A simple proposal to keep fossil fuels in the ground

Cap & Share could be the scheme to turn popular support for climate action into results, argues Laurence Matthews

One Direction

One Direction urged fans to back climate action

By Laurence Matthews

From pop stars to the Pope, it seems that almost everybody these days is calling for strong climate action.

But what action?

Nobody says… because nobody seems to know. We’ve all been convinced that it’s all too complicated, and best left to experts. And experts are good at making things even more complicated.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be blindingly simple. Here’s how.

Emissions only happen because fossil fuels are extracted from the ground and subsequently burnt. Cut the fossil fuel extraction and you cut the emissions. So each year we set an annual limit on total global carbon emissions, and we issue permits for fossil fuel extraction to match this cap.

The permits are bought at auction by the corporations that extract fossil fuels. The money raised by auctioning the permits is then shared out equally to the people of the world. This automatically rewards low-carbon users the world over.

The system is run by a single body or Trust, which acts on behalf of the people of the world, not on behalf of nations – bypassing international negotiations at a stroke. After all, we face global warming, not international warming. To deliver a global carbon budget – to meet the 2 degrees target for example – a global approach is the only sensible one; and an inspiring symbol of the unity of humankind.

And that’s it.

This approach, called Cap & Share, is a simple, fair way of achieving the cuts we need in carbon emissions, with minimal interference in existing economic and governmental systems. It replaces any need to monitor the actual emissions – or apportion them between nations. It also concentrates minds on the root problem, namely the extraction of fossil fuels. It’s a way of implementing ‘keep it in the ground’.

Well, it can’t be that simple. Actually, yes it can!

Cap & Share has yet to reach a wide audience (although groups such as Cap Global Carbon, Claim the Sky and the Earth Atmosphere Trust are advocating this sort of idea, under names such as global Cap & Dividend). It will require a single, globally recognised and respected body to implement it. Perhaps the UN, or a group like the Elders, could take a lead here.

It will mean a political fight, as any climate solution would. But Cap & Share has built-in incentives to help overcome the obvious sources of resistance.

Fossil fuel companies that comply can boast ‘climate-safe’ fuel; those that refuse are a clear target for divestment campaigns, more general confrontation on moral grounds, and legal challenges.

Populations, keen for their ‘carbon cashback’ payments, can push nations to mandate it in their territories. Cap & Share, by its simplicity, makes the choices clear and stark; but these choices need to be faced.

So. On the one hand we have Cap & Share, a simple and powerful tool, but without many champions.

On the other hand we have lots of prominent people and campaigns calling for ‘strong action’ but lacking a specific tool to champion.

Is it just me, or is there an obvious conclusion here?

Cap & Share, like a condensation nucleus in a cloud, could provide a rallying point for these disparate voices, uniting them to form a powerful chorus.

If we’re serious about cutting carbon emissions, then calls for ‘stronger action’ aren’t enough. We need to adopt a specific tool to deliver this goal: ideally, one that’s inspiring and positive; fair and transparent; straightforward and effective; powerful and resilient; cheap, easy and empowering. Cap & Share stands ready.

Read more on: Comment & Analysis | Fossil Fuels