Total Carbon Rationing is a system to bring CO2 emissions down to zero. It’s rationing, with one major addition.

It is a tuning mechanism for the economy that lets society balance CO2 emissions reduction against the economic carnage that it could have, that stimulates all the right businesses, and is also fair and equitable.

To ration is:

to limit the amount of a particular thing that someone is allowed to have

Cambridge Dictionary

A carbon ration is a simple allowance, given in kilos of carbon, paid electronically into a ration account, to citizens. Children would receive a percentage, increasing from a small fraction to almost 100% for teenagers. We, the citizens, are the ultimate reason why CO2 emissions occur and we could directly determine how CO2 emissions are reduced, by choosing where we spend those rations.

Total Carbon Rationing covers all CO2 emissions from all human sources. The total amount of rations in the economy directly limits the amount of carbon – fossil fuels – that is allowed to be pumped out of the ground.

All rations used in industry, government, finance – everywhere – would come originally from the citizens. Industry and commerce, without any rations of its own, uses these rations in every stage of its business.

Total Carbon Rationing, showing rations flow

For example, whoever wants to purchase a new car, must pay the car dealer in money and rations. The car dealer pays the car manufacturer with rations as well. The manufacturer pays several suppliers, also with rations, including a steelworks, an energy provider, a battery manufacturer and so on.

The steelworks obtains its rations from its customers, like the car manufacturer. It knows how many rations to charge, because it has to pay rations for the energy it uses in its furnaces – whether to a fossil fuel supplier or, in much smaller quantities, to a renewable energy source.

Why is it “Total” carbon rationing?

“Total Carbon Rationing” contains the word “Total” because every product or service that is bought and sold is subject to the system: every vendor, every merchant, every shopkeeper, every professional who trades in any sense must put a carbon ration price on their product or service next to the usual price.

The process is driven by the energy companies who must obtain enough carbon rations to account for the fossil carbon pumped out of their oil and gas fields. Anybody or any business that burns carbon-based fuels would not be able to do so without paying the carbon ration price to the fuel supplier. The carbon rations flow from citizens to energy companies in a direct chain of retail and wholesale commercial transactions.

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Carbon Rations can be bought or sold

To prevent people or businesses falling off a carbon ration cliff edge, anyone can sell the carbon rations they don’t need on a well-regulated carbon exchange to those people and businesses that need more.

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What ensures that no-one cheats?

The energy companies who pump fossil fuels from the ground are audited to ensure they obtain rations for every kilo of fossil carbon extracted. This effectively polices the entire system.

A central carbon bank would take on this role, as well as being the primary distributor of carbon rations to citizens, and the regulator of the carbon ration exchange.

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Why Carbon Rationing?

Because society needs to commit to a massive change on a critical timeline

The threat is unprecedented and current economic systems cannot cope. In almost 30 years since the first UN climate negotiations started, global CO2 emissions are rising as fast as ever. All policies introduced so far have fallen short.

Global Carbon Project 2018 Carbon Budget

Society has spent the last 250 years developing an economy based almost exclusively on burning carbon, and we are giving ourselves 30 years to turn this around and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (or preferably sooner if at all possible).

This would go down in history as the most astounding social, political and economic success.

How can our political system provide a thousand smart, rigorous and radical answers to the thousand or more changes that are needed to decarbonise our lives? Persuade a democratic majority to tolerate it? And keep up the momentum for 30 years or even raise the bar?

The chances do not look good.

But instead of trying to deal with all the thousands of issues politically, we can set up one major umbrella framework now: an economic mechanism – Total Carbon Rationing – to cover everybody in all parts of the economy.

After that, the actions of individual consumers deal with every issue. Their actions drive decarbonisation throughout commerce and industry.

We cannot be radical enough in dealing with these issues.

Sir David Attenborough at the UK House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee 2019, New Scientist.com
No more offsetting, virtue-signalling, flight-shaming

All the people who have got “green” done already in their lives will have the option of what to do with those extra rations they don’t use. Sell them, spend them, save them, destroy them.

The newly-aware citizens who don’t appreciate the preaching by their greener fellow citizens will have total freedom of choice about what to give up first and what CO2-intense things they can continue to consume within the constraints of their carbon ration spending.

