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Personal Carbon Credits and Fairness Considerations

Not a day
seems to pass without some news on the possible catastrophic impacts of climate
change. International politics aims at establishing binding regulations for
greenhouse gas emissions – but quite rightly gets accused of only paying lip
service (though at least last weeks agreement of the G8
states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
might yield the right direction).
However, implementation of these emission cuts is up to the individual states –
but whichever step a government undertakes, there seems to turn up an interest
group that is heavily opposed. The UK’s proposed system of personal carbon
suffers exactly this fate.

In a report published this
Monday, the environmental audit committee urged the government to lead the way
in allocating individuals an allowance of marketable carbon credits. Under this
scheme, people would be given an annual carbon limit for fuel and energy uses.
This limit could be exceeded by buying credits from those who use less. Apart
form being accused as “costly,
bureaucratic, intrusive and unworkable”
, criticism was also raised as this personal
carbon credit scheme might be unfair – just as, for example, a taxation
approach to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would be unfair as well. Some
people might have good reason for using more fuel than others as they live in
the countryside, drive their old neighbour to the supermarket, etc.

It is for
sure that a personal carbon credit scheme cannot be made entirely fair. There
always will be people who pay more than they deserve – maybe because they care
for elderly relatives who live in a place only accessible by car, these
relatives have to be driven to the surgery form time to time, and so forth. But
we encounter such unfairness frequently in cases where the government aims at
realizing a certain behaviour among its citizens. Most prominently in regulations via taxes. There is a genuine
unfairness in a VAT that treats not only everyone equally – irregardless of her
needs or buying power- but also does not differentiate between basic needs and
luxury goods. Commonly, such unfairness is partially compensated for in a second
step. The commuting allowance provides a paradigm. Along those lines, one can
equally imagine compensating for the unfairness introduced by personal carbon
credits. It is hard to argue that with respect to fairness the personal carbon
credits differs form other governmental regulations of citizens’ behaviour.

completely different question concerns the effectiveness of the personal carbon
credit scheme. And whether carbon credits are a promising and sustainable way
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is highly questionable. Particularly as this
personal carbon credit schemes does not provide any incentives to improve the
thermal insulation in rented buildings or offices, for example. Direct
financial incentives, which may or may not be in the form of positive rather than
‘punishments’ as provided by the
suggested scheme, might be a more efficient – though not necessarily fairer approach to reducing greenhouse gases.
Fairness arguments are pivotal in all societal issues. However they should not
be used as knockout argument against policies in which major fairness concerns
could be implemented in a straightforward way in a second step. A consistent
application of the fairness argument concerning the first level only seriously
threatens any praxis of taxation.

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