Are you ready for WW2-style energy rationing?

Bring your own gas mask

Analysis Environment Minister Hilary Benn again rebuffed calls this week for WW2-style energy rationing to return to the UK. He was responding to a Select Committee report urging ministers to issue 45 million Britons with an energy trading "credit card" - a mammoth techno-bureaucratic exercise costing several billions of pounds a year to operate.

What's interesting is how the normal parliamentary business was turned upside down.

Usually, it's ministers who propose batty and unworkable legislation, and fail to cost it, while select committees are supposed to scrutinize the proposals: picking apart the logic and bogus cost estimates. But in this case the select committee in question - the "Environmental Audit Committee" - is positively evangelical about a return to rationing. Perhaps not surprisingly, ministers are wary of committing electoral suicide, or at least, not in quite such an obvious fashion.

Benn said his department DEFRA had made its own enquiry, which unlike the watchdog's investigation, included costs. A rationing scheme would cost between £700m and £2bn to set up, he said, and between £1bn and £2bn a year to operate he said.

"In essence it is ahead of its time," the minister said Tuesday. "The cost of implementing it would be quite high and there are a lot of practical problems to be overcome." Front bench Tories are equally wary.

So what are the MPs proposing?

The ration, or "personal carbon allowance" or PCA, is a measure of an individual's energy usage, either at home or traveling. Such usage is capped, and "further emissions rights will simply not be available," the Committee says. You may choose between a holiday, and turning on the heating. Points win prizes, however, and frugal individuals would be rewarded financially from the creation of an internal market.

"We could not find or imagine analogues in other fields of human activity for individual carbon trading beyond rationing during and after World War 2," the authors of the DEFRA-commissioned report "A Rough Guide to Individual Carbon Trading" wrote in 2006.

The Committee, chaired by Tim Yeo MP, lauds the potential for "engagement", which will "increase awareness" of energy consumption - what the Tyndall Centre calls "carbon consciousness" - which in turn would "spearhead behavioural change". According to the MPs, "awareness is crucial if behaviours are to change."

The committee called for "a shift in the debate away from ever-deeper and more detailed consideration of how personal carbon trading could operate towards the more decisive questions of how it could be made publicly and politically acceptable."

In other words, the MPs want to end the debate about whether or not it's a desirable option, and start marketing it as the only option.

(That's what you pay your taxes for, folks).

Ominously, the Committee declares that "further work on the operational details of schemes adds little value to the main debate", and that is future depends on persuading us of the necessity. So, translated: the scheme may be unworkable, but if it's "marketable", then it should go ahead anyway.

This will undoubtedly quicken the pulse of IT vendors, who see the mother-of-all IT contracts in the proposal. Rationing will make ID Cards look like a closed beta test.

The problems begin to stack up, however.

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