Total Carbon Rationing is a system to bring CO2 emissions down to net zero.

To ration is:

to limit the amount of a particular thing that someone is allowed to have

Cambridge Dictionary

A carbon ration is a simple allowance, measured in kilograms and grams of carbon, paid electronically into a ration account, to every citizen. With Total Carbon Rationing, all CO2 emissions from all human sources are covered by the rationing.

From the start, the amount of rations given to each citizen is regularly reduced, with a trend towards “net zero” at a target date that both allows the world to escape catastrophic climate change, and allows nations to avoid social and economic collapse during the withdrawal from fossil fuel dependence.

At the end-point when global CO2 emissions reach “net zero”, each citizen would receive an allowance for approximately 2,000 kg of carbon, representing the sustainable level at which the earth’s carbon cycle (and climate) would remain in balance.

Total Carbon Rationing can directly limit the amount of carbon pumped out of the ground as fossil fuels. So how can business operate if business itself isn’t allocated any rations?

It works by making energy companies commercially dependent on the consumer activity of citizens. Ordinary people pay their rations direct to shops, merchants and service providers while doing their shopping, paying bills or making any kind of commercial transaction. Then those businesses pay rations along with their energy bills at the end of the chain to the energy companies.

“Total Carbon Rationing” contains the word “Total” because every product or service that is bought and sold is subject to the system: every vendor, every merchant, every shopkeeper, every professional who trades in any sense must put a carbon ration price on their product or service next to the usual price.

The process is driven by the energy companies who must obtain enough carbon rations to account for the fossil carbon pumped out of their oil and gas fields. Anybody or any business that burns carbon-based fuels would not be able to do so without paying the carbon ration price to the fuel supplier. The carbon rations flow from citizens to energy companies in a simple chain of retail and wholesale commercial transactions.

To prevent people or businesses falling off a carbon ration cliff edge, anyone can sell the carbon rations they don’t need on a well-regulated carbon exchange to those people and businesses that need more.

The energy companies who pump fossil fuels from the ground are audited to ensure rations were obtained for every kilo of fossil carbon extracted. This effectively polices the whole system.

A central carbon bank would take on this role, as well as being the primary distributor of carbon rations to citizens, and the regulator of the carbon ration exchange.

Why Carbon Rationing?

Total Carbon Rationing would be a monumental change to society and the economy.

Yet almost 30 years since the first UN negotiations to reduce CO2 emissions started, global CO2 emissions are rising faster than ever.

A major part of the issue is that we would have to make thousands of changes to all aspects of our lives. And who should decide what all these changes should be, and why we should accept any particular one?

Society has spent the last 250 years developing an economy based almost exclusively on burning carbon, and we are giving ourselves 30 years to turn this around and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (or preferably sooner if at all possible).

This would go down in history as the most astounding social, political and economic success.

And so it should. But can our political system provide a thousand smart, rigorous and radical answers to the thousand or more changes that are needed to decarbonise our lives? Something that will get us to net zero within 30 years? And then persuade a democratic majority to tolerate it?

The chances do not look good. But read on!

We cannot be radical enough in dealing with these issues.

Sir David Attenborough at the UK House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee 2019, New Scientist.com

Why should Total Carbon Rationing succeed?

1. Control over carbon emissions is direct and absolute

The amount of carbon rations given to citizens would be equal to the amount of fossil fuels that the oil companies are allowed to produce. The chances of success in combating climate change are an order of magnitude greater than any other indirect taxation, legislative control or carbon pricing scheme.

2. The rations price tag tells you exactly how much CO2 was released for the product you’re interested in

Everybody would see how many carbon rations something costs before they buy. Each merchant or vendor in the supply chain will have to balance the rations they spend against the rations they demand from their customers. The rations they put on its price tag will reflect cumulatively all the carbon that went into its production.

Currently when a Briton buys a smartphone made in a Chinese factory that is powered by a coal plant the carbon emitted in its manufacture does not count as ‘British’. See here for the right way to measure carbon emissions (from the Economist).

Bananas from the Caribbean, a smartphone from China, chicken from the local farm, a skyscraper in New York or a Tesla sports car, everything would be paid for with rations. The rations required will tell how much carbon it needed. We would all quickly become CO2 experts, thanks to keeping a constant eye on how many rations we have left.

3. As we decarbonise and business becomes more carbon-neutral, carbon ration price tags on products will naturally decrease

As the economy adapts, the reductions in the amount of carbon required for products will be passed on to the buyer immediately, as soon as the new product is put on sale.

Producers will pass on their ration reductions to customers to keep ahead of the competition.

The only need for state intervention will be for key products and services whose carbon ration price tag doesn’t reduce and where people can’t readily find alternatives.

4. Politicians can focus on the high level, not the fine detail of decarbonisation

It would allow politicians and policy makers to focus on how much carbon emissions to allow, rather than a thousand other things.

What is the alternative?

A comprehensive policy making exercise by all 195 nations, establishing what citizens and industry have to stop doing, democratically agreeing upon it, legislating for it, implementing it, and finally monitoring the effects and then potentially going through the process again as the economy develops.

One nation’s outline is given by the United Kingdom’s Committee on Climate Change net zero 2050 strategy.