It would transform offsetting organisations, where every kilo of carbon they can prove that they sequestered would earn them the equivalent carbon ration from the central carbon bank, which they would be free to use or sell.

But surely governments can get the same result faster and cheaper with carbon taxes?

Yes, carbon taxes are much cheaper and a good place to start. In British Columbia, Canada there is a highly praised “tax and dividend” law, which partially suppresses the use of fossil fuels and distributes the taxes equally to its citizens. However, it doesn’t solve British Columbia’s problems, with the provincial government locked into fossil fuels via state subsidies.

For every legislative success, there are twice as many policies which fall short.

On its own, a carbon tax policy is simply not enough.

Carbon taxes based on carbon pricing in sector-by-sector programs on a nation-by-nation basis is just so much more complex and subjective, and only ever partially successful, as reported in EU ETS industrial energy reviews, UK government research briefings, the Norwegian tax, the Swedish carbon tax, David Suzuki carbon tax overview.

Carbon taxes never cover everything, always leaving out emissions for imported products, aviation, shipping, the public sector.

Carbon rationing, compared to carbon taxes, carbon pricing and swathes of legislation, is a comprehensive integrated approach. It’s the most convincing answer. We need to end the wishful thinking and act now before another decade is lost.

Control over carbon emissions is direct and absolute

The amount of carbon rations given to citizens would be equal to the amount of fossil fuels that the oil companies are allowed to produce. The chances of success in combating climate change are an order of magnitude greater than any other carbon taxation, legislative control or carbon pricing scheme.

Once rations are allocated, then the CO2 emissions over the rationing period are guaranteed, unlike other policies.

Would it actually save the planet?

If the carbon ration allocation is set appropriately and rolled out across the world, it could.

Carbon taxes, carbon pricing, cap-and-trade, subsidies, partial bans, trading schemes and all other policies are open to abuse from the start by loopholes, lobbying, special interests, simple omissions, public disaffection, and political campaigning.

Carbon rationing as a comprehensive umbrella framework would be by nature more independent and robust in the face of external influences.

On setting a total carbon ration budget at a certain level, the end result in reduction of CO2 emissions is known in advance.

With other policies this is guesswork and prediction, as is the success rate.

How much will Total Carbon Rationing cost?

Compared to the “free” option of doing nothing or “business as usual”, Total Carbon Rationing has a large, up-front cost with manageable, contained, on-going running costs similar to VAT or MwSt.

Doing nothing will bring global economic recessions and damage and adaptation costs of trillions, also on-going.

Compared to carbon taxes and carbon pricing strategies, Total Carbon Rationing has a large up-front cost as business, government and citizens prepare for its introduction.

But taxes or trading schemes have much higher running costs to maintain the level of carbon policymaking that rationing would make redundant:

  • establishing what citizens and industry have to stop doing
  • democratically agreeing on it
  • legislating for it
  • implementing the laws
  • monitoring the effects
  • repeating the process, constantly strengthening the laws in the face of political opposition

And that would be repeated in all 192 nations of the world.

So the carbon tax alternatives are initially cheaper, but they have higher legislative costs as governments manage decarbonisation, legislating year after year to keep up with economic and technological developments and unforeseen issues. The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that Total Carbon Rationing turns out cheaper.

Politicians can focus on the high level, not the fine detail of decarbonisation

It would allow politicians and policy makers to focus on how much carbon emissions to allow, rather than a thousand other things.

What is the alternative? A comprehensive policy making exercise in every nation, establishing what citizens and industry have to stop doing, democratically agreeing upon it, legislating for it, implementing it, monitoring the effects, going through the process again to strengthen it.

The United Kingdom’s best experts outlined their starting point here: the UK Committee on Climate Change net zero 2050 strategy and immediately hit 2 problems – are their recommendations plausible? Or even the best choice?

Instead, politicians should concentrate on what is the right amount of rations to give out that balances escaping catastrophic climate change with avoiding social and economic collapse during the withdrawal from fossil fuel dependence.

There are many situations where policy makers won’t get it right either. Many of the changes in a low carbon economy will be counter-intuitive. With carbon rationing, if the results are counter-intuitive, it won’t bother anyone.

Individual freedoms

Who wouldn’t choose products and services with a smaller carbon footprint when they spend their rations?

Each of us can act on our own, demanding the lowest carbon ration prices, to maximise our own welfare. No-one has to decide on our behalf.

