Pricing the tonne of carbon that tips us into climate catastrophe

ton weight
In this brilliant winning entry of the Ecologist/New Economics Foundation essay competition, Janine Morley imagines what it would be like to buy that fateful tonne of carbon from a telephone broker...

How do you price the extra tonne of carbon that, once burned, tips the balance and triggers potentially catastrophic, irreversible global warming?

'So you’re looking for a quote on a tonne of carbon? It’s a very special tonne that you’re interested in buying, I understand? You’re after the tonne that tips the climate into a runaway conversion to a chaotic state. Hmm, well, I can’t guarantee you that precise tonne, I should warn you, but scientists are convinced this runaway effect will be triggered by what we’re emitting right about now. So any tonne you buy today could be the one. And it’s a great time to buy - the markets have adjusted to the new global scenario and prices have really dropped off following the boom earlier in the year. You’re in for a bargain!

'But first, I am obliged to check that, as a private customer, you are aware that there is no legal or other requirement for you to buy carbon emissions rights. Not even for that special tonne that tips the climate. Can you confirm that you understand? Great, so you’re definitely looking to buy.

'Looking at your options, then, the first route is to buy from one of the many carbon trading systems around the world. Some are closed markets, limited to controlled participants only. But in others anyone can trade through an agent - so long as you’re not buying too much. For one tonne, I can give you a quote on the EU Emissions Trading Scheme for £21.17. Remember, it could be the tonne that tips the climate and procured this way you’re using an internationally reputable scheme that is helping to deliver the climate change targets of the Copenhagen Protocol.

'Your second option, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, is the purchase of offsetting credits. Now, these aren’t strictly emissions rights, but they work in a similar way. Copenhagen-compliant credits are priced at roughly equivalent value to the market price. I’m looking at a well-regarded scheme here for £19.67 a tonne. Or for a Gold Standard scheme the price of a tonne is about £30. Just depends on how much you’re looking to spend.

'If that doesn’t do it for you, there’s a relatively new scheme you might like: community carbon trading groups. These are limited companies that recruit members of the public and give them support to cut their carbon emissions which they then sell on. The price is fixed to the Government’s shadow price of carbon, plus a small administration fee. Let’s see, you can buy one tonne, today, for £35.80.

'Which of those take your fancy? Which is the most legitimate and legally defendable? Hmm, good question, I would say buying from a Copenhagen-compliant trading scheme. That’s what you’re going for? Great! I’ll just start processing the transaction...

'Huh, I can tell you back in 2009 when I got into this business it had such a bright future. I was a bit of an idealist back then – I needed to make a living as well, of course - but everyone thought carbon trading was going to be the solution to climate change. It felt like we had years to prevent the worst case. I never thought I would end up selling the "last tonne" so soon! Hmm? Oh, I’m sorry, the "last tonne": that’s what we call it. You know, the last tonne of the world as we know it, the one that tips the climate, the tonne that everyone was working to avoid. Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said, I can’t give any guarantees on the one you’ve just bought. But every tonne this year is playing its part. The scientists are pretty convinced we’ll emit enough carbon this year to ensure we go through that tipping point – a 95 per cent chance they say. Come 2019, we’re in a new age.

'I thought I’d be out of work, to be honest, when the news reports kept coming. I thought the governments would close down the markets, impose severe restrictions, even buy up the rights themselves once they realised it was too late to adjust their own 2050 targets. But then, as I guess you know, the markets went stellar – prices soared – and the governments hoped they would work. I even thought about quitting. I wasn’t sure if I could live with myself, for selling the very carbon that would damn us. But I’m just a middle man if I’m honest with myself. If not me, somebody else would do it. And with such high prices I couldn’t say no. I’ve my parents and my brother’s family to support.

'Unfortunately, the boom was short-lived. Once everyone realised the governments weren’t going to do anything and a chaotic climate seemed inevitable the pressure just eased off.

'There, it’s almost processed. Yes, that’s right, the ID system is clogged up again. So...I hope you don’t think I’m being rude: are you planning to do anything special with your carbon emissions? Ah, I see. Yes, I had to get rid of my car – so expensive. And why the special interest in buying the tonne that tips the climate? What, it felt wrong, did it? Ah, so you wanted to buy it, to make sure it was all legal and accounted for. Make sure it’s on the record so to speak. Ease your conscience and all that. No, it doesn’t sound that funny. In fact, you’re not the first to say that to me. Hmm? Likewise, I never thought I could sell it but life goes on.

'Right, that’s it. Your credit certificate and receipt will be emailed to you. I hope you’ll feel like keeping your conscience at rest by buying more carbon in the future. At least, you’ll know the ropes. Cheerio.'

Essays from three runners-up in the competition will be posted over the next month - check back to read more insights into 'the last tonne'...

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