Tales of Carbon Offsets: Between Experiments and Indulgences?

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Markets in carbon offsetting have, since their inception, been defended by their proponents as ‘experiments’ when it comes to the scale and the scope of their purpose of governing climate mitigation. Yet, different counter-narratives or ‘tales of defiance’ have been mounted as critiques of offsetting. This article focuses in particular on a tale of defiance, which continually has dismissed offsetting as a form of indulgence payment. While acknowledging that there are clear similarities between offsets and indulgence payments, the article argues that the indulgence payment metaphor glosses over the complexity of both types of transactions. The historical development of indulgence payments in the past demonstrates the difficulty of using them as simple models for understanding the problems inherent to offsetting, even if both types of transactions have been controversial. The debates over carbon offsetting continue to evolve, however, and recent developments seem to suggest a third tale, where the funding of emission-reducing projects are seen as donations of development aid, instead of being assumed to compensate for the donor’s emissions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Cultural Economy
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • carbon offsetting
  • value
  • payment
  • indulgence
  • narrative


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