In 2020, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced to the world the EU’s goal of becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. This is the promise which lies at the heart of the proposed European Green Deal, an action plan and road map which legislators say will deliver the continent a more just and sustainable future. But with much of Europe’s goods imported from abroad, this initiative risks seeing the world’s wealthiest continent simply offshoring its carbon footprint and environmental responsibilities to the rest of the world—particularly developing countries—in a new form of climate colonialism. 

What is the European Green Deal?

This 24-page document outlines a far-reaching plan for transforming the EU and making it climate-neutral (i.e. net zero greenhouse gas emissions) by 2050. In the words of the European Commission, it is “a new growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”

While the Deal itself is not a law, it forms the basis for other legislation such as the legally-binding European Climate Law which commits the European Union to a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050. It aims to cover virtually every aspect of the EU’s society and economy and outlines targets for energy, agriculture, biodiversity, sustainable investment and much more. It has been described by some (such as POLITICO) as “one of the most consequential legislative efforts in the history of the European Union.”

Equally importantly, it is a key indicator that concern over climate change is entering mainstream politics (at least in the EU), much to the relief of the scientists and environmental advocates who have for decades been calling for greater climate action. The deal is set to be finalised this year and is expected to bring in a new wave of critical legislation needed for such far-reaching reforms. However, this ambitious plan has not escaped criticism.

Within the EU, tensions are rising over the setting of climate targets and the distribution of support funds. Although the targets set by any laws the EU adopts would be applied to its 27 member states, not all countries are equally prepared to take on this transition, creating tensions between member states such as coal-dependent Poland and its wealthy neighbour Germany on matters such as the distribution of the €17.5 billion Just Transition Fund.

Beyond the EU, concerns are rising over the role such a deal may play in offshoring environmental damage and actuating climate—or ‘green’—colonialism. While the EU is the world’s second wealthiest economy, it imports a significant portion of its  products from abroad (43%, when imports of goods and services is expressed as percentage of GDP), and therefore exports much of its carbon emissions to poorer, developing nations.

Climate Colonialism

Between 1990 and 2014, Europe’s forests saw an increase in area of 13 million hectares, or roughly 9% of their pre-1990 size. Europe was once home to immense primeval forests, but by the 18th and 19th centuries much of these forests were decimated by the industrialising European population’s growing demand for timber and agricultural land.

Today, Europe imports millions of tonnes of crops and meat each year from abroad (only China imports more). As a result, many countries around the world are clearing their own forests to make space for land that ultimately feeds European demand. In the same 24-year period mentioned above, around 11 million hectares of such land was cleared globally, primarily in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia whose forests are important carbon sinks rich with biodiversity.

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climate colonialism

‘Many countries around the world are clearing are clearing their own forests to make space for land that ultimately feeds European demand in a new form of climate colonialism.’

Furthermore, domestic EU policies meant to preserve the environment envision ‘green’ futures that rarely extend beyond their own borders. For example, in an effort to make their energy mix greener, Germany banned domestic hard coal production in 2018. However, it still allowed its power plants to import hard coal from elsewhere. Hard coal, also called anthracite, is particularly damaging to the environment due to the methods by which it is extracted (it is more difficult to mine than other forms of coal).

In developing countries such as Colombia, where Germany imports much of its supply from, it is also considered blood coal, and has been linked to severe human rights abuses and contract killing carried out by paramilitaries on behalf of international coal suppliers. It is gained through the dispossession of local indigenous communities, whose resistance is frequently met with violence, on behalf of the interests of large multinational corporations.

As exclaimed by a large banner drawn across the river Rhine by activists in Germany last August: “Here: Profits. Elsewhere: Murder, Expulsion, Pollution, Destruction.”

This method by which already-developed and industrialised nations live at the ecological expense of other countries has come to be known as climate colonialism. Whereas the days of colonial subjugation through military force are over, indirect control may still be exerted on post-colonial states such that they remain politically and economically dependent on their ex-colonisers and other developed countries. This was first described in 1965 by Kwame Nkrumah, post-colonial Ghana’s first president (who was overthrown a year later in a CIA-supported military coup), in his book Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism.

As climate change becomes more and more recognised for the existential threat it is, foreign domination of developing countries lives on through policies and initiatives meant to tackle climate change and slow the pace of global warming. Germany’s hard coal imports and the EU’s outsourcing of deforestation are just two examples of the expansion of foreign domination through ‘sustainability’ initiatives that exploit the resources of poorer nations.

Other critics point out that while formerly colonised countries pay the heaviest price for a crisis disproportionately caused by the historical emissions of their past colonisers (today’s most developed and industrialised countries), the EU continues to outsource environmental damage to the rest of the world while taking credit for ‘sustainable and competitive’ green policies at home.

Resource exploitation comes in other forms as well. For instance, consider the rise in popularity of carbon offsets. For an increasingly competitive price, individuals and corporations can ‘offset’ their carbon footprint by (among other things) sponsoring afforestation. However, the land used is very often located abroad in poorer nations, forcing the developing population to compete with foreign private interests for the land that provides them with their basic needs.

In 2014, thousands of East Africans in Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania faced forced evictions and food scarcity when a Norwegian company—supported and funded by the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries—bought out land to implement forestry-based carbon offset projects, all in the name of green investment.

Perhaps, then, climate colonialism can best be summarised by German sociologist Stephan Lessnich, saying, “We are not living beyond our means. We are living at the expense of others.”

How Europe’s Green Deal can Avoid Climate Colonialism

 If the EU truly wishes to set an example on how to be ‘sustainable and competitive’ and take credit for being the world’s first climate-neutral continent, they must not pin their environmental progress on the exploitation of poorer parts of the world.

New initiatives such as the EU’s Green Deal must avoid the mistakes of the continent’s colonial past and value the lives, livelihoods and land of the developing world as much as it does its own. It must also recognise that many of the struggles faced today by developing nations are struggles against past injustices carried out under the banner of colonialism and capitalism, and the associated socioeconomic, political and ecological consequences they produced.

The EU must also reframe the narrative adopted by its politicians as being the “leaders” in the fight against climate change; such ahistorical rhetoric undermines global cooperation and instead reinforces the Western-oriented political and economic hierarchy which brought about unchecked growth and ecological disaster in the first place.

As writer and researcher Dalia Gebrial puts it, “the industrial revolution was financed and sustained by the blood money and infrastructure of slavery and colonialism; a ‘green’ version of this is no better.”

First Steps

In a Nature article, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) called on the EU to truly aim for enhancing global sustainability and offered the following solutions as first steps.

First, the EU needs to better regulate the sustainability of its imports and apply the same stringent standards to foreign goods as it applies domestically. It must also get rid of “double standards”; farming practices that are restricted in Europe (e.g. GMOs) should not be permitted for import.

Second, the EU must assess its carbon footprint from a global lens and set targets and plans accordingly. For example, each EU citizen currently ‘imports’ one tonne of CO2 per year in goods entering from abroad. To start, they must therefore set targets for the impact its agricultural trade has beyond its own borders. Not doing so would be a failure on the part of European policymakers to value the lives and livelihoods of the Global South population as it does its own.

Leaders and policymakers of developing countries are also calling on the developed world to better facilitate the transfer of wealth and technology that would allow them to set and pursue their own mitigation and adaptation policies. Without the resources to dictate their own terms of development and decide their own destinies, the subjugation of the developing world to the industrialised world’s political and economic agenda will continue.