Uncommon Goods: On Environmental Virtues and Voluntary Carbon Offsets

24 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2013

See all articles by Jeffrey M. Skopek

Jeffrey M. Skopek

University of Cambridge; Harvard Law School

Date Written: June 2010


While the use of carbon offsets as a regulatory tool has been the subject of extensive academic debate, the purely voluntary purchase of offsets has received virtually no attention, presumably because it appears to be normatively unproblematic. This article argues that this lack of concern is misguided, and for reasons that the well-developed critiques of offsets — based in consequentialist and deontological frameworks — fail to identify.

Developing a virtue-based account of some of the values that have long been protected by environmentalism, I argue that the voluntary market threatens these values in three ways. First, the market translates environmental harm into something measured in carbon, facilitating environmental use governed solely by a principle of efficiency. Second, the market allows people to “do their part” without altering what they do, effacing the idea that the protection of the environment is the type of burden that all members of a society must carry equally. Third, the market treats all carbon the same, dissolving qualitative distinctions between types of carbon emissions and the non-consequentialist conception of wastefulness in which they are grounded. In short, 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.

For these reasons, the market does not merely allow for the exercise of preexisting environmental commitments, but rather can reshape the ethic that motivated these commitments in the first instance. Thus, even if the purchase of voluntary offsets will bring about a reduction in aggregate emissions, it does not necessarily follow that such purchases are normatively desirable. The good of carbon neutrality is at odds with a set of goods traditionally protected by environmentalism.

Keywords: voluntary carbon markets, environmental virtue ethics, carbon offsets, carbon credits

Suggested Citation

Skopek, Jeffrey M., Uncommon Goods: On Environmental Virtues and Voluntary Carbon Offsets (June 2010). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 123, No. 8, pp. 2065-2087, June 2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2310738

Jeffrey M. Skopek (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge ( email )

Faculty of Law
10 West Rd
Cambridge, CB3 9DZ
United Kingdom

Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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