Fossil fuels have delivered enormous benefits to humanity. Now, however, scientists are saying that the earth can't absorb much more of the carbon dioxide that fossil fuels produce.
The scientists can't be exact, but the remaining carbon budget will be used up in less than 10 years at the current rate of consumption.
If that carbon budget is squandered, our children will face a double problem. They will need to fight rising sea levels, desertification, violent storms, and unprecedented heat waves without the use of convenient and practical fossil fuels. Imagine, for example, constructing enormous new coastal defences without the benefit of concrete, which has a carbon footprint, or the powerful machinery that we can currently employ.
The remaining fossil fuel budget is extraordinarily valuable. We need to save that precious fossil fuel for when it will really be necessary. Every gallon of fuel that we consume is effectively denied to our children.
If we make immediate cuts in less important uses of these fuels, life will be a great deal easier for them.
At present, despite full knowledge of this problem, we continue to squander fossil fuel. In the UK our emissions have certainly fallen in the past thirty years, but a glance around shows that further cuts would easily be possible. Our roads are crowded with large cars, we take many cruises and flights, and we buy enormous volumes of imported goods manufactured at unknown carbon cost.
The most important and urgent decision ever faced by humans is to define effective action against climate change. This note is about a fair and quick way to stop us squandering this extraordinarily valuable resource.
There are 7.9 billion people on this planet. We all make decisions every day that involve effectively wasting fossil fuels, for example, we might decide to drive 5 miles to go for a meal, thereby emitting around 3kg of CO2. We all recognise that is harmful, we maybe feel a little guilty, but we look around, and see that everyone else is doing it. We know that if we deny ourselves that pleasure it won't actually make a scrap of difference because we are just one person among 7.9 billion, so we hit the road!That same logic is being followed by most of the other 7.9 billion people. The world is being put at threat by billions of tiny decisions, all following the same logic. If we are to stop wasting fossil fuel we need to stop this thought process.
Humans are tribal, so they do have a powerful sense of collective responsibility. This was shown most graphically during the Covid crisis. Unprecedented restrictions introduced by governments were generally accepted. The press were active in seeking out those who did not follow the rules, and in pressing for further restrictions where necessary.
The last war provided many other examples of selfless collective behaviour. People volunteered to fight, despite the fact that soldiers had experienced hell in World War One.
They could have reasoned that their presence was not likely to change the outcome of the war, but they volunteered despite that. Others joined the land army. Everyone wanted to do their bit. Can we ignite that wartime spirit in the fight against climate change?
We need to copy Winston Churchill. The situation was dire, but he maintained hope of victory. The morale of those involved in the fight against climate change is desperately low.
The first part of raising morale is to generate a plan that people believe in. People won't make sacrifices unless they believe that the plan will work.
Everyone on the planet has a big part to play. At present many people feel that responsibility lies with governments, scientists or big business. The vast majority of people aren't engaged in the struggle, and since the target is so challenging they absolutely need to be engaged.
At present businesses often focus their efforts on greenwashing environmental information, so we do not know if a product is good or bad for the environment.When a product is presented to potential buyers the carbon cost of that specific product needs to be clearly visible.
Recording the true carbon cost of a product will be a pain, but it is vital. This planet's remaining ability to absorb fossil carbon is extraordinarily valuable, and we have to engage everyone in controlling how it is used. It is a well known principle that nothing can be controlled unless it is first measured. Carbon accounting needs to be seen as at least as important as financial accounting.
Carbon accounting standards will need to divide a company's emissions in a fair way between its products. Examples might include the division of airline fuel consumption between full and half full flights, and between First Class and Economy passengers. Energy companies will need to divide their total fossil fuel input between their various users.
Standards will be needed to ensure that the rich cannot escape their ration by accounting dodges.
Major loopholes will need to be blocked, for example a company might burn a wild forest to provide fossil free energy. An international body will be needed to judge such actions and penalise such companies.