Society is slowly decarbonising itself anyway on its own as renewable energy eats away at the fossil fuel baseline. It makes little sense to attempt to accelerate the process by rule of a thousand minor laws, when rationing could be so effective.

It is fairer than any other policies

Rationing is categorised by economists as a fundamentally progressive fiscal policy. There is no requirement to bolt on a “people’s dividend” policy to make an essentially regressive tax fair.

To prevent anybody being unfairly affected by rationing, the government would hold back a percentage of everybody’s carbon ration allocation. This can be used to supplement those in extra need of carbon rations through no fault of their own.

On an international scale, all citizens from all nations would receive the same individual allocation of rations. This would start differently for different countries, but end up the same by global agreement when the UN adopts the Global Commons Institute’s Contraction and Convergence framework.

Wealthy citizens can buy extra carbon rations to subsidise their climate-unfriendly choices, but only what other people are selling, and that will decrease regularly as the rationing continues. It is not a loophole preventing actual CO2 emissions reduction from taking place. It represents a safety valve in the system that prevents people or businesses falling off a carbon ration “cliff edge”.

It promotes negative emissions – tree planting, reforestation, carbon capture – by itself

The harsh reality of CO2 emissions in 2019 and prospects for their reduction means any realistic plan must include removing CO2 from the atmosphere, or global warming will overshoot 2°C.

Under Total Carbon Rationing, the central carbon bank would promote “negative emissions” by awarding carbon rations to people or businesses capturing CO2, e.g. growing trees or building futuristic Saharan solar power stations that generate power to turn CO2 from the atmosphere back into carbon or salt crystal or methanol and oxygen.

Not only would it promote research and investment into reforestation and carbon sequestration, but because the central carbon bank awards carbon rations, it completely avoids the problem of who should pay for it. The main issue would be calculating how ration payments affect the global ration budget.

The rations price tag displays exactly how much CO2 in total was released for the product

Everybody would see how many carbon rations something costs before they buy. Each merchant or vendor in the supply chain will have to balance the rations they spend against the rations they demand from their customers. The rations they put on its price tag will reflect cumulatively all the carbon that went into its production.

Currently when a Briton buys a smartphone made in a Chinese factory that is powered by a coal plant the carbon emitted in its manufacture does not count as ‘British’. This Economist article outlines the widespread mis-measurement of carbon emissions.

Bananas from the Caribbean, a smartphone from China, chicken from the local farm, a skyscraper in New York or a Tesla sports car, everything would be paid for with rations. The rations required will tell how much carbon it needed. We would all quickly become CO2 experts, thanks to keeping a constant eye on how many rations we have left.

As the economy becomes more carbon-neutral, carbon ration price tags will systematically fall

As the economy adapts, the reductions in the amount of carbon required for products will be passed on to the buyer immediately, as soon as the new product is put on sale.

Producers will pass on their ration reductions to customers to keep ahead of the competition.

The only need for state intervention will be for key products and services whose carbon ration price tag doesn’t reduce and where people can’t readily find alternatives.

It doesn’t require a unanimous vote of approval from the whole world

It can be implemented unilaterally by any nation so it doesn’t require unanimous approval from hundreds of nations. Other nations can join at any point to form a larger trading block.

The national borders and customs agency would act a proxy for the foreign companies, collecting the required rations on imported goods from the buyers.

No more concern whether China, India and other such nations will play their fair part

When the Total Carbon Rationing system includes both the consumer countries like the UK and the countries with cheap labour like China or India, the global carbon ration budget pie is divided up fairly and equitably.

Gigatonnes of historical carbon emissions and future carbon rationing, allocated on an internationally agreed diplomatic basis, as of the year 2000

The GCI Contraction and Convergence framework is the essence of decades of international climate diplomacy, as used by UNFCCC, UK Government, the Brazilian, Russian, Indian, and Chinese delegations and as a basis for proposals by various organisations and political parties ever since.

No subsidy required – innovation guaranteed

It stimulates innovation directly, where all other solutions (taxes or legislation) only impact certain aspects of the economy with no guarantees about consumer behaviour.

Innovation in carbon-neutral technologies would generally need no subsidy. Investors and consumers would queue up for products that don’t require rations.

Why would business accept Total Carbon Rationing?

It creates greater economic certainty for industry, allowing better management and planning.

