Rationing – the New Paradigm?

A World War II practice may reappear.

Some little time ago I wrote about the word “fair”, which I tongue-in-cheek referred to as a Word of Mass Destruction (WOMD) insofar as if one REALLY put into place practices that were truly “fair” then western capitalism would break down completely. (The story of the CEO of Goldsmiths and his $100,000,000 bonus is for another day ….)

Well, my OTHER WOMD is “rationing”.

I was drawn to this topic by the words of a British minister about the desirability of introducing rationing into AIR TRAVEL.  The thinking goes (and to be honest it is in fact obvious, isn’t it?) that IF we are serious about reducing climate change (a VERY BIG IF!!) then we cannot continue to hope to fly where and when we want to as in the past. For aviation is a growth industry despite the current crisis, and as people in developing economies in Asia in particular grow more prosperous they will want to travel more and more. I have seen estimates to suggest that within a decade ONE HUNDRED MILLION Chinese will be travelling to Europe EVERY YEAR.

This is of course totally incompatible with any hope of doing anything serious about climate change. The logical conclusion is that (until some boffin invents an emission-free jet) we MUST reduce flying. This is likely for most adults to be about as palatable as denying burgers and chips to British teenagers, but I really cannot see the alternative IF Global Warming is to be taken seriously (which it probably won’t be until it’s too late).

But let’s for the moment remain positive …. supposing it is decided by some courageous government (are there any?) that we must reduce flying then there are two ways to do it.

A) TAX it so highly that only the rich can afford it

B) RATION it – everyone has a quota of air miles per annum.

Now option A is the usual free-market/capitalist way. After all, Ferraris are rationed by their price; otherwise all males over 18 would have one, or in my case several. But – much as I recognize what the free market has done in terms of wealth creation – we are in a new scenario, aren’t we? Can we really hope to say that only the rich can fly? I think not, and therefore rationing is the only way to do this.

Now, there is a minority of people that abuse anything, and no doubt rationing would be abused by some, somewhere, somehow. But it is the only FAIR way to go about it, isn’t it?

In London and other big cities we are now seeing a TAX imposed on driving into the city centres. Yes, very sensible, but of course, the RICH aren’t bothered. In effect, schemes like London’s are simply a way of excluding the masses from the city centre. The same idiocy is seen on French motorways, which are becoming increasingly expensive. The rich are not bothered by the tolls but the less well-off certainly ARE and so drive on other roads which are less safe; survival of the richest …….

No, the free-market is not going to work in the Brave New World which we are entering. If you have a birthday party for your kids then EVERYONE gets an equal share of the cake. This principle is going to have to be applied in other areas of life, otherwise we are going to get serious social unrest. Besides, any other way is just not FAIR, is it?

Of course, once you concede the point on AIR TRAVEL there is – in a world of increasing populations and diminishing resources – no way of limiting the concept purely to air travel, is there?

I am just old enough to remember my Mother’s WWII ration card, which she used up to the very early 50s I believe. Will we soon start to see a modern reincarnation, and not only in carbon credits?

By Chris Snuggs

WWII Ration Card - UK

12 thoughts on “Rationing – the New Paradigm?

  1. Chris,

    In some respects, I agree with your approach; but aren’t you discussing the rationing of the wrong thing?

    Food was rationed because they was a limit on its availability. What is considered to be in short supply here? Surely, it is not “flying” that is in short supply?

    If the constraint is considered to be the capacity of the atmosphere to tolerate increased quantities of specific substances, then might it not make some sense to ration the use of that? Rationing may have a role to play and has, I believe, been increasingly considered at a global level in discussions about man’s effect on the climate.

    If there is a need to limit emissions, rationing could take a variety of forms. There could be limit on the emissions which could be set for each individual, family, community, region, company or whatever. Also, or alternatively, there could be a limit on the emissions by equipment making it illegal, for example in aviation, to operate aircraft which emit at more than a specified level per passenger mile. This level could be adjusted downwards over time.

    This might increase the price of the aircraft and of operating them, but it applies pressure in a place which is likely to generate new solutions.

    Overall, I think, there are likely to be serious adverse consequences of trying to specify or constrain people’s actions. If we are living at a time when we need increasingly innovative solutions to the situations we face, we need to be taking much more and different action. Surely the better alternative is to set objectives for the outcomes of our actions to stimulate the search for new solutions?