Carbon accounting standards will need international accreditation, since supply chains are international. Just as it is mandatory that products meet safety standards, a properly calculated carbon cost for each product would be mandatory before it could be sold.
For long lived consumer items like electric cars or computers, the carbon cost would be spread over the first few years of life so that the carbon costs could be properly compared with the long term energy savings..
Given accurate information, people will be able to make rational decisions on how to reduce their fossil carbon burn. Their purchases of fuel, goods, services etc. can be added up to provide their total carbon emissions in any period.
The proposal in this paper is that carbon emissions should be 'rationed'. Each person or family will be assigned a ration, and they will have to live within it. Their total fossil fuel consumption will be added up using a smartphone app whenever they make a purchase, and further purchases will not be possible if their ration is exceeded.
In the 2000's two systems that are related to rationing were extensively studied in the UK - Personal Carbon Allowances (PCA's) and Tradeable Energy Quotas (TEQ's). (Refs 1 and 2.
These systems differ from rationing because they are tradable - that is the rich can buy extra emissions from those who do not need their full allocation. Despite that difference some of the key implementation issues are related, and Ref 1, issued very recently, reexamined PCA schemes, and concluded that the adoption of PCA schemes to support climate action in the 2020s does not seem as challenging to implement as it did previously, because of advances in technology. From a technical point of view, the same is likely to apply to rationing.
Rationing is a tried and tested way of distributing scarce resources. In World War 2 this country faced an emergency. It had limited supplies of food. If the price of food had been allowed to rise in line with the market, poorer people would have starved. So food was rationed - rich or poor - the ration was the same. The result was that the whole country operated as a team. The poor stayed fit and healthy, and were motivated to win the war.
Morale stayed high.
Rationing is not, in principle, complex. In World War 2 the scarce resource was food, now the scarce resource is the ability to emit fossil carbon. Rationing should in principle work equally well. It works because it is fast to apply and fair - rich and poor are treated the same way. A single ration will apply at a personal or family level to all greenhouse emissions. How people spend it will be up to them. Some might prioritise cars, some a foreign holiday, others consumer goods.
Rationing is, of course, costly and painful, but this is a genuine emergency, and in an emergency whatever is needed must be done. The response to Covid was a previously unthinkable 'Stay Home' order. The cost and pain was incredible, but it had to be done.
Action had popular support across the political spectrum, and the media exposed any cheating.
Perhaps the biggest question mark over any carbon reduction programme is whether it can obtain enough international support. This system could be contagious, and spread between nations, for several reasons.
● In every country there are people who are desperate about climate change. If there is a demonstrated solution they are likely to push their governments to play their part.
● The ration is in principle dead simple. People can get their minds around why it should succeed. The principle can be applied internationally. If one country sets a higher ration than others, that will be highly visible.
● If a country fails to join the system, its businesses will be handicapped by high or unknown carbon costs in their infrastructure, energy and supply chains. Its businesses will be unable to export.
● Our businesses are global. They can spread requirements between countries very rapidly.
So, therefore, if a few democracies could make this work, others should follow.
The ration might initially be applied to simple items with a short supply chain - fuels, energy, flights, distribution. Government spends could also be relatively easily added for infrastructure and administration. In effect these spends are made by governments on behalf of individuals.
As carbon accounting standards were agreed and implemented, rationing would then spread to include the more significant items with a longer supply chain - cars, computers and mobiles phones etc. Finally foods might be added, especially those with significant delivery costs or other environmental impacts.
The effect of including additional items within the ration would be to gradually reduce it, and additional reductions might take it to zero in due course, as technologies, infrastructure and lifestyles are modified. This gradual approach will give time for people to adapt. Eventually even the poorest will need to go fossil free, but the necessary technologies will be more affordable by then.
