Are personal carbon allowances a feasible way of reducing CO2?
Personal carbon allowances (PCAs) surround the idea of giving individuals a set limit of carbon emissions, or carbon credits, to essentially live within the earth’s carrying capacity. The volume of carbon dioxide an individual could emit would be reduced overtime, to compensate for growing populations, and ultimately increase the sustainability of human life. It has been proposed that personal carbon budgeting, or PCAs, could help decarbonise our everyday lives and should therefore be implemented through policy measures globally.
However, there has been much dispute as to what levels of carbon should be included in the ‘allowance’. We all have direct control over certain carbon emissions, such as household energy consumption and transport emissions, but have less control over embedded emissions. Embedded emissions are associated with products and services which are purchased, and are arguably the responsibility of businesses.
Putting PCAs into practice
PCAs could be based on a cap and trade system, and would therefore allow individuals to buy and sell credits – should they use less than their allocated limit, or require more. This has been described as 'fiscally progressive' and 'egalitarian'. Individuals have a choice whereby they can keep their carbon intensive lifestyle and pay the price or reduce their emissions to obey their new limitations. It would be hard to argue that this doesn’t immediately favour wealthy populations, who already contribute more to climate change.
In terms of timescale, PCAs still have a long way to go to become a viable policy measure, and present some significant challenges in mitigating climate change effectively. Firstly, what is our limit? How much carbon can we include in the budget? There is great uncertainty around global carbon budgets and understanding how much the world can emit safely. Scientists are working to define these budgets and understand how much warming is associated with levels of greenhouse gas emissions, along with how reductions affect warming processes, and the impact of feedbacks, such as permafrost thawing. Even greater is the challenge to apportion the budget fairly to citizens.
The bigger picture
Nonetheless, whilst individuals do have a responsibility to live within the earth’s limits, a PCA is just another small measure to reduce our impact on the planet. It does not address the fact that economic development is not compatible with environmental sustainability. Continuing on our current trajectory, the current economic model will not address the most significant causal factor of climate change - the unsustainable behaviour of corporations. Does buying recycled paper, and promising to plant trees come close to protecting our life sustaining systems? We may soon be told to reduce our personal emissions and obey personal allowances, but we face inequality, environmental degradation and in some cases a diminishing economy because of decades of corporate supremacy.
There's still hope!
The environmental ‘Kuznets Curve’, and the hypothesis behind it, provides some hope in an otherwise despairing world, which is enamoured with economic development and material wealth. It is a graph with an inverted U curve - the Y axis is labelled as the environmental degradation, while Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is depicted by the X axis.
This hypothesis suggests that economic development initially leads to environmental degradation, but once a certain level of economic growth has been reached, society’s relationship with the environment changes, and there is less environmental degradation. This can be for many reasons, such as technological advancement, which increases the efficiencies of human progresses, and changing to a more service-based economy. If we are heading towards post-industrial economy, we may be able to mitigate climate change. However, this will depend on how fast the world's economies can get there.
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