Brits Ponder Fuel Rationing

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The last time the British government instituted a substantial rationing program was 1940—the Nazis had spread out across Europe and the continent was mobilizing for all-out war. The rationing program, which lasted until 1954, had a profound effect on the collective consciousness of the British public, and is largely remembered not as a time of deprivation but of plucky courage, solidarity and fortitude in the face of a dangerous adversary. So could rationing work again?

Today I attended the launch of a report commissioned by the British parliament that called for the rationing of fuel to help meet the government’s carbon emission targets and prepare for future fossil fuel scarcity.  The report called for an electronic trading system for energy quotas. Such a system is a long way from becoming law, but it raises an interesting debate about how to mobilize a population around the the fight to slow climate change.

Here’s how a fuel rationing program in Britain could work. Under the system, energy credits called TEQs (“Tradeable Energy Quotas”) would be distributed free to citizens. Citizens could then buy electricity and fuel as normal, but each time they would see their TEQ account discounted. Each TEQ credit would be worth 1 kg of CO2; so energy bought from renewable sources would discount very few TEQ credits, because such energy would have a low amount of emissions associated with it; fossil fuel-based energy, of course, would deplete TEQs very quickly.

Once their TEQ allotment was depleted, citizens who still wished to use fuel or electricity would have to buy surplus TEQs from people who had TEQs left over, perhaps because they had more energy efficient homes, or had invested in micro-renewables such as solar power panes for their home, or simply because they chose to live a low-carbon life-style. The scheme would probably involve credit cards having two numbers — one linked to the customer’s bank account and another to their energy TEQs account. Business and governments would bid for energy units at a weekly tender.
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The report, written by the London-based thinktank The Lean Economy Connection on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil, said that, by placing an artificial constraint on demand, TEQs would help keep fuel prices low even in times of scarcity. It would also guarantee an allotment of fuel to all citizens–even the poor—without placing a ceiling on how much fuel a citizen can consume. It also said that it would provide an incentive for low-carbon living that would, in turn, strengthen the market for green technology and create new opportunities for industry. The growth in this sector could help offset economic slowdown elsewhere and lead to a gradual shift in technology and lifestyle, the report found.

It’s impossible to know for sure the accuracy of such claims; a TEQ-like system has never been tried before, although an Australian university is piloting a TEQ system in Norfolk Island in Pacific Ocean at the moment. But the larger point of the TEQ plan is a political one: by introducing the word “rationing” into the climate change and fuel security debate, the report draws a parallel with a time when Brits willingly sacrificed comforts for the greater good (it turned out for their own individual good, too: food rationing during the war had the unexpected consequence of making Brits healthier thanks to dietary education programs that accompanied food coupons).

That’s a crucial issue in the face of climate change. Are people in the developed world willing to make sacrifices to their lifestyles, as the Brits did during the Second World War? Britain has pledged to  reduce carbon emissions by 32% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels. It’s very unlikely such targets will be reached—even if renewable technology develops at the most optimistic rate—without constraints on energy use.

Caroline Lucas, MP, who is leader of the Green Party and a member of the parliamentary committee that commissioned the TEQ report, told journalists at the report’s launch that politicians should sell climate change to the British public as a “new home front” and use some of the communication strategies of the Second World War “to alert people to the danger we face from climate change; we did it then, we can do it now. We can rally around a shared endeavor.”

It will be interesting for American environmentalists to watch the debate over fuel rationing play out in the UK. Rationing was first seriously floated as an idea in the UK in 1996. In 2008, the UK government conducted a pre-feasibility study into the scheme, but concluded that TEQs were “ahead of its time.”  Has that changed? Will it ever? Does the British public believe that climate change or fuel scarcity are threats akin to Nazism? And even if it did feel that way, would it make any difference? It may be that even Britain, which still prides itself on its plucky courage and solidarity during WWII, has become too individualistic a nation to stomach enforced sacrifice. Brits and Americans and everyone else in the rich nations may end up deciding that they would simply prefer the good life now, even if it means continuing on this absurd and relentless march into a furnace of their own creation.