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Individual Carbon Allowances and Mobility: A Viable, Affordable and Sustainable Solution for a Decarbonized World?

An Interview with François Gemenne
Lead Author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ​and Senior Researcher at the University of Liège (Belgium)
Member of the Freedom of Mobility Forum Advisory Board

June 1, 2023

One of the potential solutions to decarbonization addressed during the Freedom of Mobility Forum’s inaugural debate in March 2023 was a system of individual carbon allowances for mobility and consumption. Such a system would consist of allocating a set carbon allowance to citizens which they could then use as a trading currency against their individual emissions.

During the debate, panelist Temilade Salami commented: “Any solution we are providing when it comes to decarbonization and emission quotas should take into account the needs and realities of different countries, different regions and different age ranges, because our needs and behavior patterns are very different.”

How would such a system work in practice? Is it a viable solution? This is what François Gemenne had to say.

Why do you think the concept of freedom of movement is essential to address the challenges of sustainable mobility in a decarbonized world?

The decarbonization of our transport systems, and more broadly of the production and consumption of goods and services, cannot be addressed without considering the freedom of movement of populations.

First, we must remember that birthplace is humanity’s first fundamental inequality, a fact that cannot be denied. However, the constraints linked to climate change will progressively increase this inequality and amplify its effects and consequences for hundreds of millions of people around the world. As such, there is a very important underlying issue of equity at the frontier between decarbonization and freedom of movement.

Secondly, Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, paragraph 2, clearly states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”(1) Even though we have a collective moral duty to respect this text, this fundamental right is very poorly applied around the world. This is even more important as complete freedom of movement remains, in my view, the best solution to meet the various challenges related to migration.

In this context, what do you think of “individual carbon allowances,” considered by some as a possible mechanism to address the climate challenges?

First, I think this is an idea that may resonate especially in western industrialized countries where citizens, unlike those in many other parts of the world, do not really have to fight for other fundamental rights anymore. Indeed, this idea of individual carbon allowances is still very European centric (even though it contradicts the vision of freedom, which is the foundation of our societies), and I hardly hear about it anywhere else in the world or in international negotiations. The concept is also poorly addressed in scientific publications. As it is not a true international concern, there is still relatively little research on this subject. It is important to keep a global vision of the world, in all its diversity, and to avoid too much “navel gazing” among Europeans.

Second, I reiterate my earlier point about the principle of equity. The main immediate consequence of introducing such quotas would, in my view, be to further increase inequalities. Indeed, even in the unlikely development of the necessary political consensus needed for implementation, one can legitimately assume that such individual emission allowances would be tradable. This would inevitably lead to transactions that give advantage to the richest carbon emitters (in addition to raising the question of real incentives to change behaviors, especially for the largest emitters.) This would be reminiscent of the bygone era of the trade in indulgences practiced by the Catholic Church. Also, even if individual carbon allowances were not tradable, this mechanism would quickly lead to the development of widespread fraud, similar to those already well known in the area of taxation (because, in the end, when we talk about quotas we are talking about money.)

image of francois gemenne image of francois gemenne

“The main immediate consequence of introducing such quotas would, in my view, be to further increase inequalities.”

François Gemenne

In terms of fairness for transport, we would also quickly come up against the problem of counting the number of miles traveled. It is obvious that a rich person living in the city center, who can afford not to own a vehicle (because he or she has a wide range of public transport options available and can afford to regularly use taxis or hire a car with driver) would have an advantage over individuals living in a suburban area, who still need to own a vehicle.

We should also be clear about the social consequences of an individual flight quota, as advocated by Jean-Marc Jancovici* for example. How would such a quota actually apply to families separated by distance, living between France and its overseas territories, for example? The consequences for application of the principle of territorial continuity between France and its overseas territories could be significant. Would it then be necessary to put an end to the many and heavily subsidized daily connections between Paris and Pointe-à-Pitre or Saint-Denis-de-La-Réunion? Of course, if France were to separate itself from its overseas territories, the carbon impact would be significant! But who would really be willing to consider such a measure? This is obviously only one example among many: how can we take everyone’s constraints into account? A certain level of travel is unavoidable.

* Jean-Marc Jancovici is a French engineering consultant, energy and climate expert, professor, conference speaker, writer, and independent columnist. He is co-founder and associate at the Carbone 4 consultancy firm, and the founding president of the think-tank The Shift Project.

Third, beyond the main principles, particularly in terms of equity, I believe that there is a real problem of effectiveness which needs to be highlighted. We have seen that authoritarian measures generally don’t work in the long term. The most promising measure to date in terms of large-scale decarbonization of the economy is probably the incentive-based Inflation Reduction Act,(2) introduced by U.S. President Joe Biden, intended to accelerate development of the green economy. So, my conviction is that we cannot really rely on mechanisms such as the introduction of individual carbon allowances to efficiently and sustainably address the issue of climate change. Once the political and societal enthusiasm for this type of measure has passed and all the problems and negative effects have become evident, there is a risk of a return to the former status quo, despite the significant personal efforts that citizens have, in the meantime, been asked to make and found difficult to accept.

