Carbon Rationing: Preparing the Public for “Plan B”

“Rationing was introduced in September 1939, to help win the Second World War.  Now the Government may need to think about rationing carbon if we are to win the fight against climate change.

“Personal carbon rationing and trading should not be a first option. But the Government should start preparing a ‘plan B’ in case current policies fail to deliver. We can lay the ground work now by giving people much better information about the carbon they are emitting, whether at home or at the petrol pump.

Matthew Lockwood, Associate Director, Institute for Public Policy Research


It’s called the ‘default position’ – the defence that ‘nobody wants this, but we have no choice’. If you want to enact legislation that is clearly going to be unpopular and deeply repressive, you need to justify it. To be able to claim that circumstances are so serious, that it’s this or the end of civilization itself.

And so we have carbon rationing as ‘Plan B’. In 2009 a press release from the Institute of Public Policy Research (the IPPR, an organization that advises the British government on public policy) said that “if at the end of the UK’s first carbon budget period in 2012, carbon emissions have not reduced,  the Government will need to face up to the prospect of introducing personal carbon trading as a ‘plan B’.”

The press release acknowledged that introducing rationing like this would be massively unpopular with people, and suggested that governments approached the lead-up to carbon rationing by raising ‘carbon awareness’ and talking about personal carbon use as a problem, in the same vein as addictions such as alcohol dependency:

ippr argues that the Government could start preparing for this eventuality, for example building up people’s ‘carbon literacy’ by making  information about carbon emissions available on gas and electricity bills, at the petrol pump and on aeroplane tickets.  Government should also run a ‘know your carbon limits’ campaign along the lines of alcohol awareness advertising.

IPPR, 2009. Three Years to Carbon Emissions Or Rationing Could be Needed.

In other words, you bad, bad people, you have a problem and you need to be told about it. Even now, you are emitting carbon. Are you even aware of your ‘carbon limits’? I doubt it.

So how would carbon rationing work? The IPPR press release – which anyone can view online – doesn’t discuss this at all, perhaps to avoid generating controversy. However, the report’s authors, Jenny Bird and Mathew Lockwood have provided details in an academic magazine not available to general public. In the Climate Policy journal they propose that each citizen is granted a certain level of allowable carbon emissions on a card, which they “surrender” when they purchase fuel for their car, heating fuel for their home or electricity. The authors note that the advantage of carbon rationing is that the levels granted to citizens by their government can then be ratcheted down, once the general idea has been accepted:

The cap is tightened gradually over time, allowing fewer and fewer emissions of carbon (and hence fewer permits) year on year.

Mathew Lockwood et al. The Economics of Personal Carbon Trading. Climate Policy Vol: 10 Issue: 4, August, 2008. P. 447ff

What is particularly interesting in the journal article is that the authors discuss the problems inherent in what they refer to as a “hard cap” carbon rationing scheme. In essence, they point out that in order to be effective a carbon rationing scheme would have to allow the possibility of extreme rises in the price of carbon to be effective. In other words, imagine a situation where corporations were buying up people’s carbon credits so they could carry on business as usual. The laws of supply and demand means that for the average person, purchasing additional carbon allowances (for extra heating oil in a cold winter, say) would become prohibitively expensive. But under carbon rationing, this could be perceived as a net benefit, as overall it would reduce carbon emissions as the public at large would have no choice but to make further cutbacks in their personal carbon expenditures.

In fairness to the authors of the journal article, it must be noted that they acknowledge the costs of such a system as well as its benefits. They suggest that the administrative costs of carbon rationing could be reduced by “piggy-backing” people’s carbon allowances on the banking system, in other words, linking citizen’s carbon rations to their bank accounts.

The study looks at how acceptable carbon rationing (which they refer to obliquely as “personal carbon trading” – PCT) would be, and argues that if people could be persuaded that global warming was a serious enough threat it might be seen as the least worst option. It does acknowledge, though, that some households would suffer more than others under carbon rationing – such as people in old or rural properties, or “those with children”. As carbon ration cards would be issued to adults only (at least initially), and as everyone would have the same carbon allowance, those with children would be greatly disadvantaged, unless they were rich enough to be able to afford to purchase extra carbon allowances from the state.

Given all of this, the study makes the following observation:

The lack of public and political support for PCT is an important concern, and it seems clear that the current levels would be insufficient to bring in such a scheme in the near future. However, looking to the longer term, there is still scope for opposition to decline. The framing of arguments and formulation of messages around PCT will be vital – for example, support could be boosted if carbon credits were presented as an endowment rather than a ration, and if delivery agents were chosen carefully.

The study concludes that if current approaches to carbon reductions work, then carbon rationing will not be required “until 2020”. However, it suggests that if other approaches to reducing emissions do not yield the necessary reductions, then introducing carbon rationing sooner will have to be seriously considered, and the government should start to prepare the ground now by making people increasingly aware of their personal carbon emissions, as a necessary prelude to “Plan B” – carbon rationing.

Unbelievably, Chris Huhne, currently Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK has stated on his website that “Personal carbon allowances are a great idea for the second phase of tackling climate change” but that this “must not become an excuse to postpone far more radical action” (Miliband Needs Green Switch, Not Blue Skies Thinking). Yes, you read that right. The UK’s minister in charge of climate change legislation thinks carbon rationing is “a great idea” – his only beef is that it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to pursue “far more radical” proposals. What exactly does he have in mind?

Donna Laframboise has extensively documented the proposals by climate “scientists” and others for a scheme of rationing electricity and heating, so as to lower carbon emissions. As she also observes, these same people dismiss the need for nuclear power, favouring repressive legislation instead.

As commentator Barry (below) points out, both Labour and Tory MPs sat on the Environmental committee that approved the general idea of carbon rationing, whilst stressing that more work needed to be done first to justify its imposition.

You can read the official government report into carbon rationing here:




5 responses to “Carbon Rationing: Preparing the Public for “Plan B”

  1. PCT has been on the agenda in Parliament for at least 4 years.

    Early Day Motion 1085 08/03/2007


    Morley, Elliot

    “That this House congratulates the Prime Minister on making climate change a priority for the UK Government; believes that, for this issue to transcend short-term political cycles, policies must be introduced which both include and, more importantly, engage every individual in tackling global warming and assuming some personal responsibility for their emissions; and notes that, in practice, a system of personal carbon trading would provide the most equitable, efficient and effective way of encouraging this development, and would create the necessary relationship between individual and global action.”

    Odd that Morley’s Wikipedia page makes no mention that he was once the President of GLOBE International.

    From later in 2007: Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry into Personal Carbon Allowances

    From 2008: Personal carbon trading: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2007–08 (pdf) It takes the form of the Environmental Audit Committee’s views in bold type and the Government’s response in normal type. Sad to say both the Committee and the Government were fully of the mind that the UK should urgently reduce carbon emissions.

  2. I bet flying will be exempted.. for the wealthy, or private jets.

    Or can I trade my last ten years of my family (5) NOT flying anywhere and low carbon footprint, for lots of cash..

    I’m sick of people that pop off to the maldives or sking twice ayear lecturing me about emmissions… My footprint, is TINY compared to them, yet I’m the irresponsible sceptic.

  3. The carbon rationing scheme is going to be tried on an island down under under aussie rule. It is supposed to be all volenteer, i read it on JoNovas blog, when it will start or it was just hot air i do not know, sorry do not know how to link it.

  4. Matthew Lockwood really seems to think it’s about reducing CO2 emissions. Did nobody tell him? It’s about taxing the air.

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