Universal Carbon Credits for payment of the carbon price on every product and service in the economy, allocated on an equal per-capita basis at a national level, implemented as a parallel currency to control supply of fossil fuels at the point of extraction: such an implementation could profoundly enhance society’s ability to deliver a comprehensive, robust, equitable, innovation catalysing and disruptive, transformational approach to the urgent and intractable issues of climate change, climate justice, the energy transition, decarbonisation of the economy, and governance of the voluntary carbon markets.
The policy combines the concept of Universal Basic Income with a parallel carbon currency and Personal Carbon Trading. UCCs as a Carbon Currency is a paradigm shift from the Net Zero 2050 policies, which offers ordinary citizens a role in the fight against climate change and a share of the responsibility for achieving the Paris 1.5°C target.
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Rationing of supply is a well-known but little discussed policy. Carbon rationing - of fossil fuel products - would directly bring about CO2 emissions reduction. The policy we are proposing based on carbon rationing offers a considerably higher chance of achieving emissions reduction targets than other methods of carbon pricing, such as carbon taxation or industrial emissions trading, or other means of controlling carbon demand. We summarise the arguments and cite the discussion and evidence below.
Universal Carbon Credits as a Carbon Currency (UCC), or Total Carbon Rationing as it is also known, enhances carbon rationing via the usage of the carbon credits or rations as a currency. In the current public narrative, carbon rationing is seen as disruptive and is favoured poorly compared to carbon taxes, regulation and legislation, but we describe how UCC could be the most effective and targeted approach, with the lowest risk of failure and the greatest fairness, locally, nationally and globally.
In a UCC framework, the carbon allocation would be paid regularly to citizens via a digital carbon account much like a Universal Basic Income. Children and teenagers would receive a percentage of the adult quota. Governments would withhold a certain amount of UCCs for its own functioning.
To reduce CO2 emissions to zero under such a program, the first rationing period would begin by allocating enough UCCs to cover society's existing carbon footprint, with an initial surplus for ease of introduction, at a level that only impacted citizens with an extraordinary carbon footprint. The regular ration allocation would then be steadily reduced. It could be reduced faster under circumstances of accelerating climatic instability, or even increased with the need to stave off economic damage, as with any policy, but with the added guarantee due to supply restrictions that the desired reductions will occur.
UCC enhances the basic rationing mechanism via a change in the point at which UCCs are collected and controlled. Traditionally, retail businesses would collect traditional war-time rations for controlled products for audit by the relevant government authority.
Under UCC, retail businesses must charge customers UCCs for all products and services, but the businesses would not surrender the UCCs to the carbon authority - they would use their UCC income to pay for all purchases from the vendors in their supply chain. This would continue down the supply chain until the end is reached at the carbon providers (oil/gas/coal extraction companies).
Carbon providers would charge UCCs on their fossil fuel sales, weight for weight in tonnes, kilos and grams of carbon. They would be subject to audit by a central carbon authority. All carbon extracted - gas, oil, coal - would be monitored and the oil companies would be beholden to surrender the incoming UCCs, denominated in tonnes, kilos and grams of carbon, to the carbon authority at the end of each rationing period.
This would push business to seek out the lowest carbon options in their supply chain, similarly to the theory of carbon taxes, but the price signal would be far clearer and more obvious, not hidden in amongst other costs. The ability to purchase extra UCCs on an open market from citizens or businesses would minimise business failure when adaptation is not swift enough.
The broad reach of the UCC framework offers faster, cheaper and more efficient outcomes than any government carbon taxes, emissions trading scheme or pricing policy because it would include traditionally excluded sectors like aviation, shipping, inbuilt or imported emissions, public services or the military.
UCC per-capita allocation as opposed to carbon tax would be fair and equitable, in particular at the start as the carbon allocation could be set at a level high enough for all but the most profligate carbon users to adopt without disruption or hardship. In principle, rationing is fairer than taxation due to the burden of taxation falling proportionately more heavily on those with lower incomes.
It would also be democratically more popular than any other CO2 emissions reduction measures (frequent flyer tax, meat production controls, vehicle fuel duties) because it would allow individual citizens to make their own decisions on where to make carbon savings at least in the first years after introduction. Few voters would be forced to cut down in all areas of consumption, most being able to make carbon savings where convenient according to lifestyle. No-one would impose decisions on their behalf.
