Why Mark Lynas is wrong to say he’s wrong!

by | Jun 7, 2008

Last week Mark Lynas wrote an article for the New Statesman in which he surprisingly argued against carbon rationing. As he acknowledges, this is a complete reversal from his earlier article in which he argued for it in the strongest of terms. Unfortunately, I believe his thinking on this is moving in the wrong direction.

His argument is essentially that we need the cheapest, simplest way of implementing a firm global carbon cap. I absolutely agree that such a cap is crucial and necessary, but it is a mistake to imagine that this alone is sufficient to realistically address climate change. The setting of a cap is a fairly abstract process – the real challenge is to develop a society that can exist within that cap.

If we simply set an upstream cap and trust to the markets to change our energy infrastructure and individual lifestyles we will simply suffer more and more as the cap tightens over time and energy prices rise higher and higher. If that process continued, eventually the pressure to loosen or abandon the cap would become irresistible – “sod your future generations, my children are hungry today”.

Take the bus

So the important goal is not to find the cheapest policy for setting the cap, but to find the policy most likely to engage the whole culture in the transition to a low-carbon, lower-energy society that can thrive within the cap. I will address the finer details of why I believe this leads us to TEQs and not an upstream policy in my next post, but what surprised me most about Mark’s piece is that I thought he understood all this, and that I was sure he had encountered all of these arguments before. So what changed his mind?

On Wednesday I met Mark and put this question to him. His answer was that he feels that public engagement with climate change has gone backwards over the past couple of years, and that he now considers it unrealistic to hope for public mobilisation on the issue within the 7 years or so we have left to avoid sealing our fate. For this reason he believes TEQs will not soon enough be politically acceptable, and so that we need to focus on upstream measures.

I, on the other hand, consider it unrealistic to imagine that we can address such a collective problem without engaging the majority of the population – let’s hope Mark and I are not both right!

Snow Daffodil

Unfortunately, while I have a deep respect for Mark’s work in publicising climate change, his article contains a number of misunderstandings when it comes to climate policy.

He makes the common mistake of describing carbon rations as a “second currency”. In truth, however, in contrast to a currency (with which one can purchase many different things) a ration on its own can only be exchanged for money, in the same way that any goods (boots, apples…) can only be exchanged for money. Tradable rations are thus just one more commodity that can be bought with money, rather than a parallel currency, in much the same way that European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) permits are a commodity, rather than a parallel currency threatening the Euro.

He also writes of “the oldest rationing system in the book: the price mechanism”, but ‘rationing by price’ (i.e. the richest get whatever’s in short supply) has never been a pretty process. We need guaranteed entitlements to energy for all, not simply ever-increasing prices.

Finally, Mark also has faith in the EU ETS itself, which Larry Lohmann has convincingly argued is fundamentally flawed and unable to control the emissions of Europe’s industry. Yet even if it were satisfactory, the current piecemeal approach to addressing climate change is being widely condemned. For example, the Environmental Audit Committee have stated that,

“It is clear that the Government has responded institutionally to the challenge of climate change through the creation of new bodies to tackle specific climate issues. Although this process signifies the Government’s willingness to tackle the issue, the organic process by which leadership and responsibility have evolved appears to have created a confusing framework that cannot be said to promote effective action on climate change…”

There are currently 94 present or planned policies that impact on the level of personal carbon emissions in the UK, before even considering other emissions. An overarching framework like TEQs which covered the whole economy would make many of these redundant, producing substantial financial savings while bringing a clarity and focus to our national carbon reduction strategy.


  1. Biff Vernon

    “let’s hope Mark and I are not both right!”

    Hmmm, I suspect you both may be. We’d better try damming the flow upstream, downstream and anywhere else. Let’s not say this is better than that but let’s try everything at once and hope some of it works.

  2. Shaun

    I wholeheartedly agree with your overwhelming sense of urgency Biff, but I think this is where the stream analogy breaks down. If we had a downstream TEQs scheme then adding an additional upstream scheme would make it less effective, not more. A single clear systems-coherent framework is what we need, not a mess of piecemeal measures with confusing overlaps and loopholes.

