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No Carbon-spewing Man Is An Island

The Wall Street Journal has a story today about the personal cap-and-trade program being considered in Britain. The basic concept scales down the industrial cap-and-trade model to individuals: give every adult a uniform “carbon allowance” for personal expenditures on gas, air travel, electricity, and so forth, and any remaining credits can be sold to more energy-dependent citizens.

A Parliamentary proposal to implement the system across the U.K. died on the table last May, declared too expensive, Big Brother-like, and, perhaps, “ahead of its time.” Others maintain that it’d be impossible to quantify the carbon that’s emitted by every personal decision, and that it’d be far more efficient to promote upstream capping--that is, shifting practices across entire economic sectors rather than curtailing a whole bundle of disparate activities conducted by an individual.

Detractors also argue that the scheme’s purported benefits of improving wealth distribution are tenuous at best. While it’s true that the rich have more energy-dependent lifestyles--riding jets, owning McMansions, and so forth--the system still tends to privilege those who have the money and the time to adapt to more sustainable living. Without heavy investment in public transportation, more downmarket hybrid vehicles, and other alt-energy alternatives, the lower classes would be clearly at a disadvantage. Selling carbon credits wouldn’t necessarily mean they could afford to trade in their carbon-spewing junker for a Prius. Not everyone has the leisure time to bike to work. And even if fuel-efficient choices would save money in the long run, many still wouldn’t be able to front the funds to kit out house in pricey compact fluorescent bulbs.

However, I do agree that a voluntary personal cap-and-trade scheme could be a great thing. Last month, a thousand people in Britain signed up for the world’s first real-time version of the program, and we’ll hear about the results of the trial in the fall. The program is promising not only because it measures your carbon footprint--I think the fancy word these days is “carbon literacy”--but also provides an obvious, tangible incentive for reducing individual CO2 emissions. Some might say that only the converted--whose emissions are already low--would choose to participate in such a scheme. But I’d argue that a carbon market open to individuals would eventually attract a more entrepreneurial, upwardly-mobile demographic that might not have gone green otherwise.

For those who’ve already made curbing emissions a priority, it’d be a much easier (and I imagine more satisfying) way to quantify how much you’ve cut back: just tear up your carbon credits rather than trade them. Finally, rather than decrease the political pressure being put on private industries to curb emissions--as the WSJ hopes predicts would happen under the scheme--I think that the system would actually have the opposite effect. Individual participants would recognize the trade-offs they’ve personally made--and they’d expect the same of corporations, too.

--Suzy Khimm