Credit or debit … or planet?

What would you be willing to do to slow climate change?

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Oh sure, you might drive and fly less. You might already have, like me, signed up for a green-energy plan. But would you hand over an ID card every time you filled up your gas tank? Would you let the government track each time you turned on your washing machine or computer? How about your nose-hair trimmer?

Residents of the U.K. might soon be compelled to take such measures. Although it hasn’t received much publicity outside the climate-research community, the dry-sounding yet radical idea of “Domestic Tradable Quotas” — basically, personal energy rationing — already has some influential backers in Britain.

I first stumbled upon this concept while putting together a radio documentary on the cultural effects of climate change. My journey began on a train from London to Norwich, a city in eastern England that’s home to one of the country’s main climate-research hubs, the Tyndall Center.

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A scientist friend of mine who works at the center had promised to show me around and make a few introductions. Before that, however, she showed me a recent paper written by a few of her colleagues. “If you’re really interested in this sort of thing,” she said, “you’ve got to check out this.”

The paper was titled “Domestic Tradable Quotas: A policy instrument for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions” [PDF]. At the time, as you can imagine, I stifled a yawn and said, “Oh yeah, thanks” — but the laziness that passes for journalistic skepticism evaporated as I digested the report’s language.

Here’s how it would work. Every resident of the U.K. would receive an annual, identical allocation of carbon units, a number that would be reduced each year in line with the government’s climate-change goals. Each energy-quaffing Brit would also be issued a plastic card, like a climate-change Visa with an environmental spending limit. Every time cardholders used carbon-based energy — for example, by buying fuel or electricity — they’d have to swipe the card, and a number of DTQ points would be deducted.

According to research by Tina Fawcett of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, personal emissions among Britons currently vary by a factor of up to 12 — so capping everyone’s energy use at the same level might be a recipe for all sorts of trouble, in the nation that brought us soccer hooligans. But low-carbon users who don’t drive or fly much would be able to sell their excess units to Hummer owners, jet-setters, and others who refuse to get on the energy-reduction bandwagon. Under the model being studied, the units’ financial value would fluctuate throughout the year according to supply and demand, creating a government-supervised free market in carbon emissions.

Let’s Get Personal

Armed with this eye-opening report, I tracked down one of its primary researchers, Kevin Anderson. Since his research was peppered with phrases such as “equal per capita basis,” “trans-community theory of justice,” and even “communitarianism,” my mind was swimming with images of a bearded, sickle-waving Marxist. I was, of course, wrong. One of the main men looking at the possibility of thrusting Britain headfirst into a low-carbon economy is a friendly, perfectly reasonable chap.

“If we collectively decide to reduce the amount of carbon we emit, we have to decide what is a fair way of doing that,” he told me. “This scheme means that every individual, whether you’re the queen or someone living on a poor housing estate, will get the same allocation.” He suggested the economic effects of DTQs might not be too profound. People would be expected to change their behavior, he explained; faced with the financial disincentive of having to shell out at the end of the year for extra credits, he believes most would.

Will the queen have to hoof it?

Photo: Tom Hanks.

Much to my surprise, Anderson also told me that DTQs had already been considered in Parliament — albeit as part of a “10-minute rule bill,” a truncated legislative proposal that’s more of an attention-getting device than a serious attempt at passing a law. The bill’s sponsor was Member of Parliament Colin Challen.

“We have to get far more personal in the ways we tackle carbon emissions,” Challen told me. “A voluntary approach will only get through to about 20 percent of the population.” He said he’ll propose DTQs again in the current session of Parliament, in hopes of getting more people interested. He’s found some support among his colleagues, but says some elements in the Department of Trade and Industry and in the Treasury are “understandably wary” of the proposal.

Challen heads a parliamentary group on climate change. But he’s a “backbencher” — the rough equivalent of a junior member of Congress — and although he does belong to the ruling Labor Party, he’d be the first to admit that his sway over Tony Blair is somewhat limited. So, after chatting with him, I rang up MP Elliot Morley, a minister in the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs who has special responsibility for climate change. He does have Blair’s ear, and in all honesty I expected him to be a bit frosty to such a radical plan — that is, if he knew much about it at all.

Wrong again.

“Personal carbon allowances are a very attractive intellectual idea,” he told me by phone while on a chatter-filled train. “The implementation would potentially be very expensive, but that shouldn’t stop us from looking at the arguments.”

Although the details have yet to be worked out, the government would have to either establish or sponsor the establishment of a nationwide database, produce and distribute the carbon cards, and make sure the whole system runs smoothly once it’s in place. Some of the costs could potentially be passed on to members of the public.

“There is a big job involved in explaining the idea of carbon allowances to the public,” Morley pointed out. “[But] we shouldn’t rule any idea out just on this basis.”

So … No Twisted Knickers?

For a serious plan that could have an astonishing impact on the country’s environment, politics, and economics, DTQs have received scant attention from London’s usually feverish press. Perhaps that’s because the idea is relatively new, and there are a few major problems that have yet to be even looked at, much less ironed out. (I’m sure it has nothing to do with Jude Law.)

One major issue would be the complexity of toting up and transferring, buying, and selling carbon points. At a very basic level, it might be difficult to determine what kinds of transactions would be included. My wife’s car commute to work certainly would, but what about mine and Elliot Morley’s long-distance train rides? Or the energy my computer is using while I write this story? Or even the purchase of a head of lettuce that was trucked in to a grocery store? The question of if and how the energy from these economic interactions would be counted is far from straightforward.

Then there’s the issue of having an extraordinary amount of personal detail in a centralized government database. Britons have already dealt with a recent proliferation of public closed-circuit television cameras (of the type used to capture suspects’ images in the recent bombings); a central London “congestion charge” program that keeps detailed records of license plates and vehicle movements; and a nasty legislative fight over mandatory ID cards.

In fact, some activists worry that Blair could piggyback DTQs onto ID cards in a massive attempt to greenwash the latter and make them more palatable to his center-left base. But, says Michael Parker, spokesperson for No2ID, an anti-identification-card organization, “There’s clearly many other ways in which such a [carbon-trading] scheme could be offered without adding the massive bureaucracy of an ID-card system.”

Despite these potential problems, Challen says DTQ implementation is “not a matter of if, but when.” Anderson predicted a program could be set up within four to 10 years. Last month, the influential Sustainable Development Commission, which reports to the prime minister, recommended that the government “formally consider” the proposal within two years. With the government taking the issue seriously, researchers are whispering about a critical mass and scrambling for funding to advance their studies, while NGOs and charities pay close attention as well.

In other words, the queen might want to look into switching full-time to the old-school renewable horse-and-buggy — just in case.