  3. Mike Jones

    Thanks for this. the most encouraging aspect from my perspective, is that you actually took the trouble to meet with Mark and talk it through. In Stephen Covey’s terms (Book: 7 habits of highly effective people), ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’.
    I accept your critique and personally feel that we need to connect carbon to every individual, and in a way which helps promote social justice. Is there any way to pilot this approach on a regional(or more localised) basis?

  4. Shaun

    That’s an interesting question. This report highlights some of the issues around the question of pilots/trials. My personal opinion is that while projects like the CRAGs are brilliant for getting the idea out there and raising awareness, any full pilot would need to operate in an area with very clearly defined geographic and economic boundaries, otherwise the ‘edge issues’ would be too great. While there has been some talk of the Isle of Wight, I don’t really see anywhere in the UK that would be suitable.

  5. justin

    Hi Shaun,

    I have never responded to a blog so forgive me if what I do here is outside the blog box, but I just want to paste in why and how I think we should combine the best in the Upstream approach (in this case Cap and Dividend) and he best in the TEQ approach, starting with the former and then bringing in the latter 3 years later.

    [A quick note: The reason for starting with an upstream approach like Cap and Dividend is best explained by contrasting the (succesful) attempt to bring in congestion charges in London, with the (unsuccesful) attempt in Edinburgh:

    In Edinburgh they tried to bring in a comprehensive scheme with an outer ring and an inner ring. Doubtless it was perfect from a transport point of view but it was too complex and was rejected. In London Ken Livingston started with a simple small area covered, and then once that had proved successful expanded to cover a much larger area. Similarly, a perfect scheme (TEQs) would be great, but one that is politically attractive and ecologically responsive, and can be developed further, makes more sense. to bring in first]

    ‘Cap and Dividend’ is based on the fact that the atmosphere is a global commons which we all equally rely on. It gives each person the right to the same proportion of overall emissions which are reduced year on year, so reducing our collective emissions to a level which can be absorbed by the biomass. In this system the vast majority of the population are immediately better off and only those who can afford it (the heavy emitters) are penalised for disproportionately polluting the global commons. In this system, those bringing carbon into the economy (those very few companies importing or producing coal/ oil/ gas/ cement etc) take part in an annual auction to buy the right to bring carbon into the economy.

    The extra price they have then paid is

    (i) passed on to manufacturers and other users of the fossil fuel they bring into the economy, which leads to higher prices for all those using those products, services, modes of transportation etc which have carbon embedded in them; but the cash generated from the auction of these carbon emission permits is

    (ii) passed on to the population at large (directly into their bank or post office accounts) so that people can deal with the increase in prices. This means that (a) those using more than their fair share of carbon are penalised because all such prices will have risen, while those using less (the great majority) will benefit with extra cash in their pocket, and (b) producers will be immediately encouraged to develop non-carbon based products/ services/ modes of transport, etc., and avoid producing high carbon ones.

    After a 3 year settling in period, ‘Cap and Dividend’ (www.capanddividend.org) would then be supplemented by people using Carbon Cards (similar to credit cards) to monitor their purchase of CO2 embedded goods and services (This is drawn from the ‘Tradable Energy Quota’ system – https://www.teqs.net/). Those purchasing more carbon than their fair share would now not only be paying for it through the price of the goods purchased, but would also receive proportionately less cash from the carbon auction dividend. Those purchasing vastly more carbon would start paying into that dividend fund themselves (at an exponentially increasing rate). Meanwhile the great majority (those who bring in less CO2 than their fair share) would receive this extra cash from those bringing in more. As the rapid rise in the cost of high-carbon options takes effect there would be a rapid development and shift to low-carbon ones. As the amount allowed into the economy is reduced year on year, our collective emissions are reduced to a level which can be absorbed by the biomass.

    Sorry for the length!



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