Is It Time to Reconsider Personal Carbon Allowances?

The experience of the pandemic may have changed the way we think about things like "carbon passports."

child with ration card
Child with Ration Card .

CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Terence Corcoran, the curmudgeonly conservative columnist for the very conservative National Post in Canada, suggests that the response to the pandemic, with its vaccine passports, might lead to personal carbon passports: "Get ready for CLIMATE-21 fossil fuel virus lockdowns."

He quotes Mark Carney from his new book, making the connection between the pandemic and the climate crisis: “If we come together to meet the biggest challenges in medical biology, so too can we come together to meet the challenges of climate physics and the forces driving inequality.”

Corcoran also points to a recent paper:

"The policy creep from COVID to climate hit the pages of Nature Sustainability journal last month in an article promoting Personal Carbon Allowances. It says, “the policy window of opportunity provided by the COVID-19 crisis, in combination with the need to address worsening climate and biodiversity crises,” make it possible for individuals to be allocated personal carbon allowances. In short, the COVID vaccine passports could be succeeded by Personal Carbon Passports."
Carbon Rationing

Public domain, Sacrifices at Home

This is a subject we have covered on Treehugger before, under a different name, in "It's Time to Consider Carbon Rationing." The rationale is straightforward: We know that there is a global carbon budget that we need to stay under to keep the rise in temperature below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), which, according to this post on Treehugger, is between 235 and 395 billion metric tons, or between 30 and 50 tons per person on earth.

How do you ensure that everyone has their fair share? How do you set up a system of trading it? I wrote: "I have always thought that a personal carbon allowance or ration made sense. If you have your carbon credit card you can make some money selling credits you are not using, or buy some if you want a steak for dinner or a flight to Europe." The idea was not received warmly at the time, but as the article "Personal Carbon Allowance Revisited" notes, it is time for another look.

The study authors—Francesco Fuso Nerini, Tina Fawcett, Yael Parag, and Paul Ekins—note that when Personal Carbon Allowances (PCAs) were first discussed 20 years ago, it was considered "an idea ahead of its time." There was widespread resistance to an idea that seemed intrusive and socialist. But much has changed since then; climate change has deteriorated into a climate crisis, many people have got used to carbon taxes that are a form of redistribution, and we have had a pandemic.

The authors write:

"In particular, during the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on individuals for the sake of public health, and forms of individual accountability and responsibility that were unthinkable only one year before, have been adopted by millions of people. People may be more prepared to accept the tracking and limitations related to PCAs to achieve a safer climate and the many other benefits (for example, reduced air pollution and improved public health) associated with addressing the climate crisis." 

Another thing that has changed in 20 years is technology. When they were first proposed, PCAs were treated like a credit card or a bank account, with carbon treated like a currency, I wrote: "Each of us could receive an allocation of carbon points to spend in a month or year. These could be stored on a smart bank card. When paying for gasoline or airline tickets or certain foods (or, more broadly, energy use), the card would electronically deduct money plus appropriate numbers of carbon points." It was transactional.

However, the study authors suggest that now, with our smartphones, smart meters, and artificial intelligence, it can all be done automatically.

"For instance, machine-learning algorithms could be trained to automatically gather all the available information on someone’s emissions, and to fill data gaps and accurately estimate an individual’s carbon emissions on the basis of limited data inputs such as stops at petrol stations, check-ins at venues and travel histories. AI could be especially beneficial for PCA designs that also include food- and consumption-related emissions. Many voluntary smartphone apps can already capture personal travel and dietary behaviours for estimating carbon emissions and potential health consequences."
 Hungry housewives bring their ration books to London's Petticoat Lane Market during World War II on the first day of bread rationing.
Hungry housewives bring their ration books to London's Petticoat Lane Market during World War II on the first day of bread rationing.

Eric Harlow/Keystone/Getty Images

Is this an impossible sell from a civil liberties point of view on one side, or from a libertarian point of view on the other? As Treehugger's Sami Grover might ask, is this part of "a robust discussion about what freedom means?" Or would it be seen as necessary, as vaccine passports are? Would people get behind it, as most people did in the Second World War when rationing was imposed? Lead author Professor Fuso Nerini is quoted in a UCL press release, noting that perhaps people are ready for this.

“People are watching helplessly while wildfires, floods and the pandemic wreak havoc on society, yet they are not empowered to shift the course of events. Personal climate allowances would apply a market-based approach, providing personal incentives and options that link their actions with global carbon reduction goals.”

Co-author, Paul Ekins describes how it might lead to personal changes.

“PCAs are designed to use three interlinked mechanisms to affect behavioural change: economic, cognitive and social. Economic assigns a visible carbon price to fossil-fuel based energy, and possibly to consumption-related emissions. Showing consumers the link between their everyday activity and carbon increases cognitive awareness and the shared goal of emission reduction, and the equal-per-capita allocation of PCAs is envisaged to create a social norm of low-carbon behaviour.”

Having spent a year tracking my carbon emissions and writing about it in "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I can attest that knowing where your carbon emissions are coming from does change your behavior. And I already use My Fitness Pal to track my diet and MapMyRun to track my exercise and have a smart meter on my house, so much of this information is already being gathered.

Wouldn't it be nice to know that when I hop on my e-bike, I might actually be saving part of my PCA that I can sell, or save enough that I can visit my sister in London? Wouldn't it be great to actually have a financial incentive to live a 1.5-degree lifestyle? I wonder also if this is an idea whose time has come.

View Article Sources
  1. Fuso Nerini, Francesco, et al. "Personal Carbon Allowances Revisited." Nature Sustainability, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41893-021-00756-w