V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Swiping carbon credit

Published in Sun Media, February, 2007.

The whole idea is "nonsense on stilts."

It's the best idea anyone has ever had on the environment.

"You lot live in cloud cuckoo land you really do."

The reactions range from "barking mad" to congratulatory applause on British Environment Secretary David Miliband's blog. On it, our British cousins were asked to weigh in on a bold proposal that would see every citizen in the U.K. hold a carbon credit card rationing their greenhouse gas emissions, much like an annual polluting allowance.

"There are very few neutral reactions," chuckles Richard Starkey, co-author of the proposal in a phone interview from Manchester, England.

"It tends to engender strong reactions. People either love it or hate it."

The idea was first proposed by David Fleming, a London based policy analyst who published the idea in 1996. But when climate change began to dominate public debate in the U.K., Starkey and co-author Kevin Anderson decided to "put fl esh on the bones of that suggestion" in 2003 while at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

The scheme has gained so much traction in the U.K. that Miliband recently commissioned a feasibility study for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural A ffairs and has suggested these credit cards could be issued as part of a nationwide rationing scheme.

The British Green party has adopted the idea as part of their national policy, and London's Royal Society of Arts invested millions of dollars in its own three-year pilot project, Carbon Limited, that will put the scheme to the test.

The fancy name for the concept is Domestic Tradeable Quotas, or DTQ s. It's a scaled down version of Kyoto, also known as a cap and trade system, that would engage the average Joe in a game of personal carbon trading much like the countries signed onto the Kyoto agreement.

Everytime Joe goes to fill up his car with gas, for example, he would turn over his debit card and a second piece of plastic for the attendant to swipe -- a carbon card.

The card would deduct carbon units from his yearly allowance, or cap, much like a debit card withdraws money from his bank account.

Should Joe run out of carbon units, the gas station would then buy credits for him on the open market, or trade, and the cost is added to his bill.

If, however, Joe has surplus units because he takes public transport, he can sell them back to the market for hard cash. The same would apply for paying heating and electricity bills.

Experts describe the notion of pricing greenhouse gases as an important cultural shift -- stressing that the environment is not free. It's also a notion that's largely foreign to Canadians, they agree. The average Canadian emits more than five tonnes of carbon diox ide a year -- enough to fill five Olympic-size swimming pools.

"We're light years behind," said Ron Dembo of Zerofootprint, a Toronto-based website that aims to reduce ecological footprints. "The average British person is much more aware."

Dembo credits their understanding to the British government for "taking a strong stand" on climate change and engaging the public.

It could also be in part because the European Union has been trading carbon since 2005, when the Emissions Trading Scheme, or the ETS, was launched.

About 12,000 big companies and institutions engage in a similar, macro version of the cap and trade system. Environmentally friendly companies can capitalize on their sustainable ways by selling unused, surplus credits back to the market for profit.

But critics have slammed the system for over-allocating emissions permits to the heaviest polluting industries.

Similarly, questions about how to fairly divvy up rations with the carbon card have posed a conundrum for Starkey.

In the U.K., individuals represent 40% of energy emissions in the country. Starkey describes carbon rations as a "large cake" representing the max imum national allowance. The government would then slice 40% of the "cake" and divide the portions equally among its citizens and debit the units into their carbon accounts for free.

In theory, it should be the most equitable way.

"The assumption that the equal share is a fair share is based on the reasoning ... that the atmosphere is a global commons," Starkey explains. "In some sense, we are all owners of the atmosphere."

But he acknowledges everyone has different needs and likens the complex ities to a big, burly man compared to a smaller woman.

"To equalize welfare, we may need to give people unequal amounts of resources in order to assuage different people's hunger."

For example, the report points out that 30% of low income families live in fuel poverty because they emit above-average amounts of greenhouse gases. Most live in energy-inefficient homes with poor insulation or are forced to drive in rural communities without public transport.

But it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to adjust allocations according to unique needs, he said.

"It isn't entirely fair, but it's the closest approximation to fairness the state can reasonably achieve."

Starkey was unable to provide a pricetag for such a program. Reaction among environmental groups in Canada is mixed.

Matthew Bramley of the Pembina Institute pauses before giving it a lukewarm endorsement.

"The carbon credit card could work because it's a tangible, visible reminder to people that there's a price to pay for emitting too much," he said.

Unlike a carbon tax , bandied about as another solution, if people had to pull out their carbon credit cards everytime they filled their tank, it would be a "powerful tool," Bramley added.

But Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club is at once dubious.

"That would be very difficult to sell in Canada in terms of getting into people's faces and their rights and freedoms."

Hazell has identifi ed one of the biggest reasons many Britons are resistant -- infringing on civil liberties.

" There are legal limits on the amount of information that can be held and accessed," Starkey responds. "But supermarkets have more information on you than this card would."

Individual Canadians are responsible for 20% of the country's emissions. Though Canada contributes 2.1% of the world's greenhouse gas output, our per person emissions rival those of the world's biggest polluter, the U.S., which globally accounts for 21% .

The U.K. has pledged to reduce their emissions by 60% by 2050. The Canadian government has made no firm commitments yet.

When told some experts say his carbon credit card proposal would be tough to swallow for Canadians, Starkey shoots back.

"What would they swallow instead? How are you going to do it? That's the question you have to ask yourselves. If not this, what else?"

Part four of a five-part Sun Media series examining our changing climate and its effects.

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