TCR would solve the palm oil conundrum. Photo © Ernest Zacharevic SOS Oil Palm plantation, Sumatra, Indonesia
The policy proposal for Total Carbon Rationing is the top level thinking behind a growing movement for a realistic approach to the unprecedented risks and dangers from global warming.
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Rationing of supply is a well-known but little discussed policy. Carbon rationing - of fossil fuel products - would directly bring about CO2 emissions reduction. The policy we are proposing based on carbon rationing offers a considerably higher chance of achieving emissions reduction targets than carbon pricing, carbon taxation or other means of controlling carbon demand. We summarise the arguments and cite the discussion and evidence below.
Total Carbon Rationing (TCR) enhances carbon rationing as a policy tool. Against carbon taxes, pricing or regulation and legislation, rationing is the Cinderella of climate policies, but we describe how TCR could be the most effective and targeted approach, with the lowest risk of failure and the greatest fairness, locally, nationally and globally.
As with normal rationing, under Total Carbon Rationing (TCR), the carbon allocation would be paid regularly to citizens via a digital carbon ration account. Children and teenagers would receive a percentage of the adult ration. Governments would withhold a certain amount of rations for its own functioning.
To reduce CO2 emissions to zero under such a program, it would start off with enough rations to cover society's existing carbon footprint, with an initial surplus for ease of introduction. The regular ration allocation would then be steadily reduced. It could be reduced faster under circumstances of accelerating climatic instability, or even increased with the need to stave off economic damage, as with any policy, but with the added guarantee due to supply restrictions that the desired reductions will occur.
Total Carbon Rationing (TCR) enhances the basic rationing mechanism via a change in the point at which rations are collected and verified. Traditionally, retail businesses collect rations for controlled products for audit by the relevant government authority.
Under TCR, retail businesses must charge customers rations for all products and services, but the businesses would not surrender the rations to the carbon authority. They would pay rations for all purchases in their supply chain e.g. from wholesalers. This would continue down the supply chain until the end is reached at the carbon providers (oil/gas/coal extraction companies).
Carbon providers would charge for rations on their fossil fuel sales, weight for weight in tonnes and kilos of carbon. They would be subject to audit by a central carbon authority. All carbon extracted - gas, oil, coal - would be monitored and the total weight in rations equal to that amount would be payable to the carbon authority at the end of each period.
This would push business directly to seek out the lowest carbon options in their supply chain. The ability to purchase extra rations on an open market from citizens or businesses would minimise business failure when adaptation is not swift enough.
The broad reach of Total Carbon Rationing offers faster, cheaper and more efficient outcomes than any government carbon taxes, emissions trading scheme or pricing policy because it would include traditionally excluded sectors like aviation, shipping, inbuilt or imported emissions, public services or the military.
Rationing as opposed to carbon pricing or taxation schemes would be fair and equitable, in particular at the start as the carbon rationing could be set at a level high enough for all but the most profligate carbon users to adopt without disruption or hardship. In principle, rationing is fairer than taxation due to the burden of taxation falling proportionately more heavily on those with lower incomes.
It would also be democratically more popular than any other CO2 emissions reduction measures (frequent flyer tax, meat production controls, vehicle fuel duties) because it would allow individual citizens to make their own decisions on where to make carbon savings. Few voters would be forced to cut down in all areas of consumption, most being able to make carbon savings where convenient according to lifestyle. No-one would impose decisions on their behalf.
There are also major doubts whether it is actually within the fundamental organisational abilities of current democratic power structures to design, legislate for and implement the huge range of regulations that would be required to decarbonise the economy by fiat.
One of the significant advantages of Total Carbon Rationing is the continual dynamic update of the rations charged for each and every product and service as business becomes more carbon-neutral. The rations on the price tag would display exactly how much CO2 in total was generated in the manufacture and supply of the product or service. It could be reduced by the vendors to reflect new greener business developments as they occur. This lends a dynamism to the decarbonisation process on a scale impossible to achieve by any traditional bureaucratic procedures.
The mechanism would facilitate and promote negative emissions – tree planting, reforestation, carbon sequestration – by providing carbon rations as the payment, neatly circumventing the issue of who would have to pay for the negative emissions.
It could be implemented by central banks using digital currency frameworks.
It could be implemented unilaterally by a nation or within trading blocks by the creation of carbon borders with non-rationing trading partners, where the customs authorities act as proxy and impose the carbon ration on the importers at the border.