As well as issues surrounding carbon tax-based climate policies, there are also major doubts about purely legislative, non-market-based climate policy approaches and whether it is actually within the fundamental organisational abilities of current democratic power structures to design, legislate for and implement the huge range of regulations that would be required for deep decarbonisation of the economy by any other means in the timescale available.
One of the significant advantages of UCC is the continual dynamic update of the UCCs charged for each and every product and service as business becomes more carbon-neutral. The UCCs on the price tag would display exactly how much CO2 in total was generated in the manufacture and supply of the product or service. It could be reduced by the vendors to reflect new greener business developments as they occur. This acts as a clear "green flag" and lends a dynamism to the decarbonisation process on a scale impossible to achieve by any bureaucratic mandates or carbon tax.
The mechanism would facilitate and promote negative emissions – natural solutions, carbon sequestration – by providing UCCs as the payment from the central carbon authority, neatly circumventing the issue of who would have to pay for the negative emissions.
It could be implemented by central banks using digital currency frameworks.
It could be implemented unilaterally by a nation or within trading blocks by the creation of carbon borders with non-UCC trading partners, where the customs authorities act as proxy and impose the UCC price on the importers at the border.
It could be imposed multilaterally with agreements on national UCC allocations via the existing UNFCCC Contraction and Convergence treaty model.
Locally, the UCC framework offers citizens a transparent, simple method to act on climate within a fair framework. Nationally, UCC allows governments a transparent and simple flexibility in implementing decarbonisation policy according to their party politics. Internationally, UCC under Contraction and Convergence should become the policy tool of choice as other policies continue to prove ineffective. Nations seeking robust collaboration on climate goals - in the light of continued slow progress - would do well to turn their Nationally Determined Contributions into Negotiated Contributions, and take up UCC and control of supply with willing partners in order to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Social and Economic Advantages of UCC as a Carbon Currency
- Maximise sustainable rate of CO2 emissions reduction
- Universal Carbon Credits as a Carbon Currency, an enhanced version of rationing, is an economic tuning mechanism with which CO2 emissions reduction can be readily balanced against the negative impacts it causes. The goal should be to keep emissions reduction rates at the highest economically feasible level. Whether due to deteriorating climatic conditions, sea level changes, or unpredicted synergies appearing with the growth of the low carbon economy, carbon rationing would offer a straight-forward lever to accelerate or decelerate the decarbonisation of the economy via changes to rationing levels.
- Direct control over fossil fuel supply
- The supply of Universal Carbon Credits allocated to citizens would be decided for each period in the same way that a central bank makes interest rate decisions, but focusing on balancing climate considerations with economic factors. A central carbon bank could also act via the UCC market to tighten or loosen UCC supply mid-period.
- Economic responsiveness
- Supply and demand in the UCC market would catalyse immediate response from business as it reacts to changes and attempts to stay competitive.
- Transparency and clarity based on supply controls on fossil fuel extraction
- Metering of fossil fuel output by a central carbon authority would occur at the well-head or mineshaft, in regular audits at the end of each rationing period. This gives a direct measure of the carbon entering the economy and CO2 emissions produced. Progress would be clear to all. The significance of government or central carbon bank decision-making within this framework would be mostly straight-forward to understand.
- Immediate dynamic driver of green innovation
- Progress towards a zero emissions economy under any circumstances is dependent on inventiveness and innovation. In an unrationed economy, including one with carbon taxes or pricing mechanisms, undesirable business stimuli can exist or appear due to government intervention in the form of subsidies or taxes. This is generally due to the lack of comprehensive coverage that non-rationing interventions have. The comprehensive influence of UCC on the supply and demand for all products and services cannot be matched in dynamism by any other climate action policy.
- Facilitation and promotion of negative emissions
- The central carbon authority would pay for atmospheric CO2 removal by providing UCCs weight for weight for proven carbon sequestration. This is the "negative emissions" process. Recipients (reforestation projects, carbon capture and sequestration industries) would be able to sell the UCCs they earn at the going rate. The higher the UCC price, the more it would promote carbon drawdown.
- Unilateral (national within trading block)
- Any nation or trading block could immediately implement UCC, where the customs authority sets up a proxy at the trading border to impose the carbon rationing required on incoming imports.
- Multilateral (international, between trading blocks, scaling to global)
- The ultimate goal for the most effective outcomes is the implementation of UCC across the global economy. This would provide society with the best chances of meeting the growing challenges that climate change represents.
Key Actors and Institutional Requirements
A central carbon authority would be established, similar in function to a central bank.
