Ecological modernisation and the governance of carbon: a critical analysis

Produced as part of the Governments, markets and climate change mitigation CCCEP research programme theme

Abstract of Working Paper 26

We use insights derived from a critical evaluation of ecological modernisation (EM) theories to examine the origins and influence of new, market-based forms of carbon governance.

Focusing on two key examples of these, namely emissions trading in Europe and the global market in offsets, we argue that EM theories can help us to:

  • understand the processes through which the seemingly intractable problem of climate change has, over a relatively short period of time, been reframed as an opportunity to construct a new carbon economy;
  • and to anticipate some of the tensions, contradictions and limits of such an approach.

We then explore the governance dimensions of these novel market mechanisms. We also examine the political drivers of these new forms of carbon governance: how they came to be ‘naturalised’ as preferred policy options.

We then look at how they work: how decisions are made and which actors are enrolled in the process of governing to lend it authority, legitimacy and effectiveness. We discuss whether, to what extent and for whom they work.

We highlight a series of (un)-intended consequences that flow from these practices and modes of governing. These include accountability and legitimacy deficits, participation gaps and uneven spatial and social development.

We conclude by discussing the significance of these observations for debates on climate change, the governance of carbon and for theories of EM.