It could be imposed multilaterally with agreements on carbon ration allocation via the existing UNFCCC contraction and convergence treaty model.
Locally, carbon rationing offers citizens a transparent, simple method to act on climate within a fair framework. Nationally, TCR allows governments a transparent and simple flexibility in implementing decarbonisation policy according to their party politics. Internationally, carbon rationing should become the policy tool of choice as other policies continue to prove ineffective. Nations seeking robust collaboration on climate goals - in the light of continued slow progress - are most likely to abandon Nationally Determined Contributions and take up TCR and control of supply with willing partners in order to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Main Advantages of Total Carbon Rationing
- Maximise sustainable rate of CO2 emissions reduction
- Total Carbon Rationing, an enhanced version of rationing, is an economic tuning mechanism with which CO2 emissions reduction can be readily balanced against the negative impacts it causes. The goal should be to keep emissions reduction rates at the highest economically feasible level.
- Direct control over ration supply
- The ration supply allocated to citizens would be decided for each period in the same way that a central bank makes interest rate decisions, but focusing on balancing climate considerations with economic factors. A central carbon bank could also act via the carbon rations market to tighten or loosen ration supply mid-period.
- Economic responsiveness
- Carbon rationing controls the quantity of carbon utilised by industry. Supply and demand measured in carbon rations should be very obvious in the economy, with immediate response from business as it reacts to changes and attempts to stay competitive.
- Progress towards zero emissions based on metering of fossil fuel extraction
- Metering of fossil fuel output by a central carbon authority would occur at the well-head or mineshaft, in regular audits at the end of each rationing period. This gives a direct measure of the carbon entering the economy and CO2 emissions produced. Progress would be clear to all.
- Potential to accelerate decarbonisation
- Whether due to deteriorating climatic conditions, sea level changes, or unpredicted synergies appearing with the growth of the low carbon economy, carbon rationing would offer a straight-forward lever to accelerate or decelerate the decarbonisation of the economy via changes to rationing levels.
- Immediate dynamic driver of green innovation
- Progress towards a zero emissions economy under any circumstances is dependent on inventiveness and innovation. In an unrationed economy, including one with carbon taxes or pricing mechanisms, undesirable business stimuli can exist or appear due to government intervention in the form of subsidies or taxes. This is generally due to the lack of comprehensive coverage that non-rationing interventions have. The comprehensive influence of Total Carbon Rationing on the supply and demand for all products and services cannot be matched in dynamism by any other climate action policy.
- Facilitation and promotion of negative emissions
- The central carbon authority would pay for atmospheric CO2 removal by providing rations weight for weight for proven carbon sequestration. This is the "negative emissions" process. Recipients (reforestation projects, carbon capture and sequestration industries) would be able to use the rations they earn as they wish - either selling them immediately or for whatever other purposes might exist.
- Unilateral (national within trading block)
- Any nation or trading block could immediately implement Total Carbon Rationing, where the customs authority sets up a proxy at the trading border to impose the carbon rationing required on incoming imports.
- Multilateral (international, between trading blocks, scaling to global)
- The ultimate goal for the most effective outcomes is the implementation of Total Carbon Rationing across the global economy. This would provide society with the best chances of meeting the growing challenges that climate change represents.
Key Actors and Institutional Requirements
A central carbon authority would be established, similar in function to a central bank.
This carbon bank would oversee the allocation of carbon rations to citizens.
It would administer the carbon ration post-allocation market where citizens and business come to sell surplus rations or obtain extra requirement.
The carbon bank would also process the payment, audit and verification of rations from the carbon producers.
Central banks across the globe are already putting in place the framework for an international digital reserve currency. This could be duplicated for the purposes of carbon rationing.
Carbon rations would not expire, so the central carbon authority would also monitor, manage and report on the carbon ration supply - the quantity of rations held by citizens and businesses. This information would feed back into the decision-making process for calculating the optimal quantity of rations to allocate at the start of each rationing period.
The other key actors in the TCR framework are the carbon producers. Every gas or oil well and coal mine operation would be subject to upstream metering by the carbon authority to measure the quantity of fossil fuels extracted and audit and payment of carbon ration income.
Compliance and policing of the whole carbon rationing system would take place through the carbon producers.
Downstream companies in the petrochemical industry and beyond in wider industry which do not extract fossil fuels would, by definition of the TCR framework, not be subject to metering or payment of rations to the carbon authority.