This carbon bank would oversee the allocation of UCCs to citizens.
It would administer the carbon ration post-allocation market where citizens and business come to sell surplus UCCs or obtain extra requirement.
The carbon bank would also process the payment, audit and verification of UCCs from the carbon producers.
Central banks across the globe are already putting in place the framework for an international digital reserve currency. This could be duplicated for the purposes of carbon rationing.
Carbon UCCs would not expire, so the central carbon authority would also monitor, manage and report on the carbon ration supply - the quantity of UCCs held by citizens and businesses. This information would feed back into the decision-making process for calculating the optimal quantity of UCCs to allocate at the start of each rationing period.
The other key actors in the UCC framework are the carbon producers. Every gas or oil well and coal mine operation would be subject to upstream metering by the carbon authority to measure the quantity of fossil fuels extracted and audit and payment of carbon ration income.
Compliance and policing of the whole carbon rationing system would take place through the carbon producers.
Downstream companies in the petrochemical industry and beyond in wider industry which do not extract fossil fuels would, by definition of the UCC framework, not be subject to metering or payment of UCCs to the carbon authority.
Combination of Universal Basic Income, Personal Carbon Trading and a Carbon Currency
Instead of collection and audit of UCCs by customer-facing retailers on behalf of the state, UCCs would flow via every business transaction through the supply chain from the end-carbon-consumer (citizen) to the original carbon producer (fossil fuel extractor).
The carbon providers would be subject to comprehensive monitoring of fossil fuel extraction. The carbon providers are the lynchpin in the UCC mechanism. For every tonne and kilo of fossil carbon extracted, the providers must surrender the same weight in UCCs to the central carbon authority.
The carbon providers would obtain the UCCs from their customers, charged on every transaction.
The framework's original name “Total Carbon Rationing” contains the word “Total” because every product or service that is bought and sold is subject to the system: every vendor, every merchant, every shopkeeper, every business person who sells anything must put the UCCs on their product or service next to the usual price, even if it is truly a zero emissions product.
Anybody or any business that burns carbon-based fuels would not be able to do so without paying the UCCs to the fuel supplier. The UCCs flow from citizens to energy companies in a direct chain of retail and wholesale commercial transactions.
This establishes a direct link between the volume of UCCs allocated by the central carbon authority and the final CO2 emissions produced in the economy in any one period.
UCCs would flow through the economy as a second parallel currency. It affects every product or service which exists and is for sale, requiring two figures on the price tag - a normal price tag in local currency - $, £, €, ￥ etc - and UCCs in tonnes and kgs of carbon.
Practical Example of UCC in Commerce
If a citizen wished to purchase a television, for instance, this is how UCC would affect the commercial process, resulting in the carbon producer becoming the key audit point for carbon rationing:
- For simplicity's sake, imagine that the UK has implemented unilateral carbon rationing. The carbon authority will allocate all UK citizens an equal amount of UCCs, in absolute tonnes and kilos of carbon.
- The carbon authority works closely with the UK HMRC (customs authority) to impose the carbon rationing system on all incoming goods and services from countries not in the system.
- The customer chooses a TV, juggling the price and the UCCs required against the features wanted, and paying both money and UCCs in one transaction. The TV retailer decides what the ration should be.
- The TV retailer receives the money and the UCCs, e.g. 500kg for the television in this example.
- The TV retailer purchases the TV from the TV manufacturer, in a similar transaction of money and UCCs. The retailer would slightly increase the UCCs demanded, because it has to keep its shop warm in winter, and pay to transport the televisions.
- The TV manufacturer built the TV from components, e.g. a plastic casing and a flat screen.
- The flat screen for the sake of this example comes from China who are not yet in the system. The UK HMRC has an estimate of how much carbon was emitted in the making of the flat screen, and levies this amount at the border. Delivery to the TV manufacturer only occurs on payment of the UCCs to the HMRC.
- The plastic casing was made in the UK and had its own price and ration, which the plastic manufacturer demands from the TV manufacturer. The plastic manufacturer uses considerable energy making the case, and bases the carbon ration for each plastic case produced on (a) the UCCs paid to the factory's energy provider and (b) the UCCs paid for the petrochemicals it converted into plastic.
- The energy provider could be using gas or coal or wind or nuclear, but in this example uses North Sea gas.
- The energy provider bought the gas wholesale from BP for example and paid BP the money price and a tonne of UCCs per tonne of North Sea gas bought.
