Hussh | Uncovering the UK's murky colonial past reveals the true extent of its role in climate change

Uncovering Britain’s murky colonial past reveals the true extent of its role in climate change

// Hidden Stories Series

Uncovering Britain’s murky colonial past reveals the true extent of its role in climate change

December 12, 2023
In the intricate and often contentious dialogue on climate change, a new dimension has emerged around the historical responsibility of nations and empires that once dominated the world.

The United Kingdom, long regarded as a significant yet smaller contributor to the warming of our planet, now finds its role in the climate crisis markedly amplified thanks to historic emissions from its colonial past.

Recent analysis not only reshapes the UK’s environmental legacy but also casts a new light on the broader narrative of colonialism and its enduring impact on the global environment.

For years, the UK has been positioned as the eighth-largest contributor to global warming, with its share of cumulative historical emissions pegged at around 3.0%. This assessment, however, only considered emissions within the UK’s borders, encompassing CO2 from fossil fuels, cement production, and land use changes.

Such a perspective, while informative, offers a narrow view, omitting the extensive and often exploitative reach of the British Empire.

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With the veil of colonialism lifted, the picture changes dramatically. The UK’s share of historical emissions nearly doubles to 5.1%, catapulting it to the fourth position globally, behind only the United States, China, and Russia.

Such a significant revision arises from including emissions from countries that were under British colonial rule and therefore subject to modern European agricultural methods which relied on deforestation and other land use changes necessitated by colonial exploitation, and to the carbon-heavy transformations that birthed from the rise of the industrial revolution.

To understand this shift, we must delve into the colonial practices and their environmental ramifications. During its imperial zenith, the British Empire exerted control over vast swathes of the globe, from the dense forests of India and Myanmar to the rich resources of Nigeria and Australia.

The colonial administration, driven by the insatiable demand for resources and agricultural produce, initiated large-scale deforestation to pave the way for plantations, mines, and other extractive activities.

India, for instance, added a staggering 13.0 GtCO2 to the UK’s colonial emissions tally, with a significant portion attributed to deforestation.

This environmental upheaval was not unique to India, however; Myanmar, Nigeria, Australia, and Malaysia experienced similar fates. Almost all of these nations saw their natural landscapes drastically altered to feed the economic ambitions of their colonial masters.

The colonial period was marked by a relentless pursuit of economic growth, often at the expense of the environment and indigenous practices. Traditional land management, which in many colonised regions had evolved over centuries to harmonise with local ecosystems, was upended in favour of European agricultural methods. These methods, prioritising short-term yields, had long-lasting ecological consequences, eroding biodiversity and altering local climates.

It’s clear that this historical reevaluation has profound implications, challenging the prevailing notion that the responsibility for climate change is shared equally among nations based on their current emissions.

The reality, as this new perspective reveals, is far more complex, with historical actions playing a crucial role in shaping today’s environmental challenges.

The implications extend beyond mere statistics and enter the realm of climate justice—a concept that recognises that the burdens of climate change are not borne equally, with those least responsible for emissions often suffering the most severe impacts.

This injustice is starkly evident in the case of former colonies, where the environmental degradation initiated during colonial times has left lasting scars, exacerbating their vulnerability to climate change.

Hussh | Uncovering the UK's murky colonial past reveals the true extent of its role in climate change

For the UK, acknowledging this expanded historical responsibility necessitates a reexamination of its role in global climate diplomacy and policy. It raises questions about reparative justice and the moral obligation to support former colonies in their fight against climate change.

This support could take various forms, including financial aid, technology transfer, and capacity building, aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change and adapting to its challenges.

It also calls for a broader shift in how we approach how history has shaped our planet’s climate. It necessitates a move away from a purely nationalistic perspective towards a more holistic understanding that accounts for the transnational legacies of environmental exploitation.

The next step seems logical: a need to integrate historical context into our climate conversations. The case of the UK’s colonial emissions is a stark reminder of how historical actions continue to shape our current and future existence, and stands as a reminder that nations must look beyond their current borders and consider the long shadow of history in their environmental policies and commitments.

Our global history is inherently intertwined with our natural world, and we’re in urgent need for a collaborative and equitable approach to addressing the climate crisis we face today.

The legacy of colonialism, with its deep environmental and social ramifications, is a stark reminder of that, and must be a central consideration as we forge a path towards a more sustainable—and just—future.

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