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


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.

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  1. ‘Green economy’ is sometimes used in a broader sense to mean ‘ecologically sustainable’ economy. Here, I refer to the explicitly market-oriented conceptualization of green economy emphasized by multilateral agencies.

  2. Carbon credits are usually accounted for in units of metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2es), a device for comparing the global warming impact of CO2, methane, nitrous oxides, ozone, or other GHGs.

  3. VCMs are not linked to government legislation or international treaties but are self-policing schemes created by private-sector groups and companies that want to reduce their ‘carbon footprints’ or present a greener pubic image. For-profit and nonprofit organizations have been established to manage VCM projects or to ensure that the credits they generate are likely to retain their commercial and public-relations values (Forest Trends 2014).

  4. The other major category of PES projects involve payments for carbon sequestration or for hydrological services financed at subregional and national scales. Biodiversity offsets and credits for wildlife conservation are also bought and sold internationally (Sullivan 2013).

  5. I have discussed elsewhere the diverse literature that documents these projects and debates the pros and cons of PES (McAfee 2012a; McAfee and Shapiro 2010).

  6. I = PAT is meant to show that total human impact on the environment (I) can be calculated by multiplying population (P) by quantities indicating level of affluence (A) and technology (T).

  7. I have argued in more detail elsewhere that inequality is built into the framework and rationale for global carbon markets (McAfee 2012).

  8. Whether these activities yield environmental benefits or social benefits may depend on the scale at which the question is posed and the circumstances under which such activities are carried out. For example, Shapiro-Garza (2011) reports that Mexico’s national PES program has not led to dispossession in the areas studied and has benefited many participants, although not always in the ways envisioned by market-efficiency maximalists.

  9. The environmental Kuznets curve idea predicts that economic development will be about greening. It applies a theory of economist Simon Kuznets, who proposed that industrialization results in decreased inequality after an initial period of increase.

  10. The paradox is named after William Stanley Jevons, who argued in the 1865 that more efficient use of coal in the UK would not resolve worries about future coal scarcity.

  11. As Adam Smith wrote, ‘Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.’ (Smith 1910 [1776]).


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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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Correspondence to Kathleen McAfee.

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McAfee, K. Green economy and carbon markets for conservation and development: a critical view. Int Environ Agreements 16, 333–353 (2016).

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