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Carbon Colonialism

How the UK Hides its Carbon Emissions and Environmental Impacts in the Global South

Photo credit: Thomas Christofoletti. A waste burner attached to an exporting Cambodian garment factory, from Disaster Trade.

In November 2019, 11,000 scientists from around the world united to declare a climate emergency (The Independent, 2019), insisting, as have media and political forces from the Guardian newspaper to the UK parliament, on an end to business as usual. As they declared at the time, the world’s people face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless global society accepts major transformations. Simply put:

“To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.” (The Guardian, 2019)

In a series of stark messages on climate, intensified in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, the underlying urgency of the situation has been laid bare. It is a harrowing message, but more disturbing than the message itself is its familiarity. Similar proclamations were made in advance of the Paris Agreement of 2016, which succeeded in setting out a framework to limit warming to 1.5˚C. It was an agreement that drew much acclaim and celebration for its clarity of vision and commitment. Yet only three years later, annual emissions reached an all-time high (Tollefson, 2018). Something, it is increasingly clear, is not working.

This is not, moreover, a novel problem. The Paris agreement is only the latest in a long running series of international agreements to make limited tangible impact on emissions. From the first World Climate Conference in 1979, via the UN Framework Convention on Climate in 1992, Kyoto in 1999, Copenhagen in 2009 and finally Paris in 2016, agreements have become more specific and binding over time. Yet all the while the atmospheric C02 concentrations have continued to increase. As shown in figure 1, at the time of the first World Climate Conference, atmospheric C02 stood at 339 parts per million; at the foundation of the UNFCCC 13 years later, it was 358. As the fireworks boomed in Paris it was 402 parts per million; and today, it stands at 417 ppm.

Figure 1: Graph showing major recent climate governance events on a curve illustrating atmospheric carbon dioxide in parts per million (Originally on pg 10 of Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of UK Production Overseas)

The apparent lack of impact of these agreements presents something of a conundrum to environmentalists. Each of these agreements has, to a greater or lesser extent, agreed frameworks and policies with the world’s heaviest emitting nations that would be expected to reduce carbon emissions. Moreover, the data show that in many cases, they have resulted in reduced emissions.

The EU’s net emissions fell from 5.6 billion tons of C02 in 1990 to 4.2 billion in 2018 (Climate Action Tracker, 2021), whilst the UK – historically one of the EU’s largest emitters – claims a 44% reduction in emissions since 1990 (CCC, 2019). Even the United States, a country whose efforts have been deemed ‘critically insufficient’ by monitors, has achieved a modest decline, from 7.1 billion tons in 1998 to 6.7 billion today (Climate Action Tracker, 2021). China, one of the world’s largest and most rapidly increasing carbon emitters of recent decades, has begun to slow the rate of increase, with emissions projected to plateau over the next five years (Climate Action Tracker, 2021) as part of a national plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

So what, then, lies behind this discrepancy? Emissions from major economies are either falling or stabilising, yet the relentless uptick of global carbon emissions continues undiminished. Are major emitters being untruthful about their emissions figures? Not in a direct sense. Rather, it is the reductions themselves that are illusory, the product of a system of carbon accounting which remains firmly national and bordered within an increasingly global and interconnected world. As richer nations increasingly diminish their share of global industry, “outsourcing” lower margin and more environmentally damaging processes to the global South (Baumert et al., 2019; Malik and Lan, 2016), the emissions associated with those processes – at least in headline figures – go with them.

Indeed, there is a growing recognition that national accounting of carbon usage may lie at the root of the more generalised failure to make concerted inroads into carbon emissions (Moran et al., 2018; Peters et al., 2016). The ability of wealthier countries to effectively outsource emissions to less wealthy ones has been described as ‘carbon colonialism’ (Dehm, 2016: 1) and there is increasing unease over the effectiveness of production-based UK emissions targets (Afionis et al., 2017), which allow ever more greenhouse gas emissions to 'flow through the carbon loophole of international trade' (Moran et al., 2018: 7). In total, imported emissions now account for a quarter of global CO2 emissions (Moran et al., 2018: 7), making this the 'next frontier of climate policy' (New York Times, 2018: 1).

