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I would turn the lights out

Michael Meacher

1st February, 2007

That’s what I would do if I were energy minister, says the former environment minister

The issue is very stark, but also very clear. The industrialised countries (specifically the 35 Annex I countries of the Kyoto Protocol) are currently well off track to meet their Kyoto commitments. Spain, Portugal, Greece and Canada are way over target, the US and Australia have reneged and their emissions are soaring massively over Kyoto limits, and China, India and Brazil have not yet signed up to targets and their emissions are rising very fast, driven by frenetic growth. Given this record, the chances of the world cutting its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 (which scientists earlier said was necessary) – when, on present performance, global emissions will probably increase by 75 per cent by that date – must be next to nil.

Moreover, even this seemingly unreachable 60 per cent cut by 2050 is still nowhere near enough. The latest science indicates that a cut of no less than 90 per cent is necessary by the much earlier date of 2030 if we are to keep carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below 430 parts per million. The significance of this threshold is that above this level we may not be able to prevent some of the potentially catastrophic feedback processes from kicking in: such as the dieback of the Amazon rainforest, the release of billions of tons of methane hydrates from the ocean floor, or the collapse of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. After that, nature takes over and the biosphere becomes the primary producer of carbon. The global warming process takes on a momentum of its own, beyond our control.

So what is to be done? The main problem is the sheer poverty of our imagination. The reaction to the compelling scientific evidence and clinching economic argument of the Stern Review has been breathtaking in its small-mindedness. It has all come down to higher green taxes and a Climate Change Bill in the Queen’s Speech. That doesn’t even begin to understand the profundity of the threat that faces us. Global warming is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, and pushing up green taxes – plus a Bill with unspecified contents thrown in at the last minute to appease public opinion – will have no more than a piffling effect.

What we, and the government, need to get our minds round is that we are at war: at war against climate catastrophe, presenting us with a far greater threat towards our survival than 1939; and that the measures adopted must rise to this unprecedented challenge. If GHG emissions are to be cut by 90 per cent by 2030, less than 25 years away, that can only be done by a combination of three radical measures: massive reduction in energy use (large-scale limiting of many current activities); cutting today’s prodigious waste of energy (major step-changes in energy efficiency and conservation); and a rapid, urgent switch, as a virtual wartime emergency, from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. The scale of change on each of these three counts today is miniscule or non-existent.

The only certain way to achieve these goals is via carbon rationing, both at national and international levels. For the latter, the only realistic and equitable mechanism is the policy of contraction and convergence – radical annual contraction downwards of per capita GHG emissions for the industrialised countries, while per capita GHG emissions for the developing countries converge upwards, until the same global per capita level is reached; after which, that equal per capita global share continues to be cut systematically year by year until a 90 per cent reduction is reached by 2030.

That is the theory. Is it practicable? It is not all hair-shirt. Firstly, the Northern countries would gain from the export markets created by restructuring, while the Southern countries would benefit from the sale of unused carbon allocations under a global carbon reduction trading system. At the same time, the whole world would benefit from slowing the rate of catastrophic damage. Secondly, the revolutionary concept of ecological debt comes into play here, suggesting a fundamental realignment of who owns whom in the international economy. Carbon debt – using up fossil fuels at a far faster rate than per capita entitlement allows, in order disproportionately to increase one’s own prosperity at the climate expense of others – implies a huge debt has to be paid back. Monetisation of that North-South liability certainly far exceeds the totality of North-South financial aid, and the practical realisation of this could go a long way towards restructuring a grotesquely imbalanced world economy.

So if contraction and convergence is such a fair and rational allocation of available global resources, why hasn’t it been adopted, not least by the British Government? The answer is that, in the Blair regime where power and policymaking has been highly centralised around a small clique in No. 10, the idea did not find favour there both because climate change was not, until very recently, a matter of high-level political concern and also no doubt because, even if the idea had ever been seriously considered, the known US repudiation of the idea would have killed it stone dead in Blair’s eyes. However, Stern’s central argument that not taking action against global warming could be five to 20 times more costly than acting now, blows apart Bush’s argument that the US economy cannot afford the cost of adhering to the Kyoto Protocol. In a post-Bush Administration from 2009, I would anticipate that contraction and convergence will come into its own as the dominant global framework for tackling climate change.

How would carbon rationing work nationally? What is needed is a mandatory system of personal carbon allowances, which would tackle the half of UK GHG emissions that derive from decisions made by individuals. These emissions are growing fast because of cheap flights, air conditioning in cars, patio heaters as powerful as household boilers, and digital entertainment and PC equipment that is permanently left on.

Each adult would receive an equal annual allowance, plus a lower share for each child. Whenever an adult bought petrol, paid a utilities bill or boarded a plane, an appropriate amount of the allowance would be deducted on their carbon card, like a parallel currency, according to the known GHG-generating impact of the product or service being bought. Again, as with contraction and convergence quotas, trading of unused allocations could be highly redistributive, rewarding the conscientious and the poor (who probably don’t possess a car and don’t engage in air travel) at the expense of the wasteful and extravagant (who take half a dozen foreign holidays a year). It could well initiate a new culture. A variety of ways could be devised to help people switch to a low-carbon world – especially the carbon labelling of houses, cars, appliances, lighting systems, and airline tickets, so that people could get the best value for carbon utilised. Energy meters and bills would contain data on carbon emissions, to guide optimal choice. There would no doubt be all sorts of novel schemes to help the public get the most advantage from a low-carbon existence – such as a Carbon Watchers project for over-users, rather like Weight Watchers for the over-heavy.

Again, it may sound good in theory, but will it work in practice? It is only likely to gain widespread public acceptance if the government gives strong leadership in explaining the scheme – its purpose, why it is so urgently needed, why it is fair to everyone, how it is universal and non-discriminatory, and how it fits into an overall national and international strategy to fight climate change. A totally different approach is required from that which ignominiously failed over the fuel duty escalator policy – which was meant to give motorists the message that driving their car unnecessarily carried environmental externalities in the form of GHG emissions and pollution which needed to be paid for, so as to act as a deterrent. However, the government never explained the logic behind the policy, the driving public thought it was just another stealth tax, and when the truck drivers besieged the oil refineries in September 2000, the public broadly supported them. The government capitulated, the fuel duty escalator was ditched, and there is now no strategy in place to discourage climate-damaging car use (except raising the Vehicle Excise Duty on Chelsea tractors in the last Budget by £1 a week, which for a vehicle costing £20-30,000 is frankly laughable). The whole episode is a classic example of how not to make policy. Has the government learnt the lesson?

Will carbon allowances (or domestic trading quotas) be acceptable? There is a good precedent. People accept severe restrictions in time of war. In 1942, the US limited gasoline to three gallons a week for non-essential vehicles. Germany introduced rationing throughout the war, and Japan from 1941. In the UK, between 1938 and 1944 the use of cars dropped by 95 per cent, whilst the use of public transport increased 13 per cent. Consumption of all goods and services fell 16 per cent, households cut their coal use by 25 per cent, and food consumption fell 11 per cent – though, significantly, health improved, including a dramatic fall in infant mortality.

The real question arising from all this is: can governments persuade their peoples that we face nothing less than a war against climate change, with the need for the same determination and self-sacrifice as was seen 60 years ago? A key part in the government’s armoury for rousing public consciousness would be energy rationing.

That’s why, as Secretary of State, I would introduce it.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007


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