Paper and plastic waste boxes sit in a storage unit.

Photograph by Jake Chessum / Trunk Archive

Lifting the Curtain on Carbon Colonialism

words by Laurie Parsons

Carbon colonialism is the system by which the Global North “outsources” carbon emissions by moving dirty industry and waste to the Global South. This needs to stop, urges Laurie Parsons—the Global North must start taking responsibility for its economy and its production.

In 2018, whilst scaling a garbage dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met a woman called Sopheap. It was a strange place for a meeting. In fact, it was strange all over. I was standing on a vast mound of waste deposited by the garment industry: clothing labels, bags of string, plastic hangers, glinting sharp objects of indeterminate origin, and tonne after tonne of fabric. A vast mound of abandoned rags whose destiny to dazzle for a minute never came. 


But this was no graveyard. In defiance of the throbbing heat, the dump was alive with activity. Dozens of cows chewed lazily and lowed, fabric scraps hanging from slack jaws. A clanking old digger, putrid smoke sputtering from its vertical exhaust pipe, made its jerking, unsteady way up and down the mound. With each trip, it brought a new load of unidentified industrial waste and sparked a burst of activity from the hundred or so workers who made a living from collecting, sorting, and selling this dumped pre-production waste: an ever-expanding wasteland abandoned half a world away from the customers it serves.


Sopheap is one of these collectors. She is around 40 years old, a mother of three children, working hard to pay off the loan on a very small house she has built near the dump. She is both a normal person and an exceptional case: a hardworking mother who is disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. A low earning resident of a poor country, hard hit by climate change, working in heat wave conditions, earning a living from the scraps of the global garment industry. 


What struck me about Sopheap was not her exceptional vulnerability, though, but something else: her invisibility. Although I could see her, standing atop this huge mound of waste produced for Western consumers; although anybody who chose to do so could visit her and her hundred colleagues—from the perspective of industrial sustainability, Sopheap does not, in fact, exist. All of the many brands that she spends her days sifting through are able, with impunity, to claim that they send no waste to landfill, that they burn none of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of illegal forest wood that they incinerate to make energy and boil water, that they pollute none of the waterways into which they dump wastewater. All of it remains behind the fences and high walls, behind the thick curtain of obscurity that shrouds international production.

On a practical level, this is about hiding, about concealing the environmental impacts caused by fossil fuels and industrial processes.

All of which is a way of getting to carbon colonialism: a conjunction that has become increasingly familiar in recent years, but no less well defined for it. It is a term that has been used by various authors to refer to low-carbon energy infrastructures such as wind farms in rural areas producing power for urban areas, thus in effect “colonizing” rural lands for the use of urban inhabitants. On a global scale, it has been used, perhaps most commonly in recent years, to critique the offsetting of industrial emissions through carbon credits: a practice that sees vast swaths of land in the Global South dedicated to expunging the carbon sins of industry in the Global North. 


Yet it has also been used in a great many other ways. The “outsourcing” of carbon emissions into global supply chains by moving dirty industry to the Global South has been labeled carbon colonialism because it follows the same logic that governed imperial production: value moving towards the core of an empire and waste remaining, or being actively shipped towards, its edges. The export of plastic waste, specifically, which has proliferated this century, has been named pollution colonialism for the same reasons.


The list goes on: from crackdowns on small-scale swidden agriculture in the Amazon—which critics argue is unfairly uprooting the livelihoods of communities bearing either a microscopic or no responsibility for climate change—to the widespread promotion of carbon capture and storage technologies, which some argue extends the ruinous pursuit of carbon-intensive industry. Carbon colonialism is not a concept. It is a movement; a widespread, proliferating recognition that sustainability is subject to the same power relations that got us into this mess in the first place.


On a practical level, this is about hiding, about concealing the environmental impacts caused by fossil fuels and industrial processes by moving these impacts from one balance sheet to another, or simply allowing them to fall between the cracks of environmental accountancy. Yet it also means legitimation. Beyond mere logistics, carbon colonialism means shrouding extractive processes in the “moral cover” of sustainability language. It means the same old products painted green; the same old carbon, moved out of sight, out of jurisdiction, out of mind.


Simply put, there is carbon that matters because it is produced domestically, and carbon that doesn’t because it isn’t. The nationally determined contributions agreed at major global summits such as those in Paris or Glasgow do not set limits on the environmental impact of a society. They set limits on what happens within the borders of a country. In our globalized age, this is meaningless. 

Decolonizing climate change means reshaping our vision of what a successful response to climate change would be.

A country like the UK may boast a 41% reduction in its domestic carbon emissions since 1990—a world leading achievement. But if we take into account what the British, as a society, consume, rather than merely what they produce within their borders, then that figure falls to just 15%. Across the European Union, the case is even starker. A much lauded 27% reduction becomes an 11% increase in emissions since 1990. This is not only a question of being too slow, but of moving in the wrong direction entirely. And it is far from only carbon. The UK alone exported almost 700,000 tonnes of plastic waste in 2020, almost two million kilos a day and six times more than it did in 2002.


It is a practice that speaks to a centuries-old mindset. Bring in what is necessary and out, across the border goes (or stays) the rest. It doesn’t have to be this way. Decolonizing climate change means reshaping our vision of what a successful response to climate change would be. Not as clean, “green,” wealthy nations consuming goods produced in distant zones of discrete responsibility, but as a community of places, intermeshed by globalization. With half of emissions in some wealthy economies now occurring overseas, environmental and emissions regulation must be applied as rigorously to supply chains as they are to domestic production. 


There is no magic bullet to achieve this shift in thinking, but any first step must be taken at a human scale. 


Rejecting carbon colonialism means seeing Sopheap and her dump, by lifting the thick curtain separating the scorched detritus of the Phnom Penh garment dump from the shiny signage of your local clothes shop. It means demanding a light be shone into the dark corners of our global supply chains. It means demanding an end not to one abuse, but many. It means taking back control of—but first responsibility for—our economy, our production, our climate. 

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