Shipping provides a typical problem businesses face. The IMO agreed that shipping fuel must be used more efficiently, but despite 20 years warning, it won’t happen by the 2020 deadline or any time soon due to lack of responsibility in the industry.

Businesses mainly complain that any attempts to go carbon-neutral result in a loss of competitiveness and market share as their customers switch to cheaper imported high-carbon alternatives.

Total Carbon Rationing imposes the rations on imports at customs, which levels the playing field and prevents free-riders.

Why would the oil industry accept it?

Rationing will control how much fossil fuel is pumped out of the ground, not the market price of oil.

The oil industry can finally seriously plan for the decarbonisation of the energy industry on a level “playing field”.

Secondly, the bad press and demonisation will disappear as the attention of the pressure groups and climate campaigners turns elsewhere.

Flying as an example

Typically in CO2 emissions reduction schemes, aviation is left out of the equation because it’s cross-border, private sector, and deemed business-critical.

The current industry thinking is that aviation can buy its way out using carbon offsets. The UN ICAO aviation body have adopted a pact called CORSIA, which is already mired in problems and for years was unable to agree a target date or baseline for measuring its progress against.

It finally adopted the policy that the industry would seek to voluntarily offset all excess CO2 emissions it causes above and beyond 2020 levels (which in 2019 at time of writing are not known yet).

So since there is now this policy in place and never mind if it will work or not, passengers don’t have to worry about the consequences.

Where then is the demand in the economy for real solutions to long-haul rapid transport (i.e. flying)?

If necessity is the mother of invention, then in this case, there won’t be much invention. Everyone can still fly as much as they wish – no necessity – no-one worrying about their rations.

Maybe Sir Richard Branson or Elon Musk will get lucky and charitably let the whole aviation industry benefit from whatever they can come up with.

Meanwhile the aviation industry will funnel money into the offsetting industry, which is not even a realistic CO2 emissions reduction strategy.

Aviation causes more than 2% of global CO2 emissions and is growing fast. That is regardless of the new European trend of flight-shaming, calls for a frequent-flyer tax and a celebrity jet ban. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.

Do we ignore it and all the other sectors of the economy that governments tend to protect? This is exactly why “government as usual” with its carbon taxes, targetted bans and carbon pricing schemes is doomed to failure.

Such strategies will not go the distance. It’s similar to the tax on cigarettes. Despite 500% tax, people still smoke.

What if airlines collected carbon rations from their customers to pay for all the fossil fuels those jet engines burn up? That will in one or two decades have a massive effect, even if there’s no way of knowing what it would be.

And it would be the fair will of everyday people, who considered how much they wanted to fly compared to all other climate-damaging activities.

Society should not wait until things become desperate, and acting now on all fronts will likely bring synergies we could never have planned for.

Predictions for the Future

An imaginary weather forecast from 2007 for a “typical summer’s day” in 2020

A decade ago, science predicted most of the climate change happening today in 2019 – David Attenborough’s 2007 documentary described the biggest climate modelling program undertaken at that time.

The predictions made for 2050 and 2080 were salutary.

Reviews of predictions from 1970 and 2016 show that they were also not too far off from what is actually occurring.

No-one knows for sure though what the future holds. There’s a very small chance it might be tolerable without any need for action. And there’s a realistic chance the impact will be on the same scale as nuclear war or mass extinction.

Britain under Threat, 2007 – full documentary

Likeliest is something in-between, varying between “highly undesirable” and catastrophic, depending on who you are and where you live in the world.

As well as this range of different predictions with different likelihoods of occurring, the scientists make the predictions for different futures, varying from “business as usual” with no let-up in CO2 emissions, through to scenarios where we manage to cut right back and hold global warming to within 1.5°C.

The best future involves cutting global carbon emissions to zero, and within a seemingly impossibly short term time frame.

But at every opportunity, politicians and world leaders prove themselves unable to execute the massive, comprehensive set of legislation and fiscal and monetary measures to do this.

In the 50 years since we’ve known about climate change and CO2 emissions, there have been no adequate programs. Emissions continue to rise and will carry on rising under current circumstances until 2040. Economic research groups like the IEA who published this in November 2019 base their predictions on realistic expectations of policy achievements.