Key Enhancements to Rationing to implement TCR
Instead of collection and audit of rations by customer-facing retailers, carbon rations would flow via every business transaction through the supply chain from the end-carbon-consumer (citizen) to the original carbon producer (fossil fuel company).
The carbon providers would be subject to comprehensive monitoring of fossil fuel extraction. The carbon providers are the lynchpin in the TCR mechanism. For every tonne and kilo of carbon extracted, the providers must surrender the same weight in carbon rations to the central carbon authority.
The carbon providers would obtain the carbon rations from their customers, charged on every transaction.
“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 the carbon rations on their product or service next to the usual price.
Anybody or any business that burns carbon-based fuels would not be able to do so without paying the carbon rations to the fuel supplier. The carbon rations flow from citizens to energy companies in a direct chain of retail and wholesale commercial transactions.
This establishes a direct link between the volume of carbon rations allocated by the central carbon authority and the final CO2 emissions produced in any one period.
Carbon rations would flow through the economy as a second parallel currency. It affects every product or service which exists and is for sale, requiring two figures on the price tag - a normal price tag in local currency - $, £, €, ￥ etc - and a ration in tonnes and kgs.
Example of TCR Rations in Commerce
If a citizen wished to purchase a television, for instance, this is how TCR would affect the commercial process, resulting in the carbon producer becoming the key audit point for carbon rationing:
- For simplicity's sake, imagine that the UK has implemented unilateral carbon rationing. The carbon authority will allocate all UK citizens an equal amount of rations, in absolute tonnes and kilos of carbon.
- The carbon authority works closely with the UK HMRC (customs authority) to impose the carbon rationing system on all incoming goods and services from countries not in the system.
- The customer chooses a TV, juggling the price and the carbon rations required against the features wanted, and paying both money and rations in one transaction. The TV retailer decides what the ration should be.
- The TV retailer receives the money and the carbon rations, e.g. 500kg for the television in this example.
- The TV retailer purchases the TV from the TV manufacturer, in a similar transaction of money and carbon rations. The retailer would slightly increase the carbon rations demanded, because it has to keep its shop warm in winter, and pay to transport the televisions.
- The TV manufacturer built the TV from components, e.g. a plastic casing and a flat screen.
- The flat screen for the sake of this example comes from China who are not yet in the system. The UK HMRC has an estimate of how much carbon was emitted in the making of the flat screen, and levies this amount at the border. Delivery to the TV manufacturer only occurs on payment of the rations to the HMRC.
- The plastic casing was made in the UK and had its own price and ration, which the plastic manufacturer demands from the TV manufacturer. The plastic manufacturer uses considerable energy making the case, and bases the carbon ration for each plastic case produced on (a) the rations paid to the factory's energy provider and (b) the rations paid for the petrochemicals it converted into plastic.
- The energy provider could be using gas or coal or wind or nuclear, but in this example uses North Sea gas.
- The energy provider bought the gas wholesale from BP for example and paid BP the money price and a tonne of carbon rations per tonne of North Sea gas bought.
- At the year end, BP must pay the carbon authority a tonne of carbon rations for every tonne of carbon in the gas it pumped out of the North Sea gas fields.
- If any actor in the process runs out of carbon rations for whatever reason, they would have to purchase the extra carbon rations on the open carbon ration market, which is regulated by the carbon authority, but whose price level is set by supply and demand in the market.
Impact on the Supply Chain in Business and Industry
The introduction of carbon rationing would not be a totally unprecedented introduction. In 1971, the United Kingdom decimalised its currency and dropped the non-decimal shilling. Then in 1973, it introduced VAT, and in 1978 started mandating metric measurements. In 1990, the sovereign nations of East and West Germany reunified, completely replacing the Ost-Mark with the D-Mark. In 1999, Germany did it again with 10 other European nations to introduce the Euro.
If introduced, every citizen and every business would have to become adept at handling carbon ration weights in the same way as money. Just as income and expenditure of money is key to good financial management, the same would be true of income and expenditure of rations.
For citizens, each would receive a personal allocation at the start of each rationing period and must ensure they live within their budget.
Business on the other hand would be required to charge and procure all carbon rations from its customers, which it would carefully manage to cover all of its own ration expenditure. From the technological perspective, business would be compelled to introduce accounting software to account for carbon ration income and expenditure.
