and warmth for fags and beer? Would we then let them freeze?

On both individual and social attitudes, the rationeers have work to do. Politically, they’ve spotted the unpopularity of fuel taxation as the obvious alternative way to drive down carbon profligacy. But where are the votes in carbon rationing – or the special interests to push it, apart from the electronic banking industry and the card companies? Big questions – but then climate change is the mother of all big issues. Set against that, the shortcomings of carbon rationing are problems well worth finding answers for.


  • Government sets an annual ceiling on CO2 emissions
  • This budget is broken down into ‘carbon units’
  • Each carbon unit permits the emission of 1kg of CO2
  • 55% are sold by auction to businesses and public sector
  • 45% are given as smart card credits in equal shares to every adult
  • All fuel and electricity gets a carbon rating, expressed in units
  • Each time you buy fuel or power, your card is scanned and units debited
  • Machines in garages, post offices, newsagents, etc. link cards to a national database where units can be bought and sold
  • So if you want to buy petrol but lack the units, the garage gets them from the database and adds the cost to your bill
  • The cost of carbon-intensive transport and other services and goods would rise as suppliers had to pay for their ‘embodied’ carbon via the auction of units

Roger East is managing editor of Green Futures.

If the environment matters, so does Green Futures.

Jonathan Dimbleby

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