Carbon classified? Unpacking heterogeneous relations inscribed into corporate carbon emissions : Ingmar Lippert


How does a corporation know it emits carbon? Acquiring such knowledge starts with the classification of environmentally relevant consumption information. This paper visits the corporate location at which this underlying element for their knowledge is assembled to give rise to carbon emissions. Using an actor- network theory (ANT) framework, the aim is to investigate the actors who bring together the elements needed to classify their carbon emission sources and unpack the heterogeneous relations drawn on. Based on an ethnographic study of corporate agents of ecological modernisation over a period of 13 months, this paper provides an exploration of three cases of enacting classification. Drawing on ANT, we problematise the silencing of a range of possible modalities of consumption facts and point to the ontological ethics involved in such performances. In a context of global warming and corporations construing themselves as able and suitable to manage their emissions, and, additionally, given that the construction of carbon emissions has performative consequences, the underlying practices need to be declassified, i.e. opened for public scrutiny. Hence the paper concludes by arguing for a collective engagement with the ontological politics of carbon.


Grand theories on greening capitalism like to postulate that corporations are well able to account for their impacts on nature. In contrast, this paper argues that we find ‘greening’ capitalist enterprises means betrayal and silencing of both contested and non-contested realties of these impacts upon nature. To substantiate this claim, this paper unpacks the underlying classificatory work required for a corporation to establish accounts of their carbon emissions. This argument contributes to the aim of the paper: using actor-network theory (ANT) to analyse how classification as part of actual accounting practices constitutes a significant moment in the social construction of carbon emissions. To be specific, this paper uses ‘carbon’ as shorthand for ‘CO2e’, i.e. the accounting equivalent of CO2 (cf. MacKenzie, 2009a: 443-447; Lippert, 2012). The construction of such emissions may be understood as a specific technology which is often construed as a means for reconciling capitalism with ‘nature’. However, such utopian engagements with reality also need to address the manageability of climate change and, thus, carbon. We will conclude that how carbon comes to matter is to be understood as ‘ontological politics’ (Law, 2008).

This story is part of a research project scrutinising the work practices of corporate ‘agents of ecological modernisation’, i.e. those who are supposed to ecologically modernise organisations.1 Ecological modernisation refers to a rationality-ideology which supposedly reconciles capitalism with ‘nature’. The primary means by which this reconciliation is assumed to take place are with the use of both social and material technologies. Companies are understood as being among the prime actors to render industrialised societies green and sustainable. While ecological modernisation also provides roles for the nation-state, Non-Governmental Organisations and other societal actors, the notion that companies – and through this capitalism itself – will become green, is of uttermost importance. To study these agents and their practices, rather than choosing some green niche company, I chose a multinational player as a research site.2 Underlying carbon accounting is the classification of emissions. To engage with this fundamental practice, this paper provides an analysis of three cases of classifying physical information within that company. Collecting ‘physical information’ is considered key to best practice in carbon accounting (Burritt, Schaltegger and Zvezdov, 2010). However, in contrast to Burritt et al., I argue physical information is not an innocent idea. By way of investigating the heterogeneous relations drawn on, strengthened and weakened in the course of classifying physical information, I show that critical scholars and other actors should better not trust black-boxed carbon ‘facts’. We should be cautious about carbon information in three ways. First, even the simplest act of classification includes a qualitative element of betrayal. In the process of information being classified, some parts of the original set of information is disregarded and not made transparent. Second, turning attention to competing possibilities of how to classify a physical entity allows us to recognise the politics of boundary drawing and maintenance between categories. Third, if we zoom into a category and question the relations stabilising its inside we are confronted with ontological politics. This is a politics about what kind of carbon is constructed and, eventually, emitted into social and economic reality.

