Climate Change, Global, Global Investigates

Global Investigates: Is the EU exporting the climate crisis abroad?

The announcement of the European Union’s Green Deal and the fanfare that came with it signified the EU’s desire to be seen as the leader of the green revolution. 

With the promise of carbon neutrality by 2050, Ursula von der Leyen believes the Green Deal is Europe’s “man on the moon moment”. However, does the shiny new legislation only seek to change appearances rather than change the future of Planet Earth? The EU, alongside the UK, continues to participate in a form of climate colonialism in which the Global South is exploited and the climate crisis is effectively exported abroad, meaning we must question how ‘green’ the Green Deal really is.

The EU is the world’s second-wealthiest economy, yet it by no means achieved or sustained this by itself. It imports 43% of goods and services from abroad, meaning the carbon emissions used to feed, clothe and indulge Europeans are effectively exported to poorer countries, usually in the Global South. In many ways, the EU’s seemingly improved track record on the climate is an illusion. For example, it is seen as a huge success that between 1990 and 2014 Europe’s forests grew 13 million hectares in area, approximately 9% of its pre-1990 size, yet the only reason this was possible was as a result of the outsourcing of production. 

Today, Europe imports millions of tonnes of crops and meats from abroad at the expense of forests in other parts of the world. In another worrying indictment of this, Germany banned domestic hard coal production in 2018 whilst still allowing its power plants to import hard coal from elsewhere, suggesting it is not a genuine desire to tackle emissions EU countries are pursuing. The EU wants to be praised for its apparent ‘innovative’ and ‘sustainable’ legislation and ideas, and whilst some of it should be, it is also important to be aware that in many cases, environmental damage is simply being shipped abroad. The climate crisis is not ending in Europe, it is just being moved away from it. The uneven power dynamic from the colonial period lives on through Europe’s unsustainable demand for goods from abroad, culminating in no honest challenge to the climate crisis.

In better news, climate consciousness is hitting new highs. More and more people are talking about what is in store for the future of civilization and what can be collectively done to slow down the effects of the climate crisis. However, it appears individuals, corporations, and governments find it easier to use their relative wealth to absolve themselves of guilt for their level of consumption instead of making actual tangible change. In 2014, thousands of people living in Uganda, Mozambique, and Tanzania faced the consequences of the Global North’s desire to pay their way out of change when they experienced evictions and food scarcity. During this time, a Norwegian company, funded by the Norwegian Investment Fund for developing countries, was buying land in East Africa to implement a tree-planting carbon offset programme. In response to this, it is important to question why much of the Global North expects the land and resources used for a carbon offset initiative should be from countries with a much lower contribution to the climate crisis, instead of on their own land.

Throughout the history of the empires of European countries, not excluding the British empire, resource and land grabbing was one of the most heinous crimes, with its consequences being starvation, stolen autonomy from the indigenous population, and a depletion of jobs. Today, some critics argue the global land grab continues at the expense of the people who have already been hit the hardest. In 2010 it was found that 64% of the land used to grow crops for animal agriculture in the UK was located abroad, increasing from 55% in 1987. Millions of hectares of farmland and forestry in the Global South has been bought out by corporations and governments and turned into huge mono-crop plantations, damaging biodiversity and the local communities’ access to food. Monocultures like this are responsible for water shortages, as well as causing contamination from pesticides and genetically-modified crops. Monocultures also do not stand long enough to be used for absorbing carbon dioxide and instead disrupt the natural carbon cycle due to the frequent tilling and use of pesticides. However, to feed the huge demand for meat in Europe, these monocultures are often considered necessary. The EU pledges sustainability but its actions are not sustainable for anything other than guaranteeing Europeans’ food supply. It may claim to be the leader of the green revolution but thus far it appears it is only looking out for itself.

One of the biggest causes of the recent land grabbing is the EU putting its member states under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon emissions. Many nations realised the quickest way to do this whilst still feeding their ever-growing population was to export the production of their goods abroad. This is not anything particularly new. Shockingly, in 2004 it was found Switzerland’s outsourced emissions exceeded the amount of carbon dioxide emitted inside the country. Many other western European nations have also been able to export more than half of their carbon dioxide emissions abroad, meaning they have been able to avoid responsibility for the true amount of pollution the consumerist nature of western societies has created. The Stanford University scientists who conducted this research  summarised, “where CO2 emissions occur doesn’t matter to the climate system”. The EU claiming to be the leader of the green revolution only proves the ignorance with which governments in the Global North have often faced the climate crisis and shows how much is still to be done. It is a global and very real issue, not one that can be solved with illusory facts and figures.

According to the Land Matrix Global Observatory’s research, the area of land covered by foreign investment across the world was almost 35 million hectares in 2014, with the concentration of the acquired land being in Sub-Saharan Africa. The effects of the climate crisis in the Global South are very real. People living in some of the most extreme weather conditions in the world do not have the luxury of waiting until 2050 before anything changes – their lives and livelihoods are under threat right now. The gross injustice of the climate crisis is those who have had the least impact on devastating the natural world are those who are taking the brunt for others’ selfish actions. For example, Philip Galgallo, Christian Aid’s Country Director for Burundi, explained the country produces almost zero carbon emissions but finds itself on the front line, “suffering from higher temperatures, lower crop yields and increasingly unreliable rains”. This is causing food insecurity and leading to premature deaths.

To tackle this, many activists argue there needs to be a shift in the way we think about production. The rise in globalisation across the world has had a big role to play in speeding up the effects of the climate crisis, allowing poorer nations to be exploited for the benefit of the wealthy. The area of land the UK alone uses to produce its food is equivalent to 97.3% of its size (larger than England, Scotland and Wales combined). This is the opposite of sustainability. Despite the amount of land used across the world to feed British citizens, only 15% of the land footprint is used for growing food for direct human consumption. Right now there are over 70 billion animals farmed for food in the world, meaning a huge percentage of the grains and crops grown go to feeding animals. The Global North needs to change its approach to food in its entirety and take a step away from animal products. Around the world, 75% of all agricultural land is used to either raise animals or grow the crops that feed them. As The Guardian recently reported, 20 livestock companies are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than either Germany, France or Britain. In Brazil, 175 million hectares of land are dedicated to raising cattle – an area equal to the entire agricultural area of the EU. The cattle in Brazil will not just be feeding Brazilians and other South Americans, however. Due to EU trade deals with Mercosur, it is expected there will be a huge surge in Brazilian and Argentinian beef exports to EU countries. This effectively means Southern American countries will have to deal with the carbon emissions associated with this level of mass farming, whilst the local people do not gain anything from it. Again, we must wonder whether the EU’s leadership on the green revolution only extends to changing the way it appears to the rest of the world.

Europe’s new initiatives for change leave a lot to be desired. There is no framework for a radical shift in production and consumption but instead there remain loopholes that can be exploited to allow Europeans to continue having the same ease and indulgence at the expense of the Global South.

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Rachel Keane

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May 2022
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