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Rationing could be an effective way to fight climate change

According to a recent study led by the University of Leeds, World War II-style rationing could be an effective way of reducing carbon emissions rapidly and fairly and thus of mitigating climate change.

The experts argue that, although policymakers have taken into consideration other schemes to reduce emissions – such as carbon taxes or personal carbon trading schemes – these tend to favor the wealthy, who would be capable of buying their right to pollute if trading were allowed. By contrast, carbon rationing would allow individuals to receive an equitable portion of resources based on their needs and thus share out their effort to protect our planet.

“The concept of rationing could help, not only in the mitigation of climate change, but also in reference to a variety of other social and political issues – such as the current energy crisis,” said study co-lead author Nathan Wood, a postdoctoral fellow in Fair Energy Transition at Utrecht University.

During World War II, compulsory food rationing was more acceptable to the UK population than voluntary changes to diet when resources became scarce. Such policies aimed to share goods and burdens in a more equitable manner, regardless of wealth. Moreover, historic rationing policies also introduced price controls on goods to keep essential resources affordable for most people.

Yet, according to the researchers, a major difference between World War II rationing and the current climate crisis regards public perception. The apparent availability of a wide variety of goods is now giving the illusion that resources are available in abundance, although the reality is highly different.

“There is a limit to how much we can emit if we are to reduce the catastrophic impacts of climate change. In this sense, the scarcity is very real,” explained study co-lead author Rob Lawler, an expert in Applied Ethics at Leeds.

“The cost of living crisis has shown what happens when scarcity drives up prices, with energy prices rising steeply and leaving vulnerable groups unable to pay their bills. Currently, those living in energy poverty cannot use anywhere near their fair share of energy supply, whereas the richest in society are free to use as much energy as they can afford,” added Wood. 

The scientists argued that policy changes should start with stricter regulations and information campaigns to inform the public about the benefits of rationing. Governments should first regulate the largest polluters (oil, gas, and petrol companies, intensive farming, long-haul flights) and then gradually such regulations to the larger population.

According to the researchers, two options for rationing policy could possibly be efficient. Policymakers could either introduce an all-encompassing carbon allowance, offering “carbon cards” to track and limit usage, or they could ration specifically selected goods, such as flights, petrol, household energy, or even clothing or food.

“Many have proposed carbon allowances and carbon cards before. What is new (or old, taking inspiration from World War II) is the idea that the allowances should not be tradable. Another feature of World War II-style rationing is that price controls on rationed goods would prevent prices from rising with increased demand, benefitting those with the least money,” Lawlor explained.

Such types of rationing would accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and more sustainable lifestyles. “For example, rationing petrol could encourage greater use of, and investment in, low carbon public transport, such as railways and local trams,” Wood concluded.

The study is published in the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment.    


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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