Why personal carbon allowances will not reduce carbon emissions

Personal carbon allowances has been offered as a solution to save the planet. What its devisors mean is that every human should have personal carbon emission quota. If you exceed your emission quota you will have to buy unused quota from someone who has quota to spare.

Some strongly hold the belief that a personal carbon allowance is the way to reduce carbon dioxide emission. I disagree; it is probably a way to spread wealth from rich countries to poor countries but no more than that. I cannot see it making a positive contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

Who is most responsible for climate change in the world? If you live in Qatar you will be directly responsible for over 20 tonnes a year of carbon emissions. If you live in the United Arab Emirates you will provide the planet with 9.32 tonnes a year but if you live in nearby Egypt less than two thirds of a tonne of carbon.

The United States, Canada and Norway all average over 5 tonnes per person per year.

The United Kingdom (2.67 tonnes), Germany, Russia and most European countries seem to have average emissions of between two and three tonnes of carbon dioxide a year but surprisingly, Luxembourg, home of the European Union, manages to score nearly seven tonnes on this particular league table.

China is now emitting on average one tonne per person per year but India manages to get by with just a third of a tonne per person. Ethiopia’s average emissions are only 10% those of India on a per person basis. Most of sub Saharan Africa have per capita emissions of .01 tonne.

These figures are for 2004 and are sourced from the US Department of Energy. Of course there is no completely accurate way to measure emissions (other than by counting parts per million in the atmosphere) but I am sure that these figures give a reliable guide to which nations are filling the air with carbon dioxide.

The figures are not complete really accurate because much of China’s emissions are caused by industry which serves demand for goods in the western world, so you can probably increase the carbon emissions figures per capita in the developed world quite significantly and reduce those in the industrialised developing world to get a fairer picture of who is emitting how much.

So, if we interpose this information (even as crude as it is) onto a system of world wide personal carbon allowances what will happen? First and foremost we will ignore, at our peril, the other greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide is the most intensively emitted man made greenhouse gas, but there are other greenhouse gases that absorb radiation, shrouding he world in an increasingly warmer blanket. Methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons all absorb far more radiation than carbon dioxide; thankfully methane only stays in the atmosphere for twelve years before it breaks down but nitrous oxide for over 120 years and chlorofluorocarbons stay there much longer than that. A personal carbon allowance system will ignore this.

Secondly, a personal carbon allowance will probably operate unfairly against countries like China, Mexico, Taiwan and South Korea that have large manufacturing industries that emit carbon in order to produce goods for countries like the USA and the UK.

Thirdly, and most importantly the per capita emission figures indicate that there is a strong relationship between wealth and carbon emission; obviously factors like local climate play a part – I guess that many of the emissions in Qatar, and the UAE are down to people being able to afford and use air conditioning in very hot climates.

Once people get wealthier and more prosperous they consume more of everything, more food, more goods and most importantly more energy, and by consuming more energy under the present regime they burn more and more fossil fuel, which is still the cheapest way to produce heat and power.

Fourthly, as I have indicated carbon emission figures per capita or per nation do have a rough and ready aspect. They are not personally measured. I know of no device that can keep track of how much carbon I personal emit, or how much is emitted by someone in Swaziland, so I do not see how I can fairly trade with him. We will have quotas that might not bear any relationship to reality, easily manipulated and fiddled together with a massive administration to supervise and control them. The money for all that is far better spent on measures, real life low carbon energy measures, not theoretical trading.

So while a personal carbon allowance may make sense if your agenda is wealth redistribution, I think that ultimately it will have a neutral effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

The only way to genuinely reduce emissions remains by using benign sources of energy generation on a greater scale than the existing use of fossil fuel energy generation. That means more wind farms, more solar panels and more photovoltaics. It means trying to harness the tides and the seas and tapping into sources of geothermal energy. These are in my view the only way to reduce carbon emissions; personal carbon allowances are not the cure for the disease, just another overcomplicated way of attempting to disguise the symptoms.

5 Responses

  1. […] Original post by Computer & Internet | computer-internet.marc8.com […]

  2. Hey, just came across this whilest researching data to (possibly) self-impose a personal ’emission limit’. I.e. I’m thinking of limiting my total annual air miles. Because, if I understand right, 3+ flights a year dwarfs most of my other emission causes, no?
    So while the greenification of energy production would obviously help massively, what about flights/transport? That’s only going ti increase and doesn’t look like it’s going to go ‘green’ any time soon?
    Any pointers to relevant posts / articles appreciated 🙂

  3. What you write is unfortunately true. However, we can “green” energy production to a much greater extent than now. All kinds of transport – car, rail air and sea are on the modern industrial scale at which they occur create emissions and have other environmentally bad effects. We can’t solve everything at once so it comes to each individual doing his or her bit to create fewer emissions; limiting air travel is helpful, so will other lifestyle changes be helpful too – limiting meat eating, not buying food imported from thousands of miles away, etc.

    The transport problem is one might be addressed by fuel efficiency, some time in the future. I hope so.

    • Thanks Rob

      Do you have any sources / pointers on how one might go about computing a ‘reasonable personal carbon allowance’. From there I could try work out a reasonable flight travel allowance…
      Thanks 🙂

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