Offset Frontiers, Fossil Capitalism and the Law

by Larry Lohmann

first published 5 June 2023

For decades, students of environmental law were taught that global warming was a problem of unpriced externalities. Smart policy entailed sending price signals to market actors that nudge them to reduce emissions and direct growth in a “green” direction. Thirty years later, as we barrel towards catastrophic warming, the lodestar of green capitalism looks more like an illusion. Nevertheless, many of the models and methods of 1990s environmental economics continue to circulate unquestioned, in law school classrooms and beyond.

At the centre of today's "green" capitalism are what are known as "offsets." The idea is that regulators shouldn’t force you to reduce your emissions if you can convince them that you’ve found a cheaper substitute for doing so. Or that you shouldn’t have to stop depleting biodiversity or water sources on one site as long as you can also do something else somewhere else that “balances out” the damage and costs less.

Because offsets require the legal creation – and exploitation – of new sacrifice zones, they entail a new type of frontier colonialism.  Predictably, this approach has been a disaster for the environment. Less noticed is the extent to which offsetting has warped the entire aim of environmental law, argues this contribution to the Law and Political Economy Project's blog housed at Yale University Law School.

The blog contribution can also be viewed at