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“You can’t value what you can’t measure”: a critical look at forest carbon accounting


This article takes on the political and contested nature of forest carbon accounting via three “points of engagement” that articulate forest carbon initiatives as representations of tradable carbon. The three points of engagement—(1) baseline determinations, (2) the calculation of additionality, and (3) the role of uncertainty—are used to show how processes framed as technical are often spaces where uneven social and political interests are manipulated or obscured and contribute to varying environmental and conservation outcomes. The article begins by reviewing how carbon counting emerges in critical social science literature on forest carbon projects. Next, it explains carbon accounting broadly, the specifics of forest carbon accounting and why forests are popular spaces for financialized carbon sequestration. It concludes by arguing that carbon accounting is an uneven technical and political process that makes multiples forms of carbon legible on financial markets but does little to physically address atmospheric carbon concentrations.

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Correspondence to Lauren Gifford.

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This article is part of a Special Issue, “Climate Finance Justice: International Perspectives on Climate Policy, Social Justice, and Capital,” edited by Lauren Gifford and Chris Knudson

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Gifford, L. “You can’t value what you can’t measure”: a critical look at forest carbon accounting. Climatic Change 161, 291–306 (2020).

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  • Forest carbon offsets
  • Carbon markets
  • Carbon accounting
  • Climate change
  • Climate finance