5 Nov 2021

COP26 - Proposition #3 - A global Personal Carbon Allowance (PCA)

The idea of a Personal Carbon Allowance or PCA is not new.  In the 2000s, the British government was already exploring the idea, with the idea of issuing a sort of carbon "credit card" - to be swiped every time they bought petrol, paid an energy bill, or booked an airline ticket.  A related suggestion, applied to industries, is the "Cap and Trade" scheme in which companies have the right to generate a fixed amount of CO2  or other pollutants - the cap.  The trade part is a market where those companies can buy and sell allowances.  Such schemes are already operating in many countries. For example, the EU has been running its Emissions Trading System since 2005. But other schemes have been developed in China, Australia, Canada and some states in the US such as California. The World Bank has a site that lists dozens of schemes as well as other schemes using Carbon Taxes.  

So, could a similar approach be used at the level of individual citizens? Back in the 2000s, the UK government concluded that there would be too much resistance and dropped the idea. However, with the COP26, an increasing number of people are thinking about the idea again. In part this has been triggered by the publication of a research paper in Nature Sustainability in August 2021 entitled "Personal Carbon Allowances Revisted". And it got a further boost when Polly Toynbee  published an opinion piece this week in the Guardian called "We need radical policies to reach net zero. Here's a fairer way to do them". In the Guardian this morning, there was an article  on the fact that "Luxury Carbon Consumption  of the top 1% threatens 1.5°C global heating limit". To keep on track for the Paris Climate agreement, "every person has to reduce their CO2 emissions to about 2.3 tonnes a year by 2030 - roughly half the average of today". But, according to an Oxfam Study released today, the world's richest 1% are on track to releasing 70 tonnes each. They will account for 16% of total emissions by 2030, up from 13% in 1990. 

For me, the solution could indeed be the introduction of a Personal Carbon Allowance, coupled with a trading system that meant that people who exceed their quota would need to buy allowances from those who are living within the budget. 

While some people are talking about introducing such a scheme at the national level, it seems to me that it would be much more interesting to introduce the scheme at a truly global level - and the sooner the better. There might be some people in countries like the UK and France that were able to live lifestyles that enabled them to keep below the 2.3 tonne limit - and those people would effectively receive payments from those in the population who were less frugal and disciplined. 

But the vast majority of the people living within the limit are  in third world countries. The scheme would therefore be a way of providing direct support for those countries. Such a scheme would, in my opinion, be better than the current scheme where western governments provide limited amounts of  direct aid because such aid is always at risk from political decisions, as was recently the case in the UK. The funds would go directly to those who are living within the limits of the planet - wherever they live.  Indeed, the Oxfam report shows that the poorest 50% of the earth's citizens could increase their Carbon footprint by over 200% and still remain within the 2.3 tonne limit. 

How would such a system affect people like me? Well, I was pleased to see that when I typed in the data for my energy usage on the "myclimate.org" website, I discovered that the Carbon footprint of our energy consumption is effectively zero - even when we include all the energy used for heating, lighting, cooking, transport etc etc.  We got rid of our oil-fired central heating system last year and replaced it with a very efficient heat pump. We have also installed 26 solar panels, which currently allows us to export about 30% of our consumption to the grid - which means that we will be able to pay the installation costs in less than 10 years. And for the last 3 years, we have been getting 100% of our electricity from renewable sources - not including nuclear. We have replaced our diesel cars by two electric vehicles which means that essentially all our travel costs (at least for limited distances) can be done with a zero carbon cost. Of course, there is a carbon cost associated with buying solar panels, and electric vehicles, but at least these are one-off costs. And we haven't completely eliminated air travel - we still like to go on vacation! But the myclimate website even allowed me to offset the carbon footprint associated with such trips. That effectively implements something close to the Personal Carbon Allowance mechanism, but on a voluntary basis. It's not perfect, but it does allow me to feel a little more comfortable about my occasional excesses. 

There's still a lot more I could be doing, and I will be trying to do better - I promise! Eating less beef is a good one. Buying locally produced items is another.  And buying second hand goods (clothes, furniture etc) is yet another. Having a Personal Carbon Allowance would be a perfect way to make such decisions much easier to make. Buy a brand new iPhone and you will get a massive hit. But purchase a second hand recycled one, and you would keep your full allowance. Easy.

So, I seriously think that this is something that should be high on the agenda at COP26. 

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