- At the year end, BP must pay the carbon authority a tonne of UCCs for every tonne of carbon in the gas it pumped out of the North Sea gas fields.
- If any actor in the process runs out of UCCs for whatever reason, they would have to purchase the extra UCCs on the open carbon ration market, which is regulated by the carbon authority, but whose price level is set by supply and demand in the market.
Impact on the Supply Chain in Business and Industry
The introduction of carbon rationing would not be a totally unprecedented introduction. In 1971, the United Kingdom decimalised its currency and dropped the non-decimal shilling. Then in 1973, it introduced VAT, and in 1978 started mandating metric measurements. In 1990, the sovereign nations of East and West Germany reunified, completely replacing the Ost-Mark with the D-Mark. In 1999, Germany did it again with 10 other European nations to introduce the Euro.
If introduced, every citizen and every business would have to become adept at handling carbon ration weights in the same way as money. Just as income and expenditure of money is key to good financial management, the same would be true of income and expenditure of UCCs.
For citizens, each would receive a personal allocation at the start of each rationing period and must ensure they live within their budget.
Business on the other hand would be required to charge and procure all UCCs from its customers, which it would carefully manage to cover all of its own ration expenditure. From the technological perspective, business would be compelled to introduce accounting software to account for carbon ration income and expenditure.
The banking industry would undoubtedly understand the need for dual transactions where money and carbon ration transactions are carried out in parallel.
Methane Control under the UCC Framework
CH4 is a highly potent greenhouse gas, 28 times greater than CO2 over 100 years (or 84x over 20).
To control it under UCC, businesses wishing to emit CH4 would need to be licensed for the quantity emitted in C02e (CO2 equivalent) weight, paid for in UCCs.
Methane leakages from fossil fuel extraction and mining for minerals such as copper represent another problematic area. Based on experience with past mining or drilling operations and including geological data indicating potential methane leakage from oil or coal beds, average methane leakage at any extraction site could be calculated and the appropriate UCCs added to the final bill at the carbon producer's audit by the carbon authority.
Oil and gas wells and coal mines would be metered as described above under a UCC regime to measure the UCCs due to the carbon authority for CO2 emissions, but the direct release of CH4 into the atmosphere would be 28 times more damaging than the CO2.
Methane emissions from livestock is another big source globally. A farmer with a dairy or beef herd would be required to pay license fees in UCCs per head of cattle.
Methane emissions from solid waste management and composting are also a significant global source of anthropogenic CH4. Remote sensing is already used in California, USA as part of pollution control research.
Preservation of Natural Carbon Sinks and Prospects for Negative Emissions
The continued destruction of the globally significant carbon sinks, such as the rainforests of the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo, represent a large risk to any attempts to control CO2 emissions globally.
The agreement and introduction of UCC could provide a UCCs-based income to the owners or guardians of every standing forest. The forest carbon sinks sequester about 15 per cent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, although that rate is falling. From the opposite perspective, deforestation for economic gain would have to be monitored and audited by the carbon authority, which would then demand the equivalent UCCs from the agent carrying out the deforestation. The UCC principle maintains that carbon usage in the economy must be paid for in UCCs, weight for weight.
The obvious culprit here is the palm oil industry with its extensive oil palm plantations, along with timber production, soya or beef farming forest clearance methods, and other drivers of deforestation. Unsustainable agricultural practices by indigenous farmers though would still be a problem.
The demand for biofuels would also be channelled into sustainable practices. Industrial biofuel agriculture would need to budget for payment of UCCs for CO2 loss due to soil degradation. Large woodchip-fired power stations would pay in UCCs for woodchip from forestry operations, who would be subject to audit and ration payment to the carbon authority for the forest clearance. Future developments with current 2020 policies could otherwise lead to unchecked deforestation.
In parallel to the requirement for keeping forests standing, UCC offers a huge potential as a mechanism to pay for negative emissions. For instance, all deforested land across the globe could be reforested. As trees grow, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Reforestation projects should be able to claim this weight of absorbed CO2 as UCCs from the carbon authority.
Obviously under the rationing mechanism, forest stewards of both intact primary forest and regrowing secondary forest would have to be subject to stringent control to the same degree as the gas/oil/coal carbon producers.
