Could Personal ‘Carbon Accounts’ Decelerate Climate Change?

By Martin Burgess, Aberystwyth University | January 24, 2018 10:46 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

A recent call from British Member’s of Parlaiment to put a 25 pence levy on disposable coffee cups, and bans on plastic products cropping up across the country, show that the UK is getting serious about tackling collective individual behavior which threatens the environment.

Large-scale programs aimed at changing people’s behavior are rare – but they do happen. Take Britain’s various carrier bag charges, for example, which led to plastic bag use in England falling by 80 percent in just one year. But while these initiatives are definitely needed, we need to look at other, broader, solutions too. That’s why, in October 2017, the Welsh Assembly supported a feasibility study to look at piloting an environmental behavioral policy across Wales: personal carbon accounts.

Personal carbon accounts are a very simple idea: each month the government adds free carbon points to each person’s carbon account. The number you get is typically calculated using factors such as car usage and the type of house you live in. Every time petrol, diesel, electricity, gas or heating oil is purchased, a carbon debit card is used and the account balance reduced.

There is no limit to the amount of fuel a person can buy, but if the points run out, the price of the fuel would be increased according to the price of extra points. So if you start with 100 points and use them all up, you would automatically buy say, five extra points, when filling up the car to use on that purchase. On the other hand, if you only used 85 of your 100 points, the extra 15 points could be sold on to other account holders.

It seems like an easy-to-use initiative that could yield results. Yet in 2008 a previous government idea to use carbon allowances was dropped – so what is to say it will work 10 years on? To explain the logic behind the account, we need to look at the very nature of human behavior and why initiatives such as the carrier bag charge worked so well to change our minds.

Keeping in Credit

Broadly speaking there are three types of social conforming behaviors (“norms”), which when aligned and triggered can change behaviors permanently. The first is descriptive norms: we do things because others do them. Closely linked to these are injunctive norms. These are actions taken because we believe they are publicly approved as “the right thing to do”. And finally there are personal norms – what we believe in as a result of our upbringing, education or experiences. If policymakers can align these three norms and find a trigger, then people’s habits can be overridden and real changes made.

Looking at the plastic bag charge, research shows that most people’s personal norms consider waste to be bad. So they will save bags if the two public approval norms can be stimulated. The publicity campaign introducing the charge stressed the harm that plastic bags can do to animals as well as the visual impact of litter. This primed people to appreciate that avoiding plastic bag use was the “right thing to do” as well as being publicly approved.

There only remained one aspect to establish: subtly persuading individuals that most people bring their own bags to stores. Making this standard practice socially reinforces individual actions, becomes habit-forming and is likely to be sustained. The introduction of the 5p charge and the awkward conversation with the shop assistant about paying for bags triggers a loss-aversion process, which subliminally reinforces that buying plastic bags is neither normal nor “the right thing to do”. The pieces of the puzzle were assembled and the result has been terrific.

Making it Work

So how can we use the success of this one initiative to drive a new carbon scheme? Two main types of emissions-reducing carbon pricing schemes have been proposed internationally: carbon taxes and personal carbon accounts. Carbon taxes raise fuel prices to depress consumption and are straightforward. However research shows that people soon forget the reasoning behind higher fuel prices and the tax is mentally absorbed in the price of the fuel – making behavior changes highly unlikely.

Personal carbon accounts, on the other hand, employ personal norms (we inherently dislike waste), as well as injunctive norms – we know that saving energy reduces pollution as well as being the “right thing to do”. And it involves everyone. Others are perceived to be managing their energy consumption, increasing the likelihood we will too.

The trigger is to avoid paying for more points. As with plastic bags, the intention is not to penalize households severely for excess consumption, but to use the growing understanding of behavioral patterns to change individual habits for the benefit of us all.

Users will mentally separate fuel from other spending and consume the monthly “free” points – which reduce over time – more carefully. It will bring carbon pollution to the forefront of people’s minds, and the framework makes it likely that the population will demand steady changes to regulations to aid them staying within the points allowance, facilitating greater energy saving.

The ConversationIt’s simple and can be effective, besides being another initiative that Wales can prove works for Britain. It was the first nation to introduce a carrier bag charge – and has statutory targets that have made it the second-best household recycler in the world behind Germany. If a pilot scheme proves that personal carbon accounts can be as effective as they should be, it could be only a matter of time before they are rolled out across the country.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    The AlGore-ithm is Pascal’s Wager: The Carbon Tax on Everything is $multi-trillion/year ever-incremental planetary criminality.


