UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Pandemic and digitalization set stage for revival of personal carbon allowances

17 August 2021

Personal carbon allowances (PCAs) could be revisited to achieve climate mitigate targets, according to new study.

Personal carbon allowances

UCL are part of a research study with researchers from Sweden, UK and Israel which state that the time may be right for many industrialized nations to resurrect an idea once thought to be unfeasible: personal carbon allowances (PCAs). The concept, they report, has stronger possibilities due to a worsening climate crisis, changes in personal behavior due to the COVID-19 crisis and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and ICT.

Led by KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the research team from University of Oxford, Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, and University College London (UCL), published design principles to ensure PCAs would benefit all nations in terms of economic growth, job creation, better education and protection of human rights, among other areas, in accordance with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Publishing in Nature Sustainability on the heels of the IPCC’s sobering recent report, the researchers found that changes in behavior due to the COVID-19 crisis, combined with increased digitalization and advancements in ICT and AI, offer many opportunities to reconsider an idea that had once been rejected as being “ahead of its time”, according to the UK government.

Current climate policy mostly address emissions targeting large-scale carbon emitters, such as power plants and industrial activities but the new research targets the gap between public policy and individual behavior.

Lead author Francesco Fuso Nerini, Associate Professor at KTH and director of the University’s Climate Action Centre said:

People are watching helplessly while wildfires, floods and the pandemic wreak havoc on society, yet they are not empowered to shift the course of events. Personal climate allowances would apply a market-based approach, providing personal incentives and options that link their actions with global carbon reduction goals.”

 Co-author Paul Ekins, Resources and Environment Policy Professor at UCL says PCAs provide individuals with clear framework for contributing effectively.

People are desperate to do something substantial in their personal lives to respond to the climate crisis, but too often they get trivial advice (such as pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher*) which they know are wholly inadequate to the scale of the problem. A personal carbon allowance system would tell them what they could do to make a real difference, in a context where they knew other people would also be making their contribution. Look no further for a radical, effective suggestion for how individuals can make their lifestyles more climate-friendly.”

PCAs could now be implemented with less difficulty, thanks to advances in ICT and AI after previously being assumed to be too costly and unworkable. However, researchers state that PCAs must be designed in a way that will not negatively impact poor and vulnerable populations and should consider how its components align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality, among others.

Among these benefits could be to help enable a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. PCAs would favor the adoption of low-carbon lifestyles, and thus benefit low-carbon infrastructure and innovation. This direction would open up room for new businesses and technologies to support decreasing personal emissions, Fuso Nerini says. For instance, new tech companies could capitalize on carbon credit trading between individuals, connecting those with more carbon allowances than they need with those in need of allowances.

In addition to Fuso Nerini, Ekins and Parag, Tina Fawcett, with the Environmental Change Institute, co-authored the study.


Photo credit

Mock up of a possible PCAs concept – and its connection with climate and sustainable development goals. Figure designed using resources from UNFCCC, the UN and pch.vector at Freepik.com