  2. John

    Some excellent points …. as for “logic”, my point was that IF we take GW seriously THEN we must reduce the increase in air travel, even though it is not “in short supply”. Otherwise BAD AIR will just increase even if air travel is not the only thing to blame.

    But even there, burning fossil fuels to keep warm is one thing; burning them to have a second holiday in Malaga is quite another.

    What IS of course in short supply is AIR of the right mixture …. it now contains too much CO2 and if air travel continues to grow as it has done in recent years the supply of “good air” will only reduce.

    Ergo, we MUST reduce air travel. Again with the caveat, IF we take GW seriously.

    I honestly CANNOT see any flaw of logic here. My second point was that TAXING it is UNFAIR whereas RATIONING isn’t. I do not see why the rich and super-rich should go on flying willy-nilly while the plebs are stuck on t’ground.


  3. there are likely to be serious adverse consequences of trying to specify or constrain people’s actions

    You CANNOT have it both ways. EITHER you take EFFECTIVE actions to curb emissions or you don’t. Effective actions will perforce CONSTRAIN people’s actions! You CANNOT both have “freedom” AND reduce emissions.

    As for “serious adverse consequences” please tell me what could be MORE serious than sealevels rising 6 metres and temperatures 6°?

    We are going to HAVE to accept constraints. If we don’t, then as far as I can see from the evidence, we risk extinction. I don’t say this lightly; I personally believe people have underestimated the feedback factors involved. Once you get to a tipping point then it becomes a vicious circle. The world climate is SO FINELY balanced; it will not take much to reach this tipping point.

    For me the choice is: Accept constraints or die.


    1. Chris,

      Maybe we are agreeing on this but from different viewpoints.

      Of course, the purpose is to reduce the adverse consequences and, of course, we need to accept constraints. But the necessary changes in our behaviour are not accurately known, at this point; we can and must take action based on the outcomes that we wish to generate. We can guess what we need to do, and we will learn along the way.

      To maximise the benefit of the outcome, we need to maximise the opportunity to explore alternatives. As you point out, we need to reduce emissions, so that is the constraint, not the flying. So it is in the emissions area, that the constraints are best applied.

      I agree with you that “people have underestimated the feedback factors involved”; presumably, you are referring to feedback in the mechanisms that affect the climate. But there are other feedback factors involved, and many of them are in people’s heads. As an educationalist, I expect that you would agree that one does not maximise the rate of change of people’s behaviour by telling them what or what not to do!

      As I see it in general, we cannot directly take “actions to curb emissions”, as you put it. We can, however, take action to causes people to want to change their behaviour, and the changes in their behaviour will result in lower emissions.

      “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather,
      teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
      Antoine de Saint-Exupery

      That seems to capture what I am trying to say.



  4. I am busy, so I scanned the preceding really fast. I am for reducing flying, using TRUE COST. (In other words, only the rich fly, and those real desperate; no more ten days on the other side of the earth to catch that wave, or claim one has been everywhere).

    Unbeknownst apparently to commentators above, FLYING FUEL IS EXCLUDED FROM TAXATION. Worldwide.

    Of course it should pay it.

    This being said, I am flying back to California shortly, and each ticket saw a 228 euros tax 9this is France for you)….



    1. Patrice,

      Thanks for your contribution.

      I am not ruling out some use of taxation, but there are two major problems with it.

      Firstly, this kind of taxation deliberately distorts the market. In principle, I am against this; although exceptions can be made provided that it is based on the appropriate factors: emissions, in this case. Otherwise it involves judgements made by governments about which solutions to favour, and these are: usually wrong; far too slow to respond to technical developments; leads to efforts being directed at all sorts of avoidance behaviour rather than seeking real solutions to the problem.

      Secondly, what happens to the money? Unless the taxation is seen to be “ring-fenced” and spent on research and development of better solutions and/or on alleviation of the effects of the problems caused, then it is seen to be gratuitous punishment, often on people who have no alternatives.

      I am not sure what you mean by “no more ten days on the other side of the earth”. Any arbitrary rules such as this are likely to lead to a myriad of pathological behaviour which is counterproductive.

