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Study: Personal point system for individuals may help nations reach carbon goals

Multinational group of researchers, including one Israeli, suggests time is ripe to enlist households — responsible for 40% of carbon emissions — in climate crisis fight

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Illustrative: An Austrian Airlines flight attendant directing a passenger to his seat. (Austrian Airlines, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative: An Austrian Airlines flight attendant directing a passenger to his seat. (Austrian Airlines, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Tradeable personal carbon allowances could significantly cut global warming gas emissions and help nations to reach their zero carbon goals, according to research published Monday in Nature Sustainability.

Each adult citizen in a country would receive a standard carbon emissions “budget,” which would reduce over time in line with national targets.

Under one possible model, credits would be deducted for journeys in private cars and by plane, home and water heating and electricity use.

The individual’s use would be registered every time a car was filled with gas or a bill was paid to a utility.

Tools to help householders monitor their carbon emissions could include online applications, LED displays on electrical appliances showing how many units of carbon are being emitted, and tracking of behavioral choices combined with anti-carbon waste recommendations gathered via artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Just as companies already trade carbon emissions credits — today, policymakers focus on carbon producers rather than end-users — individuals who have used up their points would be able to buy more from people who have points to spare.

Filling the car. (Koonsiri Boonnak, iStock at Getty Images)

A more ambitious model would incorporate carbon costs embedded in the production and transport of goods bought for the home, although the researchers believe that society is not yet ready for this.

In rich, developed countries, around 40% of a country’s carbon emissions are caused by households, the international group of researchers wrote, using calculations made years ago in the UK.

Others have reached different estimates. Two years ago, for example, another group of researchers, writing in Energy Research & Social Science, postulated that households are responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“It depends what you include,” Prof. Yael Parag, vice dean of the School of Sustainability at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center and a co-writer of Monday’s paper, told The Times of Israel.

She emphasized that there is no “typical” household carbon emissions bill as it depends on many factors — for example, the mix of fuels used to generate electricity.

Last month, Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History opened a new exhibition on climate change, featuring a specially designed calculator for assessing one’s carbon footprint.

Part of a new exhibition on climate change at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Natural History Museum. (Dor Kedmi)

“The development of a just and equitable transition to a net-zero society is vital to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change,” according to Monday’s paper.

“However, by May 2021, Climate Action Tracker estimated that climate policies implemented across the world at present, including the effect of the pandemic, will lead to a temperature rise of 2.9 °C (5.22 °F) by the end of the century.

“Thus, although many countries have made pledges of net-zero emissions by 2050, implemented policies and pledges are insufficient to deliver the Paris Agreement ambition of limiting global warming to well below 2 °C.”

According to the researchers, a direct incentive like a personal carbon allowance (PCA) can influence individual behavior by increasing carbon visibility, making people more aware of the carbon they use in their daily lives and encouraging them to budget what they use.

PCAs were first proposed as a climate tool in the 1990s and were discussed by policymakers in England between 2008 and 2010. After a preparatory study, though, the idea was rejected on the grounds that society was not yet ready for it, and that it was too costly and technologically complex to implement.

Prof Yael Parag, Vice Dean of the School of Sustainability at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center. (Eldad Refaeli)

But according to Parag, recent technological advances in areas such as digitization, smart homes and artificial intelligence have made it easier to track carbon emissions more accurately. The combination of this with higher public awareness about climate change and the need for a low-carbon recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, opens a window for considering PCAs again.

The scientists emphasized that PCAs are in no way aimed at transferring responsibility for emissions cuts from government and energy producers to households, but about “adding households to the national effort.”

They proposed running pilot projects in technologically advanced countries that would examine such aspects as information privacy and socioeconomic fairness.

The other writers of the study were Prof. Francesco Poso Narini, director of the Center for Climate Research at the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology KTH and a member of the European Institute of Economics and Environment in Italy, Prof. Tina Post of the Institute for Environmental Change Research at Oxford University, and Prof. Paul Akins of the Institute for Sustainability Resources at University College London (UCL).

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