We need radical policies to reach net zero. Here’s a fairer way to do them
A personal carbon allowance was first proposed a decade ago – but leaders haven’t been brave enough to take up this idea
Are we doomed, or is there still a chance to save civilisation? It’s easy to veer between despair and slender hope, when the UN says emissions that need to fall by half this decade are only on course for a cut of about 7.5%. How helpless we feel when big emitters refuse to attend Cop26. What an unconvincing “one minute to midnight” call to action from Boris Johnson, who is cutting foreign aid and the cost of domestic flights while mulling a new coalmine and a Shetland oilfield. The absurd Brexit fishing spat makes a mockery of exhorting other world leaders to lift their sights to the horizons of the climate crisis.
The scale of what’s needed is politically unfathomable. Yet Johnson pretends answers can be conjured up “without so much as a hair shirt in sight”. In thundering, prophetic form, a recent article from George Monbiot set him right: the world’s richest 1% emit 35 times what each individual should use to ensure global heating does not exceed a 1.5C rise. The super-rich use their fortunes to shape the political agenda, diverting our attention from the true climate culprits with the “micro consumerist bollocks” of ditching coffee cups and plastic bags. “We will endure only if we cease to consent,” Monbiot writes – and he’s right.
But as ever the political problem is how to get the world’s people to rebel. In Britain, voters increasingly care about the climate; it has risen to a close fourth place behind the leading concerns of Brexit, Covid and the economy. Concern is strongest in London and the south of England (33% compared with 24% nationally), social grade AB (34%), and the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups (31% and 35% respectively). When cowardly politicians fail to lead, the question is how to use every imaginable instrument to engage everyone all the time.
Greta Thunberg is a remarkably wise campaigner, who understands the politics of persuasion. Yes, it’s necessary that some people get annoyed with school strikes and road blocks, she told Andrew Marr on Sunday, but with this important message: “There is no final tipping point where everything is lost. If we miss 1.5C then we go for 1.6C then 1.7C. It is never too late to do as much as we can.” That’s a vital thought to ward off despairing nihilism.
Here’s one action that will be necessary: carbon taxes. Writing in the Financial Times, the economist Tim Harford recently suggested that every product needs a carbon price attached, sending a signal not just to the buyer, but right down every supply chain to use less energy in growing, manufacturing and transporting a product to attract less tax.
That will be necessary. But any climate-abating tax brings on green crocodile tears for poor people, often from the same Tory MPs who just voted to remove the GBP20 universal credit uplift. The claim that carbon taxes would disproportionately affect the poorest people was what killed off the fuel price escalator – a yearly tax increase devised by the Tories in 1993 to discourage driving – after owner-driver hauliers blockaded oil refineries in 2000. When the climate demands that fuel taxes rise, politicians make them fall.
There are subtler ways to impose carbon taxes. In 2006, the former Labour environment secretary David Miliband put forward a radical scheme for tradable personal carbon allowances (PCAs). Everyone would have a carbon allowance to spend on heating, petrol or flying, issued by a central carbon bank. The national allowance would shrink each year to cut personal carbon emissions. The well-off use the most carbon – they have big houses, drive SUVs and fly frequently – while half the population never flies, and many live in flats or small homes. Some 17m households have no car. Carbon credits would be tradable, so those using least could profit by selling some of their allowance, while heavy users would have to buy their spare credits via the carbon bank.
This policy could be a potential win-win-win: it would fix an annual reduction in carbon emissions and redistribute cash from the extravagant to the carbon thrifty in this most unequal country. Above all it would engage everyone to think hard about their carbon consumption, giving them an incentive to save or profit.
Miliband’s speech advocating the scheme labelled it “a thought experiment”, as it was way out ahead of timid government policy. But four official feasibility studies were commissioned. Some suggested the measure was too technically difficult, but that was before the first iPhone, let alone the supermarket smart cards that count each purchase. Some warned of the bravery this untried system would require. Others said it was a clunky, bureaucratic way to impose carbon taxes – but that misses the key point of engaging every citizen: VAT is invisible to most shoppers. Prof Paul Ekins of University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources co-authored an official Defra report in 2008 which found the idea feasible and relatively fair, but decided it was too radical for the government, who dismissed it as “an interesting concept … ahead of its time”. Ekins and other researchers now think its time has come.
By the time feasibility reports emerged, Miliband had moved to the Foreign Office, but he remains convinced PCAs could make a key contribution, though like any single action, “this is no silver bullet,” he told me: the heaviest lifting must be done by governments and industry more than individual consumers. “It’s a nudge – but with teeth and carrots.”
Of all the colossal transformations needed, the hardest will be changing public attitudes. PCAs could kickstart public demand for the big capital collective programmes that would be necessary to conserve allowances, such as district heating schemes, rather than every flat or terraced house buying an expensive heat pump.
“People are desperate to do something, but too often they get trivial advice, such as pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. A personal carbon allowance system would tell them what they could do to make a real difference,” Prof Ekins says.
At the heart of behaviour change is an “I will if you will” certainty that demands tough government action. By adding in the true price to the planet, PCAs challenge the notion that economic growth in a developed country is the only goal. Do I think this government of the rich for the rich would do it? No chance. But I think it could be popular. There would be more winners than losers. And PCAs would be a fairer way to lower emissions in a transition that will inevitably require hair shirts for some – despite Johnson’s magical thinking.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist