Sandbag: Stemming the tide of rising greenhouse gases

It’s not often you hear good news when it comes to climate change. More often than not, reports in the media verge on the catastrophic, rarely giving little hope to the public.  As a result, it can be hard to convince people to take positive action when all the headlines scream doom and gloom. Recently, however, I learnt of a fantastic new initiative in the UK that allows people to make a real difference. Here I chat to Bryony Worthington at about a new campaign to be launched in the Autumn that promises to deliver real action on climate change.  This could be a model for the rest of the world.

An alternative way forward 
Chris: So what is Sandbag?

Bryony: It’s a web-based campaign to try to educate people about carbon emissions trading and also empower people so they can get involved and make a difference so we can tighten up the rules. Basically the aim is to try to reduce the amount of emissions going into the atmosphere by enabling people to take part in carbon trading.

Chris: Traditionally, the focus on getting greenhouse gas levels down has been on appealing to people to make personal life choices to lower their carbon footprint. But this is different isn’t it?  This is actually using the European Trading Scheme (ETS). How do people actually get involved?

Bryony: Yes, I've always felt some of the personal actions we were being asked to take were a bit small given the scale of the challenge - important but not enough of an impact in themselves. So we wanted to create a new way for people to make a difference.  We’re setting ourselves up as a membership organization.  People join by paying a subscription and we’ll use that money to campaign to cancel the permits that allow a tonne of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere. We're aiming to get permits back from the companies they’ve been given to under the EU trading scheme.  We’ve done some analysis which will be published in the autumn showing the extent of the over allocation that’s happened.  Installations have been given a certain number of permits to pollute and in many cases, the industry lobby have secured more allowances than they need.  We’re now putting this information onto a map on our website so people can see who's got what.  The idea is to give the polluters the option to do the right thing and give us back some of their permits.  Our members will be helping us to do that and also contributing financially to campaigning for tougher rules in the future.  If we’re not successful and asking for them back doesn’t work we will still guarantee to take a certain number of permits out of the system. We’ll do that through getting involved in the actual market; buying the permits if we have to and cancelling them.

Chris: That’s fantastic. Where did the idea come from?  Was it exasperation that the ETS wasn’t doing what it was meant to be doing?

Bryony: Absolutely.  Before my current job I worked for Friends of the Earth for three years and I was running their UK climate campaign at the time when the rules for the current round of the ETS were being debated. So I was lobbying governments to get tighter caps, fewer allowances and more sensible policy. Of course, the industrial lobby was doing the opposite; trying to get more permits. I just got very frustrated that these decisions were being made behind closed doors with civil servants, government and industry, with very little awareness and input from the general public.  The current caps are going to run up to 2012 and there was virtually no public involvement.  I've always thought this was wrong.  But the NGOs priorities at the time were different, and the market wasn't mature enough to properly trust getting involved in it.  It's different now so I thought why don’t I just do it myself and set something up and see if it’s successful. Ultimately, climate change isn’t just an environmental issue; it’s much broader than that; it’s a societal threat.   I felt there was a place for a new campaigning group with a slightly different perspective  to complement the work of the traditional green NGOs.  You don’t have to be an environmentalist to care about climate change. It helps but we really need to reach a much broader audience.

Chris: So, how do you think this current second phase of carbon trading is going?

Bryony: Although the power sector has been asked to reduce their emissions by quite a lot, no other sector has in the UK.  They’ve all been given business-as-usual allocations.  And quite often those business-as-usual allocations have been inflated.  So overall, the market is better than it was but it’s still far from perfect. What concerns me is once you create a permit to pollute, they exist for five years and there’s nothing you can do about it. The only way to get them back is to ask the companies with a legal right to them to give them back or to buy them off them. So we have in effect pre-agreed the level of pollution we’re now going to tolerate for the next five years. Even though the science is moving all the time we can’t do anything about it unless we get involved.  That’s where Sandbag fits in.

Chris: So the idea is by that buying up the permits and destroying them, the price should go up?

Bryony: Yes, because there is a finite number created.  As we cancel them they go up in value. This creates a bigger incentive for companies to invest in cleaner solutions. People ask me won’t industry complain it’s not fair NGOs are destroying the permits.  Can’t they ask for more?  But they can’t really.  There’s nothing the Government can do to take them back or to create new ones.  And because ultimately we can’t buy them unless someone is willing to sell them to us they can't really cry foul.   It’s a free market.  If we want to destroy them, that’s up to us.

Chris: Are there any other lessons from the European experience?

Bryony: We put too much emphasis on large, point sources of emissions because we have a history in Europe of regulating big chimneys. So we thought that would be easy and bought in cement, steel, iron; all the big exposed global industries were put in. And of course they went beserk and said “How can you do this? We’re trying to compete with China and it’s going to damage our competitiveness.”  We didn’t put in transport emissions, and we didn’t put in heating fuels.  I think we got it wrong.  We should have started with electricity, transport, and heating fuels, and then bought in industry when things were settled and we had more of an idea of the global deal that’s going to follow on from Kyoto.  Other countries seem to be taking some of these lessons onboard. It looks like Australia is going to put transport in which is great and California is certainly talking about including heat fuels. These countries aren’t going to copy the ETS exactly and that’s a good thing.

Chris: The current trading period for the ETS is five years. Where do you see Sandbag in the future?

Bryony: We’d like to join forces with other organizations in other countries.  There should be a network of watchdogs made up by public organizations so that these mistakes aren’t made elsewhere.  The job we need to do in the UK is probably only a five year campaign just to see how much we can clean out of the current trading system and make sure that tighter caps are set for the future.  It might be we trial Sandbag here and then help to export the model to other countries. Other countries need to make sure there is the option from the start that society can take an active part in any trading scheme.  Industry would obviously prefer that it didn't. After that maybe we can play a role in helping to scrutinise carbon trading internationally. The problem is you can create a market that looks great and makes people money, but it may not be doing the right thing by the climate. We'd be very happy to make links with people from other countries working on this issue.

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