Personal Carbon Allowances: Who Determines ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Consumption, and Who Regulates the Regulators?

The Defender | 20 Oct 2021

The desire to preserve the environment and protect future generations is largely universal, but are Personal Carbon Allowances and a system of surveillance capitalism, with tremendous controls over human behavior, the way to accomplish this objective?

It’s lunchtime and you’re hungry. You step into a local restaurant to grab a hamburger. As you are about to complete the transaction — via credit card as society has abolished cash — you are informed you have exceeded your carbon credit for the month.

Your purchase is declined. No hamburger for you.

If this seems far-fetched, just consider that less than two years ago, lockdowns, universal mask-wearing and so-called “health passports” also would have appeared, to most, to be the subject of a dystopian science-fiction thriller.

The impetus for the “no hamburger for you” scenario stems from proposals, increasingly popular in scientific and policymaking circles, for the implementation of “personal carbon allowances” (PCAs).

The PCA concept itself is not new. In 2008, for example, the UK government examined a proposal for PCAs as a means of reducing emissions.

However, the COVID pandemic, and the extraordinary measures implemented in response to it, may have helped lay the groundwork for public acceptance of the PCA scheme.

An August 2021 article in Nature, “Personal Carbon Allowances Revisited,” made precisely this point. The article directly connected the measures imposed during the pandemic with the argument in favor of PCAs.

The authors emphasized the “need for a low-carbon recovery from the COVID-19 crisis” via the use of PCAs, noting that during the pandemic, “restrictions on individuals for the sake of public health, and forms of individual accountability and responsibility that were unthinkable only one year before, have been adopted by millions of people.”

According to the article, “people may be more prepared to accept the tracking and limitations related to PCAs to achieve a safer climate and the many other benefits … associated with addressing the climate crisis.”

The authors also argued that “other lessons that could be drawn [from the pandemic] relate to the public acceptance in some countries of additional surveillance and control in exchange for greater safety.”

This latter quote may bring to mind the famous words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Two weeks after the article ran in Nature, Popular Science ran a this article — “How Personal Carbon Allowances Can Help Normal People Fight Climate Change.”

Subtitled “The timing might finally be right for this carbon-reduction strategy,” the article drew an analogy between PCAs and the types of allowances children receive from their parents.

What, exactly, is a PCA? The Nature article described it this way:

“A PCA scheme would entail all adults receiving an equal, tradable carbon allowance that reduces over time in line with national targets … encompassing individuals’ carbon emissions relating to travel, space heating, water heating and electricity.”

In other words, each individual would receive an equal allocation of carbon that they would be “entitled” to, and the consumption of which would be tracked.

In practice, this system would work like this, according to the Nature article:

“Allowances were envisioned to be deducted from the personal budget with every payment for transport fuel, home-heating fuels and electricity bills. People in shortage would be able to purchase additional units in the personal carbon market from those with excess to sell.”

This system can be compared to the pandemic-related measures imposed over the past 18-plus months, including the recent advent of digital “COVID passports,” where the unvaccinated are effectively barred from participation in numerous social activities, ranging from shopping to dining out.

In Lithuania, entry to supermarkets is prohibited for those who don’t have a digital “COVID pass.” Some Nigerian states have barred unvaccinated citizens from access to banks.

And in Pakistan, the mobile phone SIM cards of many unvaccinated individuals have been blocked.

 ‘great reset’ in how we live our day-to-day lives?

Over the past year-and-a-half, several new and closely related words and phrases have crept into our daily vernacular. These include “Build Back Better,” the “new normal,” the “carbon credit economy,” the “fourth industrial revolution,” “transhumanism” and the “Great Reset” — the latter of which is warmly promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and by several hundred multinational corporations, ranging from MasterCard to Moderna, that are listed as Great Reset “partners.”

What these terms all reflect is a new, digitally based economy and society where one’s movements, transactions, interactions and behaviors are all monitored, and are connected to “targets” which in turn are closely tied to purportedly “green” policies and benchmarks, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The intentions of such a carbon credit-based economy, or “green” society, were long the talk of “conspiracy theorists” even prior to the pandemic.

However, many such objectives are now being openly proposed by influential organizations.

A 2019 video by the WEF, for instance — “A feast for the future” — suggested that in the not-too-distant future, humans could have the privilege of enjoying “one beef burger, two portions of fish and one or two eggs per week” in order to “save the planet.”

WEF limit protein foods

It is clear that enforcement of such consumption caps can be implemented by way of PCAs. But how would PCAs actually be able to keep track of each individual’s consumption, in real-time?

Enter Big (financial) Tech — or “fintech” as it’s now known.

In 2019, Doconomy, a Swedish fintech company, introduced a credit card known as the DO Card. Backed by MasterCard, it tracks the carbon dioxide emissions of goods that are purchased, and sets a “climate impact cap” for each individual user of the card.

This year, Doconomy teamed up with another Swedish fintech firm, Klarna, to provide 90 million consumers with “carbon footprint insights” by calculating the “climate impact” of each transaction completed through the Doconomy service.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the WEF has praised such initiatives, writing in 2019:

“While many of us are aware that we need to reduce our carbon footprint, advice on doing so can seem nebulous and keeping a tab is difficult. DO monitors and cuts off spending, when we hit our carbon max.”

The financial markets have jumped into the act as well: the SCR500 Top SDG Equity is an investment portfolio comprised of publicly traded corporations that “have been shown to be the most committed to the SDGs.”

If implementation of such an all-encompassing and uniform system of monitoring not just transactions, but individual behavior, seems far-fetched, consider China’s social credit system, which goes several steps beyond traditional credit scores to compile data about a user’s behavior.

Violations ranging from jaywalking to playing music too loudly in a public space, to any number of crimes, could result in a lower “social credit” score. The lower the score, the more privileges one loses, such as the ability to book a plane or train ticket, or to receive a bank loan.

Indeed, contact with individuals with low social credit scores may, in turn, adversely impact your own score as well.

Other, similar proposals have made their way to the desks of governments around the world. For example, a report released earlier this year by Oxford University and Imperial College calls for all but three UK airports to close, the construction of new buildings to cease, and beef and lamb consumption to be abolished by 2050.

Moreover, it is easy to imagine how pervasive 5G and 6G networks, and the Internet of Things (IoT), where everything from “smart” electric meters to “smart watches” to home appliances such as refrigerators, will usher in an all-encompassing grid that would be tied to individual consumption.

A “cashless society,” whereby all transactions are conducted with credit/debit cards or other digital means, would therefore appear to be an integral piece of this puzzle, via the elimination of anonymous cash transactions.

A broad range of concerns

Initiatives to protect the environment and to reduce emissions and pollution may be noble and well-intentioned at face value. However, a broad range of scholars and commentators expressed reservations with the potential implications of PCAs and carbon-based spending caps on privacy and personal liberty.

Vasilis Vasilopoulos, data protection officer with Greek public broadcaster ERT and a Ph.D. candidate in journalism and mass media studies at Greece’s Aristotle University, told The Defender he’s concerned about the “individualization of responsibilities in relation to climate change and the climate crisis.”

Vasilopoulos warned that “such systems quickly lead to discrimination:

“I’m very apprehensive about such initiatives. They may begin with the best of intentions, but they always end up becoming the impetus … for centralization and a ‘social scoring’ system, which I reject.”

For Matthew Spitzer, professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, proposals for PCAs bear a resemblance to carbon taxes and to “cap-and-trade” schemes where carbon “credits” are traded between countries and firms that are below their allotted limit, and those who are in danger of exceeding their own cap.

