Uncommon goods: on environmental virtues and voluntary carbon offsets

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Date: June 2010
From: Harvard Law Review(Vol. 123, Issue 8)
Publisher: Harvard Law Review Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 11,663 words

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Although the United States has not yet adopted a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions, (1) individuals and organizations are voluntarily buying carbon offsets in private markets. (2) The language of carbon footprints is ubiquitous; companies increasingly allow customers to pay for carbon offsets when they purchase particular goods or services, (3) and many have set "carbon neutrality" as an organizational goal. (4) To meet this demand, a voluntary carbon offset market has grown exponentially in recent years, with $704.8 million spent in 2008 to offset 123.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. (5) Corporations purchased the vast majority of these offsets, but individuals accounted for a significant minority. (6)

While the use of carbon markets as a regulatory tool has attracted much attention and opposition, the emergence and rapid growth of voluntary markets has received far less academic notice. Perhaps because voluntary offsets are not being used as part of an alternative to a traditional regulatory framework, but rather are created by private law contracts motivated by apparently altruistic concerns, they seem normatively unproblematic. This Note will argue not only that this lack of concern is misguided, but also that the standard arguments against regulatory markets have failed to identify what is truly ethically problematic about voluntary offsets.

What the standard arguments fail to consider is that environmentalism fosters and protects not only the value of the environment as such, but also the value of being the kind of person who leads a good life in relation to environmental values--or in other words, the value of living virtuously. As conceived by virtue ethics, an action is right not because it complies with a duty or achieves the right outcome, as in deontological or consequentialist theories, but rather because it is a manifestation of good character. And it is this type of good--specifically, the good of being the kind of person who avoids wastefulness--that the voluntary offset market threatens.

There are three ways in which the market threatens this good. By translating harm to the environment--and therefore, the good of the environment--into something measured in carbon, the market facilitates environmental use governed not by an ethic of good character, but rather by a principle of efficiency. In addition, it allows people to "do their part" without changing what they do, effacing the idea that being an environmentalist involves embodying environmental values in a corporeal way. Finally, the market dissolves important qualitative distinctions between types of carbon emissions, and in so doing undermines an idea of wastefulness that has been central to environmental ethics. In these ways, the market reshapes the principles that govern environmental consumption, the mechanism by which environmental action is achieved, and the conceptual framework in which environmental impacts are understood.

Thus, even if a voluntary market will bring about a reduction in aggregate emissions, it will not necessarily follow that it will be good for the environment. Rather, what this Note suggests is that the goal of carbon neutrality driving the market is at odds with...

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