Sacred Headwaters #42: Carbon Colonialism Pt 1 - Historical Emissions
Just a handful of countries – overwhelmingly, the same countries that have benefitted from five hundred years of colonialism – are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions.
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Issue #42: Carbon Colonialism Pt 1 - Historical Emissions
Greta Thunberg called COP26 a “global north greenwash festival.” Luis Arce, the President of Bolivia, accused the wealthy world of practicing “carbon colonialism” in its desperate bid to perpetuate the status quo. And of course, it took devastating climate disasters hitting the global North for newspapers like The Guardian to start realizing that “the climate disaster is here” and “nowhere is safe.”
The Global South has been suffering the consequences of climate change for some time and the prospect of additional warming, as bad as it is for all of us, is far worse for many of those countries. Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives said, “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” A Sudanese diplomat phrased it slightly differently at the Copenhagen climate conference: “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” Every single climate conference has left the countries of the South feeling this way.
As much as the impacts of climate change are unequal, so too are the causes and the solutions. Over the next three issues, we will look at three different facets of carbon colonialism. First, historical emissions: every ounce of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today was emitted by industrial activities and land use change. Who conducted those activities, who benefits from them, and who continues to benefit from them?
Second, who is emitting the most today? Both between countries and within them? Not to spoil it in advance, but the answer is fairly clear: wealth and emissions are closely correlated.
Finally, we’ll look at what Luis Arce was referring to when he used the phrase carbon colonialism: the rapidly accelerating deployment of carbon markets as an excuse to seize more Global South land and resources under the banner of offset schemes.
Issue #42: Carbon Colonialism Pt 1 - Historical Emissions (Nov 29th, 2021)
Issue #45: Carbon Colonialism Pt 4 - Carbon Outsourcing (Jan 23rd, 2022)
Historical emissions are, in many ways, intuitive: there’s been a tight coupling between GDP and emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution (whether they can be completely decoupled remains up in the air). So, the countries with the highest GDP, most GDP growth, etc., have emitted (and, in most cases, continue to emit) the most.
There are a few reasons that historical emissions are worth thinking about closely. First, the rate of warming at any given time is based on the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere — meaning, for long-lived gases like carbon dioxide, a ton of CO2 from 1850 is warming the world just as much as one from 2021. The same emissions that allowed the UK, the US, and other Global North countries to rapidly industrialize and position themselves as center pieces of an increasingly global economy are still warming the planet today.
Second — and following from that — the wealth that Global North countries hold today can be directly traced to those historical emissions. Half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day. It’s not the half that’s responsible for the majority of atmospheric carbon. Fossil fuels allowed Europe and its colonies to turn the buried results of millions of years of natural processes into industrial development and income; now we’re telling the rest of the world they can’t follow that path.
Finally, the unequal distribution of the effects of climate change becomes even more morally salient when paired with the unequal distribution of historical emissions. Through this lens, it’s clear that climate change — as problematic as it is for those of us in the North, and especially for the poor in the North — is being perpetrated. It is a crime, a theft — the rich have stolen the futures of the Global South and turned them into wealth.
Understanding the link between historical emissions and current wealth and between current “development” and emissions is critical for understanding the directions climate policy must go. It’s why Global South countries continue to demand loss and damage payments, debt restructuring, and financial support for decarbonization. And it’s also why the Global North continues to offer nothing but platitudes on all of these: not because the $100 billion a year they committed to in 2015 was too much money, but because agreeing to it means admitting culpability for what’s been done.
Simon Evans, Carbon Brief, 2021. Feel free to skip the methodology sections to save time, although the land use emissions methodology raises some interesting questions.
This is the most recent assessment of historical emissions by country. It draws from a variety of sources and presents cumulative emissions by nation, including a handy timelapse showing how those totals developed over time. As the authors note, it’s important to recognize that some of the top ten are in the top ten because they have a huge number of people: India, for example, is home to 1.4 billion people who, currently, emit less than the global average every year — 1.8 tons per capita. It appears above countries like the UK, Canada, and Japan in the “cumulative emissions” list, but using either of the authors’ historical “per capita” approaches, India, predictably, disappears from the top 20. India is also a good example to look at for another subtlety that this analysis fails to account for: “colonisation and the extraction of natural resources by foreign settlers.” Colonialism is, at its core, about extracting value from foreign land, and historically, value and emissions have been closely tied. As wealth flows from the Global South to the Global North — and I should be clear that this process is ongoing, even if it is less obvious today — emissions are generated, and only a small portion of that is captured and attributed to the North by consumption-based emissions accounting. As a simplistic example, when Canadian mining companies operate in foreign countries, the economic activity (industrial processes, transportation, whatever else) generates emissions that are counted territorially, but the profit finds its way back to Canada. This worsens carbon inequity because more emissions are attributed to the Global South while the associated wealth is captured by the North.
A quick note: none of this work includes methane or other greenhouse gases. These other GHGs have much shorter atmospheric half-lives and don’t make as much sense to include in a 150 year timeline, but methane emissions in particular have radically accelerated over the last decade and methane has a particularly strong greenhouse effect. So, when thinking about culpability for ongoing warming, it’s important not to let methane slip through the cracks (yes, that’s a pun) — countries that have been expanding or plan to expand fossil gas production (like the US and Canada) share a significant responsibility that’s not captured by this analysis.
Climate Reparations (40 minutes)
David Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine, 2021. Wallace-Wells is the author of the essay and book “The Uninhabitable Earth” which formed the namesake for the first issue of this newsletter.
Drawing on the analysis above (and some other equally sobering data points), Wallace-Wells recasts climate change
as a moral catastrophe, engineered by the sheltered nations of the global North in the recent past, and suffered by those, in the global South, least responsible for it and least prepared.
Understanding that the people in the Global South, the victims of this crime, can better communicate its scope and scale than he or me, he incorporates stories and quotes from activists and diplomats in climate vulnerable countries. Their words are chilling. Reading them and beginning to understand this perspective on the climate crisis should change the way you perceive it altogether. About half way through, Wallace-Wells says something that truly encapsulates the story he’s telling — as well as the much older story of colonialism and racial capitalism:
At some point, observing the crisis from the global North, you have to ask yourself: Is a person in the global South a person to me?
I wrote about this exact point a few days ago for Canadian Dimension. The way that the wealthy, predominantly white world treats people of color — both within their own borders and in the Global South — can only be reconciled with the supposedly universal values of liberalism by an unspoken classification of those people as subhuman, not actually entitled to the rights we enjoy in the North. There is no other way to explain what’s been done since 1492, what’s being done, and the ongoing commitment to perpetuate it instead of working to build a more just and ecologically healthy world.
This article is, in part, about the need for carbon removal — with certain caveats. I think Wallace-Wells makes interesting arguments here, but I won’t engage them here; I think just coming to understand climate change through this internationalist frame is important enough on its own. I’ve written about carbon removal in this newsletter in the past and will undoubtedly revisit it again at some point.
Book Recommendation: Tales of Two Planets, John Freeman ed.
This book is a collection of essays, fiction, and poetry from around the world that attempts to communicate what the front lines of the climate crisis are like — stories we don’t typically hear in the North, even when they occur in our countries. It powerfully depicts how differently we all experience the climate crisis and, in so doing, begins to build a bridge of solidarity that can help us reconcile the questions Wallace-Wells raises. It also paints a holistic picture of crisis, overcoming the typical Western approach of compartmentalization and isolation. We live in systems; the impacts of the climate crisis do not exist in a vacuum. These authors call on us to recognize the interrelated crises plaguing so much of the world, their interrelated causes, and our own culpability.
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