Spitzer told The Defender:

“The whole issue of carbon/pollution has been confronted in two different ways. First, in some circumstances, we use ‘cap-and-trade’ systems. These are market-mimicking property rights systems that have been used extremely usefully in Southern California and other polluted areas, particularly for SO2 and NO2. Second, there are taxes. Thus, we can tax gasoline, or plastics, or concrete, or plane flights, or any other activity or item that generates a lot of pollution. The idea is that the tax represents the extent of pollution that the activity or item represents; and forces a consuming individual to confront the negative aspects and modify their behavior.”

For Spitzer, personal carbon caps bear a resemblance to both of the above systems, alongside certain key differences:

“The move to fintech/credit cards as a way to approach the problem has elements of both. The worst approach would be to just give everyone a carbon allowance and fail to allow secondary markets (cap-and-trade). If you allow trading, you still have to figure out what the total should be. And you will need to set up some very large markets. I am not sure who sets up these markets. But, at least in theory, this could work.”

In addition to questions over how such a system would be administered, and by whom, Spitzer also addressed privacy-related concerns:

“I suspect that it will get pushback on a privacy dimension. The government will be given a great deal of data about what you do. Hackers will also end up with this data. I suspect that the tax approach is more straightforward and easier to administer.”

Miquel Puertas, a lecturer in business economics at the Institut Obert de Catalunya in Barcelona, proffered even sharper criticism. He described “the green agenda” and current measures implemented in the name of public health as the epitome of “a huge systemic crisis of accumulation.”

In explaining why large firms such as MasterCard would buy into an initiative that essentially limits consumption, Puertas told The Defender that “highly financialized capitalism” is facing a significant crisis, and “is looking desperately for an exit that allows it to save the casino, even in exchange for sacrificing the productive apparatus and the real economy.”

What are the implications of this new economic paradigm that is being promoted?

Puertas argued:

“The worldview promoted by the green agenda, the health dictatorship, and the globalist oligarchy is devoted to dismantle the remnants of state sovereignty, and the subjugation and colonization of the last strongholds of human identity: the body (now transformed into another commodity) and the family. [It] allows large corporations to penetrate even the most intimate aspects of the human being: sexuality, family and the very body of each individual who will not have the right to exist outside the rules and controls imposed by the dystopian regime born of the Green Agenda and the New Normal.”

Joseph Gonzalez, who blogs under the name of “Bantam Joe” and frequently addresses topics related to the “Great Reset” and the “green economy,” raised similar concerns. In a recent post.

Gonzalez wrote:

“The ‘Great Reset’ is actually the rollout of a carbon credit economy, repackaged as ‘Build Back Better.’ We are talking about global rationing based on your carbon footprint! Forever!”

Carbon allowance flow chart

Ultimately, many questions are raised about the future implementation and potential implications of this technology.

For instance, to what extent are PCAs and related initiatives truly a means of protecting the environment, instead of a means for further consolidating control over wide swaths of human activity? Is this what the “Great Reset” is really about?

Why are major corporations seemingly so willing to suddenly eschew profits and consumption? What do they expect to gain? Why not go after the world’s major polluters, such as the U.S. military? Is “cap-and-trade” really a good model to emulate?

From a privacy and regulatory perspective, where would the data collected by PCAs go? How will it be used and how will it be protected? How will consumption “caps” be determined, by whom, and on which basis?

Similarly, how will “good” or “bad” consumption be determined, and by whom? Who would regulate such a widespread system of monitoring all economic transactions and human behavior — and who will regulate the regulator?

From a social justice perspective, will economic and social inequality be exacerbated by a society of “haves and have nots,” and by a system where poorer people might feel obliged to sell excess carbon credits, thereby maintaining a reduced level of sustenance?

Finally, in an era where we are told to “trust the science,” why isn’t scientific innovation being given a chance to provide better, less draconian solutions that won’t involve rationing and significant curbs on human behavior?

The desire to preserve the environment and to protect future generations is largely universal.

It is, however, questionable whether PCAs and a system of surveillance capitalism, with tremendous controls over human behavior, is the way to accomplish this objective.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Children’s Health Defense.

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