Towards a Parallel CO2 Currency

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

In Summary: One size fits all is not going to work. The most energy efficient thing you can do is have one child only. Population has a massive effect on the allowable CO2 personal allowances; as does the diet you eat. New things cost CO2 in production which needs to be spread over their ‘lifetime’.


The work and media profile of people such as Greta Thunberg, the School Strike for the Climate, the emergence of Extinction Rebellion and the established climate movements such as Earth First, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace are having a combined impact on governments across the globe. We have a unique period (before the spotlight moves) to make real, substantive, and lasting changes which could become part of the accepted way our societies function, the world over. Just as drink driving in the UK has become socially unacceptable, and people (in the UK) could not imagine a return to smoking in pubs and bars, so there’s a chance to cement climate awareness related to our carbon footprints into our societies. But we must continue to progress now, otherwise the momentum maybe lost.

This said, being a research active computer scientist entails travel. peer reviewed Conferences are our primary form of dissemination, and conferences are international; and so entail air travel. With an increasing focus on our CO2 footprint some in academia have suggested other firms of virtual travel to reduce CO2. But in my opinion these are a poor substitute for being there. Impromptu meetings in corridors, chats in the lunch line, or at the conference social events are where the conversations become real, and lasting collaborations are formed. Being there face-to-face is often indispensable. Indeed, I’m pretty confident in my position, if not, surely the most environmentally conscious people would attend climate change conferences in virtual reality, no? Greta Thunberg would not sail across the Atlantic to be physically present at UN summits on global warming in New York and Chile, but Skype in - but no, Skype doesn’t have the same impact.

We have become focused on a small number of single remedy solutions which uses a shorthand; for instance, flying=bad, trains=good (giving rise to the practice of ‘flight-shaming’). This practice is both lazy, inaccurate, and prone to exclude a majority of people who are poor in both time and or money, while paradoxically scape-goating the sector of the population who, with their limited ability to consume, are likely to use the least CO2. As an example, the price of a return fare from Manchester to London is in the order of £120, while a flight from Manchester to Southern Spain comes in at £40 return. Telling people that they should, for instance, take the train on holiday is unfeasible, and what’s more, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the buy-in required across society if we are to address climate change with any level of speed and success.

But something must be done if we are to survive.

Driven by my own requirements, it has become obvious to me that suggestions of a one size fits all policy is likely to fail. Instead, I propose a parallel CO2 currency with a yearly allowance from which you spend, Once you reach zero for that year real hard cash is of no use for buying goods and services unless those good and services accrue a zero CO2 footprint, or you can engage in wealth redistribution by buying other peoples allowances. This allowance would be different all over the world but stepping down year on year until harmonised across the planet and from there uniformly stepping down. For this to work, we’d need to live within the parallel CO2 currency, credited to us year on year, with only one year cumulative unspent allowed to accrue.

Now this isn’t a new idea indeed something similar was proposed in 1995 , and refreshed in 2005 as “Domestic Tradable Quotas: A policy instrument for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy use” (Tyndall Centre Technical Report No. 39 - December 2005) which proposes “Domestic Tradable Quotas (DTQs) are a “cap and trade” scheme for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from energy use. The scheme was proposed by Dr David Fleming, a London-based policy analyst, who first published the idea in 1996. Under DTQs, emissions rights (“carbon units”) are allocated to and surrendered by all end-purchasers of fuel and electricity i.e. adult individuals and organizations. Carbon units are allocated to adult individuals free and on an equal per capita basis whilst organizations purchase the units they require on a national market for carbon units. Individuals with surplus units can sell them on the national carbon market and individuals who require additional units can purchase them on the market.” (for more work along this line check out Tina Fawcett at Oxford and the Fleming Centre)

So as an experiment I want to see how this might work in reality for me. But what does this mean and at what point do I start (what is my first years allowance)?