The banking industry would undoubtedly understand the need for dual transactions where money and carbon ration transactions are carried out in parallel.
Methane Control under TCR
CH4 is a highly potent greenhouse gas, 28 times greater than CO2 over 100 years (or 84x over 20).
To control it under TCR, businesses wishing to emit CH4 would need to be licensed for the quantity emitted in C02e (CO2 equivalent) weight, paid for in carbon rations.
Methane emissions from livestock is an obvious example. A farmer with a dairy or beef herd would be required to pay license fees in carbon rations per head of cattle.
Methane leakages from fossil fuel extraction and mining for minerals such as copper represent another problematic area. Based on experience with past mining or drilling operations and including geological data indicating potential methane leakage from oil or coal beds, average methane leakage at any extraction site could be calculated and the appropriate carbon rations added to the final bill at the carbon producer's audit by the carbon authority.
Oil and gas wells and coal mines would be metered as described above under a TCR regime to measure the carbon rations due to the carbon authority for CO2 emissions, but the direct release of CH4 into the atmosphere would be 28 times more damaging than the CO2.
Preservation of Natural Carbon Sinks and Prospects for Negative Emissions
The continued destruction of the globally significant carbon sinks, such as the rainforests of the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo, represent a large risk to any attempts to control CO2 emissions globally.
The agreement and introduction of Total Carbon Rationing could provide a carbon rations-based income to the owners or guardians of every standing forest. The forest carbon sinks sequester about 15 per cent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, although that rate is falling. From the opposite perspective, deforestation for economic gain would have to be monitored and audited by the carbon authority, which would then demand the equivalent carbon rations from the agent carrying out the deforestation. The TCR principle maintains that carbon usage in the economy must be paid for in carbon rations, weight for weight.
The obvious culprit here is the palm oil industry with its extensive oil palm plantations, along with timber production, soya or beef farming forest clearance methods, and other drivers of deforestation. Unsustainable agricultural practices by indigenous farmers though would still be a problem.
The demand for biofuels would also be channelled into sustainable practices. Industrial biofuel agriculture would need to budget for payment of carbon rations for CO2 loss due to soil degradation. Large woodchip-fired power stations would pay in rations for woodchip from forestry operations, who would be subject to audit and ration payment to the carbon authority for the forest clearance. Future developments with current 2020 policies could otherwise lead to unchecked deforestation.
In parallel to the requirement for keeping forests standing, TCR offers a huge potential as a mechanism to pay for negative emissions. For instance, all deforested land across the globe could be reforested. As trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Reforestation projects should be able to claim this weight of absorbed CO2 as carbon rations from the carbon authority.
Obviously under the rationing mechanism, forest stewards of both intact primary forest and regrowing secondary forest would have to be subject to stringent control to the same degree as the gas/oil/coal carbon producers.
Rationale for Total Carbon Rationing
Superiority over Carbon Taxes and Carbon Pricing Mechanisms
There is little discussion of carbon rationing as a macro-economic policy, compared to the attention given to carbon taxes or carbon pricing policies. There is an implicit assumption that the reach of carbon rationing is restricted to consumer-citizens and that a large part of the carbon economy would be not be impacted, e.g. aviation, shipping, imported emissions, in-built emissions, government services, the military. TCR as an enhanced rationing mechanism produces an impact comprehensively across these sectors.
In the UK in 2008, the British Government Home Office began developing plans to bring in carbon rationing to combat rising CO2 emissions.  The plans were abandoned after the then Home Secretary David Milliband changed roles within government.
Carbon taxation and pricing schemes aim to influence economic carbon demand via increases in carbon-related costs to commerce and industry. This layer of indirection based on the artificial manipulation of supply prices is also far from perfect because it is not comprehensively applied to all carbon outlets and it suffers due to the uncertain sensitivity of supply and demand.
It is also quite complex and difficult to construct a carbon pricing system and then to implement it. Multiple issues occur, especially on a political level e.g. in British Columbia, Canada, in the EU.
The measure of the inefficiency or the not-yet-internalised costs of climate change-induced damage is known as the carbon price gap. As of 2019, this stands at a massive 87% of all carbon emissions.
Redundancy of Many Carbon Regulations under TCR
The UK Committee on Climate Change produced an extensive and wide-ranging document outlining a policy path to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and immediately realised 2 problems: were their recommendations plausible and are they even the best choice?