Companies will have zero ration, they will only be able to survive by providing products that people can afford within the ration. Global supply corporations such as Amazon will be motivated to comply because if they do not provide carbon accounts they will not be able to sell into rationed markets. They want to be seen as green. Carbon accounting will spread to all manufacturing countries, because otherwise their exports will not be permitted in rationed markets.
Implementation will be enabled by the continued development of technology - more powerful computers, faster communication, etc.. Global technology giants will be involved in creating appropriate applications. Global systems will allow data transfer when individuals operate in multiple countries, so that they cannot claim the ration in two countries.
The consequences of this approach would be a complete shift in global priorities: Fossil carbon consumption will be seriously considered in every aspect of life.
Every individual who is currently consuming significant fossil carbon will be motivated to reduce it, to stay within the ration. Everyone will, for the first time, have realistic hope of controlling global warming. That is a huge step. People are far more likely to accept sacrifices if they feel they will achieve something. The human collective spirit will kick in.
People will be free to decide how they will live within the ration. At present governments seek to control fossil fuel use via complex rules that intrude into people's lives and don't seem to make much sense. People reluctantly follow the letter of the rules, but then defeat the objective by their lifestyle choices. They are not personally engaged in the carbon reduction programme.
In place of the dubious marketing greenwash that currently surrounds many products there will be solid information. Consumers could and would compare the carbon emissions from (say) buying a bike and taking the bus, and pick the best option.
People will look again at their lifestyle options. Can they work from home and save using the car? Can they use local pubs and restaurants rather than travelling? Should they open a spare room to a lodger, so that heating costs can be shared? Should they sell an underused family home and move to an energy efficient smaller home? Should they take the train to France and camp in a pre-erected tent? Do they really need a new fridge? Should they buy new tools and do that home decorating job themselves, or get a professional in?
The consequences of rationing will include quieter roads, new homes for families, and a renewed sense of local community.
Every company will be forced to examine its entire operation. All of the carbon burned by a company, or tied up in its supplies, will need to be allocated to its products. Companies themselves will have no ration. They could only burn fossil carbon, or use fossil carbon bearing supplies, if individual consumers were prepared to buy their products and accept the carbon against their ration allowance.
Companies will strive to reduce carbon emissions in every aspect of their operation, because a low carbon cost will make their products more affordable within the ration. Every company will be motivated by the new market opportunities. Low carbon will equate to profit.
New companies will spring up to supply low carbon products. Used consumer goods, where the carbon cost has already been paid, will be valuable and new businesses will refurbish and update this equipment. Hire businesses for tools etc will become much more prominent.
Scrap businesses will scour the country for valuable materials, especially those like aluminium where the carbon content in manufacture can be very high. Logistics companies will seek to cut out unnecessary van movements.
Every government will be compelled to examine its infrastructure costs. The personal ration that individuals will be free to spend will have to be reduced to accommodate their share of the government's carbon spend.
Every billionaire will have no escape from the ration except to use sustainable fuels. Until they can get hold of those fuels their motor yachts will need to stay in port, and their jets on the ground - as they should, because it is absurd to squander fossil fuels on such things.
If they own businesses they will have the option of continuing to use fossil fuel for business jets, but only if any fossil carbon cost is added into the business costs and passed on to their customers.
Every energy company will face a life and death struggle. The demand for sustainable fuels will accelerate enormously. Energy giants will race to produce them. The rich will pay high prices for such fuels,and profit levels will be high. If the energy companies do not change,they will die. The market price for fossil fuels will collapse and oil exploration will end.
Rationing will put fossil fuel use at the centre of all our decisions. Significant carbon reduction will be made quite quickly, because so much carbon is squandered on trivia.
Rationing is a simple, tried and tested method of fairly allocating a scarce resource and can transform the fight against climate change.
John Shoesmith - 14.9.21
1. Fuso Nerini, F., Fawcett, T., Parag, Y. et al. Personal carbon allowances
revisited. Nat Sustain (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00756-w
2. Fleming Policy Centre - various reports and Frequently Asked Questions
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