For a Critique of Carbon Trading Dogma

by Emanuele Leonardi*

Market fundamentalism must be reversed if a politically sound solution to climate change is to be found. From this perspective, Cop 21 will not deliver.

As expected, there was much talk about the ongoing Cop 21 in Paris. Most of it concentrated on the geopolitical dimension of climate negotiations: for example, Jason Box and Naomi Klein stress the link between global warming catastrophic effects and wars. On a different but interrelated level, officials from the Global North accused China and India to block the process, whereas Chinese and Indian representatives stroke back arguing that the Global North is not taking into account its historical responsibility with regard to carbon emissions. Less discussed, and yet equally important, is the issue of climate governance through carbon trading. The reliance on carbon markets as an exclusive policy option is connected to what I call carbon trading dogma, which is to say an extremely entrenched political belief according to which climate change, although an historical market failure (since negative externalities were not represented into prices), can be viably solved only by further marketization. New, dedicated markets mean new, peculiarly abstract commodities which, in turn, foster a new, unprecedented wave of capital accumulation. From this perspective the concept of carbon trading dogma is compatible both with Erik Swyngedouw’s post-political ‘CO2 fetishism’ and with Steffen Böhm’s Marxist ‘carbon fetishism’.


Despite its dubious logical consistency (how can an increased dose of the cause of a problem help solving that same problem?), such a link between profit-making and emissions reductions is now almost commonsensical in UNFCCC circles. Two examples will suffice: in a recent piece for the New Republic, Jeffrey Ball argues that “Profiteers are emerging as potent leaders on climate change, and it is of no concern to the planet – indeed it is a benefit – that their motives are mercenary”. In fact, “they have begun calling for tougher climate action in the belief that it could boost profits”. Even clearer – coming from the US top negotiator in Paris – are John Kerry’s words: “What we’re doing is sending the marketplace an extraordinary signal – that those 186 countries are really committed – and that helps the private sector to move capital into that, knowing there’s a future that is committed to this sustainable path”.

It is interesting to note that in Kerry’s argument the market functions as a site of veridiction, as Michel Foucault suggested in his biopolitical lectures from the late 1970s. In the context of potentially catastrophic global warming, such a market-based regime of truth gives rise to a dogmatic equation – as discursively indisputable as it is empirically unprovable – that, elaborating on Larry Lohmann’s work, might be defined as follows:

 climatic stability = reductions in CO2 emissions = carbon trading = sustainable economic growth

 The strength of this dogma is demonstrated not only by the insistence with which climate policy makers invested in carbon markets despite their irrelevant – if not negative – ecological impacts, but also by the increasing difficulties encountered by market actors in justifying the narratives of green economy and sustainable growth. Yet, the circular structure of the carbon trading dogma makes any alternative unthinkable: as every religious belief, the confirmation of its truth-claims is already contained in its fundamental assumption: since there is no effective politics outside of the market, global warming is solvable only in so far as it is possible to make a profit out of it. ‘Climate stability equals surplus value production’ is treated as self-evident truth.

Against this background, I would like to make two points: a) for the carbon trading dogma to actually work, a very specific vision of the relationship between nature and value needs to be in place; and b) the productive failure enacted by carbon trading, namely the constitutive tension between its (putative) environmental goal and its (actual) monetary means, is the key to understand why it is still operational in spite of its ecological irrelevance.

