Environmental Protection as Market Pathology?: Carbon Trading and the Dialectics of the 'Double Movement'

By Carton, Wim | Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Environmental Protection as Market Pathology?: Carbon Trading and the Dialectics of the 'Double Movement'


Carton, Wim, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space


Abstract. Polanyi's concept of the 'double movement' is frequently interpreted as the opposition between the problematic and unsustainable dynamics of the market and the benign and normatively desirable reaction against this by 'society'. This paper questions this dualistic interpretation of the double movement and undertakes a problematization of the Polanyian idea of social and environmental protection. It does this by revisiting the concept of the double movement in light of the recent proliferation of market-based mechanisms for environmental regulation. Through an exploration of the different interpretations of Polanyi's work, the paper presents a dialectical reading of the double movement that conceptualizes the idea of social protection within a broader capitalist framework. This is then illustrated with the case of emissions trading as a particular form of environmental protection. Carbon trading as a mitigation strategy, it is argued, corresponds to the Polanyian idea of 'social protection' in that its protective potential to reduce emissions is itself constrained by the socioeconomic framework within which it operates. This in turn points to the need for a critique of climate mitigation efforts that goes beyond a focus on current problems with emissions trading schemes.

Keywords: EU Emissions Trading Scheme, Karl Polanyi, climate change, countermovement

Introduction

Recent decades have seen a qualitative change in the role of private actors in environmental regulation and a concomitant transformation in the responsibilities traditionally assumed by the state. This has been evident in such areas as water governance (Swyngedouw, 2005), fishery policy (Mansfield, 2004), forestry (McCarthy, 2005), and wetland conservation (Robertson, 2004), and in the establishment of the 'payments for ecosystem services' framework (Kosoy and Corbera, 2010). One particularly conspicuous example is the recent uptake of market mechanisms for climate change mitigation. Best known from such policy instruments as the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism and the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), various incarnations of the 'carbon market' now exist or are under development around the world (ICAP, 2013). While many of these schemes have been tainted by delays, controversies, price collapses, and significant setbacks, leading some commentators to depict the future of market-based climate change mitigation as increasingly uncertain (Bond, 2011; Reyes, 2011), the emissions trading approach has so far eluded predictions of imminent breakdown. Indeed, the continued support of European governments for the EU ETS, the world's largest and most ambitious emissions trading scheme, in face of persistent and serious problems, as well as the apparent resolve of the Chinese government to implement its own nation-wide emissions trading system by 2015, suggests that global climate governance in the foreseeable future is set to involve more, not less, carbon trading.

A wide range of concepts are commonly employed to explore the economic, political, and ecological dimensions of these market-based experiments in environmental governance. A recurrent theme is the use of Polanyi's (2001) notion of the 'double movement', developed to describe the 'great transformation' of 19th-century Europe. The concept has become a popular starting point for the critique of contemporary economic trends, not least with respect to socioecological issues (Castree, 2010; Dale, 2010a; Lohmann, 2010; Prudham, 2004). The ongoing neoliberalization of both society and nature is thereby generally seen as evidence of the 'commodification' phase in a new double movement (Peck, 2008; Sandbrook, 2011; Silver and Arrighi, 2003), implying the expectation of its inevitable, if not imminent, replacement by a new social-protective phase (Dale, 2012). In the case of climate change, viable 'countermovements' that could challenge the hegemonic consensus around market instruments and spark this transition to a more sustainable socioeconomic model are generally sought in such civil society initiatives as the 'Climate Justice' network, various grassroots movements to "keep the oil in the soil" (Lohmann, 2011a), the farmer's movement La Via Campesina, and the 2010 'World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth' in Cochabamba, Bolivia (Bond, 2012). …

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