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Making Markets Out of Thin Air: A Case of Capital Involution

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This article traces the creation of a market for carbon sequestration by trees under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, describing the problems encountered by UN negotiators as they attempted to abstract, isolate, quantify and commodify a process akin to breathing, which takes place naturally everywhere, anyway. It starts with an overview of the history of the negotiations that defined the commodity and the rules to govern its trade, creating the scarcity conditions for the market to work. It then goes over the key problems encountered and how they were solved. The analysis draws attention to time and risk as critical elements in reproducing uneven development, and suggests that this new market can be understood as an instance of capital involution—that is, an instance where a narrow pattern persistently repeated leads to ever increasing complexity but, instead of evolving into something new, it generates further entrapment.

Keywords: Kyoto Protocol; UNFCCC; carbon sinks; climate change; commodity; involution

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Consultant, 40 Barrow Street, New York, NY 10014, USA;, Email:

Publication date: June 1, 2011


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