The fossil fuel discussion we’re not having

Let’s stop pretending that a fast enough transition away from fossil fuels is actually underway and that it will not have a huge impact on our lifestyles. Jack Santa Barbara makes a case for fossil fuel rationing.

Rationing fossil fuels would involve government control of the supply of coal, oil and natural gas, the amount of each to be fixed at increasingly lower levels over a period of years. Rationing of oil occurred in the UK during WWII as a means of ensuring its availability for the war effort. Do we need a similar rationing programme to ensure meeting our climate emergency minimises the harm we create for ourselves and future generations by the continued use of fossil fuels?

Rationing something as useful and ubiquitous as fossil fuels may seem like the most absurd idea you ever heard. But it isn’t.  In fact, it may be the single most important thing we can do to ensure prosperity for ourselves and the many generations that follow.

Why ration fossil fuels? Let us count the reasons.

1) Rationing fossil fuels is the most certain way that humanity can reduce the harm from the climate crisis. Given the urgency and severity of the current climate challenges we face, reducing greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible is essential. Every additional fraction of a degree of global heating from this day forward increases the risks of yet more climate disasters. The 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement is a political goalpost, and in a sense, arbitrary. We are already way beyond historic safe levels of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and struggling with the multiple negative impacts of warming to date. More warming is built into the system that cannot be avoided. But we can avoid making it even worse by stopping emissions as soon as humanly possible.

But isn’t that the trajectory we are on? Aren’t most governments committed to reducing emissions as fast as possible? Well, no. We have been at this task for decades and emissions continue to climb. We are addicted to fossil fuels because of their very special qualities and the enormous contribution they have made to our consumptive lifestyles. But they’re not good for us, nor for most other living things. Setting targets is helpful, but one must also have credible plans to achieve them. We don’t.

Because of the close connection between fossil fuel use and economic growth we have left the task of reducing emissions to market mechanisms, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme in New Zealand. While these market mechanisms may indeed work in theory, they are subject to both political whim and corporate tactics that have the potential to nullify their effectiveness.  If we experimented with market mechanisms to reduce fossil fuels 30 years ago we might have learned to make them work. The time for trial and error is over.

How a market-based scheme such as the ETS will actually play out in the real marketplace is uncertain because of the politicisation of the actual policies and how they are implemented. Because these schemes are complex and difficult for most of us to understand it will be a long time before we can tell whether they are working. And time is not on our side. Rationing has a direct impact on everyone very quickly and is much more difficult to avoid. A rationing system could be as secure as your bank account, and open to audit.

Rationing schemes introduce a higher level of certainty than an ETS into an emissions reduction scheme for a variety of reasons, notably their directness, transparency, universality, and fairness. Rationing directly controls supply of fossil fuels according to a plan which sees decreasing supplies available over successive years. This feature guarantees emissions reduction. ETS attempts to control supply through market mechanisms which may or may not lead to reduced emissions over time. ETS carbon units are subject to both corporate and political manipulation to soften their impact if economic performance is deemed to be threatened. Rationing is less susceptible to such manipulation, in part due to its transparency and universality. Rationing is more transparent because it is easier for everyone to understand, and breaches are more obvious.

It is folly to assume moving away from fossil fuels will not affect economic activity. We need to get used to this idea and adjust accordingly. Avoiding this challenge only pushes the problem into the future.  

ETS carbon units only apply to large corporate emitters. At some point they will pass the added costs on to consumers, but how quickly this occurs is left to the market, rather than a planned program of supply decline. Relying on direct control of supply provides greater certainty than relying on the assumptions of economists about how the market will operate.  

Because everyone is involved in a rationing system it is easy to understand its implications and the need to take action immediately. How many of us understand the intricacies and complexity of the ETS? It is designed to impact us in consumer prices. But consumer prices will vary for a variety of reasons over coming years due to climate-triggered supply line disruptions, as well as other non-climate related market dynamics. This obscures the connection between price increases and decarbonisation for consumers.

The immediate and direct impact of rationing would help us all focus on what changes are necessary. The directness of rationing’s impact, in conjunction with its universality, means we all start working together to determine how to adjust. These features of rationing should not be underestimated in terms of their capacity to unleash a wide range of creative initiatives to adjust to the new reality. Necessity is the mother of invention and rationing makes the necessity much clearer than the less direct ETS.

Greater fairness is also an advantage of rationing compared to ETS. Generally, everyone gets the same ration of fossil fuels so there is no disadvantage to those with low incomes. While a program could have some variation in rations to ensure essential services like ambulances and public transport have sufficient supply, these variations would not be dependent on ability to pay higher prices, as with an ETS. Rationing itself would not directly increase the price of petrol or other fossil fuels, as is supposed to occur with the ETS, which would place a burden on those with lower incomes.

Rationing may seem harsh in that it controls the supply of what we consider an essential commodity. But it can be done over time and in a way that does not inherently cause increases in prices. Tradable Energy Quotas are one example of a rationing scheme that has the advantage of being universal, fair and effective. And rather than increase costs it actually rewards those who can most successfully reduce their emissions, and generate income by selling their quotas.   

Timing is important as we have a very small carbon budget left. Indeed, some scientists argue we have little or no carbon budget left. Rationing can introduce certainty into both supply and timing, providing much greater control over actual emissions reductions than any market-based, demand management system can.

The importance of these features should not be underestimated, as a planned transition away from fossil fuels will not be easy, and we have to do it as rapidly as possible. Involving everyone in working out together how we accomplish this, rather than leaving it solely to the politicians and the market, will provide us with much more creativity and actual on-the-ground solutions that people can readily implement.

Let’s stop pretending that a fast enough transition away from fossil fuels is actually underway and that it will not have a huge impact on our lifestyles. Fossil fuels have underpinned our consumptive lifestyles for over a century and continue to do so today. Our high-energy lifestyles will not be replicable with any version of a transition that relies solely on a renewable energy system. Rationing will clarify the kinds of everyday changes we will need to adjust to for a safe climate world. We can be very resourceful when faced with necessary changes. Avoiding them as we are now is only going to make the changes more difficult and more costly the longer we wait.

Rationing fossil fuels forces us to focus more quickly on the priorities for their use in our transition to a genuinely safe climate. In moving away from fossil fuels we will need to change many aspects of our current arrangements – how we produce and use non-fossil energy technologies, how we move around, how our cities are organised, how we work, how we produce our food, how we trade with other nations, and more. Making many of these changes will require fossil fuels. But if we use fossil fuels to make these changes we cannot use them as we are now, as that would mean an overall increase in fossil fuels at precisely the time we need to reduce them rapidly. This is one of the binds we have created for ourselves by leaving the climate challenge to the last minute. Rationing’s directness and universality bring the need to prioritise fossil fuel use in the short term into focus with greater urgency than the ETS can.

Deciding how to prioritise our use of fossil fuels to prepare ourselves for their demise will be no easy task. But it won’t get any easier by further delay. It is comforting to believe that we are already on the path to a safe climate future and that we simply have to make a transition to renewable energy to make it happen. There are now many scientific groups who seriously challenge this belief, and their evidence is compelling, because it is based on science rather than market projections. Our past technological “progress” has largely been possible because of the high energy density of fossil fuels. Without them we are going to be living with a lower energy future. We need to understand this reality and adjust accordingly.

Rationing would mean we are finally taking the climate emergency seriously and that should give many people real hope.  Accepting the difficulties involved would be a huge step to getting creative about how to deal with them. Pretending otherwise may be comforting in the short run, but it is being reality blind and reality always dominates.

Rationing fossil fuels is a quicker and more certain step to reducing our ecological overshoot. Most of our current ecological crises are intimately connected to our use of fossil fuels, directly or indirectly. An example of direct impact is the overwhelming of nature’s waste-absorbing capacities of greenhouse gases. An indirect impact of fossil fuel use has been the literal destruction of biodiversity by all the physical infrastructure we have built over the past couple of centuries. Our current consumption of over 100 billion tonnes of raw materials annually is responsible for species loss due to habitat destruction by our mining, manufacturing, population growth, urban expansion and many other human activities we have done at unprecedented scale. 

Less energy use will mean less raw material use and less ecological destruction. Nature will regenerate itself under such circumstances, and we can help it along by the ways we reorganise ourselves in the new reality of living within planetary boundaries - the One Planet Living idea. 

Why should New Zealand go through the hassle of rationing fossil fuels when our global use is so tiny? While there are moral and environmental arguments to this question, there is also a self-interested one. If we can demonstrate to the world how it can be done, we will provide innovations that others can adopt, and lead a transition that would truly transform how humanity reengages with nature. It would make us more popular than Lord of the Rings did. Humanity is close to the peak of both energy and material resource supply and our consumption of these resources is already in significant overshoot. Our planet is in decline and our consumptive lifestyles are responsible. Learning to live well with the things that provide genuine happiness (such as meaningful work, time with friends and family, leisure time, etc), rather than more material goods, is our task for the century that we don’t yet seem to recognise.

Rationing fossil fuels would be a very difficult task for any government to implement. It would only be possible if there were widespread public support. And such support is only likely if there is also widespread understanding of the reasons behind rationing fossil fuels. A public dialogue on this topic is urgently needed.

We are already way beyond our planet’s “best renewal” date, but the single change of rationing fossil fuels would trigger that renewal process on the scale necessary. We should not fear these challenges as much as we fear the consequences of continuing on our current path. And we can renew ourselves in the process – taking on the unique challenge of creating a future where we and future generations can thrive. There will never be a better time to start than now.  Let’s seriously consider rationing.

* This article was first published on Newsroom, 13 September 2021.

ADDENDUM ON 10 August 2022:
Sign a petition to get a Tradable Energy Quotas system (as discussed in this article) implemented in NZ at