Crucially, this is a perspective that casts service-oriented economies like the UK – many of which have achieved substantial reductions in domestic emissions in recent years – in an especially poor light. The UK is now the G7’s largest proportional importer of emissions, with carbon consumption from imports now 28% higher than 1997 in absolute terms (Defra, 2019). The value of UK imports has more than doubled in the last two decades (ONS, 2019), with environmentally regulated EU exporters accounting for a falling proportion of the total (Ward, 2020). This rise in imported – or embodied – emissions chips away substantially at the UK’s much trumpeted domestic emissions reductions, reducing it from the government’s gross 44% figure to a net 10% reduction in emissions consumed (WWF, 2020). Rather than the substantial reductions claimed by the UK government, therefore, the last two decades have seen a concerted shifting of emissions away from the domestic to the imported, as the UK effectively outsources its carbon intensive industry to the global South.

This is an issue for two reasons. In the first instance, it means that wealthy nations are able to claim substantial emissions reductions despite continuing to benefit from carbon intensive industrial processes now taking place beyond national borders. These emissions do not appear in headline national statistics, yet they continue to be produced in vast quantities in international supply chains. The world is becoming increasingly aware of this issue, yet attempts to account for it reveal a second problem: the difficulty of measuring emissions that occur in long, complex and often voluntarily regulated supply chains. Simply put, current systems of environmental management are not well suited to the assessment of globalised networks of emissions and environmental degradation.

On a planetary level, this is a pressing concern, masking as it does an ongoing reliance by major economies on high emission technologies and processes. Yet beyond the global climate emergency, there is also a smaller scale human and environmental cost. Not only will a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C likely result in ‘several hundred million’ more people in poverty by 2050 (IPCC, 2018: 11) at a global scale, but the local effect of trade and investment in terms of worsening the impact of climate change on poverty and livelihoods are equally concerning. Removed from the regulations and standards governing domestic production, the industrial processes that manufacture the goods consumed by British people remain dangerous and environmentally destructive.Global systems ostensibly protect against this but, as with the broader issue of emissions, they do so on a ‘methodologically nationalist’ basis, framed around the nation state (Moore et al., 2018: 1558). This gives countries the opportunity to hide the damage their productive processes engender, not by resolving it, but by moving it across a national border and thus largely out of sight of regulation and accounting.

Moreover, this is not just a question of slow burning environmental degradation. Rather, environmental degradation of this sort makes many areas in the vicinity of British industry lightning rods for the impacts of climate change. As highlighted by the Disaster Trade project in the cases of Cambodia, Sri Lanka and the South Asian brick belt, for example, the contexts within which climate impacts emerge are structured in predictable ways by economic processes, shaping the manifestation of climate change in certain areas, so as to direct and intensify its impacts. Understanding climate impacts in this context therefore requires a monitoring framework capable of extending beyond geographical boundaries, in order to better reflect the mobile processes of trade shaping environmental change in the global South.

Climate change impacts, including the slow burn disasters of droughts and floods, are therefore effectively traded out by wealthier countries and imported by less wealthy ones as the price of economic growth. All the while, this environmental degradation remains hidden by the analytical legacy of nationalism, an emphasis on the structures and strictures of the nation state no longer appropriate for a globalised and interconnected world. In view of this, what is necessary is a new conception: one that recognises disasters not as autonomously emergent or globally induced, but as rooted in specific processes of industry, trade and consumption.

Carbon colonialism in the classroom

“Methodological nationalism” is alive and well in geography education. Approaching climate change within the geography classroom often happens through a nationalistic lens. Bar charts and graphs neatly summarise each countries emissions, and therefore contributions to and responsibility for global warming. This national accounting for carbon use and bordered thinking is a regressive way to approach data in the classroom. There is a tendency, especially within Geography education, to accept numbers and figures as being beyond reproach, potentially due to the overwhelming amount of data we are confronted with on a regular basis (Puttick and Talks, 2021). However, as this article demonstrates, numbers are not neutral, and it is imperative that we approach data in the classroom critically. As educators we should work hard to contextualise data and try to avoid simplifying relationships between variables and therefore ignoring the complexity of the narratives or counter-narratives that emerge through deeper, more nuanced explorations. Contextualising climate change needs to happen through emphasising synoptic thinking between topics – connecting it to historical geographies (industrialisation, colonialism and imperialism), development geographies (neo-colonialism and carbon colonialism), globalisation, and global governance. Environmental justice and racial justice are deeply entwined issues, and thus we must work to centre indigenous and global majority perspectives and stories in the classroom so that we bring to life the people of the global South at the centre of climate change. For ultimately, it is the people of the global South that have contributed the least to the climate catastrophe but will disproportionately bare its impacts.

Laurie Parsons is lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Principal Investigator of the project Disaster Trade: The Hidden Footprint of UK Imports and Investment Overseas

Alesha Fonseka is a teacher of geography in an English secondary school, and is also completing an MSc in Learning and Teaching at the University of Oxford.