The reconstruction of corporate carbon emissions has been influenced by these theoretical and methodological bodies of thought: firstly, Ecological Modernisation Theory (EMT), rationalising ecological modernisation, suggests that nation-states and corporations can become green through a greater, rather than a lesser, deployment of market-driven science, technology and expertise (Buttel, 2000). If indeed the rationalisation of the environment leads to the rationalisation of boundaries of markets, industry may then want to ecologically modernise by making ‘environment’ accountable (Christoff, 1996: 486). Howard-Grenville (2006) points to the significance of opening the black-box of corporate environmental practice. Often literature on EMT focused on grand social actors while having lost sight of the actual workers (pre)supposed to put the environment neatly into the accounting boxes. In line with Howard-Grenville’s ethnographic approach to scrutinising actual members’ practices and cultures, I consider a study of the classificatory practices (aimed at rationalising environment) to be a promising one.

Secondly, to inform my ethnography I have drawn upon Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995) whose approach to structuring observation and analysing ethnographic field- notes is informed by Grounded Theory. My analysis amounted to about 300 pages, qualitatively coded using TAMS (Weinstein, 2006) following Emerson et al. (1995), and resulted in 1704 codes structured into 77 code families. This paper follows partial connections within the field – rather than posing my presentation as drawn from an omniscient god-like perspective. Analytically I have been informed by ANT, a theory which is sensitive to the relevance of non-human elements as constituent parts of social reality. Participant observation took place in a financial services company over 97 days during a period of 13 months. Research subjects were aware of my role as a researcher studying the culture, interactions and achievements of their everyday environmental management work.

Thirdly, according to Szerszynski and Urry (2010: 4), descriptions of climate change entail normative prescriptions about society. The tradition of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has been engaging with questions of climate change increasingly intensively (Shackley and Wynne, 1995; Lohmann, 2005; Lohmann, 2009b; Abramsky, 2009). Recent work by STS scholars and other social scientists on the economic instrument of carbon markets (MacKenzie, 2009a; Böhm and Dabhi, 2009) implied a need for empirical studies of carbon accounting (Lohmann, 2009a; MacKenzie, 2009b: 130; Lovell and MacKenzie, 2011) requiring investigation of the classification practices which underlie any accounting.

Thus, while EMT provides the framework of environmental politics within which this paper’s subject matter performs, an ANT-inspired ethnography seems apt in order to scrutinise this particular set of practices presupposed by EMT: the correct classification of environmentally relevant consumption. By this we contribute to the social scientific discourse on the materiality and performativity of carbon economics. This text also speaks to those interested in performing realities through carbon emission construction. Those who normally black-box the question of how workers would actually bring about practices of ecological modernisation, may read this paper as a contribution which questions their assumptions about the reality of corporate environmental monitoring. Similarly, it provides an alternative language with which to analyse environmental management practices.

Vantage point

To situate the vantage point of this paper, let us briefly consider carbon reports in the financial services sector. The Bank of America Environmental Progress Report 2010, for instance, claims that the corporation has reduced its carbon emissions by 18 per cent over the past five years. In 2010 an AXA website introducing their greening activities suggested that their Environmental Management System (EMS) was being put into practice with the help of a network of environmental managers. Many companies normally produce their reported carbon emissions within such an EMS. I visited one of the world’s largest financial services providers to study their environmental managers. This paper is about those at the bottom, literally in the basement, who provided the numbers which were assembled to represent the corporation’s carbon emissions. We will focus on a set of practices located there which fundamentally constrain how carbon emissions come into business existence: quantities of goods and services consumed were classified in accounts, and attached to these classifications were carbon conversion factors.3

This paper proceeds in the following manner: in the next section, I briefly introduce you to the sites of research, my access to it and the theoretical as well as methodological framing. Subsequently the main part of this paper consists of an introduction and analysis of three cases of classification practices. While reconstructing these practices my analysis also provides an introduction on a case-by-case basis of what I perceive to be the practices’ complexity. Finally, I conclude by way of summarising the cases and point to their implications in terms of struggling for collective control over production.

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