Initially the message seems confused. The current amount a UK citizen consumes is 6 tonnes per year with a world average of 4 tonnes per year; there are big error bars on this as the variance runs from 2 tonnes to 15 tonnes. You can see the history laid bare by country at wikipedia. However, the target for 2050 assumes a population of 9 billion and an allowance of ~1.5 tonnes; this is important. This equates to a total allowance of 13.5 billion tonnes worldwide; so we can see a steady state at our current 7 billion population gives us a personal allowance of 1.92, while a reduction in birth rate associated with better health care and reduced infant mortality could bring this down to 6 billion (2.25 tonnes/pa) or 5 billion (2.7 tonnes/pa). Indeed, the thing that saves the most CO2 is to not have a second child saving 60 tonnes.

The 2050 target is important because of our food consumption. Eating meat accounts for 3.3 tonnes alone, 1.7 for a vegetarian diet, and for 1.3 tonnes for vegans. And this is based on 2600 calories per day consumption and another ~1200 calories on food waste. So we can reduce these by 33% if we cut our personal food waste. But we can see that it is going to be difficult to live at 1.5 tonnes for any of us.

Let’s think about transport. Owning a car costs carbon, but a new car costs 12 tonnes in production while a new electric car costs 16 tonnes (divided by the number of adult owners); and of course this varies by car - a Land Rover Discovery costs 35 tonnes in production for instance. A cars first owner lifetime is ~8 years and it’s total life (on average) is ~11 years. There are of course running costs which vary with the vehicle and annual mileage. Of course, walking, cycle (human powered), electric personal transport, train, bus scooter, motorcycle, small car (>50mpg), air transport, large car (<50mpg) all have associated costs specific to their use.

Now we next have to consider power, again this is variable and depends on an individual situation, including power consumed and generation method. Likewise for associated fuel such as propane / butane gas, heating oil and the like.

Housing and shelter is of course vital but the housing stock build costs in CO2 vary based on materials used and if these materials can be annualised over time. The cost of an average UK house in terms of CO2 is 50 tonnes, so if we write off 1 tonne/pa then we should be responsible for the difference between the year built and 2019 (in this case) and divided across adult occupancy, at a cost of 1 tonne/pa. If you rent, then it’s not your problem (of course it is really) for the purposes of our experiment.

Now for clothing, in Europe we are looking at 140 kgs total per year on average. However we can see that varies based on ownership length, wears and washes. So in 2020 a cotton t-shirt with 100 wears will cost 6kg carbon (so this is more of a cost of ownership not a cost of production as such).

For consumer products then we have sentinel products for which we have known CO2 production values, from which we can extrapolate products in our everyday lives. For instance, a Dell Latitude E6400 computer has a cost of 350 kgs of CO2 associated with production in 2010. 2019 prices for the 5000 series is £650 or £1070 for the 7000 series - so the 6000 series could be estimated at say £800. So let’s say electronics cost 0.43 kg per £1.00 retail cost (I know this is a badish approximation as it is associated with a variable retail price - so give me a better one that is easy to apply IRL). I’ll look for other sentinel products as they come up in the year and coarsely group them for easier approximation. Although, the 2010 book ‘How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’ may be useful if dated. And of course this is a moving target as companies pledge to reduce their carbon production costs (some buy up to 80%) the footprint of a ‘thing’ now is not what it will be if bought in 5 years time.

That said it seems obvious that buying something that will last a long time spreads its carbon load over the years, whether you decide to ‘pay’ for its cost all in one go at the time you buy it, or spread over its lifetime, the longer use the better it is. Likewise for food, buying food that keeps, means you have more flexibility in when that food is consumed and are less likely to throw fresh but uneaten food away - contributing to the 33% extra added to each dietary group.

So with this in mind I’m formulating a plan to reduce my Carbon footprint to 6 tonnes and from there try and follow the personal allowances as they progress year on year. What’s more, I’d suggest that if you’re serious about the climate crisis then this might be a good first step for you too.

Towards a Parallel CO2 Currency by Simon Harper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, and was originally published at: https://www.sharpic.eu/post/towards_a_parallel_co2_currency/.