Carbon colonialism: how the Global North are hiding their carbon emissions


It is no secret that most of the ‘wealthy’ countries today were the same countries which colonised nations across the Americas, Africa and Asia and ‘earned’ their capital through the exploitation of labour, resources, and the people in those places. The result? We have been left with many dividing the world into the Global North and South.

The qualifications which are used to define where a country sits on this spectrum are not based on geographical location, but instead mainly follow socio-economic trends. This same country categorisation follows the exact trend of which countries were the initial colonisers and colonised. Another common term that is used to make this differentiation is ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ nations. But as geographer Doreen Massey points out, this is not some quantifiable continuous spectrum where the result of development leads directly to being equal to Western countries. What hope is there for the Global South to catch up?

The Global North is still hiding behind their outsourced labour

The latest way the Global South has come under scrutiny has been their high emission rates in relation to countries in the Global North. Yet, this scrutiny lacks all the details. The factors used to dictate emission levels only account for the ones released within the borders of the country mentioned. The main factor being ignored in these numbers is the fact that a majority of emissions produced in the Global South are through the production of goods or raw materials for the Global North; suggesting the responsibility for these emissions do not belong solely to the country where emissions are made. Indeed, when these are due to high rates of mining, factory production, and the like, which takes place in many of these countries as a key form of income, then it must be questioned: who are they producing all the raw materials and goods for? What are the other options that they have at their disposal? How much of their emissions are caused from factors outside of the production and manufacturing of raw or assembled goods for other countries?

In truth, the answers all lead to the conclusion that a very small percentage of damage being done to the earth in these countries has roots within these countries. They are sending these goods out, primarily to the West, and they don’t have much choice due to the systems left in place when the colonial powers left. Yet, the countries which are importing the goods, either directly or indirectly, take no accountability for these emissions.

The United Kingdom recently said that they would cut their emissions by 78% at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, but none of their figures took into account any emissions of products that were being imported into island, which is the third-highest consumer of imported goods. Additionally, this takes no account for emissions caused via international transport of these goods. So there is a dissonance in the claim that there is active work to lower emissions. Western countries have turned developing countries into scapegoats to blame for high emissions, even though the emissions are still being caused by them inadvertently. This is significant to the climate change problem, especially as the production of goods accounts for 22% of carbon emissions according to Carbon Brief.

This is no new issue either: American political scientist Michael Parenti famously spoke (in 1986) of how Western theory has misbranded the rest of the world in order to conceal the West’s own actions using cheap resources and labour to its advantage. He said: “Poor countries are not ‘under-developed’, they are over-exploited”. And it seems that 36 years later, this hasn’t changed.

The Global North is still hiding behind their outsourced labour and making these countries pay the price for their desires. It just seems that the most recent desire is to appear to be eco-warriors, rather than take accountability for their practices and make an active difference.

Illustration: Verity Laycock

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