The environment minister, David Miliband, today unveiled a radical plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by charging individuals for the amount of carbon they use.
Under the proposals, consumers would carry bank cards that record their personal carbon usage. Those who use more energy – with big cars and foreign holidays – would have to buy more carbon points, while those who consume less – those without cars, or people with solar power – would be able to sell their carbon points.
Mr Miliband denied suggestions that the scheme would penalise the poor, by, for example, forcing the elderly to turn off their central heating in winter to save carbon points.
“The technical work that has been done so far suggests that poorer people would actually do well out of it,” the minister told Channel 4 News at Noon.
“It is not the poor who are the biggest emitters of carbon. It is not the poor who have the biggest cars or the biggest holidays or the most aeroplane flights or the most energy inefficient usage.”
Under the scheme, all UK citizens from the Queen down would be allocated an identical annual carbon allowance, stored as points on an electronic card similar to Air Miles or supermarket loyalty cards.
Points would be deducted at point of sale for every purchase of non-renewable energy. People who did not use their full allocation, such as families who do not own a car, would be able to sell their surplus carbon points into a central bank.
High energy users could then buy them – motorists who had used their allocation would still be able to buy petrol, with the carbon points drawn from the bank and the cost added to their fuel bills. To reduce total UK emissions, the overall number of points would shrink each year.
Mr Miliband is keen to set up a pilot scheme to test the idea, and has asked officials from four government departments to report on how it could be done.
The move marks the first serious step towards state-enforced limits on the carbon use of individuals, which scientists say may be necessary in the fight against climate change.
It extends the principle of carbon trading – already in place between heavy polluters such as power companies and steelmakers – to consumers, with heavy carbon users forced to buy unused allowances from people with greener lifestyles.
“As a planet we are consuming three times the amount of resources that we have got,” the environment secretary told Channel 4 News. “If you think about us as individuals – we are emitting about four tonnes of carbon every year and that’s probably three times as much as we can afford; as a household on average 10 tonnes.”
The principle was included in the government’s review of energy policies, which said a new cross-departmental group “will examine what new policy options, such as tradable personal carbon allowances, could be deployed to stimulate local action”.
Mr Miliband will announce more details in a speech tonight to the Audit Commission.
Colin Challen, Labour chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on climate change, which has called for carbon rationing, said: “It will inevitably have to be introduced so that consumers, along with other sectors, take responsibility for what they do.”
But setting up a local pilot scheme could have problems – not least how to stop people driving elsewhere to fill up. Mr Challen said: “An island like the Isle of Wight would be an obvious place for a pilot scheme, though I’m not sure how happy they would be with that.”