Carbon Trading: Unethical, Unjust and Ineffective?

Cap-and-trade systems for greenhouse gas emissions are an important part of the climate change policies of the EU, Japan, New Zealand, among others, as well as China (soon). However, concerns have been raised on a variety of ethical grounds about the use of markets to reduce emissions. In this paper we examine three types of concern. The first holds that emissions trading schemes are 'unethical'. We examine five ethical objections. These objections hold that emissions trading is unethical because it: involves owning what should not be owned (objection 1), involves alienating responsibilities that should not be alienated (objection 2), necessarily worsens the condition of the vulnerable (objection 3), puts a price on the natural world (objection 4), and converts what ought to be a 'fine' into a 'fee' (objection 5). We find all five ethical objections unpersuasive. We then turn to consider a second kind of objection - namely that emissions trading schemes involve an unjust distribution of burdens and benefits. Finally, we consider the arguments adduced by those who question the effectiveness of emissions trading in reducing emissions. We conclude that only the objections based on distributional justice can be sustained. This points to reform of the carbon market system, rather than its elimination.
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DOI 10.1017/S1358246111000282
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John Stuart Mill (2009). On Liberty. In Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Philosophical Quarterly. Oxford University Press 519-522.

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