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Policy Parts
Superiority over Carbon Taxes and Carbon Pricing Mechanisms
There is little discussion of carbon rationing as a macro-economic policy, compared to the attention given to carbon taxes or carbon pricing policies. There is an implicit assumption that the reach of carbon rationing is restricted to consumer-citizens and that a large part of the carbon economy would be not be impacted, e.g. aviation, shipping, imported emissions, in-built emissions, government services, the military. UCC as an enhanced rationing mechanism produces an impact comprehensively across these sectors.
In the UK in 2008, the British Government Home Office began developing plans to bring in carbon rationing to combat rising CO2 emissions.  The plans were abandoned after the then Home Secretary David Milliband changed roles within government.
Carbon taxation and pricing schemes aim to influence economic carbon demand via increases in carbon-related costs to commerce and industry. This layer of indirection based on the artificial manipulation of supply prices is also far from perfect because it is not comprehensively applied to all carbon outlets and it suffers due to the uncertain sensitivity of supply and demand.
It is also quite complex and difficult to construct a carbon pricing system and then to implement it. Multiple issues occur, especially on a political level e.g. in British Columbia, Canada, in the EU.
The measure of the inefficiency or the not-yet-internalised costs of climate change-induced damage is known as the carbon price gap. As of 2019, this stands at a massive 87% of all carbon emissions.. See also the World Bank carbon pricing dashboard.
Redundancy of Many Carbon Regulations under UCC
The UK Committee on Climate Change produced an extensive and wide-ranging document outlining a policy path to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and immediately realised 2 problems: were their recommendations plausible and are they even the best choice?
UCC would allow decision-makers to focus on how much carbon emissions to allow, rather than a thousand other things. Already academic policy analysts predict that governments will be unable to rise to the challenge without fundamental organisational restructuring.
A further problem with regulation-based policies is the extended time horizons associated with such policies. The EU in 2020 displayed a particularly egregious example of this. The implementation of the 'EU Green New Deal' will only take force 10 years down the line in 2030 and it does not allow for greater ambition until 2035.
So many of the discussions in the field of national and consumer climate policy would be rendered redundant by the automated ration setting mechanism of UCC in all supply chains. See the next section.
Implementation and Running Costs
Compared to the “free” option of doing nothing or “business as usual”, UCC has a large, up-front cost with manageable, contained, on-going running costs similar to VAT or German MwSt.
Doing nothing but rely on technological developments to bring about the obsolescence of fossil fuels is a policy that research shows cannot keep global warming below 3.0°C. This will bring global economic recessions along with damage and adaptation costs in the order of trillions of US dollars.
Compared to carbon taxes and carbon pricing strategies, UCC has a large up-front cost as business, government and citizens prepare for its introduction. Studies in 2008 in the UK and more recent studies on projects such a road traffic in Kenya and local transport in Finland show that costs are not prohibitive.
But taxes, trading schemes and legislative bans or subsidy programs have significant running costs to maintain the level of carbon policymaking that rationing would make redundant:
- establishing what citizens and industry have to stop doing
- democratically agreeing on it
- legislating for it
- implementing the laws
- monitoring the effects
- repeating the process, constantly strengthening the laws in the face of political opposition
And all this would be repeated in all 192 nations of the world.
So the carbon tax alternatives are initially cheaper, but they have higher legislative costs as governments manage decarbonisation, legislating year after year to keep up with economic and technological developments and unforeseen issues. The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that UCC turns out cheaper.
There are other costs associated with policing UCC, for instance satellite monitoring of forests. This is already carried out by space agencies, which is how the world became aware of the 2019 Amazon fires. Much of these costs exist already.
Transparency via Automatic Generation of Carbon Price on Price Tag
People and green businesses base their consumer choices in the 2019 economy on information that is often not on the label, is incomplete, or worse, is misleading or purposefully suppressed.
The New York Times bestseller "How Bad are Bananas?" picked out a highly diverse mix of 100 articles or activities, giving an analysis of the carbon footprint of each. It demonstrates the challenge faced when trying to gather this sort of information.
Very few things have the same carbon transparency as buying a tank of fuel to drive somewhere. There are unexpected inputs, hidden subsidies and incalculable interactions which make something's actual carbon footprint differ radically from the expected.
UCC would make the carbon producers the ultimate recipients of UCCs, for which they are audited by the carbon authority to assure compliance between the quantity of fossil fuels extracted from the ground and the quantity of UCCs that they procure via their sales of those fuels.
There is an example given above of how UCCs would flow through the economy. To demonstrate the point regarding information on CO2 emissions produced per product/service even more simply, here is a example describing "widgets" carbon ration valuation:
- A business manufactures widgets. It has to calculate the carbon ration per widget.
