Human-induced climate change has become a prominent political issue, at both national and international levels, leading to the search for regulatory ‘solutions’. Emissions trading has risen in popularity to become the most broadly favoured government strategy. Carbon permits have then quickly been developed as a serious financial instrument in markets turning over billions of dollars a year. In this article, I show how the reality of permit market operation is far removed from the assumptions of economic theory and the promise of saving resources by efficiently allocating emission reductions. The pervasiveness of Greenhouse Gas emissions, strong uncertainty and complexity combine to prevent economists from substantiating their theoretical claims of cost-effectiveness. Corporate power is shown to be a major force affecting emissions market operation and design. The potential for manipulation to achieve financial gain, while showing little regard for environmental or social consequences, is evident as markets have extended internationally and via trading offsets. At the individual level, there is the potential for emissions trading to have undesirable ethical and psychological impacts and to crowd out voluntary actions. I conclude that the focus on such markets is creating a distraction from the need for changing human behaviour, institutions and infrastructure.