      On the fuel tax, I am also not sure what you mean. At least three of the authors on this blog are or have been pilots, who are fairly familiar with the levels of hydrocarbon duty (at least in the UK) on road fuels of various types, “avgas” and “avtur”, see http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/budget2009/bn66.pdf. At least, two of us (and perhaps all three) have even had the interesting experience of claiming back the duty on whole tanks full of “avgas” and receiving cheques from Her Majesty in (apparent) partial funding of their trips to the Channel Islands and France! We also know, only too well that the taxation on “avtur” (burnt by the turbine powered aircraft on the vast majority of scheduled flights) is zero. In fact, the disparity in these levels of taxation (and, therefore, their lack of coupling with the emissions caused) has led to exactly the kind of wasted avoidance behaviour referred to above: light aircraft manufacturers have spent development effort on diesel engines which burn “avtur”, primarily to avoid the taxation!

      On the other hand, taxation of “avtur”, would need to be exactly equally levied across the whole globe and dynamically adjusted, not only to exchange rates, but also to both spot and future fuel prices; this is virtually impossible to implement. Otherwise it will lead to more avoidance behaviour with airlines deftly calculating exactly how much fuel to “tank in” to each airfield leading to extra loads being carried and, therefore, more fuel being burnt!

      Incidentally, the levels of taxation on road fuel and the knowledge that nothing useful or appropriate is being done with the proceeds have already caused civil unrest in the UK, due the complete absence of any proper communication of the justification for their existence or level (note: I am not suggesting that there is no such justification, although I do not know what it is!).

      Finally, does your comment of “this is France for you” leave open the possibility that, “unbeknownst to the commentator above”, the UK (and perhaps other countries) also has an “air passenger duty”? If so, “touché”! 😉



      1. Further to my comment, here is an example of the kind of machinations that occur. There are people who are supposed to be taking care of our taxation infrastructure. But, all too often, they try to anticipate and manipulate the operations of people who are trying to get on with doing things. If you have the inclination to spend your time and energy on such issues, this document makes interesting reading (I am not sure of its date): http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/ria/hydrocarbon-oil.pdf.



  5. Partice

    Thanks as ever for your comments, especially as you are so busy. Yes, I was aware that aviation fuel currently bears no tax. However, imposing tax would of course immediately put up the cost considerably, while my point was that flying (like driving in city centres) should NOT ONLY be reserved for the rich. Since in western countries the rich-poor gap is increasing fast and considerably, I fear a future with very rigid classification into the rich and the rest. As I am unlikely to be in the first category I naturally have a strong interest in avoiding this scenario.

    The other point is the irritation with governments who seem to me to be not taking any of this GW business really seriously. FLYING (and many other things) HAVE to be reduced if we are to combat GW. Yet of course for governments flying is a super MILCH COW. There are more and more taxes imposed (as you point out). When I buy a Ryanair ticket to England it costs about 5€ but 40€ odd tax. Everything at airports costs an arm and a leg, especially food and parking. NO, they are NOT trying to price us out of flying; just grab MORE of our money to waste.

    And I repeat, I do NOT want to see the mostly idle rich allowed through their wealth to fly when and where they wish while the plebs are stuck with a week in Skegness. Not that I’ve been there – it may be very nice, but it doesn’t quite have the image ….


  6. Hmm… A philosophical point made above by Chris and John seems to be whether only the rich could… Fill in the blank… When Sherry or Ayn Rand go balistic about profits being the end all, be all, this means, in practice, that only some have the money, hence the power, hence enough to take off for Nirvana. Wherever Nirvana is located.

    In general a big gap between rich and poor means that the rich will have some capabilities that the poor will not have. This happening in the USA for health, education and welfare. I find that shocking.

    But that only the rich would fly does not shock me: it is not as if flying were a basic necessity of life, for most people.

    I do travel, but nearly exclusively for family reasons (my family is spread out from Hawai’i to Alaska to California, Colorado, Europe, etc.) I am aware that this is not innocuous, but a high oil, high CO2 activity, not to say nuisance.

    I was always shocked by people who go all around the world, just to experiment what they can watch on TV, or just to say they have been there.

    Higher taxes on flying will force the air industry to come up with more efficient planes and engines (Airbus and Boeing should re-motorize their single aisle crafts with geared engines, soon…). Vast improvements are possible…



  7. Rich-Poor gap? Shocking indeed … THIS IS UNSUSTAINABLE ….

    The top 1 percent of Americans owns 34 percent of America’s private net worth, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The bottom 90 percent owns just 29 percent.

    That also means that the top 10 percent controls more than 70 percent of Americans’ total net worth.

    C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

    Liked by 1 person

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