Carbon and the common good: values in green policy

values

A new report released yesterday, Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs): a policy framework for peak oil and climate change, makes a valuable contribution to the debate about how policies affect public values.

We usually think of policies as only influencing surface-level behaviour, such as the taxes we pay. But, as two political scientists point out,

Policies can [also] set political agendas and shape identities and interests. They can influence beliefs about what is possible, desirable, and normal. They can alter conceptions of citizenship and status. (Soss and Schram, 2007, p113).

That’s been understood instinctively by many politicians on both the left and the right for some time. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has repeatedly pointed out how American neo-conservatives have assiduously set about establishing “their deepest values into the brains of tens of millions of Americans”, through the use of framing and policies that promote their politics. But it’s not just been done on the right: the creation of the welfare state by the postwar Labour government in the UK was also an exercise in promoting socialist values – encouraging popular buy-in to the state provision of a public good through the principle of universal welfare.

Environmentalists, too, are beginning to wake up to the importance of such ‘policy feedback’. The recent report Common Cause, for example – published by a coalition of NGOs including Oxfam, FoE and WWF – discusses how different green policies can unwittingly help or hinder environmental protection through the values they promote. UK planning law, for instance – which was developed, like the welfare state, under the Attlee administration – has the effect of “further embedding the common-interest frame” in public consciousness, and may therefore help to promote respect for common goods like the environment. Policies that foster individualistic ‘green consumerism’, on the other hand, are likely to help promote ‘extrinsic’ or ‘materialistic’ values, which tend to oppose concern for the common good.

This is where the TEQs report comes in. Written by Shaun Chamberlin and David Fleming (who sadly passed away at the end of last year), and commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil, the paper is first and foremost an account of the TEQs system of personal carbon allowances which David Fleming invented in 1996. But its third chapter incorporates an exploration of the values that a personal carbon allowance system embodies, and the impact this might have on behavioural motivation. “The incentives that motivate people to get results need to be no less well understood than the relevant science and technologies”, they write. “At the heart of this is common purpose, where there is an alignment of individual and collective purpose, so that actions and aims which the individual recognises as in his or her own interests are the same as those of the community as a whole.”

The common purpose pursued by a personal carbon allowance system is, of course, the reduction of carbon emissions on an equitable basis over time. Fleming and Chamberlin argue that existing carbon reduction policies offer inducement through artifical ‘extrinsic’ rewards – financial payments in return for action – whereas, they assert, “To be effective, incentives need to be intrinsic to the task… the motivation needs to be based on the actual benefits of doing the task, rather than on a set of rewards for doing it.” TEQs, the authors propose, offer such an intrinsic set of motivations, by binding citizens into the collective task of emissions reduction, promoting cooperation to achieve this, and offering rewards of reciprocity and energy entitlements rather than money.

I’d make some additions to the authors’ analysis. Whilst clearly familiar with Common Cause and similar recent work on values within policy, their application of the terms ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ seems to be drawn more from the work of Dan Pink looking at self-determination theory. But the authors could have done more to apply the insights of Common Cause in terms of how a TEQs system would impact on ‘intrinsic values’, such as concern for one’s community, a belief in equality and care for nature. It is clear that TEQs would help promote all such values, but this isn’t quite spelled out. And whilst Fleming and Chamberlin are right to point out that financial carrots can be a poor tool to encourage better performance, this has only been demonstrated in the case of intellectual tasks – whereas bonuses work fine on simple, mechanical tasks. Making the transition to a low-carbon world will certainly require creativity, but it will also require the adoption of (mechanical and non-creative) habits, like simple energy-saving measures, for which financial inducements could play an important role.

But a system of personal carbon allowances, were one ever introduced, would clearly have major implications for public values in the UK. If framed in the manner of the TEQs proposal, such a policy would promote collective values and the ‘common good’ in a far stronger way than the current mish-mash of disparate green taxes and climate policies. It could have similar effects to the creation of the universal welfare state – bringing all British citizens into a collective system of carbon reduction, with everyone entitled to a quota of carbon and holding a shared stake in the ‘safety net’ of a stable climate. Personal carbon allowances, therefore, could generate positive ‘policy feedback’ in reinforcing public values that underpin care for common goods like the environment.

Whether or not you agree with TEQs or personal carbon trading more generally, the debate about the interplay between policies and values is a vital one. It’s good to see that policy papers – like the one released today – are starting to take values into account, and it’s to be hoped this example will be the first of many. Scrutinising how policies affect public values is vital for ensuring transparency in governance, and for designing policies that will be both consistent and effective.