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It’s time to rethink personal carbon allowances, research suggests

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Outdoor signage advertises an electric vehicle charging station.
Enlarge / Having personal limits on carbon emissions might motivate more people to transition to lower carbon options.

In 2008, the United Kingdom’s government evaluated the idea of a personal carbon allowance (PCA) to help reduce emissions. In short, the effort would put caps on the amount of carbon each person could use as they heat their homes, purchase food, or travel to work. The government decided not to implement it, and since then, this climate strategy has largely fallen off the radar.

“[A]t the time, it was considered an idea ahead of its time. [PCAs] were considered as radical, and also not implementable due to cost and a few other hassles,” Francesco Fuso-Nerini, director of the Climate Action Centre at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, told Ars.

However, Fuso-Nerini and a team of researchers performed a meta-analysis of existing literature about PCAs and considered both climate change and the social and technological changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Arecent paper by the team suggests that it might be time to revisit the concept.

What is a PCA?

The paper recommends no particular way in which a country should roll out a PCA. Fuso-Nerini said that a PCA would most likely be implemented on a national level, but there could be voluntary implementations on a city level; the paper doesn’t discuss how to deploy the strategy on an international level. In any case, there are a few different options.

For example, a PCA program might only track household emissions. People could install a smart system in their home that understands which appliances are being used, how much energy they use, and the emissions that come about as a result of this use. This use could then be tracked by an app.

Similar programs could, independently or working in tandem, track a person’s transportation emissions—how much gas their Honda Civic uses to go to the grocery store and back, for instance. There are also existing apps that calculate the amount of emissions associated with consuming food, down to how much carbon is released as a product of growing and transporting a single apple, for example.

This set limit could encourage individuals to reduce the amount of carbon their actions produce and help governments around the world achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Further, businesses might be encouraged to reduce the amount of emissions associated with their products so people have enough room in their allowances to buy their goods. Homeowners might also look into retrofitting their houses to use less energy and give their PCA more wiggle room.

Should a person need to go over their carbon allowance, they could purchase the remaining emissions from other people. Most PCA designs would have this option. “If a person needs more carbon, they can buy more of it on the personal carbon trading market,” Fuso-Nerini said.

However, the researcher noted that a PCA plan would need to be developed in such a way that it didn’t become too burdensome on lower-income people. The PCA could be set at a level at which lower-income households could use more emissions than they need, while higher-income households would likely need to purchase the excess room to meet their energy needs.

Why now?

A few things have changed in the wake of the pandemic that might make PCAs more feasible and might make people more amenable to the notion. For one, the new IPCC report paints a dire portrait of the world’s climate future and suggests the planet is on track to hit and exceed 2º C of warming above preindustrial levels unless there are rapid and large-scale reductions in emissions.

According to Fuso-Nerini, post-pandemic, there is a need for a sustainable recovery. However, people’s attitudes may have changed, he said. Many people now realize that certain crises—like COVID-19 and the climate crisis—impact everyone in the world, and everyone needs to be involved to overcome them. During the pandemic, governments put restrictions on behavior (lockdowns, mask mandates, etc.) for the sake of public health. These restrictions wouldn’t have been considered tolerable even as recently as 2018. As such, people might be more willing to consider personal accountability and responsibility in the climate crisis—assuming they did during COVID-19.

Some governments have also rolled out tracking apps during the pandemic. These haven’t been terribly successful in the global West, but there are success stories regarding their efficacy in Asia. All the same, consumers might bristle at the idea of having their gas, food, and electricity use monitored by an app.

But Fuso-Nerini said that the pandemic brought about advances in the technology behind these apps—artificial intelligence could make it easier for apps to calculate the embedded emissions associated with goods and services, for instance. Also, there have been advances in the ways these technologies preserve users’ privacy. Some COVID-19 tracking apps aggregate and encrypt the data they collect, for instance. A PCA app could also, potentially, use these methods to preserve privacy, he said.

Will we do it?

Even beyond privacy concerns, PCAs face some potential hurdles. For political parties, advocating for a PCA—particularly if they haven’t been implemented and tested elsewhere—could be a risky proposal to make to voters. However, Fuso-Nerini noted that there will need to be pioneer countries if the approach is ever going to be adopted more broadly.

Fuso-Nerini acknowledged that PCAs might not work in every country and that nations with a higher level of technological advancement and trust in their governments might have an easier time implementing a them. But as long as people can see the benefit of a PCA and as long as people who are impacted are properly taken care of—new jobs for oil and gas workers in renewable energy, for instance—the idea stands a chance.

Morten Byskov, a post-doctoral research assistant in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick in the UK, told Ars that most people working on climate issues agree that there’s a cap on how much humans should be able to emit. But there are some complications surrounding the best way to implement something like a PCA.

For one, determining how large of an allowance people need might be tricky, as needs vary from one place to another even within a country. For instance, a person living in a very cold area will need to heat their home or have insulation installed. Both actions require carbon that a person living in a warm or mild climate might not need to spend.

Inequality issues

Byskov also noted that it might not be fair for developing countries to set PCAs for their people, as it could hinder their progress. (Fuso-Nerini’s paper focused on wealthy, developed nations).

Even if people are allowed to trade their surplus emissions to wealthy people for money, it could still result in inequalities. A person with a lot of cash can afford to pay for more emissions, meaning they can, say, fly across the country for a job interview, potentially giving them the opportunity to make more money. However, Byskov said that it’s hard to say how different this situation would be from existing monetary inequalities.

Further, he added that a country looking into a PCA would need to consider factors beyond individual consumers. Companies, for instance, might reduce the carbon emissions associated with their products to better match up with consumer PCAs. But this could also increase the dollar figure associated with some goods, as greening production can cost money.

Governments also need to ensure that there are low-carbon options available to people, particularly lower-income people. For instance, trying to stay within the limits of a PCA is harder if the only option to get to work is a car, so it’s important to establish suitable public transit systems. “We need to look at it as a whole ecosystem,” Byskov said.

There’s also some debate about how much of an onus is on consumers versus producers when it comes to lowering emissions. However, according to Fuso-Nerini, the idea of a PCA isn’t about removing the responsibility from governments and corporations. Rather, it’s about adding individuals to the effort. “The key thing about PCAs is to help enable a shared responsibility,” he said.

Nature, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00756-w (About DOIs).

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