Energy use has to be cut soon, so it's odd that this techno-savvy cabinet still shies away from a simple credit system
Awful August, the weather forecasters call this unseasonably cold, wet month, as holiday-makers huddle against intermittent monsoon downpours, reminded that global warming doesn't necessarily mean a Mediterranean Britain.
Every month, reports from climatologists deliver worse predictions of the speed and tipping points for irreversible climate change. A 4C temperature rise is the latest warning: it would bring unimaginable horror in its wake. The time to act gets shorter, but the political will to act lags ever further behind the science that tells politicians they must do so. Latest figures, including air travel, shipping and energy used in our goods manufactured abroad, show no cut in Britain but an 18% growth in emissions.
If the market is the answer, soaring energy prices should drive down emissions. Road traffic figures showed a 2% drop in car use, with demand for petrol briefly 20% down - but already it is rising again as the price falls. On household energy - responsible for 27% of emissions - it's too early to know the effect of 30% price increases. But as one hour of an old-fashioned lightbulb still only costs 0.8p, energy prices may not be noticed by those who already consume most. Those who will make serious cuts are the poorest and debt-averse pensioners. Official fuel poverty figures are expected to rise to 5 million people this winter: more deaths are expected among the old and cold. Back in Labour's optimistic can-do days in 2000, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act created a legal obligation to eliminate fuel poverty among the vulnerable by 2010, a target missed by so many light years that Friends of the Earth is seeking a judicial review to get the act enforced. Gordon Brown's plan to buy off the problem with £100 vouchers for the poor is no answer.
What does the public think the answer should be? The Institute for Public Policy Research has just conducted the most extensive consultation so far, with focus groups in Newcastle, Camden, Southwark, Bristol and rural Suffolk across all social groups, as well as a nationwide opinion poll and interviews with energy companies, climate change NGOs and consumer organisations. The results pointed in one clear direction.
Seventy-four per cent said they are "very concerned" or "fairly concerned" about climate change - so politicians can ignore the shrinking, unconcerned minority.
Seventy-one per cent thought action was necessary to curb people's energy use. But there was pessimism about the public changing its behaviour: only one in 10 thought people would drive less or take fewer flights. Naturally, favourite choices were the painless ones - the cheaper, environmentally friendly options. Least popular was any system that taxed energy use.
They were offered three possible government actions. First, a carbon tax could be added to all energy not generated from renewables. Second, a cap on the amount of carbon that companies could emit in selling their energy to consumers would force them to generate more from renewables: they would pass on the extra cost to consumers. But both of these were regarded as too unfair, with the impact felt least by the wealthy who burn most energy.
Personal carbon trading was the most popular option: it was the fairest and it wasn't seen as a new tax.
Here's how it works: each year everyone gets equal carbon credits to spend on petrol, home heating or air travel. People exceeding their quota can buy more credits. People who use less can sell credits. It encourages home insulation, energy saving and less driving or flying. Since low earners use less - 20% have no car, 50% don't fly - they can profit by selling to those with big houses, foreign holidays and gas-guzzling cars. It would be a powerful but voluntary agent for redistribution.
Failure to pursue personal carbon trading (or any other method) joined the long list of good causes killed by Labour cowardice. At Defra, David Miliband took it up with enthusiasm and commissioned a feasibility study, but after he made a strong speech advocating it, Gordon Brown at the Treasury banned any further mention. Miliband was moved away and what was called a "pre-feasibility study", limped out with the judgment that this idea was "ahead of its time". They guessed it would cost £2bn a year to run, threw up sundry obstacles, and the report disappeared.
Odd that a government with computers thinks it can't introduce a simple credit system, when a Nectar or Oyster card shows how easily home and car fuel bills and airline tickets could be deducted. Historian Mark Roodhouse of York University draws comparisons with his work on wartime rationing. Back then the state provided ration books for all, covering not just fuel but coupons valuing virtually every individual item in the shops from clothes to food.
Have we become more administratively incompetent since then? Roodhouse records the wartime internal debates about whether to cut national consumption by raising prices. "They concluded rationing was the only way to achieve dramatic cuts without feeding inflation or causing social unrest," he reports. They, too, considered making ration coupons tradable but decided equality of sacrifice was essential. But Roodhouse considers tradable carbon rations "would improve on the system, preventing black markets in unused coupons". The trading element makes carbon rationing feel more voluntary and less oppressive.
In distribution of wealth, Britain is now back to 1937 levels of inequality, regressing backwards every year: that's what makes any kind of carbon tax or reliance on high prices impossible, the burden falling too unfairly. Doling out ad hoc energy vouchers to the poor at the taxpayers' expense is the wrong answer, and it only adds to the poverty trap by making the step up harder to climb. Will Brown at least pay for it with a windfall tax on profiteering energy companies? But if personal carbon trading is "ahead of its time", that is exactly where we need to be.
Cowardly political leaders dare not tell voters the plain truth that we need to cut energy use. If Miliband makes his run for the leadership, plain speaking about the climate will be one of his pitches - and bravery on personal carbon trading will be a test of candidates' seriousness about both climate and social justice.