5. It doesn’t require a unanimous vote of approval from the whole world

It can be implemented unilaterally by any nation so it doesn’t require unanimous approval from hundreds of nations. Other nations can join at any point to form a larger trading block.

The national borders and customs agency would act a proxy for the foreign companies, collecting the required rations on imported goods from the buyers.

6. No subsidy required – innovation guaranteed

Human innovation in carbon-neutral technologies would need no subsidy. Investors and consumers would queue up for products that don’t require rations.

7. It promotes “negative emissions” – tree planting, reforestation, carbon capture – by itself

The harsh reality of CO2 emissions in 2019 and prospects for their reduction means any realistic plan must include removing CO2 from the atmosphere, or global warming will overshoot 2°C.

Rationing doesn’t just inhibit CO2 emissions, it also promotes “negative emissions” by awarding carbon rations to people or businesses capturing CO2, e.g. growing trees or building futuristic Saharan solar power stations that generate power to turn CO2 from the atmosphere back into carbon or salt crystal.

8. It sidelines skeptics, denialists and procrastinators

The climate procrastinators, skeptics and denialists who don’t like being told what to do by their more enlightened fellow citizens will have total freedom of choice about what to give up first and what they can continue to consume within the constraints of their carbon ration spending.

Predictions for the Future

A decade ago, science predicted most of the climate change happening today in 2019 – David Attenborough’s 2007 documentary described the biggest climate modelling program undertaken at that time.

Climate Change: Britain under Threat, 2007

The predictions made for 2050 and 2080 were salutary.

No-one knows for sure though what the future holds. There’s a small chance it might be tolerable without any need for action. And there’s a small chance it could be horrific. Likeliest is something in-between, varying between “highly undesirable” and catastrophic.

As well as this range of different predictions with different likelihoods of occurring, the scientists make the predictions for different futures, varying from “business as usual” with no let-up in CO2 emissions, through to scenarios where we manage to cut right back and hold global warming to within 1.5C.

The best future involves cutting global carbon emissions to zero, and within a seemingly impossibly short term frame.

But at every opportunity, politicians and world leaders prove themselves unable to execute the massive, comprehensive set of legislation and fiscal and monetary measures to do this. In the 50 years since we’ve known about climate change and CO2 emissions, there have been no adequate programs.

Civilisation is not doomed though. Instead of a massive but ineffective political approach, we can put a massive commercial mechanism in place – Total Carbon Rationing. The political debate will then focus on how much to ration, and not on a thousand other things.

Total Carbon Rationing would put the rations into the hands of each citizen, and the rations would apply comprehensively to every purchase or sale by every citizen or business. The rations would be required in every channel of commerce and would flow through the economy to end up ultimately with the fossil fuel producers in the oil industry.

The oil industry would have to prove how many carbon rations they obtained from the sale of their products, which would act as permits to pump. Each kilo of ration would have to be presented for each kilo of carbon pumped out of their oil or coal or gas fields.

So since the oil companies will have to demand a ration on any sale as well as money or they’ll get into trouble, then their customers will have to demand rations on all the products that they sell, and so will the customers of their customers, and so on going all the way up through the chain to the end consumer. It will be the individual citizens who decide where in the economy the ever-reducing carbon emissions are channeled.

Why is it critically important?

At the Paris Climate Convention in 2015, world leaders agreed to make their best efforts to limit average global temperature rise to 1.5C. This was because the science was clear that (a) CO2 from human activities was causing the rise, (b) anything higher than 1.5C would most likely be very bad news for everyone and (c) the 22 oceanic small island states would most likely be lost to sea level rise.

That is to all intents and purposes the equivalent of a firm promise to the islanders that the rest of the world would not abandon them to the effects of society’s over-exploitation of fossil fuels.

Less terminal but horribly dire still are the expected impacts on subsistence farmers in developing nations – the world’s poorest and most innocent of CO2 emissions:

Failing to cut your emissions is like taking a bulldozer and razing the crops of a subsistence farmer in Africa. If you did that, everyone would agree it was wrong, but the greenhouse gases you are responsible for have the same result. The fact that the cause is invisible gases, and the effect maybe felt in the distant future, doesn’t allow each and every one of us to escape the moral obligation to act.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics and renowned philosopher, Princeton

There is a moral obligation to our own younger and future generations. The inter-generational injustice of a global climate disaster can be ignored since there are no laws to remedy it, but anyone whose ethical compass is more or less well-aligned will know the principle and the sense of shame that goes with it.

Greta Thunberg’s address to the 2019 New York UN Climate Summit clarifies the issue.

How to get there

  • Expand campaign internationally
  • Build grassroots support – government petitions, crowd-funding, adopted goal for climate change movements
  • Build academic and economic support backed by modelling, virtual gaming
  • Build policy support in NGOs and supra-national institutions
  • Build finance industry support
  • Build oil industry support
  • Build political support
  • Get energy producers to start marking the prices in rations for all their products supplied to customers
  • Get corporations dealing with energy producers to start accounting for carbon rations
  • First nation or group of nations unilaterally adopt total carbon rationing for all citizens with all businesses obligated to require rations in supply of all products and services – if necessary, unilaterally with border-based proxy mechanisms
  • Further nations join as political and democratic resistance falls
  • UN climate treaty based on Contraction and Convergence, to put a hard and fast number on emissions allowed, in gigatonnes of carbon per nation, with net zero target date