As for the first point, it is useful to recall that the environment as a political issue hits the public arena in the 1960s and 1970s due to destabilizing antagonism on the part of ecological movements. In other words, capital originally perceives it as a block to valorization, as an additional cost for companies or, to use André Gorz’s appropriate terminology, as a crisis of reproduction. Nature, which used to be conceived as either free and infinite source of raw materials – at the beginning of the economic process – or as an equally free and infinite garbage bin – at its end – suddenly became scarce. The controversial notion of sustainable development was formulated in the 1980s precisely to politically deal with this crucial issue. In fact, its main tenet is that profits and environmental preservation can go hand in hand. More radically, the emergence of the green economy rhetoric on the 90s and 2000s represented a capitalist attempt to overcome the crisis of reproduction by incorporating the environmental limit as a new terrain for accumulation and valorization. Not only growth and environmentalism can be compatible; the latter is actually a key driver of the former. To grasp this passage from nature as limit to value to nature as driver of value it is sufficient to consider the historical trajectory of the European Union environmental policy: whereas the first Environmental Action Plan (1973-1977) was based on the so-called command and control approach, aimed at fixing ecological nuisances affecting industrial processes, the following plans – and in particular the Fourth (1987-1992) – endorse a pre-emptive approach in which the main policy tools are economic incentives and the fundamental goal is to directly integrate ecological objectives within industrial production. Progressively, environmental protection ceases to be seen as a necessary evil to become an opportunity for business. Neither the green economy nor the pre-emptive approach to environmental policy have halted the multiplication of ecological harms or the rise of carbon emissions. Yet, despite all this, they still represent the discursive background against which carbon trading can be properly assessed and critiqued.

To introduce the second point, let me briefly define carbon trading in a slightly more technical way.  The starting point is the Kyoto Protocol (KP), signed during Cop 3 in 1997. The KP is the first legally binding agreement on climate change and provides that the 37 Annex I countries (or the so-called developed nations) commit themselves to a reduction of six GHGs (5.2% on average in the 2008-2012 period, using 1990 as a baseline year), and all members (including Annex II countries, i.e. the so-called developing nations) give general commitments. Although the KP is intended to achieve emissions reductions through a variety of approaches, its crucial innovation is carbon trading, namely the idea that allocating and exchanging carbon commodities is the most efficient solution to the climate crisis. In fact, under the powerful political pressure exercised by the US delegation – led by then Vice-President Al Gore – the parties agreed to structure both the design and the implementation of the KP around three market-led approaches called flexibility mechanisms: i) Emissions Trading (ET): a cap-and-trade system in which governmental authorities set emission caps and private companies exchange permits and credits; ii) Joint Implementation (JI): a regulative system for exchanges amongst Annex I countries; and iii) Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), whose function is to indirectly include Annex II countries in global carbon markets. The fundamental economic rationale offered for such mechanisms is that trading emissions permits and credits on dedicated markets would simultaneously reduce the aggregate cost of meeting the targets, foster sustainable development in non-industrialized countries, and create profitable opportunities for green business.

As already anticipated, none of these desirable outcomes has materialized after ten years of full implementation (the KP entered into force in 2005). So it is legitimate to pose the following question: why are policy makers so reliant on carbon markets when empirical evidence suggests they do not work? In fact, their peculiar failure can be expressed through a curious paradox: from an environmental point of view – the one that carbon trading is supposed to satisfy (through the reduction of GHGs emissions to slow down global warming) – it is fair to say that carbon markets are useless when not nefarious. Quite simply, they do not achieve the expected results or, worse, actually prevent such achievements from occurring. Yet, from an economic perspective such markets represent a gold mine for financial traders (and often heavy polluting companies too). These markets function through a logic which is similar to the one Foucault discerned in the classical age French prison system: with Lohmann’s brilliant paraphrase, it is possible to conclude that carbon trading “has always been offered as its own remedy: the reactivation of its techniques as the only means of overcoming its perpetual failure […] the supposed failure is part of its functioning”.

Moreover, there seems to be a manifest disconnect between the environmental goal and the economical means of carbon trading. In fact, although no ecological improvement has been made, a huge amount of value has been created and then transferred to fossil fuel-intensive companies through the production of what can be called climate rent. It is probably more accurate, therefore, as well as more empowering to say that carbon trading is environmentally irrelevant, rather than claiming that it simply does not work, since its economical impact has been significant. Such friction between environmental irrelevance and rent production makes fully appreciable the profound entrenchment of the carbon trading dogma: although the ecological inconsistency of carbon markets has been empirically proved innumerable times, the assumption of a harmonic compatibility between climate stability and sustainable growth keeps orienting policy makers as well as market actors.

