Our Agenda for Change: using Carbon Allowances to reduce emissions

Why is action needed?

We can already see the damaging impact of climate change in the news headlines everyday, and as these changes increase they are leading to social and economic impacts on us as individuals, and on whole communities and even populations struggling to survive or becoming displaced.

To avoid it getting out of control, in 2015 the Paris Climate Agreement set a target to hold the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C (or 3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels, and ideally 1.5°C (2.7°F).

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What is the global carbon budget?

Climate change is a cumulative problem: the total carbon dioxide emitted over time matters, not just the emissions in any given year. At the same time, the relationship between rising carbon dioxide levels and rising temperatures is near-linear, which means climatologists can calculate the impact of CO2 emissions on our climate.

Climatologists have calculated that globally we can emit no more than 420 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) from now on – effectively a ‘carbon budget’ – beyond which the impact of emissions will be catastrophic. We are currently on target to hit this level in 2028.

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How can we stay within the global carbon budget?

In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement set a goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.  The agreement includes commitments from all major emitting countries to cut their carbon emissions and to strengthen those commitments over time. 

Contraction and Convergence is a proposed global framework, supported by the United Nations, for reducing CO2 emissions in a fair way.  The strategy consists of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level (contraction), by each country bringing its emissions per capita to the same level (convergence). 

Recognising the different levels of CO2 emissions currently generated by different countries and the different impacts on their economies of reducing it, developed countries – who account for the greatest emissions – start reduction immediately.  Less developed countries are allowed to reduce their emissions more slowly.  At an agreed date, all countries are then bound to reduce their CO2emissions to zero.

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Our proposal for a carbon currency based on carbon allowances

To achieve the reductions in CO2 emissions that are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change, we have to do more than rely on individuals to ‘do the right thing’.  We need to create the systems and infrastructure to enable us all to live more sustainably.  And we need to do it in a way that does not unfairly disadvantage those who are already struggling. 

We propose to set a national carbon budget and allocate every citizen an allowance of carbon tokens from the national budget.  Whenever a person buys goods or services, in addition to the financial cost, the person must pay a carbon price that reflects the amount of CO2 generated through those goods or services.  The duty is not paid in money, but in carbon tokens from their carbon allowance.

Such a system has the potential to revolutionise our approach to reducing CO2 emissions.  This is because it would give us all an equal responsibility to reduce our emissions, whilst still allowing individuals the freedom to spend their carbon budget on the things that are important to them.  It will motivate retailers to find the products and services with the lowest carbon price to attract customers, and it will drive manufacturers and other industries to seek out or develop low-carbon technologies to reduce their own carbon costs.

What difference can I make?

It’s true that governments should be stepping up and leading, but they are not. The main take-home from the last climate conference was this: our action on the ground is what will prompt leaders to act. Not only demonstrating with placards on the street, but demonstrating what to do as well, as best we can.

Starting at the smallest scale, we all have our own personal carbon footprint and we need to start reducing it. But many people won’t, because their need to live a normal life is too strong or they don’t see the point.

Part of what EcoCore does is to work with our sister organisation EcoCounts to facilitate a local group approach which aims to normalise sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyles. One of the main reasons why people are so bad at being low-carbon is because they don’t see it as normal, but as a group, we can change this. Why also should people be motivated to take these actions even as a group, when the majority of the population won’t? That is also where EcoCore helps, because what the EcoCounts group does directly helps us to lobby for the introduction of national carbon allowances.