Environment Minister Hilary Benn again rebuffed calls this week for WW2-style energy rationing to return to the UK. He was responding to a Select Committee report urging ministers to issue 45 million Britons with an energy trading “credit card” – a mammoth techno-bureaucratic exercise costing several billions of pounds a year to operate.
What’s interesting is how the normal parliamentary business was turned upside down.
Usually, it’s ministers who propose batty and unworkable legislation, and fail to cost it, while select committees are supposed to scrutinize the proposals: picking apart the logic and bogus cost estimates. But in this case the select committee in question – the “Environmental Audit Committee” – is positively evangelical about a return to rationing. Perhaps not surprisingly, ministers are wary of committing electoral suicide, or at least, not in quite such an obvious fashion.
Benn said his department DEFRA had made its own enquiry, which unlike the watchdog’s investigation, included costs. A rationing scheme would cost between £700m and £2bn to set up, he said, and between £1bn and £2bn a year to operate he said.
“In essence it is ahead of its time,” the minister said Tuesday. “The cost of implementing it would be quite high and there are a lot of practical problems to be overcome.” Front bench Tories are equally wary.
So what are the MPs proposing?
The ration, or “personal carbon allowance” or PCA, is a measure of an individual’s energy usage, either at home or traveling. Such usage is capped, and “further emissions rights will simply not be available,” the Committee says. You may choose between a holiday, and turning on the heating. Points win prizes, however, and frugal individuals would be rewarded financially from the creation of an internal market.
“We could not find or imagine analogues in other fields of human activity for individual carbon trading beyond rationing during and after World War 2,” the authors of the DEFRA-commissioned report “A Rough Guide to Individual Carbon Trading” wrote in 2006.
The Committee, chaired by Tim Yeo MP, lauds the potential for “engagement”, which will “increase awareness” of energy consumption – what the Tyndall Centre calls “carbon consciousness” – which in turn would “spearhead behavioural change”. According to the MPs, “awareness is crucial if behaviours are to change.”
The committee called for “a shift in the debate away from ever-deeper and more detailed consideration of how personal carbon trading could operate towards the more decisive questions of how it could be made publicly and politically acceptable.”
In other words, the MPs want to end the debate about whether or not it’s a desirable option, and start marketing it as the only option.
(That’s what you pay your taxes for, folks).
Ominously, the Committee declares that “further work on the operational details of schemes adds little value to the main debate”, and that is future depends on persuading us of the necessity. So, translated: the scheme may be unworkable, but if it’s “marketable”, then it should go ahead anyway.
This will undoubtedly quicken the pulse of IT vendors, who see the mother-of-all IT contracts in the proposal. Rationing will make ID Cards look like a closed beta test.
The problems begin to stack up, however.
Firstly, there’s double counting. The EU’s ETS scheme aspires to do same thing. It already covers half of the UK’s fossil fuel energy consumption, and domestic electricity use and aviation will soon be added to ETS.
Which means UK citizens will be paying for their energy using three currencies – a “real” one (sterling) and two “virtual” ones, one operated by the EU (ETS), the other by the state (PCA). It’s a bureaucrat’s paradise – but this doesn’t dampen the Committee’s enthusiasm. The more schemes, the merrier – lest anyone be left in the dark, unlit by the bright light of “awareness”. As the committee puts it, –
“The fact that there would be double counting in some parts of the carbon chain is not in dispute”. However: “Double counting would not reduce the effectiveness of personal carbon trading or detract from the other advantages of the whole concept.”
Rationing, it seems, is invincible.
Secondly, and this is ducked completely, a market requires willing buyers and sellers. But if further emission rights are not available, as the rationers insist, then the market only has sellers. So, who’s the buyer? Will the state step in and reward eco-virtue? If so, it can do so much more cheaply by issuing rebates rather than it can by creating a spurious market, with the billions of pounds of administrative expenses that go with maintaining the fiction.
Then there’s public transport. Should individuals be penalized for long commutes, when the energy emissions are not significant (and the bus or train would run anyway)? Perhaps, the MPs say, but their focus is on marketing rather than justifying the proposal.
“It is important that the public are not faced with a mixed signal,” they say.
“Although the surrender of allowances for public transport would be minimal in comparison to the purchase of road fuels, a public transport system that was entirely exempt from personal carbon allowances would provide a far clearer incentive for individuals to leave their cars at home.”
And most importantly, the rationing evangelists admit, is that the public doesn’t want it.
The past few weeks have seen a deep backlash against “green” taxes, with this week’s fuel protest the most visible manifestation.
“A period of significant recession would dampen enthusiasm for most environmental measures, and that personal carbon trading would not be exempt from this trend,” they concede.
However prettily the MPs would like to dress up rationing, it’s fundamentally a form of social coercion designed to make people less comfortable than they were before. Wartime rationing needs a war-sized scare, and with the climate stubbornly refusing to conform to the computer models (which predict catastrophe) that looks like an impossible prospect.