Green economy and carbon markets for conservation and development: a critical view

  • Kathleen McAfee
Original Paper


Green economy aims to use economic rationality and market mechanisms to mute the most ecologically damaging effects of globalized capitalism while reviving economic growth in the global North, fostering development in the South, and decoupling economic growth from environmental decline. An archetypal application of green economy is transnational trade in ecosystem services, including reduced emissions for deforestation and degradation (REDD+). By compensating developing countries for maintaining forests as carbon sinks, this approach is meant to transcend politics and circumvent conflicts over the responsibilities of industrialized and ‘less-developed’ countries that have stymied global climate policy. However, carbon-offset trading is unlikely to result in lower greenhouse gas emissions, much less combined conservation and development gains. The troubled record of payment for environmental services and other schemes or commodification of nature illustrates that living ecosocial systems do not fit the requirements of market contracts. Disputes over proto-REDD+ projects point to the dangers that REDD+ will disadvantage or dispossess rural communities and distract attention from underlying causes of forest and livelihood loss. Two decades of all-but-futile climate negotiations have shown that global warming cannot be managed by means of technocratic expertise nor dealt with separately from the politics of inequality and the paradox of economic growth. The deceptive promise of greening with growth can blind us to these realities. Counter-hegemonic discourses to growth-centered green economy under the headings of buen vivir, mainly in the global South, and degrowth, mainly in the global North, therefore merit attention.


Green economy Development Carbon markets Ecosystem services Degrowth Buen vivir REDD+ 



This article was written during the author’s 2014 residence at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. I am grateful for input from other Rachel Carson fellows, encouraging critical comments by Chuks Okereke and two anonymous reviewers, and the support of my colleagues in the Association of American Geographers and my home department, International Relations, at San Francisco State University.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International RelationsSan Francisco State UniversitySan FranciscoUSA

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