- It produces widgets from components.
- Component A has a carbon ration of 0.3kg
- Component B has a carbon ration of 0.5kg
- The business has to pay its energy supplier per quarter with UCCs and money, which both must be obtained from its customers.
- The calculation is: the UCCs per widget = the UCCs needed for components plus the UCCs paid for energy per quarter divided by the number of widgets produced per quarter.
- The energy supplier purchases fuel for power generation from the carbon producers, paying UCCs weight for weight according to the fuel required. It demands UCCs from its customers proportionate to their energy usage.
- The widget company also has to pay for the diesel for its delivery lorry at 0.1kg ration per widget.
- The diesel supplier pays the UCCs direct to the carbon producer.
- As a result the carbon ration for each widget is set at 1kg.
- The costs of components A and B were calculated similarly by their manufacturers.
A further benefit is that the business can update the UCCs demanded for their product as soon as component A or component B changes, or when they sign up to a carbon neutral energy provider, or exchange their diesel lorry for an electric vehicle.
Dynamic Stimulation of Low Carbon Industry
It's simpler, more efficient and more direct to control the carbon quantity in the economy than the carbon price, which is fundamentally a difficult policy making exercise and prone to failure and political intervention due to the inherent lack of certainty, flexibility, and stringency in such policies.
Climate policies that don't restrict supply (taxes, legislation, sector-based emissions trading schemes) are demand-based measures that only impact certain aspects of the economy while leaving others untouched, with no guarantees about consumer behaviour and progress of decarbonisation.
In 2020, worldwide implementation of carbon taxes covered only 16% of the economy, leaving the "carbon price gap" standing at 84%. The coverage of the proposed carbon currency framework would be practically 100%. So the inherent "price signal" for carbon under the carbon currency framework would be 5 times stronger than from carbon taxes as it stands, and even under an ideal carbon tax policy implementation, it's reasonable to assume the carbon currency price signal would be at least twice as strong. This stronger impact should accelerate the speed and efficiency of business adaption and innovation.
While one business catalyst is obviously the higher carbon costs due to the reduction of the carbon ration supply, both private citizens and commercial interests would benefit significantly from the boost to their "carbon literacy", as everyone educates themselves about the complexities surrounding CO2 emissions in the economy and the ways and means of reducing their dependence on costly UCCs. Higher levels of knowledge are the driver of innovation.
Fairness and Equitability
Rationing is categorised by economists as a fundamentally progressive fiscal policy. Studies looking at rationing in the 1940s and 1950s show this. 
To prevent anybody being unfairly affected by rationing, the government would hold back a percentage of everybody’s carbon ration allocation. This can be used to supplement those in extra need of UCCs through no fault of their own.
On an international scale, all citizens from all nations would receive the same individual allocation of UCCs. This would start differently for different countries yet end up the same by global agreement, using a UN-brokered convention based on the Global Commons Institute’s Contraction and Convergence framework.
Wealthy citizens could buy extra UCCs to subsidise their carbon-heavy choices, but only what other people are selling, and that will decrease regularly as the rationing continues. Such a market for UCCs is not a loophole preventing actual CO2 emissions reduction from taking place. Firstly, limiting trading could encourage people who would otherwise be carbon-conscious to use up all their untradable allowance on cheap high-carbon products. Secondly, the market for buying and selling UCCs represents a safety mechanism in the system that prevents people or businesses falling off a carbon ration “cliff edge” by running out of UCCs.
A More Robust Future for Negative Emissions, Carbon Offsetting Industry and the Voluntary Carbon Markets
The harsh reality of CO2 emissions in 2019 and prospects for their reduction means any realistic plan must include removing CO2 from the atmosphere, or global warming will overshoot 1.5°C.
This chart displays the Global Carbon Budget. It shows annual global CO2 emissions on the Y axis in gigatonnes. As of writing, the thick black curve has risen every year up to 2019 on the X axis. The cumulative effect of all emissions to date has resulted in a global temperature rise of 1°C above pre-industrial levels.
The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement between all nations in the world targets a 1.5°C limit to global warming, with initial commitments to keep the temperature rise "well below 2°C".
According to the latest climate science, to achieve a limit of 1.5°C warming, society must restrict further CO2 emissions to less than 420 gigatonnes. The downward-arcing black line on the chart displays how annual emissions must decline if we adhere to the 420 gigatonne total. In other words, with current emissions at 42 gigatonnes per year, if we carried on for another 10 years, we would then need to completely stop all emissions or global warming would exceed 1.5°C.
