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The Political Economy of Deep Decarbonization: Tradable Energy Quotas for Energy Descent Futures

This paper reviews and analyses a decarbonization policy called the Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) system developed by David Fleming. The TEQs system involves rationing fossil fuel energy use for a nation on the basis of either a contracting carbon emission budget or scarce fuel availability, or both simultaneously, distributing budgets equitably amongst energy-users. Entitlements can be traded to incentivize demand reduction and to maximize efficient use of the limited entitlements. We situate this analysis in the context of Joseph Tainter’s theory about the development and collapse of complex societies. Tainter argues that societies become more socio-politically and technologically ‘complex’ as they solve the problems they face and that such complexification drives increased energy use. For a society to sustain itself, therefore, it must secure the energy needed to solve the range of societal problems that emerge. However, what if, as a result of deep decarbonization, there is less energy available in the future not more? We argue that TEQs offers a practical means of managing energy descent futures. The policy can facilitate controlled reduction of socio-political complexity via processes of ‘voluntary simplification’ (the result being ‘degrowth’ or controlled contraction at the scale of the physical economy).

1. Introduction

In this paper we offer a new analysis of the policy of Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs), developed by David Fleming [1]. The TEQs system involves rationing fossil fuel energy use for a nation on the basis of either a contracting carbon emission budget or scarce fuel availability, or both simultaneously, distributing budgets equitably amongst energy-users. The goal is to equitably meet climate change mitigation targets [2] and/or fossil energy depletion realities [3,4] within a nationally-agreed and cooperative framework, in a manner ‘green growth’ strategies seem unable to achieve [5].

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