Personal Carbon Trading…Sometime?

While the voluntary carbon trading economy is booming (it tripled in 2007 to $331 million) the power of free-market economics has yet to directly connect our own personal actions with carbon emissions. This week, the UK nixed plans to get people to reduce their emissions via an exchange of personal emissions permits. Citing issues of practicality, the ministry said implementing the system would be excessively expensive and that the idea is “ahead of its time.”

The idea was based on the system used in the EU’s emissions trading scheme whereby industrial emitters can buy permits for the right to pollute and players who reduce their emissions can sell excess permits on the open market. The system has proven itself effective in combating sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States and is growing in popularity as a way to regulate carbon emissions from industrial players around the world.

However, making the jump to a personal exchange is quite ambitious. The biggest barrier is simply measuring one’s personal emissions. This would include home energy costs, travel, food and other goods purchased. British supermarket giant Tesco had plans to list the carbon footprint of the good it sells but has discovered how hard it is to calculate the carbon cost of individual grocery items.

There are startups who are helping break this problem down. UK’s own Onzo is an energy dashboard for your home that can give you a carbon-use read out of your house’s energy consumption. Carbon Hero is another, in the form of a mobile phone application that uses GPS to track your travel and calculate your transportation carbon emissions.

In theory, if retailers like Tesco can figure out appropriate carbon footprinting methods for the goods they sell, linking your purchases made via credit card could bring all of this data together and give you an idea of your personal carbon emissions.

But all of this is more theoretical than reality. The infrastructure and holistic understanding of our energy use are still in the works. And even if the technology was in place to dynamically calculate our carbon footprints, what would the exchange of personal credits look like?

It’s one thing for an industry belching carbon out of smokestacks to reduce emissions and sell the excess permits on a free market; it’s quite another for a family to do the same. While it can work on a commercial scale, the residential and personal exchange of carbon permits is more a test of human behavior than market economics.