01/12/2014 11:51 GMT | Updated 31/01/2015 05:59 GMT

The Antidote to Climate Despair?

Climate policy is failing. Climate scientists know it, environmental activists know it, even politicians know it. There is a pervading sense of despair and resignation amongst those who are paying attention at all, as we continue towards the irreversible destabilisation of the familiar, benign climate in which civilisation developed.

But all hopelessness contains a spark of potential: if despair is perceiving an undesirable future as inevitable, then one glimpse of a realistic alternative can ignite a burning drive towards that possibility.

It was in this context that Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, hosted December 2013's Radical Emissions Reductions conference at the Royal Society in London. His rallying cry was that only radical options remain - fundamentally changing our planet's climate is about as radical as you get, yet avoiding that outcome may require previously unthinkable changes to our economic system. This conference was an invitation to openly discuss the radical ideas that are rapidly becoming our only sane options.

In this article Shaun Chamberlin, a colleague working with me on an Oxford University research project, explains one such option that emerged at that event, and how it can ignite that spark of hope.

Prof. Anderson opened the Radical Emissions Reduction conference with convincing evidence that even rapid growth in renewable energy supply simply cannot deliver the necessary rate of emissions reductions - the science is clear that energy consumption must also reduce.

TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) is a proposed policy to make this feasible that was much discussed there: one of those simple ideas that becomes more beautiful the more you think through the implications. It involves a country capping its economy's fuel and electricity consumption in line with the national carbon emissions targets, and then essentially rationing out the energy available under the cap, but with trading of the electronic ration units permitted. This tradability preserves what's good and popular about rationing - guaranteed minimum shares for all - while doing away with what is not - absolute limits to what people are allowed to consume and the unnecessary criminalisation of ordinary people who wish to trade. Since consumption must reduce, the alternative is our current system of 'rationing by price' (i.e. the richest get whatever is in short supply), with attendant inequity, suffering and resentment.

Under TEQs, everyone in the country would be guaranteed a free, equal entitlement to purchase their share of the available energy, regardless of their wealth. Those families who chose to be energy-thrifty could sell their surplus (at the prevailing national price) and those who wanted or needed more could buy it at that same price, with the process of buying and selling comparable with topping up a mobile phone or travel smart-card (e.g. London's Oyster card). Thus those who use more than their share would effectively pay those with low-carbon lifestyles for the privilege. This would leave everyone free to decide for themselves how they wish to live while defending the public against any need for carbon taxation and/or top-down regulation. Since poorer households use less energy/carbon on average than richer households, they would benefit financially from the introduction of TEQs (pronounced 'tex'). And since the purchase of lower-carbon energy would require fewer TEQs units, renewable energy supply would gain a powerful competitive advantage.

Most importantly, since the national price of TEQs units would be determined by the level of demand in the nation, the less energy the country as a whole uses the lower prices will be for everyone, creating a clear shared incentive across the economy for active, creative engagement with reducing our individual and collective dependence on fossil fuels.

A new academic paper on TEQs (which is currently passing through peer-review and of which I was lead author) emerged from the conference, but TEQs is not a new idea. It was developed in 1996, has been the subject of extensive international research, and has supporters in all the major UK political parties, as well as being Green Party policy. In 2008, a government feasibility study commissioned by David Miliband confirmed that there were no technical or technological obstacles to implementation, and that public acceptability was comparable with or slightly better than carbon taxes or international carbon trading, as TEQs were seen as fairer and more effective. However, it also argued that implementing a firm cap on emissions posed unacceptable political risks due to possible market effects, and so the scheme was dropped. Numerous influential research institutions including the government's own Environmental Audit Committee lambasted the decision, but the die was cast.

Yet, six years on, the market-based frameworks that the world has placed its faith in have failed us. We need to replace them with a framework within which the market is constrained. TEQs provides that radical framework, utilising markets for what markets do well - determining a value for a scarce resource - but not allowing or expecting them to regulate their own appetites. The heart of TEQs is a non-negotiable respect for the limits set by physical reality, alongside a framework to harness the collective genius of the populace in thriving within those limits.

In the UK we have the Climate Change Act, committing us to 50% carbon reductions by 2025, and a Climate Change Committee tasked with ensuring this budget is revised in light of the latest science. Hopefully the UN meeting in Paris next year will establish budgets for the rest of the world. And then eyes will turn to searching for carefully researched, well-established frameworks for allowing societies to thrive while guaranteeing that national emissions budgets are actually respected. That is what TEQs provides.

Without such a radical change of policy direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.

Find out more:

For Frequently Asked Questions on TEQs, see: