Assembling the taken-for-granted: carbon offsets and voluntary standards
Boushel, Corra Nuala Donnelly
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Carbon is a metric at the centre of contemporary debates. It is invoked to explain responses to climate change and justify political decisions over the economy and environment. Its ubiquity might suggest that the definition of carbon is broadly agreed upon, but along with greenhouse gas (GHG) measurements, articulating carbon as a commodity has incorporated debates over sustainable development (SD). The use of market-based mechanisms to manage carbon quantities results in articulations of the concept that reinforce consumption as a means to achieve public policy aims, but these are also contested. This research examines the concept of carbon to explore what might be taken-for-granted or overlooked when carbon is invoked. The research takes an ethnographic approach to carbon by examining offsetting – paying for reductions in GHG emissions at one location to make up for a continuation or increase of emissions at another. The novelty, complexity and lack of trust in carbon offsetting have resulted in numerous voluntary standards to improve consumer confidence in this commodity. The standard organisations’ position in codifying, measuring and accrediting carbon makes them valuable sites at which to describe the materialities of the concept. I use data collected from the administrative offices of two voluntary carbon offset standards in 2010-11 to explore what is included and excluded within carbon as it was enacted at these sites. Carbon is described in this research as an assemblage and a multiplicity – it is articulated in varying ways by actors within offset markets. Through the work of standards organisations, the “orthodoxies” of offsetting are identified as taken-for-granted features of carbon. In contrast, the position of SD is identified as variable across different articulations of carbon. Using a post-Actor Network Theory approach innovatively combined with Suchman’s typology of legitimacy, this diversity in carbon is not normatively evaluated; instead the focus is on how assemblages of carbon differentiate the legitimacy of SD as a feature of offsetting. Some take SD for granted as an inherent aspect of offsetting, for others it is a desirable feature, but not necessary. Alternatively it could be offered as an add-on possibility without suggesting SD implied better offsetting, and for others offsetting was best enacted without assembling SD concerns. Exploring carbon as an assemblage demonstrates the continuous and flexible constructions of carbon as a commodity and concept. When examined in detail, the marketing strategies and technical rules of different standards produce varying articulations of carbon. Furthermore, this research explores how the work of voluntary carbon offset standards excludes the scrutiny of sites of consumption of offsets. This exclusion, as with the integration of SD, is notable for the differences in how it is articulated by standard staff – challenged by some, taken-for-granted by others but with diverse rationales for each position. These features are informative in relation to the roles ascribed to voluntary standards across other commodities as well as in relation to carbon. Attending to the multiplicity that exists in the daily practices of offset markets suggests possibilities for those looking to stabilise or reform the concept of carbon as well as understanding the activities of voluntary standards.