Over the past decade, carbon emissions trading schemes have emerged at subnational, national, and regional levels in Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific. In The Rise and Fall of Carbon Emissions Trading, Declan Kuch offers a theoretically engaging and empirically rich account of the turn to carbon emissions trading in Australia and internationally. Given that carbon trading continues to spread around the world, the notion of “rise and fall” might appear misleading, but as Kuch explains it, it refers to the failure of emissions trading to live up to expectations to “civilize markets” by cooling political conflicts, reducing dissent, and ultimately cutting emissions. According to Kuch, conventional accounts of carbon trading fail to see the political interests, power struggles, and conflicts that always loom large in the measurement and calculation of carbon emissions.
The book draws on and contributes to critical literatures on neoliberalism and governmentality, the “technopolitics” of carbon trading schemes, and sociological accounts of their operation. In particular, the book builds on what the author refers to as the performative turn in economic sociology, drawing on the concepts of experimentation, framing, and overflows to develop a theoretically informed understanding of the politics of emissions trading.
The book offers several interesting case studies that individually and collectively assess the prospects for emissions trading to civilize markets and cut emissions. A case study of acid rain regulation in Europe and the United States as an experimental “bridge” to carbon markets provides a critical account of the turn to sulphur emissions trading in the United States and a more positive assessment of the European development of the world’s first transboundary air pollution treaty—the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. The perceived success of sulphur emissions trading was transferred to the issue of climate change, facilitating the development of the New South Wales Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme in Australia—the first regulatory carbon trading scheme in the world. Kuch provides an in-depth account of the creation and operation of this scheme, situating the development of the scheme in the Australian context of electricity marketization and neoliberal political reforms, and showing how economists used carbon offsets to generate accountable numbers.
The politics of carbon accounting is further examined in a case study of land-use change accounting in Australia and internationally under the Kyoto Protocol. Kuch skillfully documents “the deeply political nature of biomass accounting” (p. 115). Far from being based on transparent and factual land-use calculations, carbon accounting relies on political decisions, bureaucratic expert judgments, imprecise numbers, post-hoc audits, and sometimes guesswork. Kuch shows that such decisions and judgments are also repeated at the international level when he investigates the construction and operation of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol. He reveals the underperformance of the CDM, mostly due to design flaws, limited scope, bureaucratic processes, and lack of “additionality” of emissions reductions achieved through approved projects. In the final analysis, the CDM has not been the site of international learning and critical reflection through collective experimentation that many hoped it would be, but has rather “created a powerful new class of bureaucratic experts” (p. 147) mediating competing demands from rich countries, civil society groups, and host countries on carbon offset rulemaking and verification, and evaluating carbon offsets in narrow economic terms.
Drawing together the findings from the case studies, Kuch argues that the cumbersome and rigid carbon markets studied in the book have not been created because of their efficiency, but rather because of their ability to garner support from business groups and government actors and the near hegemonic political authority of economists that shaped these markets. He exposes how corporate lobbying during the making and implementation of emissions trading schemes in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere resulted in significant political concessions to the fossil fuel industry. It is well known that power producers and industry have exploited carbon accounting loopholes and free allocation to gain windfall profits, but Kuch’s analysis goes one step further in demonstrating how the complexities of carbon accounting have created opportunities for powerful corporate lobbies to protect their interests and profit from emissions trading.
This is not a book of solutions, according to Kuch. Nevertheless, he offers some suggestions about how to improve the governance of climate change mitigation. These suggestions are centered on civil society activism, grassroots action, and other bottom-up measures, as well as socio-legal reforms. Examples include community food initiatives, car-sharing initiatives, and other efforts along a spectrum from activism to enterprise. These are welcome bottom-up initiatives that will not make much of a difference unless they are supplemented with effective domestic and international climate governance architectures. The book is essentially better at explaining and criticizing policies than it is at pointing to effective policy solutions. For readers not well-versed in sociological theory, parts of the book might also appear inaccessible and hard to follow. Perhaps this inaccessibility and the lack of policy solutions in the book explain why environmental economists, not critical social scientists, continue to dominate policy debates and recommendations about climate change mitigation measures, as seen, for example, in the reports on mitigation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Its shortcomings aside, this book offers a comprehensive and compelling account of the politics of carbon trading, calculation, and accounting. It should be widely read, not least by environmental economists and decision-makers in government. The only fear is that those who would benefit the most from reflecting on its insights and policy implications would prefer to continue developing their models and policies without taking into account the worrying politics of carbon measurement and commodification.