This is why Cop 21 could not but fail: nobody in that setting was willing to question the basics of what has been called climate capitalism. And this is also why the only solution to global warming comes from climate justice movements which are disseminated throughout the planet. As aptly argued by Steffen Böhm: “Climate justice is not something that should come after us accepting climate capitalism. A proper just climate can only be brought about if we don’t shy away from questioning the fundamental logic of carbon fetishism and the logic of the market that attempts to appropriate, commodify and financialize nature”.

The true step forward, then, is not to be found in yet another state-centred climate deal – supposedly “the world’s greatest diplomatic success”. It is, rather, a task that radical political ecologists have recognized many years ago and that climate justice movements should embrace too: that of liberating political imaginations from the status quo.

Emanuele Leonardi  is a Post-Doc Researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (CES/UC). His research interests include the intersection between the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics and the field of political ecology, the financialisation of the environmental crisis, carbon trading and climate justice movements, and job blackmail and working-class environmentalism. 

3 thoughts on “For a Critique of Carbon Trading Dogma

  1. Here, in this article, the author presents one of many points of view, theoretical framings: the political economic/ecological analysis. Interesting, yes. An important contribution, yes. And thank you, Emanuele- you make many great points in this article, important ones.

    Yet, what you call “carbon trade dogma” is what Indigenous peoples have been calling “false solutions to climate change” for just about a decade now and this is not at all acknowledged. As I understand it, “carbon trade dogma” is presented like a discovery. Indigenous people’s critical presence in Paris in COP21 is not mentioned, and credit for alternative analyses of climate change solutions is given to “radical political ecologists” and “climate justice movements”. There is no mention of Indigenous people’s roles at the frontlines of climate change movements, Indigenous voices or paradigms, or even of Indigenous people at all.

    This is another problem that accompanies climate change mitigation: many of the critics of the market-based proposals still colonize Indigenous people with the silences in what they write- by invisibilizing them. The social science/political economic/ecological authors cite only academics and social movement leaders, political economists like Naomi Klein, but still not those original (and other rural peoples) who are most affected by climate change, who predicted it, and whose elders were talking about it long, long before western science finally began to document the effects of climate change and claim it to be named as such…

    Understanding climate change and the false solutions to mitigating it means we are going to have to listen and include at the negotiations AND the analyses tables those who are usually on the margins. It is essential include ancestral people, voices, paradigms, and languages.

    Maybe the author had not heard the voices of Indigenous people and their discussions about “false solutions to climate change” (e.g. see the Indigenous Environmental Network’s or Tebtebba’s discussions on climate change since at least 2007). But they’d be hard to miss. And in case that their voices were heard, but the author still felt that the term still needed translation, I ask these questions: Shouldn’t we at least acknowledge that these notions have been proposed before in their own words? Why do academics feel the need to translate what’s happening on the ground, wrap it with new fancy packaging and, thus, incorporate these terms into the more critical “paradogmas” (Cathy Walsh) of the economic, natural, or social sciences? Are we not only colonizing Indigenous people/s by invisibilizing their contributions to analyses, but also ourselves by conforming to this need to do this translating/invisiblizing?

    Perhaps we do not even notice the invisibilizing that we are doing. Probably this is the case here in this article. Surely in this article there was intent to liberate from those processes which oppress, not to further them (I know that there are many people who do excellent, decolonizing work at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra). And surely this is also the case “down south”, in “el Sur” of the Americas, in the discussions about post-extractivism and de-growth that also tend not include Indigenous scholars or paradigms.

    What’s an alternative? There’s always alternatives. One is to decolonize ourselves and our research- learn to listen to what has been said before and what is still being talked about. Another is to decolonize climate change and its mitigation- learn to listen to what has been said before and what is still being talked about. Include those people and communities most affected by climate change in discussions and the critical analyses of what’s happening.


    1. Thanks a lot Juli, your insightful critiques allow me to better clarify some of the points about the carbon trading dogma. I will try to do that in a second.