TCR would allow decision-makers to focus on how much carbon emissions to allow, rather than a thousand other things. Already academic policy analysts predict that governments will be unable to rise to the challenge without fundamental organisational restructuring.
A further problem with regulation-based policies is the extended time horizons associated with such policies. The EU in 2020 displayed a particularly egregious example of this. The implementation of the 'EU Green New Deal' will only take force 10 years down the line in 2030 and it does not allow for greater ambition until 2035.
So many of the discussions in the field of national and consumer climate policy would be rendered redundant by the automated ration setting mechanism of TCR in all supply chains. See the next section.
Implementation and Running Costs
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 German MwSt.
Doing nothing but rely on technological developments to bring about the obsolescence of fossil fuels is a policy that research shows cannot keep global warming below 3.0°C. This will bring global economic recessions along with damage and adaptation costs in the order 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 all this 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.
There are other costs associated with policing TCR, for instance satellite monitoring of forests. This is already carried out by space agencies, which is how the world became aware of the 2019 Amazon fires. Much of these costs exist already.
Transparency via Automatic Generation of Carbon Ration on Price Tag
People and green businesses base their consumer choices in the 2019 economy on information that is often not on the label, is incomplete, or worse, is misleading or purposefully suppressed.
The New York Times bestseller "How Bad are Bananas?" picked out a highly diverse mix of 100 articles or activities, giving an analysis of the carbon footprint of each. It demonstrates the challenge faced when trying to gather this sort of information.
Very few things have the same carbon transparency as buying a tank of fuel to drive somewhere. There are unexpected inputs, hidden subsidies and incalculable interactions which make something's actual carbon footprint differ radically from the expected.
TCR would make the carbon producers the ultimate recipients of carbon rations, for which they are audited by the carbon authority to assure compliance between the quantity of fossil fuels extracted from the ground and the quantity of carbon rations that they procure via their sales of those fuels.
There is an example given above of how carbon rations would flow through the economy. To demonstrate the point regarding information on CO2 emissions produced per product/service even more simply, here is a example describing "widgets" carbon ration valuation:
- A business manufactures widgets. It has to calculate the carbon ration per widget.
- It produces widgets from components.
- Component A has a carbon ration of 0.3kg
- Component B has a carbon ration of 0.5kg
- The business has to pay its energy supplier per quarter with rations and money, which both must be obtained from its customers.
- The calculation is: the rations per widget = the rations needed for components plus the rations paid for energy per quarter divided by the number of widgets produced per quarter.
- The energy supplier purchases fuel for power generation from the carbon producers, paying rations weight for weight according to the fuel required. It demands rations from its customers proportionate to their energy usage.
- The widget company also has to pay for the diesel for its delivery lorry at 0.1kg ration per widget.
- The diesel supplier pays the rations direct to the carbon producer.
- As a result the carbon ration for each widget is set at 1kg.
- The costs of components A and B were calculated similarly by their manufacturers.
A further benefit is that the business can update the carbon rations demanded for their product as soon as component A or component B changes, or when they sign up to a carbon neutral energy provider, or exchange their diesel lorry for an electric vehicle.
Dynamic Stimulation of Low Carbon Industry
The speed and efficiency of business adaption and innovation would be facilitated by the transparency outlined above, and in parallel development would be stimulated directly through the reduction of the carbon ration supply.
All other solutions (taxes, legislation, pricing schemes) are demand-based measures that only impact certain aspects of the economy while leaving others untouched, with no guarantees about consumer behaviour and progress of decarbonisation.
It's simpler, more efficient and more direct to control the carbon quantity in the economy than the carbon price, which is fundamentally a difficult policy making exercise and prone to failure and political intervention due to the inherent lack of certainty, flexibility, and stringency in such policies.
Fairness and Equitability
Rationing is categorised by economists as a fundamentally progressive fiscal policy. Studies looking at rationing in the 1940s and 1950s show this. 
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 yet end up the same by global agreement, using a UN-brokered convention based on the Global Commons Institute’s Contraction and Convergence framework.
Wealthy citizens could buy extra carbon rations to subsidise their carbon-heavy choices, but only what other people are selling, and that will decrease regularly as the rationing continues. Such a market for rations is not a loophole preventing actual CO2 emissions reduction from taking place. It represents a safety mechanism in the system that prevents people or businesses falling off a carbon ration “cliff edge” by running out of rations.
