Both carbon accounting and cost–benefit analysis work to frame major new market or purportedly market-like spaces in which conventional distinctions between physical science and economics and among legal, political and price incentives become blurred. Carbon trading’s requirement to commensurate disparate properties, actions and potentials in the service of making carbon pricing possible parallels CBA’s need to isolate well-behaved, commensurable preferences in the service of calculating welfare. Both imperatives generate zones of ignorance and ‘stupidity’ ( Richardson, 2001 ) that are, in the long term, difficult to maintain given the goals each technique was ostensibly designed to help achieve. For example, carbon accounting’s indifference to where or how emissions cuts are made discourages attention to path dependence, positive feedbacks and innovation; its conflation of reductions and offsets leads to a running together of probability with uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy; and its focus on means of achieving short-term efficiency obstructs social thinking about long-term directions and the drawbacks of having to monitor geographically distant effects. By the same token, techniques for constructing preferences for use in CBA typically exclude from their ‘epistemic probe’ ( Sen, 2001, p. 114 ) alternatives that require public discussion to identify, while interpreting subject resistance as irrationality.

From Toward a different debate in environmental accounting: The cases of carbon and cost–benefit (Lohmann, L. 2009. Toward a different debate in environmental accounting: The cases of carbon and cost–benefit. Accounting, Organizations and Society 34(3–4): 499-534).

While the prose is possibly a bit arch, this bit by Lohmann expresses several key points that I have not seen summarized so pithily before:

a) The practical social science of approaches like carbon trading and strict economic valuation of ecosystem services (like climate mitigation) implies that they may not be effective, regardless of how much these approaches are “refined”. That is, various “frictions” may imply that these models are inherently unworkable as stand-alone approaches, or approaches of first-resort. (That is to say, I don’t think they’re valueless, but I think they cannot be relied upon as a “first line of attack”, let’s say.)

b) Focusing on trying to get these flawed systems “right” may obstruct thinking about more innovative, and ultimately functional, approaches;

c) Many alternatives may only be possible when done in consultation with groups “on the ground”, such that top-down, expert-centered “scientific” approaches based on nothing but the best peer-reviewed literature and remote from society at large may be ultimately ineffective and detached from any effective forms of implementation, and

d) Those of “us” refusing to whole-heartedly go along with approaches like ecosystem service valuation or carbon markets may not be irrational but rather reasonable responses to critiques of the form (a-c) and others.

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