It turns out one of the most interesting sites for emissions quantification work is the DC-based World Resources Institute. Consider this point from their review of forestry-related emissions assets in developing countries:

For carbon financing to work, developing countries need to demonstrate that they can quantify market-quality emission reductions at either a subnational or a national level. This includes setting credible baselines (known as reference scenarios) showing that deforestation has not simply shifted from one place to another (known as leakage) and making certain that the emissions reductions will be permanent.

What interests me here is how the quantification requirements needed to create commercial-grade carbon assets form the intersection of carbon finance and human practices in developing countries. Those with a perspective critical of development institutions, especially governance work, will quickly point out that the most likely scenario is that the credibility of these assets will be weak, but they will remain tradable anyway because a) they’re valuable and b) there are few short-term consequences to poorly enforced standards. This is the sort of concern raised often by NGOs – WRI, for instance – and they do so out of an understanding of their own watchdog role concerning climate change mitigation.

Another possibility is markedly increased seriousness about these kinds of problems, and development of new techniques for capacity training, measurement and verification, and governance credibility.

From a research perspective, the important thing to note is that we have no obligation to decide in advance whether to be cynics (I mean realists) or optimists. We also are not obliged to use research as a way to decide whether or not carbon assets are credible. In fact, we can note that as under-resourced as they are critical NGOs have been keeping track of these issues even if not in the detail the issues deserve. Different disciplines can approach novel questions.

An anthropological approach might pose these concerns in terms of intersecting domains of human practices. We have carbon markets – people buying and selling carbon commodities. We have quantification practices – say, WRI, the carbon auditing organizations, the work sellers must do to produce standardized assets, the concern buyers have in ensuring enforcement is rigorous. And we have the governance work of (in this case) developing countries with forest-based assets, the watchdog groups, the capacity building initiatives. Within these domains of human practices, conceptual problems can be posed – say, the structures of power/knowledge, problems of space and distribution, whether or not any decisive shift has occurred in the interminable problems of development interventions, the status of development as redistribution, the links between politics and capitalism. . .

For me the strongest question concerns the relational ontology of atmosphere that emerges from these numerical informational practices. Specifically, the object being constructed is the carbon asset, but this bears a relation to ‘atmosphere,’ namely the long term stakes of climate stability, rights to climate security as well as rights to economic ‘use’ of the atmosphere. A relational ontology approach here foregrounds the connection ethics-ontology, which is to say the mutual relation of subject and object. (In a future post I will make the case that ethics slides into politics, putting into question the choice of terms I use here – or perhaps noting the ways ethics and politics become indistinct within practices of liberalism characterized by personal action.)

Like the emergence of long term climate scenario modeling and its role in making climate change a real issue, the tension here is between remarkably different time scales. Specifically, atmosphere is medium- to long-term, punctuated by intense climate events. But commercial transactions are short term, while market emergence is medium term at best – say 10-30 years. Shifts in US policy on climate change at the tail-end of the Bush administration were in part the effect of industry demands for clear signals on climate policy. But the other side of this, as Nicholas Stern (The Global Deal,2009) points out, is that an ethical question has to be posed about the rights of people who don’t exist yet.

Fascinatingly, economists routinely discount the value of future lives at a striking rate. Stern argues that this makes no sense ethically or politically, and instead the only legitimate ethical discount for future lives is that there is some possibility that some catastrophic event will end life on earth (say, a meteor strikes the planet). This, too, is quantified. Nordhaus, one of the most prominent climate economists who he takes to task for being misguided on this point, uses a discount rate of 2%. 1.5% is also common. “If a pure-time discount rate of 2% is selected, then a life that starts in 2010 would be assigned approximately twice the social value of a life that starts in 2045. … In other words, someone born later counts for less. In effect, this is discrimination by date of birth” (83). Stern uses an annual rate of 0.1% to account for the possibility of the demise of humanity by some cause other than climate change.

The time discounting concern for economists poses a specific ethical (political) problem (which economists may or may not take up) because the discipline addresses the issue of putting long term climate risks in terms of costly short term decisions. The ethical problem is inherent in the ontology of atmosphere, which has a specific temporal and risk character. So, in some sense this is a different version of the ethics-ontology question posed above in terms of forestry emissions reductions.

The relational ontology as I’ve posed it has to do with the different time scales of carbon assets and atmosphere but, as we see in very specific terms concerning ecological practices in developing countries, the relational ontology always maps onto spatial extention and related distributional effects. Here, quite literally, the temporal object atmosphere manifests in the detailed interactions between people in developing countries, practices of forest ecology, and the embodied, enforced enumeration of commercial grade carbon.

Funny, I wonder if the economists have a discount rate for people who live in other countries (instead of in the future). Or maybe the insurance companies keep track of that?