Facilitation and Promotion of Negative Emissions
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 1.5°C.
This chart displays the Global Carbon Budget. It shows annual global carbon emissions on the Y axis in Gigatonnes of CO2. As of writing, the thick black curve has risen every year up to 2019 on the X axis. The cumulative effect of all emissions to date has resulted in a global temperature rise of 1°C above pre-industrial levels.
The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement between all nations in the world targets a 1.5°C limit to global warming, with initial commitments to keep the temperature rise "well below 2°C".
According to the latest climate science, to achieve a limit of 1.5°C warming, society must restrict further CO2 emissions to less than 420 Gigatonnes CO2. The downward-arcing black line on the chart displays how annual CO2 emissions must decline if we adhere to the 420 Gigatonne total. In other words, with current emissions at 42 Gigatonnes per year, if we carried on for another 10 years, we would then need to completely stop all emissions or global warming would exceed 1.5°C.
As the chart dialog states, such sudden emissions reduction is practically impossible. The only way to keep the total extra anthropogenic CO2 added to the atmosphere below 420 Gigatonnes from 2020 is to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere - "negative emissions", in the appropriate huge quantities.
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.
This branch of industry is already well established as summarised by Carbon Brief:
However as of 2020 the whole industry is not without controversy, in fact it is difficult to draw the line between this and the carbon offsetting industry. It is in these sectors that the rigour and robustness of TCR would be transformational.
Not only would it promote research and investment into reforestation and carbon sequestration, but because the central carbon authority 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.
To a citizen considering which political manifesto to vote for, threats to living standards, personal income and wealth generally trump more rational but long-term environmental advantages in the future.
The Australian general election of May 2019 was widely considered a climate election that was "unloseable" for the Labour Party pushing a climate action agenda. The Labour Party did lose though, beaten at the polls by the incumbent Prime Minister who used every opportunity to highlight the short term financial impact that the proposed climate action would cause.
Why would the public be interested in political leaders who adopt TCR as their climate action policy?
- Many citizens can be persuaded to save carbon rations in sectors where they have only passing interest in their activities, leaving themselves enough rations to spend on activities or purchases they really desire.
- The immediate impact upon introduction of TCR where an ample starting ration is allocated would only affect the citizens with the most profligate carbon footprints, who most would agree should rein in their activities.
- It is probable that the progress of green technologies in the future will reduce the required carbon rations in many sectors, cushioning the impact on consumers when rationing starts to cause real impact, e.g. the automobile industry
- The costs to the state and increase in taxes required to implement TCR would be small in comparison to the billions proposed for climate-related subsidies and government spending programmes.
The clarity and transparency of TCR - how effective it is in CO2 emissions reduction and what effect it was having on the economy - would be effective right down to the democratic level. This visibility would empower citizens democratically to press their elected representatives to reduce the carbon ration supply to a greater or lesser extent.
Destigmatisation of Fossil Fuels
A widely-held public perception is that the extraction of fossil fuels is inherently immoral because of CO2-induced climate change and the resulting impacts. BP's corporate image for instance has suffered at the hands of public disfavour, resulting in the company losing key sponsorship deals, being the target of divestment campaigns, and even being pressured off university campuses when trying to take part in recruitment fairs.
Commentators speak of a loss of 'social licence' but the reality of the situation is citizens are quite prepared to ignore their own part in the process as they continue to create demand in the marketplace. Either consumers with a large carbon footprint are oblivious to the simple laws of supply and demand, or they believe the moral obligation lies with the government to resolve all CO2 emissions-related problems, but they also refuse to vote for such action.
However, when citizens go to pay for products or services using carbon rations, they have in their hands the irrefutable proof that their actions will result in CO2 emissions. The only other option is to 'retire' those carbon rations. A new social contract under TCR would re-legitimise the extraction of fossil fuels and recreate the social license, bearing in mind the context of a steadily reducing carbon ration supply.
This change in attitude is likely to feed into the more general climate debate to reduce the polarisation and lack of broad political agreement. Because the ethics of the capitalist market economy almost by definition allow business-as-usual, increasing numbers of citizens believe that the supply of fossil fuels is morally wrong. With a carbon rationing system in place, the ethics of the market place can be brought back more in line with society's general moral standards regarding continuation of our way of life, impacts of our actions on people in other parts of the world and so on.
