How to be a carbon vigilante

Chris Adams writes on carbon trading schemes and buying one's way back into heaven.

Most of us are aware of carbon offsets now - to some they’re a godsend, to others they’re little more than a the 21st century equivalent to indulgences from the Catholic Church of the middle ages - if you had enough money, you could make up for your sins by giving money to the church, effectively buying your way back into heaven.

Less of us are aware of their big brothers, the industrial scale carbon trading schemes. Carbon trading schemes work by setting an absolute level of Carbon Dioxide that can be released in a time period, and issuing tradable permits to companies that allow them to legally emit green house gases. Companies that go over their legal limit must buy permits from cleaner companies to keep their plants running within the framework of the law. This creates an incentive for companies to invest in clean, low carbon technology, by putting a monetary value on carbon emissions - if you can sell your unneeded permits to the laggards in their field, then you’re basically being paid to clean up your act.

How much should carbon cost?

It’s an ingenious idea, but you really have to set the ceiling for emissions to be low enough for emitters to notice and feel some financial pressure, otherwise there’s just no real incentive for them to change. This is the main criticism levelled at the EU carbon trading scheme - the price of carbon permits at launch was just too low to make a difference, so it's largely been ignored. So what you do to fix this sorry state of affairs? You hack the price of carbon, that’s what.

Sandbag.org.uk is a site set that lets ordinary people gleefully distort the carbon markets by grouping together to buy up carbon trading permits, and then take them out of the trading scheme. This increases the scarcity of the remaining permits, and by extension makes them more valuable. When carbon trading permits are more valuable, investing in clean technology becomes more attractive than the increasingly expensive option doing nothing and of pumping out CO2 into the atmosphere.

Right now Sandbag.org are putting the price of taking a tonne of carbon emissions out of the system at around the £24 mark. With most powerplants allocated an allowance of between 500,000 and 2,500,000 tonnes a year, hoovering up permits like this isn’t a cheap process; in fact it’s almost ludicrously expensive to wipe out the emissions allowance for even a single power station.

The idea of using industry loopholes as levers to force companies to take action has a charming air of righteous anger about it, but for this to work, you really need mass participation to make a visible impact. If ever there was a site that’s crying out for a pledgebank pledge to kick off a funding drive, this would be it.

Anyone care to join me?

Getty Images,
Show Hide image

John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.