    Wales,” 3.1 million people,$(US)27,652 GDP per capita.
    … $85.7 billion
    Los Angeles, 13 million people $(US)66,477 GDP per capita.
    … $864 billion
    Niger, 20.7 million people $(US)363 GDP per capita
    … $7.5 billion;

    I repudiate Marxist aristocracy of donated equality of life for others that is torn from my wallet. The money I make belongs to me and my family, not to a government stooge who takes a fat cut and dumps the rest on Dreamers.

    • OWilson

      Good goverments don’t need taxes the country was built before they put on the “Temporary War Tax”.

      Matter of fact the country was built on fighting taxation.

      Now we have what your brave forebears fought against, “Taxation Without Representation”

      Namely, spending borrowed money you don’t have and kicking it down the road to be paid by generations yet unborn, long after you got yours, and are long dead!

      Immoral. obscene and selfish, but we have liberals now who don’t believe in right or wrong, just whatever they can get, while they can get it!

      • Uncle Al

        And historic! America stomped England over a penny tax. Thereafter, farmers who distilled spirits and evaded taxation were were stomped by George Washington in the Whiskey Rebellion.

        Pay minimum 10% off the top, or even 20% if you are rolling in dough. Sparse operating government is a good thing. End all central socialism charity. Gainful work, beg voluntary charity, or starve. You don’t get to reproduce on my nickel.

        What of gainful “charities” like the National Science Foundation? Fund it by disassembling the National institutes of Health, a mumble factory riding a golden palanquin. Make the world work by coupling cost and price.

        • OWilson


          You just described my DR!

          • CB

            “The goal of socialism and communism is to stomp out any alternative political philosophy”

            If you’ve proved the entire scientific community wrong, they won’t care about whatever “ism” you subscribe to.

            They’ll give you a Nobel prize regardless.

            Do you have one?

            “The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century”

            (NASA, “Climate change: How do we know?”)

          • Uncle Al

            Beer’s Law craps out around A-1.5, about 50 meters of vertical atmosphere for CO2. Climatology is fundamentally wrong to its own poxy advantage.

          • CB

            “Beer’s Law craps out around A-1.5…”

            Uh huh… How about you?

            Do you have a Nobel prize?

            “Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps infrared radiation beneath Venus’s thick cloud cover. A runaway greenhouse effect is what makes Venus even hotter than Mercury!”

            (NASA Science, “Blazing Venus”)

          • Uncle Al

            Solar constants,

            2636 W/m², Venus
            1367 W/m², Earth

            That is why Venus is a furnace and Earth can be a ship of fools. CO2 critical temp is 31.05 °C, critical pressure is 72.86 atm. Venus’ surface is 462 °C and 90 atm. Venus is a Hell broth of supercritical CO2 that will penetrate any crevice.

          • CB

            “Solar constants”

            I’ll take that as a no.

            No, you do not have a Nobel prize.

            If you’ve overthrown centuries of undefeated scientific understanding, shouldn’t you?

            “Overlooked by modern researchers is the work of Eunice Foote, who, three years prior to the start of Tyndall’s laboratory research, conducted similar experiments on absorption of radiant energy by atmospheric gases, such as CO₂ and water vapor. The presentation of her report at a major scientific convention in 1856 was accompanied by speculation that even modest increases in the concentration of CO₂ could result in significant atmospheric warming.”

            (Raymond P. Sorenson, “Eunice Foote’s Pioneering Research On CO2 And Climate Warming”, Search and Discovery Article #70092, 2011)

          • OWilson

            Nobel? Me?

            Thanks for asking, but I wouldn’t want any cheap awards that would put me in the same partisan political club as Obama, Al Gore, the U.N. and failed ecomonist Paul Krugman, or the one they were polishing up for Hillary! :)

            Nor a Harvey Weinstein Oscar.

            Nor a Matt Laur, Walter Durante, Woodward and Bernstein Pulitzer.

            Nor a Participation Award at Kindergarten.

            Thank all the same! :)

  • OWilson

    I don’t think that the use of plastic bags by Al Gore, the estates of Heinz-Kerry, Kennedys, the Hollywood crowd, the Celeb crowd, Leo Caprio, Madonna, Lady Ga Ga, Richard Branson, Spielberg, Indiana Jones and the rest are really a problem.

    Anybody look at their private planes, private airfields, multiple mansions all over the world, obscenely large yachts as big as a small city with a population of servants to match, not to mention “El Papa of the Poor”, who lives like no Emporer ever did, with his own palace, his own country, his own servants, and even his own country.

    No, let’s just figure out a way to carry your meagre groceries home and maybe put a brick in YOUR toilet.

    Maybe that will keep you busy enough not to start thinking you are being scammed, Big Time!

    • Uncle Al

      Klima-schutzstaffel! “Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen! Al Gore marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt…”

      Further the daily struggle! Hasten to join shock brigades of exemplary labor to end Klimate Kaos!