Civilisation is not doomed though. Instead of a massive but ineffective political approach, we can put a massive commercial mechanism in place – Total Carbon Rationing. The political debate will then focus on how much to ration, and not on a thousand other things.

Total Carbon Rationing would put the rations into the hands of each citizen, and the rations would apply comprehensively to every purchase or sale by every citizen or business. The rations would be required in every channel of commerce and would flow through the economy to end up ultimately with the fossil fuel producers in the oil industry.

The oil industry would have to prove how many carbon rations they obtained from the sale of their products, which would act as permits to pump. Each kilo of ration would have to be presented for each kilo of carbon pumped out of their oil or coal or gas fields.

So since the oil companies will have to demand a ration on any sale as well as money or they’ll get into trouble, then their customers will have to demand rations on all the products that they sell, and so will the customers of their customers, and so on going all the way up through the chain to the end consumer. It will be the individual citizens who decide where in the economy the ever-reducing carbon emissions are channeled.

The Simple Reason to Act Now

The forecasts that global warming will cost society billions are everywhere. More than it costs to prevent it (even ignoring the human price). Economists debate the numbers but not the principle.

After the financial cost come all the social, natural, aesthetic, moral and ethical losses that have no monetary price – the quality of everyday life.

If self-interest were not enough, there are several moral and ethical arguments to be made too.

Main leaders at Paris COP 2015 raise hands in celebration as deal signed

At the Paris Climate Convention in 2015, world leaders agreed to make their best efforts to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C. This was because the science was clear that (a) CO2 from human activities was causing the rise, (b) anything higher than 1.5°C would most likely be very bad news for everyone and (c) the 22 oceanic small island states would most likely be lost to sea level rise, while the rest of the world suffers a range of other catastrophes.

That is to all intents and purposes the equivalent of a firm promise that we will not abandon our future to the effects of society’s over-exploitation of fossil fuels – although political leaders are not well-known for keeping promises.

While the citizens of the developed world consider a future of fires, floods and rising seas, more dire still are the expected impacts on subsistence farmers in developing nations – the world’s poorest and most innocent of CO2 emissions:

Failing to cut your emissions is like taking a bulldozer and razing the crops of a subsistence farmer in Africa. If you did that, everyone would agree it was wrong, but the greenhouse gases you are responsible for have the same result. The fact that the cause is invisible gases, and the effect maybe felt in the distant future, doesn’t allow each and every one of us to escape the moral obligation to act.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics and renowned philosopher, Princeton

Lastly there is a moral obligation to our own younger and future generations. The inter-generational injustice of a global climate disaster is easily ignored since there are no laws to remedy it, but anyone whose ethical compass is more or less well-aligned will know the principle and the sense of shame that goes with it.

Greta Thunberg’s address to the 2019 New York UN Climate Summit clarifies the issue.

How to get there

  • Build grassroots support – campaign subscribers, social media channels, government petitions, crowd-funding, get it adopted as the goal for climate change movements, talk at citizens’ assemblies
  • Working with offsetting firms, NGOs and energy providers, create a “carbon-ration-ready” program for business that helps highlight total emissions in their supply chain
  • Create “carbon card” with a challenger bank, that earns the card bearer discounts on carbon-neutral products e.g. Adnams beers
  • Build academic and economic support backed by economic forecasting, modelling, virtual gaming
  • Produce stream of short videos interviewing business people, discussing how it would affect them, e.g. farmer, car manufacturer, e-commerce merchant, house-builder, oil industry exec, coffee grower, brewer, Willy Wonka etc
  • Campaign for local councils and city mayors to get carbon-ration-ready
  • Push for immediate government intervention such carbon tax-and-dividend in the energy or automotive sector
  • Expand grassroots internationally
  • Build policy support in NGOs and supra-national institutions
  • Build finance industry support
  • Build oil industry support
  • Build political support
  • Get energy producers to start marking the prices in rations for all their products supplied to customers
  • Get corporations dealing with energy producers to start accounting for carbon rations
  • First nation or group of nations unilaterally adopt total carbon rationing for all citizens with all businesses obligated to require rations in supply of all products and services – if necessary, unilaterally with border-based proxy mechanisms
  • Further nations join as political and democratic resistance falls
  • UN climate treaty based on Contraction and Convergence, to put a hard and fast number on emissions allowed, in gigatonnes of carbon per nation, with net zero target date