Iain Todd has worked as an energy regulator and as the United Kingdom’s Director of Renewable Energy. Between 2017 and 2020, he completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews, which involved assessing obstacles to solar energy in South Africa. He is now a visiting fellow at Erasmus University specialised in Energy and Climate Change.

Why do you think it is a worthwhile idea?

“I think climate change threatens everything living on the planet, and we’re going to need to mobilise every resource and policy at our disposal to combat this. So that means all technology and infrastructure in order to do exactly that. But individuals need to change their behaviour as well. Limiting their carbon footprint is the way to do that.

“However, as soon as you make behavioural changes compulsory instead of voluntary, it becomes very controversial. There are serious question marks surrounding the introduction of a personal carbon budget. That explains why not a single government has introduced such a policy yet.”

What are those question marks?

“Firstly, the administrative workload to manage this is very heavy. The government has to issue allowances and monitor CO2 emissions precisely to be able to enforce them. Secondly, there’s no guarantee that the system would be effective because nobody has ever done this before. So, I think that as with many policies, a pilot would be a good start. The third question mark is the most important one: the fairness of the system. Does everyone get exactly the same budget? Or are variations such as age, work, marital status, place of residence considered? That raises fundamental questions about social equality. Because this could be seen as government restricting individual rights in quite a heavy-handed way.”

You’re saying the administrative workload is going to be very difficult. Why would you bother at all with a complicated system such as this and not simply stick a carbon tax on certain products?

“Carbon taxation is a perfectly acceptable alternative and, of course, most governments already do that with fuel taxes, for example. But I’m not just talking about fuel, I’m talking about food, transport, going on holiday. These are all emissions which people don’t necessarily think about. Carbon budgets are more comprehensive in scope than taxes and make people think about more aspects of their life than just cutting down on power or fuel consumption.”

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So, how would this work? Would I actually be stopped from booking a plane ticket because my budget is finished for this year and would I have to buy an extra carbon budget?

“Yes, people would have to think about going on a second or third holiday. They would have to purchase extra carbon credits from people who haven’t gone on holiday. And they’d know that decision could be very expensive.”

And how feasible would a system like that be? For instance, if a certain carbon budget would be raised over avocados from Mexico in the Netherlands, couldn’t I just cheat and go to Germany and buy them there? Then it wouldn’t be deducted from my Dutch budget.

“International borders are a very important subject when talking about carbon budgeting. But that issue also comes up in carbon taxation schemes. If the Netherlands imposes a tax, what’s stopping you from looking across the border? So, hopefully the European Union will adopt a standardised approach, although there would still be competitive practices at the border of the EU.”

Is a carbon budget going to mitigate inequality or worsen it? You could argue that with a budget, rich people can still fly and poor people can’t, because they have to sell their budget to rich people. On the other hand, poor people could profit from it, because maybe they don’t need so much budget and they can sell what is left over for a profit. Which way do you think it would go?

“I think it will lead to more equality. It has a progressive effect by moving resources from the rich to the poor and that is a good thing to do. In South Africa, the government provides every citizen with 100 kilowatt hours per month for free. It has always baffled me why there isn’t a steeper variation in the costs of energy? Like, 100 kilowatt hours for free, but if you go beyond that, the price will go up considerably. I think that would be a much more socially equitable way to go, because people who want to use an excessive amount of energy can do so but have to pay for it.”

One of the criticisms of this idea is that poor people live in homes that are not so well-insulated and consequently maybe even need to use more energy than richer people.

“That is true. The middle classes usually have more means to insulate their homes and buy solar panels, for example. When I mentioned the point about fairness, I was thinking more about, let’s say, a doctor. He or she has to travel for work. Therefore, a doctor needs certain extra allowances, but this makes it all terribly complicated. How you should assess the relative merit of all kinds of energy usage hasn’t really been resolved at all.”

Wouldn’t it be better to say: if you go to the doctor, you have to pay – or at least your insurance has to pay – a certain amount of carbon budget to your doctor?

“That could be one way of making it work. But again, it adds complexity. Almost every individual transaction would need a carbon calculation. We would need a very simplified way of calculating that.”

You already said that we need every measure that we can find to solve this carbon emission crisis, but are there things on an individual level that would work better than a personal carbon budget?

“I used to be a civil servant in the UK government, and I think people sometimes underestimate the value of government communications and promotion. There are things governments can do that don’t involve a lot of money and can influence individual behaviour. The UK has seen a huge shift in people’s attitude towards recycling. And this has been driven by government campaigns and by bringing it into school curriculums. I’m amazed how aware young people are about this issue. And maybe one day, it will be socially less acceptable to fly around the world.”

Another direction to take besides carbon budgets or awareness campaigns, is carbon compensation. You buy a certificate, the seller promises you to plant a tree somewhere, and then you are carbon neutral. Is this a viable solution on a larger scale?

“The EU had a mechanism for industries to purchase carbon credits. But the EU has moved away from that because it’s incredibly difficult to guarantee the genuineness of those carbon reductions. I would prefer people to meet their carbon commitments without trading internationally. The cheapest way to cut down on carbon emissions is to use less energy. That doesn’t require any new technology, it doesn’t require a government subsidy. We just use less energy. We use public transport more, cycling, walking, adopting a more plant-based diet. A vegetarian diet is much less energy intensive. Governments could inform the public how much carbon is used in a meat diet compared to a vegetarian diet.”

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Do you think we can stop global warming without abandoning the whole idea of economic growth? Isn’t growth always going to be a force that is contrary to traveling less and consuming less?

“I think we can achieve both objectives with the same investments. Investing in green infrastructure, for example, is making an environmental contribution and an economic contribution at the same time.”

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