Journal Papers

Greening Capitalism? A Marxist Critique of Carbon Markets


Abstract: Climate change is increasingly being recognized as a serious threat to dominant modes of social organization, inspiring suggestions that capitalism itself needs to be transformed if we are to ‘decarbonize’ the global economy. Since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, carbon markets have emerged as the main politico-economic tools in global efforts to address climate change. Newell and Paterson (2010) have recently claimed that the embrace of carbon markets by financial and political elites constitutes a possible first step towards the transformation of current modes of capitalist organization into a new form of greener, more sustainable ‘climate capitalism.’ In this paper, we argue that the institutionalization of carbon markets does not, in fact, represent a move towards the radical transformation of capitalism, but is better understood as the most recent expression of ongoing trends of ecological commodification and expropriation, driving familiar processes of uneven and crisis-prone development. In this paper, we review four critical Marxist concepts: metabolic rift (Foster, 1999); capitalism as world ecology (Moore, 2011a); uneven development and accumulation through dispossession (Harvey, 2003, 2006); and sub-imperialism (Marini, 1972, 1977), developing a framework for a Marxist analysis of carbon markets. Our analysis shows that carbon markets form part of a longer historical development of global capitalism and its relation to nature. Carbon markets, we argue, serve as creative new modes of accumulation, but are unlikely to transform capitalist dynamics in ways that might foster a more sustainable global economy. Our analysis also elucidates, in particular, the role that carbon markets play in exacerbating uneven development within the Global South, as elites in emerging economies leverage carbon market financing to pursue new strategies of sub-imperial expansion.

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