  • John C

    I have to feel guilty about using a plastic grocery bag but Oprah feels entitled to live in a 23,000 square foot house. Lead by example Greenies, you’ll have a lot more credibility.

    • Uncle Al

      Bill Gates selflessly inundates the Third World with your money, and all he got was this lousy shack,


    • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

      Oprah’s sleeping arrangements never cross my mind when i leave Walmart with a bag of stale produce.

  • CB

    If the comments are any indication, no…

    People are far too stupid to bother with keeping track of stuff like how much carbon is in their purchases.

    The damage caused by the products they buy must simply be built into the cost they pay.

    “A carbon tax is a fee for making users of fossil fuels pay for climate damage their fuel use imposes by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and for motivating switches to clean energy.”

    (Carbon Tax Center, “What’s a carbon tax?”)

    • John C

      My first concern is that the carbon tax is being pushed by the same people who fixed health care 7 years ago.

      • CB

        “My first concern would be that the carbon tax is being pushed by the same people who fixed health care 7 years ago.”

        Whereas, if you had any sense of self-preservation, your first concern should be what is true…

        “unmitigated warming is expected to reshape the global economy by reducing average global incomes roughly 23% by 2100”

        (Nature, “Global non-linear effect of temperature on economic production”, Marshall Burke, et al, 12 November 2015)

        • Mike Richardson

          This is where it’s perplexing to watch so-called conservatives railing against conservation. It’s actually good for the economy to mitigate the expensive damage resulting from extreme weather events driven by climate change. Not only that, but supporting new, clean technologies spurs economic growth. That’s why it’s pretty clear they let ideology trump logic every time. Just look at all the political tangents they go off on here, while ironically accuse others of going “off topic” or “trolling” for pointing out that they’ve gone off the rails.

          • John C

            I am “railing” against self styled central planning geniuses who wind up causing twice the damage after they “fix” something with their grandiose plans.

            I had a great Blue Cross personal insurance plan before Obamacare. It was cancelled by the company because of Obamacare, as they explained in a letter to me. An equivalent plan now costs twice as much, I have a high deductible which I didn’t have before and overall worse coverage, plus a lot of coverage I will never use but is mandated by law.

            So, yeah, call me skeptical that based on personal experience visionary liberals will make my life better.

          • Mike Richardson

            Perhaps you should have saved some of that outrage for the insurance companies all too eager to sign up everyone they could with the individual mandate, but then balked at the idea of including those with pre-existing conditions, and used that as an excuse to gouge you while blaming the ACA. It did however, extend coverage to millions who didn’t have insurance before. But based on your avatars, I really wouldn’t expect an objective analysis of ACA, climate change, or anything you consider to be influenced by liberals.

  • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

    I like use taxes and deposits. Didn’t we once call them excise taxes?

    • CB

      “Didn’t we once call them excise taxes?”

      Branding is certainly important, but only tiny minds are fooled into thinking something’s different when you change the name…

      My concern is that the users of fossil fuels are made to pay for the damage it does.

      I don’t care so much how it happens, or what you call it.

      “The cumulative ‘lost’ GDP from the impacts of climate change could be significant, with a central case of 0.7% -2.5% of GDP to 2060, equating to $44 trillion on an undiscounted basis.”

      (Citigroup – Citi GPS, “ENERGY DARWINISM II: Why a Low Carbon Future Doesn’t Have to Cost the Earth”, August 2015)

      • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

        But there are so many of us with tiny minds. Yu must allow us … nm …

        • CB

          “there are so many of us with tiny minds.”

          lol! Okay, point taken.

          I think there are multiple different aspects to the problem, though.

          Perhaps some people don’t understand the science! …but most people understand that scientists should be trusted to come up with the correct answer.

          People who ignore the findings of scientists when their lives are at stake suffer from something slightly worse than having a tiny mind… I would say it’s something closer to suicidal insanity…

          “When Floridians narrowly voted for Donald Trump on Nov. 8, they might as well have elected to drown themselves.”

          (Los Angeles Times, “Is Florida’s climate change model — denial at the Capitol, frantic action at the beach — in store for the U.S. under Trump?”, David Helvarg, December 2, 2016)

  • Mike Richardson

    Leave it to the U.K. to try something like this before the U.S. Maybe in a few years we’ll see my country take more of a leadership position on addressing climate change, but for now we’re doing good to just be spectators, if not opponents, to the progress of others. I don’t think anyone sensible thinks wasting plastic garbage bags is good for the planet. If we can just get that same kind of attitude to gain wider acceptance with regards to carbon pollution, we’ll make much more progress in avoiding the worst outcomes from accelerating climate change.


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