Personal carbon trading: the next step in tackling carbon emissions?

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Government resistance
Despite initial enthusiasm for a Personal Carbon Allowance (PCA) from former Environment Secretary David Miliband, Government support has now waned.

Under such a scheme, every individual would be given a set allocation of carbon credits, which they could use to ‘pay’ for purchases like home energy usage and petrol.

Those with low carbon usage would be able to sell their surplus credits on a carbon market, whilst those with high carbon consumption levels would have to buy credits.

Having initially muted the idea, Defra then just as quickly dismissed it. A report published in 2008 said it was too costly.

An RSA trial published at the end of 2008 has since contradicted this judgement saying it would be, ‘relatively quick and easy to automatically capture and report personal carbon emissions for all UK citizens.’

But, David’s brother Ed Miliband who took over the climate change brief last year indicated it was more about public acceptability, saying it was ‘an idea for the longer term’.

Psychological issues
But by dismissing the idea has the Government given up a vital tool for engaging the public in tackling climate change?

‘One of the obstacles to feeling responsible for climate change is that it is so removed from individual experience,’ says Stuart Capstick, who has been researching PCT at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University.

‘PCT has the ability to make this connection between climate change and the individual by showing us what is a fair amount of carbon for each of us to use.’

An organiser from the 10:10 said making carbon visible and tangible to individuals was one of the main reasons behind their campaign.

‘We’re trying to take peoples’ minds off long-term targets like 2020 and focus on the immediate need for action on climate change. Instead of worrying or feeling guilty, individuals can to do something about it,’ said the organiser.

‘Voluntary individual action is never going to be enough on its own but we’re trying to get the ball rolling for the transition to a low carbon economy. Something the government for all their talk have not yet started.’

The 10:10 campaign is not the first scheme to trial out voluntary individual carbon cutting.

A report earlier this year from the UK Energy Research Centre on the experience of people involved in Carbon Rationing Action Groups (Crags) showed that carbon allowances could be successful in reducing carbon emissions.

However, it did also raise issues some concerns, including whether children would have their own carbon allowances, whether some people would be unwilling to get involved in trading permits and the difficulties of carbon budgeting, which would have to be resolved before any scheme was introduced.

A Plan B for government?
The Government may not be keen to tackle these issues now, but a major report due out next week will say they might have to use PCAs in the future to reduce emissions.

Plan B? The prospects for personal carbon trading, to be published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) this Friday, says existing measures on reducing individuals’ carbon impact, such as smart meters and the Low Carbon Buildings Programme should be given time to succeed.

‘But if those policies don’t deliver then the Government may have to reconsider personal carbon allowances,’ concludes the IPPR.

The biggest danger with all this talk about PCAs, voluntary or compulsory, says WWF change strategist Dr Tom Crompton, is that it could take the focal point off government action.

‘Voluntary action is an important step but we have to be cautious that individual action doesn’t detract from what government still needs to do at Copenhagen and beyond.

‘As well as taking individual action we people to make more vocal demands on government by lobbying their MPs and protesting,’ he said