Business, Entrepreneurial and Industrial Attraction
Business ultimately plays by a set of rules defined in law and is typically only concerned only with profit and loss generated by its actions within that context. The personal environmental motivations of directors and managers may often be expressed in their business models but many such business practices can be summarily swept aside by a change of leadership.
For business, TCR is relatively basic. It makes going green part of the rules.
While carbon pricing mechanisms and carbon taxes in general can integrate some 'environmental information' via price discovery in the market, TCR actually creates a new parallel market.
Due to the relative simplicity of carbon rationing, it brings more dependability and certainty. Carbon pricing policies usually have highly inconsistent track records. Being smaller, more regional and more targetted than TCR, they are highly prone to uncertainties of political intervention in a way that a blanket, comprehensive framework like TCR would not be.
Carbon pricing policies rely on inclusions and exclusions on a sector by sector basis and variation in carbon accounting practices dependent on national law. Carbon rationing on the other hand would provide comprehensive coverage of the economy and a comparatively small set of economic indicators, influences and unknowns. This would provide the backdrop for a reliable investment framework that gives a clear pathway for innovation towards carbon neutrality.
Businesses also 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. In a unilateral implementation, since TCR imposes the rations on imports at customs, the playing field is level and it prevents free-riders.
Other business problems also arise with a piecemeal approach to carbon policy. Shipping illustrates a typical problem businesses face. The International Maritime Organisation brokered a international agreement that shipping fuel must be used more efficiently by 2020, but despite 20 years preparation, it is on the verge of failure because of disagreement over who bears responsibility in the industry.
Starting Nationally, Thinking Globally
TCR can be implemented unilaterally by any nation, not requiring unanimous approval from hundreds of nations.
A nation's national borders and customs agency would act as proxy for importers of foreign goods and services, collecting the required rations on imported goods from the buyers.
The biggest challenge would be to avoid international legal disputes over any perceived violation of pre-existing trade agreements because of the introduction of rationing controls on the imported goods.
Other nations could join with the first nation at any point to form a larger trading block.
The United Nations approached climate action from a top-down perspective until 2009 at the COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since then a bottom-up or 'pledge-and-review' framework has been the goal. Whatever the reasons given for this, the bottom-up approach is obviously easier if seeking a unanimous global agreement from the UNFCCC conventions. The bottom-up approach is what resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement was passed unanimously. That in itself was a feat of international diplomacy. However the Nationally Determined Contributions are not enforceable. The 1.5°C limit to global warming imagined in the agreement is looking increasingly unachievable. The Climate Action Tracker currently shows most monitored countries have not made sufficient commitments in their NDCs to be compatible with the agreement.
Whether the UNFCCC process turns back towards a top-down approach, or finds a middle road,, by the unilateral implementation of TCR and then the building of a TCR-based trading block, a unanimous vote at the UN is not a necessity.
The ideal solution to provide an international basis for carbon ration allocation would be the Global Commons Initiative Contraction and Convergence Framework.  This 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.
The chart above shows at the top, the annual rates of carbon emissions allocated per capita per country, and below, in total per country (from 2000).
It illustrates how national allocations can be negotiated to the satisfaction of all countries by commencing at different per capita levels and then converging at an agreed point before contracting.
Total Carbon Rationing is a whole supply chain rationing policy that covers individuals as well as companies, and in fact whole industries and government. While it has large initial implementation costs, over the long term it is likely to be cheaper and more likely to succeed that any other climate policy.
Rationing is the sole policy that can limit carbon supply and guarantee decarbonisation targets. The rationing system once in place would bring individual engagement from citizens and various advantages in transparency, predictability, efficiency and separation of concerns for business. Beyond the direct personal or business impacts of this rationing mechanism, the implementation of TCR would have further advantages covering political impacts, negative emissions, natural resources, international trade, and financial systems.
The Total Carbon Rationing team is a group of graduates of the Masters in Environmental Technology at Imperial College, London, led by Adam Hardy. In his previous career before starting on carbon rationing, Hardy felt he'd been moving further and further away from his environmental and academic roots. In fact in his last position he worked for 3 1/2 years at BP, the oil company, designing and developing IT systems. He felt mentally incapable of squaring the goals of an oil corporation with the actions needed to achieve the Paris 2015 targets, at which point he consolidated what he had and made the plunge into advocacy for climate change mitigation in 2019.
We are based in London, UK.
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