Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
We work ourselves into the ground for little economic benefit. It's high time to for a change, writes Aidan Harper.
Deregulation and tax loopholes are justified by saying that they 'protect growth'. But really, they just protect the wealthy, writes James Fox
Inequality is often treated as a law of nature - but really, it's the result of conscious political choices. It's time to choose equality, writes the IPPR's Carys Roberts.
Tom Palmer, aka Agent Kingfisher, was the 'messiah' of London's squatting scene until his death last year. But who was responsible for his fate? MI5, late capitalism or simply a drug overdose? Matt Broomfield investigates.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
The unrepentent Sarah Champion has no place in the modern Labour Party
Sarah Champion has defended her comments on race and sexual abuse. Her views have no place in the modern politics, writes Gavin Lewis
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright