The Individual Carbon Marketplace.

spare a carbon credit?The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on efforts underway in Britain and Ireland to create a carbon marketplace for individuals.

Environmentalism often boils down to small lifestyle choices, like turning down the thermostat and screwing in the squiggly light bulbs – gestures that can feel virtuous but futile. Some environmentalists even consider them counterproductive if they substitute for activism.

But a new wave of thinking suggests it may be better in the long run to address this global problem in a way that directly involves individuals.

I couldn’t agree more. This crisis is so big that massive investments have to be made by government and private industry to shift our fossil fueled world. But the role of each of us as individuals is fundamental in this fight, both because conservation is the most immediate and cost-effective investment we could make, and because it takes public will to push leaders who are afraid to lead either to action or out the door.

So then comes the question: How do we get a critical mass of people involved? To me, it’s simple: Meet people where they are and provide them with all the support and encouragement they need to take action. Now, in and of themselves, these individual actions may not amount to much in terms of greenhouse gas reductions or even a significant lowering of individuals’ climate footprints. But this needs to be about moving people to act. Once they begin to move, as Newton kindly pointed out, they’ll continue to move.

Across the pond, where awareness of the climate crisis and concern about it are far higher in the minds of most people, lots of private and public initiatives have been launched to educate and move people to take personal action. At the Climate All Stars conference last year, British Consul Annabelle Malins emphasized that small steps were as important as the many institutional actions the British government and local communities were taking. Much of the governments’ initiatives involved a web-based footprint calculator and PR campaigns. But it looks like there’s some serious consideration of implementing a “cap and trade” system for individuals.

The most provocative idea, personal carbon trading, would grant all residents a “carbon allowance,” setting a limit on carbon dioxide emissions from their households and transportation. In the model of the industrial “cap and trade” system, guzzlers who exceeded their allowance would need to buy extra shares. People who conserved energy, meanwhile, could sell their leftover shares and ride their bikes all the way to the bank.

This is not just a fantasy floating around in the greenest reaches of the blogosphere. In 2006, the UK’s environment secretary, David Miliband, endorsed the idea, and the British government has commissioned a study to explore the policy’s feasibility.

In Ireland, they’re looking at a variation of this called a “cap and share” system. As the Globe points out, these concepts are similar to ideas espoused by Peter Barnes in his book Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide.

At one point, I toyed around with a similar concept: a voluntary marketplace for people to sponsor one another to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through personal action. Sort of like a Kiva for climate change. I saw this as an appealing way for people who have already taken simple actions to encourage others to do the same, rather than as some kind of offset scheme for people with huge footprints and disposable income, who would rather pay someone else to do stuff so they could keep emitting. Obviously, there would be those people, too.

But what I was really intrigued by was creating a space for accountability. People who were already “green” could invite their friends or family to sign up to take, say, 10 actions. Or they could sponsor people they didn’t know. They would donate (and get a tax write-off) a certain amount for each person they sponsored, say $1. Those who are sponsored receive a suite of tools and resources–including access to discounted, relevant products (at one point we were kicking around the idea of having a “climate change starter kit”)–to help them succeed. Social networking, reminder and tracking tools would help people stay on track, feel accountable, and see the impact of their involvement.

All this would create accountability and expectation for both parties in the transaction. And it would help people who have already made changes in their lives have a means to continue to have an impact by encouraging others to do the same.

I don’t see much value in establishing some sort of mandatory, regulated marketplace… at least not before instituting a cap and trade system for industries… but I think, if done well, it could help create a movement.

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