Oh, I was too young to remember rationing during the war,’ my nan replies coyly. Unconvinced, I keep on. This should be any old person’s dream – someone with all their teeth is asking about ‘the war’. She’s not impressed, so I take a more humble approach and the stories start to flow.
The eldest in a large Irish immigrant family, my nan was seven when British involvement in the second world war began and a teen when it ended. Like every other teenager, war or no war, what she remembers most had to do with clothes: ‘My mum [my great grandmother] managed everything in the house and we never starved. But we had to sell our clothes ration to the richer people so we could buy extra food.’
My family was fortunate – they had relatives in the US who regularly sent clothes packages that made up for the trade-off. Others weren’t so lucky. They simply went without, selling their clothes rations to the wealthy to put more food on the table. There are no official figures about the scale of the rations trade but my nan remembers it as common practice.
All very interesting, you might say, but what has it got to do with climate change?
The answer is that recently rationing has made a reappearance in the guise of ‘domestic tradeable quotas’ (DTQs). Labour MP Colin Challen proposed a bill in November 2005 to introduce a system of carbon rationing for fuel and domestic electricity use. Like war rations, each person would get the same allowance, in the form of a ‘credit card’ to present when paying for petrol and energy – the difference being that in the second world war it was illegal to trade your allowances, whereas in this system it is central.
Challen argues that trading will increase the income of the money-poor. If they aren’t flying off to Bermuda for their holidays they can sell their rations to those who do.
The figures do seem to support this argument. The number of people living in fuel poverty (spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy) has increased to more than three million since fuel prices rocketed. That is up from 1.2 million in 2004 and is set to worsen as prices continue rising.
Jonathan Stearn, from independent consumer group Energy Watch, explains: ‘What is needed for the fuel-poor is a substantial rise in income as this is more effective than other solutions like energy efficiency.’
So income from selling off carbon rations could be a solution. However, beneath the statistics lies a more complex human story. Prices of carbon rations would rise and fall daily depending on market dynamics and unpredictable forces such as changes in the weather. For those on low incomes, stability is crucial to managing the weekly budget. If you’re dependent on the vagaries of a carbon market, then disaster could easily be just around the corner.
Half of those in fuel poverty are the elderly on state pensions. Winter deaths, due in part to poor heating, number in the thousands every year. Jonathan Stearn reflects on his time at Age Concern, a charity working with and for older people. He found it extremely difficult to persuade the elderly he worked with to use more energy even when they could afford it. Their instinct was to conserve over keeping themselves safely warm. In this case, rationing sends the wrong message to this vulnerable group who need to increase their consumption, not decrease it.
There are alternatives that could be more effective. Although Energy Watch does not have a policy on carbon rationing, the group says the first step to getting emissions reduced is to install ‘smart meters’ that allow customers to see how much energy they use in money terms and the level of pollution created.
‘Where these systems are already in place, up to 15 per cent reductions in energy use follow because people can see how much they’re using and change their behaviour willingly,’ says Jonathan Stearn. Coupled with this, he says, a central part of tackling climate change should involve challenging fuel poverty by pressuring the government to increase incomes through the benefits system. Whereas Energy Watch puts faith in people and the government, the proponents of carbon rationing seem to leave it to the market.
Times have changed. We’re not at war with Germany any more. Yet carbon rationing seems oddly reminiscent of the past. No matter if the initial distribution is equitable, as with war rations, once superimposed on a society riddled with inequality, those with the greater access to material resources can gain the upper hand. Or as my nan wryly surmised: ‘The rich always find a way to get what they want.’
www.energywatch.org.ukHeidi Bachram is a research associate at the Transnational institute project, Carbon Trade Watch.
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram
Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope