Habitable Air

Experimenting with Failure: Insights from Charlotte Bruckermann’s Recent Article on China’s Environmental Policies

In a recent article titled “The pragmatism of continual failure: environmental policy as experimentation in China,” Charlotte Bruckermann (University of Cologne and Senior Researcher: Habitable Air) sheds light on the issue of air pollution in China and the failure of environmental policies to address its detrimental effects on citizens’ health. The article examines the perspectives of various individuals involved in environmental policy and carbon markets, highlighting the different ways in which pollution and policy failure are experienced and evaluated, from sensory and somatic experiences to courtrooms, public inquiries, and social policies.


Bruckermann examines the Chinese government’s approach to regional carbon markets, which views policy as an experiment that allows for failure while redirecting policy objectives towards distant futures. It argues that policy experimentation in China is based on improvisational strategies that reveal the adaptability of state projects in response to changing conditions, and that the CCP’s participatory dimension in carbon markets has resulted in experiments in citizen carbon trading and individual and household carbon accounting.


Despite the government’s promises to achieve carbon neutrality, experts in environmental governance are skeptical about the effectiveness of current policies and view themselves as pioneers in an experimental field. Carbon experts have developed a professional outlook that combines confidence and anxiety, which requires critical distance for success. They invest in carbon policies and align with state goals, while maintaining criticism and keeping all options open, especially those that lead to global futures.


The article suggests that this combination of pragmatism and cynicism is not unique to China and has been observed in other contexts such as post-Soviet spaces. It also explores the perspectives of individuals involved in the field, including an environmental activist who uses his banking experience to bridge the gap between environmental activism and finance as well as a sustainability professional who is critical of carbon markets and questions the validity of anthropogenic climate change.


Lastly, the article discusses the development of carbon markets and various issues surrounding them, including delays in rollouts, political problems as well as concerns over inequality. Bruckermann explores the pragmatics of experimentation in response to failure in the context of Chinese carbon markets and their relationship to planetary pollution and climate change. The disjuncture between emissions reductions and knowledge acquisition valorises incremental improvement. Consequently, carbon market participants develop linguistic and career strategies to recognise and respond to the ambivalences of knowledge produced from carbon trading.


The article is available open access and you can read it using this link.