The “R” Word: Should Labour Embrace Carbon Rationing?

By Ewan Cameron

Man made climate change is not a case of “if” anymore, it’s when and If we are to slow down climate change and perhaps prevent the worst possible scenario, then we need to start rationing our fossil fuel energy use. I know that that word, rationing, will make some people recoil in horror. To them rationing is a historical moment rather than a policy choice, it is something we eliminated in the 20th century, like black and white TVs and smallpox. Rationing, which posits a personal limit to consumption, goes against the neoliberal zeitgeist, that to consume is to be. The recoilers and the naysayers will scoff, and will of course assert that it is their right, dammit, to shop, to buy, to consume. And to pollute. They will pay lip service to the idea that “we need to do something about the climate”, but as always it will be little more than more hot air.

Many on the left too, will handwring about the prospect of sanctions, perhaps fearing that government imposed restrictions on individuals will confirm all those rightwing stereotypes about the left being authoritarian. But if authoritarianism is about a minority of the privileged imposing its will on the majority, then carbon rationing would be the opposite of this. Take a step back from the usual framing of this issue and we can see that in a free market scenario, it is the wealthy minority imposing their will on the people, polluting the planet and making everyone else suffer the consequences.

Even the supposed compromise, of raising taxes on energy use, would only further entrench class division, essentially creating a upper class of people who could pay to pollute. Then there are the techno-optimists, who envision that renewable energy will solve all our problems. But so far, governments have been slow to adopt these new energies. Fossil fuel rationing would actually help increase adoption of renewable energy and fast forward the transition and technology innovation.

There have been positive signals from the Labour party on the environment, from John McDonnell staunch opposition to fracking, and Rebecca Long Bailey’s recent article in which she emphasises the need to move away from “competing over the right to pollute” and notes promisingly that everybody “the wealthiest included” need to be part of the solution.

When Theresa May announced the apparent end of austerity (a promise incidentally, still unfulfilled), perhaps the most egregious of her many unconvincing quotes was her excruciatingly patronising address to the public that “their hard work has paid off.” It seemed to suggest that A. Austerity was necessary and B. that everyone in British society had made some plucky sacrifices. Of course neither were true. Yet with climate change on the horizon, a political reaction is a necessary and a fair and equitable one really does mean that everyone needs to share the burden that will come with changing the wasteful way of life we have become used to. As a policy, it’s inevitable there will be initial resentment and unpopularity. Yet it is not hard to imagine that there will be even more backlash if action aimed at mitigating a climate disaster is seen as disproportionately affecting the poor while the rich carry on their lavish lifestyles. The hard truth is that we do need to change the way we live, but this sacrifice will be easier to bear if everyone is truly in it together. Otherwise we face class war on an unimaginable scale.

Socialism has always been about universality, which is why positive rights, rights that require collective action are the foundation of any socialist policy. Universal healthcare, education, housing are all established rights that have been won by socialists and need continual defence. Wouldn’t universal carbon rationing be a continuation of this tradition? Those who would frame it as a restriction miss the point. We live in a world of finite resources and if we want to ensure our environment can sustain human life, then we must accept that carbon emissions are finite too. Rationing is therefore not a restriction, but the precise opposite and a positive right too. It is opposition to universal carbon rationing that is the restrictive path: the selfish right to pollute and to restrict the life potential of everyone who comes after.

Universal carbon rationing, with everyone, from the wealthy to the poorest, held to account, is a positive right as it is collective action to gift future generations with the most precious thing: life.