Why the government needs to take a more ‘agnostic’ approach to decarbonisation

Eamonn Ives

April 14, 2021

If we are to halt climate change, we need to start doing stuff differently. That, I think, should not be a controversial statement. You don’t have to be a paid-up member of Extinction Rebellion to know that if we carry on as usual – burning fossil fuels and tearing down rainforests – the world will continue to heat up, and we will pay the price in the form of a less stable climate and all that goes with it.

A new report published today by a group called the ‘Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change’ assesses how changes in our lifestyles could help meet various environmental targets. One of the group’s conclusions is that while behaviour change on an individual level is required, systemic change will also be necessary.

I concur. It seems only obvious to me that objectives such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will kilter on (at least some) people voluntarily acting more sustainably – such as by eating less meat, or taking fewer flights. But top-down changes will also be critical. Current and future governments need to ensure that the overarching policy frameworks which set out the rules of the game for individuals and businesses are doing all they can to encourage environmentally-friendly decisions.

Alas, this is where my agreement with the authors of the report broadly runs out. While they put forward proposals for schemes such as frequent flier levies and bans on SUVs, I would much rather see the Government take a more ‘agnostic’ approach to decarbonisation – one which doesn’t premeditatively fixate on doubling down on specific activities or choices.

How might it do this? Well, earlier this year, rumours abounded that the Government was considering introducing a carbon tax. Doing so would be a big step in the right direction.

This policy would charge those who are responsible for polluting the atmosphere, and is to my mind the single best way to ensure we decarbonise the economy in the cheapest and most effective fashion. A carbon tax would make carbon-intensive activities relatively more expensive, and nudge consumers towards greener options. Crucially, it would create a market for companies to begin producing sustainable alternatives which can avoid paying the tax, such as zero-emission vehicles or heating systems. Existing examples have already been proven to work – including in the UK, where we have a nascent form of a carbon tax on electricity generation.

Retailing carbon taxes won’t be easy, but it’s perfectly possible to do. A key supplementary policy would be to return the money it raises back to individuals, perhaps in the form of quarterly ‘carbon dividends’. As poorer people tend to pollute less than richer ones,  this would prevent it from being regressive – and give the least well off in society the means to adopt greener alternatives.

It should also be kept in mind that the alternative is not nothing – but rather something altogether less palatable. Even if you’re basically uninterested in stopping climate change, the Net Zero target is not going away any time soon, and failure to progress towards it would likely only mean more regulation, more bans and more subsidies.

Shifting behaviours to achieve our climate goals will never be easy. Perhaps the worst route to go down would be to immediately start banning things which people hold dear to their hearts. Let’s therefore keep our fingers crossed that the Government’s interest in carbon taxes is more than idle hearsay.


  • Eamonn Ives

    Eamonn Ives is the Head of Energy and Environmental Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies and tweets @eamonnives.

Written by Eamonn Ives

Eamonn Ives is the Head of Energy and Environmental Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies and tweets @eamonnives.

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