      First, however, let me say that I was very surprised to read that since I only referred to “climate justice movements” and “political ecologists” I was invisibilizing or even silencing indigenous people. In my view indigenous organizations are essential components of climate justice as a global political subject. Actually, I have never been part of a more inclusive movement.
      So, I have some questions: do you think I should have mentioned just indigenous people or all the different “souls” of climate justice? In other words: did I also invisibilize/silence feminist critiques of climate change, anti-racist militants who struggle against false solutions to global warming, those trade unions who take seriously the idea of just transition, and many many others? Can one of the many possible political economic/ecological analyses (like the one I proposed) be presented independently – nowhere in the post I claim that it should be hegemonic or determinant (even in the last instance) – or should it be considered of secondary importance?
      Please note that these are not rhetorical or polemical questions: I am very interested to know your opinion since I share your conviction that Eurocentrism is a tough beast to tame and I would like to work on my possible shortcomings from this perspective. At the same time, I believe an ecological critique of the political economy of carbon trading can be useful on its own – both analytically and politically. If and only if, of course, it does not claim superiority to other approaches and it is properly conducted.

      This brings me to the second issue: in my opinion “carbon trading dogma” is not synonymous of “false solutions to climate change”. I am familiar with the Environmental Indigenous Network, whose compelling critiques of REDD+ I reported and discussed in my dissertation, along with issues such as epistemological and carbon colonialism ( It is true that these reflections (amongst others) and the one I elaborated in the post get to the same conclusion – carbon trading won’t solve the climate crisis – but this does not mean that they follow the same analytical path. I may be wrong, but my impression is that the EIN argues that carbon trading does not work since it keeps relying on the over-exploitation of finite resources. This suggests the idea that nature acts as a block to valorization and that carbon markets are a purely ideological operation whereby profiteers try to hide the essential incompatibility between capitalism and environmental protection. My argument is different: by stressing the dogmatic character of carbon trading I wanted to emphasize that it is involved in a process of truth-production which is different from that which marked environmental policies in the 1970s and 1980s. When nature was considered a block to valorization, the truth of the environmental crisis concerned a failure of the market. To the contrary, now that nature is considered a driver of valorization, the truth of the environmental crisis simply shows the imperfect implementation of market-based policies. Hence, carbon trading is ecologically irrelevant because the green economy has not delivered its promises. It may, though (unlikely scenario, but capitalism has shown incredible plasticity in its history): and it is precisely because I do not think that this option is impossible that I believe the best argument against carbon trading is twofold: a) it does not deliver + b) even if it would deliver it would not be desirable since subjects and objects conforming to a market-based truth-principle are not the entities which can enact a new ecological relationship between societies and environments.
      Thus, it seems to me that the concept of “false solutions” mobilizes different analytical resources than “carbon trading dogma”. Which does not mean this latter is necessarily original: if you know of people who argued the same before, please let me know and I will gladly acknowledge it.

      Similarly, I do not find the notion of “paradogmas” as you presented it to apply to this situation (but I will surely read more about that and maybe change my mind). Assuming the shift from nature as limit to valorization to nature as driver of it makes sense (if you disagree I would very much like to know why), this is not something that first happened on the ground and was subsequently wrapped in a fancy packaging. This interface between theory and practice is in my opinion problematic: the reason why I felt there was something wrong in conceptualizing the environment as a barrier to accumulation was a very concrete difficulty I experienced as an activist – our analyses seemed unable to grasp what was happening before our very eyes – and an equally concrete political curiosity concerning the co-optation of big environmentalist NGOs. I started to investigate such issues and – after a good number of years – I came up with a very disputable theory which reads what happens on the ground in a slightly different way than usual. Again: I am very happy to debate that (there would be nothing terrible in being wrong), but I do not see how I would have felt the need to translate something concrete (supposedly easy to explain) into something academic (supposedly obscure and fancy).

      Finally, I would like to ask you some reference with regard to those indigenous analyses who dealt with climate change before western science. It is a very interesting point to me and, as I said at the beginning, I agree that efforts to decolonize ourselves must be continuously trained if they are to be – at least partially – effective.


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