As the chart text states, such sudden emissions reduction is practically impossible. The only way to keep the total extra anthropogenic CO2 added to the atmosphere below 420 Gigatonnes from 2020 is to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere - "negative emissions", in the appropriate huge quantities.
Under UCC, the central carbon bank would promote “negative emissions” by awarding UCCs to people or businesses capturing CO2, e.g. growing trees or building futuristic Saharan solar power stations that generate power to turn CO2 from the atmosphere back into carbon or salt crystal or methanol and oxygen.
This branch of industry is already well established as summarised by Carbon Brief in their report 10 Ways Negative Emissions could slow Climate Change
However as of 2020 the whole industry is not without controversy, in fact it is difficult to draw the line between this and the carbon offsetting industry. It is in these sectors that the rigour and robustness of UCC would be transformational.
Not only would it promote research and investment into reforestation and carbon sequestration, but because the central carbon authority awards UCCs, it circumvents the problem of who should pay for it. The main issue would be calculating how UCC payments affect the global UCC supply and therefore the global carbon budget.
Causes for Optimism
To a citizen considering which political manifesto to vote for, immediate threats to living standards, personal income and well-being in political manifestos generally trump more rational but long-term environmental advantages in the future.
The Australian general election of May 2019 was widely considered a climate election that was "unloseable" for the Australian Labor Party pushing a climate action agenda. The Labor Party did lose though, beaten at the polls by the incumbent Prime Minister who used every opportunity to highlight the short term financial impact that the proposed climate action would cause.
Why would the public be interested in political leaders who adopt UCC as climate policy?
- At least in the short term future under the UCC framework, the introductory level of UCCs allocated on a per-capita basis would be adequate to bring about familiarity with the carbon currency without entailing an immediate change in the average person's lifestyle choices.
- Only the most profligate carbon emitters would actually find themselves restricted during the first years of the framework. This tends to be a small number of wealthy people who constitute only a tiny proportion of the electorate. Most would agree such people should rein in their activities.
- It is probable that the progress of green technologies in the future will reduce the required UCCs in many sectors, cushioning the impact on consumers when rationing starts to cause real impact, e.g. the automobile industry
- The costs to the state and increase in taxes required to implement UCC would be small in comparison to the billions proposed for climate-related subsidies and government spending programmes.
The clarity and transparency of UCC - how effective it is in CO2 emissions reduction and what effect it was having on the economy - would be effective right down to the individual level. This visibility would empower citizens, arguably a majority of citizens, to press their elected representatives to reduce the carbon ration supply to a greater extent as they perceive how fairly the system commands effort and forebearance across society.
Destigmatisation of Fossil Fuels
A widely-held public perception is that the extraction of fossil fuels is inherently immoral because of CO2-induced climate change and the resulting impacts. BP's corporate image for instance has suffered at the hands of public disfavour, resulting in the company losing key sponsorship deals, being the target of divestment campaigns, and even being pressured off university campuses when trying to take part in recruitment fairs.
Commentators speak of a loss of 'social licence' but the reality of the situation is citizens are quite prepared to ignore their own part in the process as they continue to create demand in the marketplace. Either consumers with a large carbon footprint are oblivious to the simple laws of supply and demand, or they believe the moral obligation lies with the government to resolve all CO2 emissions-related problems, but they also refuse to vote for such action.
However, when citizens go to pay for products or services using UCCs, they have in their hands the irrefutable proof that their actions will result in CO2 emissions. The only other option is to 'retire' those UCCs. A new social contract under UCC would re-legitimise the extraction of fossil fuels and recreate the social license, bearing in mind the context of a steadily reducing carbon ration supply.
This change in attitude is likely to feed into the more general climate debate to reduce the polarisation and lack of broad political agreement. Because the ethics of the capitalist market economy almost by definition allow business-as-usual, increasing numbers of citizens believe that the supply of fossil fuels is morally wrong. With a carbon rationing system in place, the ethics of the market place can be brought back more in line with society's general moral standards regarding continuation of our way of life, impacts of our actions on people in other parts of the world and so on.
Business, Entrepreneurial and Industrial Attraction
Business ultimately plays by a set of rules defined in law and is typically only concerned only with profit and loss generated by its actions within that context. The personal environmental motivations of directors and managers may often be expressed in their business models but many such business practices can be summarily swept aside by a change of leadership.
