Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to make sense of the tensions and contradictions between different conceptions of the meaning of carbon accounting. Design/methodology/approach – The paper draws on theories of framing to help explain the divergent understandings and practices currently encompassed by the term “carbon accounting”. The empirical core of the paper is based on a review of the literature and illustrated through examples of some of the contemporary problems in carbon accounting. Findings – Tensions and contradictions in carbon accounting can be understood as the result of “collisions” between at least five overlapping frames of reference, namely physical, political, market-enabling, financial and social/environmental modes of carbon accounting. Practical implications – Unresolved tensions in carbon accounting can undermine confidence in climate science, policies, markets and reporting, thereby ultimately discouraging action to mitigate climate change. Understanding this problem can contribute to finding practical solutions. Originality/value – The paper makes three distinct contributions to the emerging theoretical literature on carbon accounting. First, it provides a unique “unpacked” definition of carbon accounting that attempts to represent the contemporary range of meanings encompassed by the term. Second, it demonstrates how social science ideas about framing can help explain why definitions and understandings of carbon accounting vary. Third, by making the interactions between different forms of carbon accounting explicit through the metaphor of colliding frames of reference, the origins of some of the contemporary intractable issues in carbon accounting can be better understood.Carbon, Carbon accounting, Carbon disclosure, Carbon markets, Climate change, Commensuration, Framing
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