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Carbon rational?

With some MPs now considering carbon rations as the cure-all for climate change, Heidi Bachram explores the effect it might have on the fuel-poor

August 1, 2006
5 min read

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.

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