For business, UCC is relatively basic. It makes going green part of the rules.
While carbon pricing mechanisms and carbon taxes in general can integrate some 'environmental information' via price discovery in the market, UCC actually creates a new parallel market.
Due to the relative simplicity of carbon rationing, it brings more dependability and certainty. Carbon pricing policies usually have highly inconsistent track records. Being smaller, more regional and more targetted than UCC, they are highly prone to uncertainties of political intervention in a way that a blanket, comprehensive framework like UCC would not be.
Carbon pricing policies rely on inclusions and exclusions on a sector by sector basis and variation in carbon accounting practices dependent on national law. Carbon rationing on the other hand would provide comprehensive coverage of the economy and a comparatively small set of economic indicators, influences and unknowns. This would provide the backdrop for a reliable investment framework that gives a clear pathway for innovation towards carbon neutrality.
Businesses also complain that any attempts to go carbon-neutral result in a loss of competitiveness and market share as their customers switch to cheaper imported high-carbon alternatives. In a unilateral implementation, since UCC imposes the UCCs on imports at customs, the playing field is level and it prevents free-riders.
Other business problems also arise with a piecemeal approach to carbon policy. Shipping illustrates a typical problem businesses face. The International Maritime Organisation brokered a international agreement that shipping fuel must be used more efficiently by 2020, but despite 20 years preparation, it is on the verge of failure because of disagreement over who bears responsibility in the industry.
Starting Nationally, Thinking Globally
UCC can be implemented unilaterally by any nation, not requiring unanimous approval from hundreds of nations.
A nation's national borders and customs agency would act as proxy for importers of foreign goods and services, collecting the required UCCs on imported goods from the buyers.
The biggest challenge would be to avoid international legal disputes over any perceived violation of pre-existing trade agreements because of the introduction of rationing controls on the imported goods.
Other nations could join with the first nation at any point to form a larger trading block.
The United Nations approached climate action from a top-down perspective until 2009 at the COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since then a bottom-up or 'pledge-and-review' framework has been the goal. Whatever the reasons given for this, the bottom-up approach is obviously easier if seeking a unanimous global agreement from the UNFCCC conventions. The bottom-up approach is what resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The Paris Agreement was passed unanimously. That in itself was a feat of international diplomacy. However the Nationally Determined Contributions are not enforceable. The 1.5°C limit to global warming imagined in the agreement is looking increasingly unachievable. The Climate Action Tracker currently shows most monitored countries have not made sufficient commitments in their NDCs to be compatible with the agreement.
Whether the UNFCCC process turns back towards a top-down approach, or finds a middle road,, by the unilateral implementation of UCC and then the building of a UCC-based trading block, a unanimous vote at the UN is not a necessity.
The ideal solution to provide an international basis for carbon ration allocation would be the Global Commons Initiative Contraction and Convergence Framework.  This is the essence of decades of international climate diplomacy, as used by UNFCCC, UK Government, the Brazilian, Russian, Indian, and Chinese delegations and as a basis for proposals by various organisations and political parties ever since.
The chart above shows at the top, the annual rates of carbon emissions allocated per capita per country, and below, in total per country (from 2000).
It illustrates how national allocations can be negotiated to the satisfaction of all countries by commencing at different per capita levels and then converging at an agreed point before contracting.
Universal Carbon Credits as a Carbon Currency (or Total Carbon Rationing) is a whole supply chain carbon rationing policy that covers individuals as well as companies, industries and government. While implementation would require substantial changes, there are strong reasons to believe it would induce an exponential increase in the rate of national decarbonisation and would be more likely to succeed that any other climate policy.
Supply-side control of fossil fuel extraction rates is the sole policy that can limit carbon supply and guarantee decarbonisation targets. The UCC system once in place would bring individual engagement and increases in carbon literacy from citizens. It would create various advantages in transparency, predictability, efficiency, innovation and separation of concerns for business. As well as the direct personal impact and the effect of this mechanism on business, the implementation of UCC would have further advantages covering political impacts, natural resources, international trade, the negative emissions and voluntary carbon market and financial systems in general as economies seek to accelerate decarbonisation.
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Universal Carbon Credits as a Carbon Currency, also known as Total Carbon Rationing by Adam Hardy MSc FRSA and Prof Steve Keen, Distinguished Research Fellow, UCL is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0