For all these reasons, I am convinced that we will not reach a political consensus on the implementation of such a system of individual carbon allowances any time soon. The left-wing political parties will not accept it, probably for inequality reasons, and those on the right will not consider it either, mainly on the basis of individual freedoms. In simple terms, such a measure doesn’t seem viable because it is too authoritarian in both form and content.

The growth of air travel, which continues year after year, is not sustainable if the global civil aviation sector does not find the appropriate large-scale solutions to decarbonize itself. But coming back to freedom of movement: today, less than 20% of the world’s population has flown at least once in their lives. Here again, there is a real issue of equity with regards to “southern” countries, particularly in terms of access to the opportunities offered by air transport.

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So, what do you think are the best ways to address the urgency of decarbonization, if, as you believe, allowances are not a solution?

A carbon allowance mechanism would only allow us to solve part of the problem (i.e., individual emissions.) Better control of these individual emissions is, of course, a lever that should not be overlooked in the pursuit of decarbonization, especially as they are linked to collective emissions. But before penalizing citizens and reducing individual freedoms, I think there are other priority areas to be addressed, which are much less controversial and have greater potential for reducing emissions.

Let’s take a concrete example in the field of transport. Why are there still no high-speed railways on the East and West coasts of the United States? Between Boston and New York, or Washington. Or between San Francisco and San Diego?(3) Simply because the air routes in question are so well served that they account for a significant proportion of the profits made by the American companies involved and so these companies fight against any alternative on these routes. This situation is repeated elsewhere in the world, for example, in Australia between Melbourne and Sydney (with Canberra in between.)

Under these conditions it seems unacceptable, socially and ethically, to place the entire burden of climate action on the shoulders of citizens with a system of individual carbon allowances. It is the duty of governments and operators to optimize the services offered on all these major routes, which are currently being served in a manner beyond common sense given the climate emergency we are facing.

It is possible. Air France has replaced its air link between Brussels and the main airport in Paris with a rail connection, with no negative impact on the customer experience. At the Brussels station, an Air France counter allows customers to check in their luggage at the start of their journey, and to travel to Paris by train to catch their international flight. Why don’t airlines make this type of solution widespread? There will certainly be “losers” in the decarbonization of the economy. We must recognize and accept this, but several aspects of this necessary transformation can be carried out in a positive way.

Today, the transport offer is too segmented. We must encourage the emergence of large, truly multimodal companies and challenge the transport sector to align with the commitments made in the Paris Agreement.(4) While continuing, of course, the ongoing efforts to raise awareness and sensitize public opinion which are essential and have already brought results.

Another obvious example is the thermal renovation of housing and built-up areas. This is an area where we collectively have a lot to do before imposing carbon allowances on citizens. Let’s start by sorting out these projects and only then, if necessary, re-evaluate the possible need for carbon quotas to achieve the progress that is still necessary.

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“It seems unacceptable, socially and ethically, to place the entire burden of climate action on the shoulders of citizens with a system of individual carbon allowances.”

François Gemenne

What is your vision of the main priorities for decarbonization and freedom of movement in developing countries today?

The priority for developing countries is to decarbonize their energy mix. The situations on the ground are particularly complex and the efforts to be made are tremendous. Today, many governments in southern countries have come to believe that international injunctions to develop renewable energy are another tool to increase the power of northern countries.

I have just returned from Uganda, a country whose subsoil is home to oil resources equivalent to several times its Gross Domestic Product. I understand that international mobilization is continuing against the EACOP pipeline project,(5) but how can you reasonably object to the government of a country facing such socio-economic challenges, especially when it knows it is sitting on such a wealth of resources? What alternative can the northern countries offer Uganda? What are the trade-offs? Today, all we have to offer is our indignation. That will not be enough!

We could certainly imagine a revolutionary solar plan covering the entire territory but no country could carry out such a project on its own. It would necessarily require the creation of a large international coalition, as well as the involvement of investors willing to accept the risks of large-scale investment in Africa. Today, even though Africa is continuing to develop, investors remain cautious due to the continent’s geopolitical risks.

It is a fact. Either we can offer credible alternatives to fossil fuels on a large scale, or we will inevitably end up with decisions like the one taken by Ecuador in 2013.(6) Faced with the international community’s inability to come up with sufficient compensation, the Ecuadorian government abandoned its plan to make the Yasuni National Park (an extraordinary biodiversity reserve) a sanctuary and ban all oil exploitation.

What developing countries need most is massive infrastructure investment plans linked to decarbonization of the economy on the same scale as what President Biden has introduced in the U.S. As development of electric mobility clearly shows, we cannot think at the level of individual continents only. We need to find the right balance between resources, infrastructure, industrial capacity and usage at the global level, in a pragmatic way and accepting the coexistence of multiple complementary solutions.

This means looking beyond our borders.