All to gain on the carbon diet?
Your Environment, Environment Agency, Feb/Apr 2006.
It is the first day of retirement for Dame Margaret McBlizzard, one of the best known civil servants in the UK. It is also the first day of the financial year, April 2021.
She sniffs the air – it really is a pleasure to breathe London air these days – and laboriously brushes the snow from her back door and breaks the ice in the pond. Funny to think they used to call it global warming.
How extraordinary that she should retire ten years to the day after her greatest achievement. But then, the introduction of energy rationing had been a career gift for a civil servant.
It had been her job to co-ordinate the plans over a three-year period, to front the public information campaign in the run-up to E-day – none of the ministers wanted to be associated with something so politically risky – and then to sort out the teething problems.
She had become a familiar face on people’s compuTVs. At first her rather dour humour had made her a friendly hate figure, but as the plastic cards were rolled out, she believed people had become quite fond of her.
They still come up to her with broad grins in the street. No wonder the press had dubbed the energy units people were allocated once a quarter as ‘macs’ – a small reference to her name. And despite legal action from Mcdonalds, the epithet had stuck.
The doorbell rings. It is the journalist she has been expecting from the Murdoch Corporation’s news channel BBC Fox, here to interview her about her retirement.
While the camera sets up, she pads out to the kitchen and pours out two large cups of tea from the solar-heated urn kept at constant hot temperature by the equipment on her roof.
“Oh please call me Margaret,” she says. Heavens, this young man doesn’t look as if he was born when E-day happened.
What had been most extraordinary about the roll-out, she explains, was how much people took it in their stride.
“There was a great deal of political opposition beforehand. But it was just like the Congestion Charge in London some years before. As soon as everyone had their E-cards, they just took it in their stride,” she said, taking a big sip and taking a bite out of her London-grown apple.
“They liked getting all these credits as well. It made them feel richer somehow.”
Margaret had met the inventor of the E-card concept, then known as ‘Tradable Energy Quotas’, and said he originally got the idea from sweet rationing when he was a boy.
Of course it hardly needed explaining now. Everyone carried their E-card in their wallet, originally next to their credit card – but often people now had cards that combined the two functions – and used them to buy energy.
Sometimes your gas supplier could deduct macs from you automatically with your quarterly bill. Sometimes you just had to hand it over at the garage.
And if you had any left at the end of the month, you stuck your card into the computer and it automatically sold your spare units at an online clearing house – and credited the sale to your bank account.
Margaret’s mother is still alive, and is particularly grateful for this small basic income – and boasts in her care home that it was her daughter who organised the whole thing.
“Was there anything unexpected about E-day? Well, yes there was. We hadn’t expected energy consumption to go up initially – just as food consumption did under rationing at the outbreak of the Second World War – but people wanted to use their whole allowance.”
But then, year by year, the ration has slowly decreased, to cut the amount of carbon emitted so damagingly into the atmosphere, and to keep Britain within legal treaty limits.
Among Margaret’s knottiest problems – apart from whether the multinational company Vodafone Capita should get the call centre contract – was who should decide how many units should be issued.
The politically acceptable solution was that it should be the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. They were above the political fray, and now of course there is the Bank’s Energy Policy Committee.
Because of that, it now seems obvious, Margaret tells her callow interviewer, that macs are a kind of currency – issued as of right to individual citizens.
It hardly seems strange at all now that E-cards are able to take a range of other points or currencies on them. Margaret’s own card – a gold card presented by the King – also carries electronic purses with pounds, euros, capitals (the London currency issued by the mayor) and oysters (units denominated in Tube journeys).
There was also the problem of who qualified for macs. Refugees? Europeans? Foreigners? “That was very tricky,” says Margaret now. “But we got through.”
“But has it made any difference?” asks Margaret’s young interviewer.
“Has it? My dear young man, look about you!” she says, rather sharply. “Have you seen the windmill on my roof when you came up to the door? Have you seen the spring barley growing on the roof of the primary school? Have you seen the orchard where the car park used to be?”
The interviewer looks sceptical.
“There’s no need to look at me like that: of course the E-card has helped that process along. Companies prefer not to truck in vegetables from the other side of the world, even the other side of the country. People like me prefer our own homes to generate electricity than using up our macs.”
Margaret admits that the windmills on every home in her street, almost ubiquitous now in London, was as much the result of the al-Qaida attack on Sellafield as the E-card, and the closure of the nuclear programme in 2009.
“But the two are related, don’t you see? Why do you think it’s still not completely light outside?”
The interviewer looks blank. “Because we abandoned Greenwich Mean Time, so that it would be lighter in the evenings and we would use less fuel. Don’t you remember? How old were you in 2014 when we brought in Double British Summer Time?”
Margaret stares in disbelief at his answer, but brushes it aside.
“Don’t you realise that Bluewater used to be a shopping centre – so did Metrocentre? We turned them into new villages because people preferred not to spend their macs driving to shop there. Only a decade or so ago, everything on television seemed to be about buying homes on the Costa del Sol – well, now those retirement villages house people from Tuvalu and other places which have been engulfed, because your parent’s generation preferred not to use their macs flying backwards and forwards. You know that, surely.”
The same is also true, she thinks to herself, of all those second homes in the UK. If it wasn’t for the amazing rise in the profitability of farming, and especially farming expertise, then some rural communities would just have curled up and died.
Margaret is actually rather worried about financing her retirement. She had bought shares in environmental equipment companies, and – because the UK was the first to bring in energy rationing – these now dominate the world.
It wasn’t really insider trading, she always said – just good sense. And she had enjoyed it when British Solar plc just made that bid for Texaco.
On the other hand, her pension was mostly invested in US stocks, and – because the USA had lagged behind rationing energy – their companies were woefully inefficient when oil production began to decline.
Worse, she has been red-lined by her insurance company because her grandmother had breast cancer. And she still hasn’t paid off her 55-year mortgage, which will be inherited by her son.
On the other hand, she has paid into the local time bank – based in her local health centre – for more than a decade, and that means neighbours will come and help her when she needs it as she gets older. At least she knows the neighbours.
And she doesn’t really need all her macs, and selling the surplus does provide her with some extra income.
“But, what I mean is…” The interviewer is daring to press her. “Has it made a difference? Do we lead better lives?”
“Well, it wasn’t designed to solve everything,” Margaret says sharply.
She is sharp because, in some ways, ordinary life is colder and more economically constrained than it was. Travel is more difficult to arrange. But then, she is definitely healthier – thanks to the local vegetables – and has more friends than perhaps she would have done a generation ago.
There is the CompuTV, through which she can download every TV programme and film ever made, but she can’t really be bothered these days.
“I know what you mean, young man, and you’re right to ask. All I can say is that the E-card and the rationing have made life a good deal better than it would otherwise have been. It gave people time to take the big strategic decisions they needed to – and without ruinous energy taxes.….
“And who knows, if they had decided to do it earlier – say in 2006 – think how different life would be now!”
You can find more information about the Tradable Energy Quotas proposal at www.teqs.net