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How colonialism’s legacy makes it harder for countries to escape poverty and fossil fuels today


While fossil fuels were powering wealthy nations’ economic growth in the 19th and 20th centuries, many countries across the Global South remained largely impoverished.

Today, all that burning of oil, coal and natural gas has warmed the planet toward dangerous levels, and science shows that fossil fuel use must decline to slow climate change. At the same time, more than 40% of the global population survives on less than $5.50 a day, primarily in developing countries.

Fossil fuels are still among the cheapest ways to power economic growth, making them hard for developing countries to ignore.

So, can we find a way to lift nearly half of the world out of poverty and still reduce fossil fuel use? As an environmental social scientist, I believe there can be no sustainable development, and likely no energy transition, if poverty is not addressed, too. Current international efforts, like the chronically underfunded U.N. Green Climate Fund, whose board meets this week, aren’t doing enough.

Shadows of colonialism

The fact that nearly half the world’s population is still struggling to escape poverty while the thermometer’s mercury hurtles upward is not a coincidence.

Since the Age of Discovery, when European explorers began expanding trade and claiming colonies in the 1400s, problems of resource scarcity have been managed through colonial conquest and economic integration. These approaches impoverished Global South nations, robbing them of their natural wealth. The introduction of international financial institutions after World War II further locked them into a cycle of uneven exchange.

For hundreds of years the natural resources that southern nations exported to countries like Germany and the United States have been sold at a lower cost than the finished products they import for their own consumption. The result has been development in the Global North, destabilization and impoverishment in much of the Global South and climate change for all.

Fossil fuels have been a central element in development history because they have provided a cheap, mobile source of energy. They still predominantly boost wealthy countries’ growth. In 2019, the 37 nations belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents industrialized economies, still accounted for a staggering 40% of energy consumption. The remaining 60% was spread across 158 countries whose combined populations were 5.83 times as large as those of Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development nations.

Without a rapid transition to renewable energy, it is unlikely that populations outside the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development will be able to use energy as freely as others have while still keeping global temperature increases below 2.7 F, the goal countries set under the Paris climate agreement.

‘Development is not a right’

The inequalities born of these processes make stopping the drivers of climate change a real challenge.

Southern nations rightly insist that viable climate solutions must include a realistic pathway for them to continue to develop. This resulted in three principles included in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development: that countries have a right to development, that the development needs of developing countries should be prioritized and that nations have a “common but differentiated responsibility” to address the dual problems of global development and climate change.

The U.S. famously rejected these principles during the George H.W. Bush administration, stating that “development is not a right.” That statement reflected a general concern among wealthy nations that they might be held financially responsible for ensuring the continued development of poorer nations.

The Green Climate Fund

In 2010, the recognition of ongoing injustices resulted in the creation of the Green Climate Fund.

The U.N. launched the fund with the goal that wealthy countries would voluntarily mobilize $100 billion a year to support climate projects in developing countries and help enable them to pursue their development interests. But the Green Climate Fund has never been funded at more than $9 billion a year.

While the Biden administration’s pledge to provide the Green Climate Fund with $5.7 billion annually is a dramatic improvement, in my view it is still far from adequate. The wealthy G-7 nations, at their meeting in June 2021, recommitted themselves to the $100 billion goal, but that is only a statement so far.

Historically, it has been difficult to displace cheap and readily available energy sources like fossil fuels in the presence of poverty and systematized economic inequality. Instead of energy transitions, countries made energy additions. My research with Julius McGee has found that nations with greater economic inequality have used renewable energy to carry electricity to underserved populations, increasing access to electricity, but they have not reduced overall fossil fuel use.

With more support to help cover the high upfront investments, the falling costs of renewable energy could help developing countries take meaningful steps toward the eradication of poverty without relying on carbon-packed sources of energy to do so. But that alone will not be enough.

Trying to set limits in a fair way

The most effective path for allowing poorer countries to develop while the world reduces greenhouse gas emissions may be what’s known as contraction and convergence.

First introduced by India in 1995, the framework is meant to encourage the adoption of policies that would lead to an overall contraction in global emissions. Wealthier nations would cut their emissions, while poorer countries could continue increasing their emissions as they build the social and economic infrastructure to lift their populations out of poverty. Eventually, poorer nations would begin to reduce their emissions as well.

Ultimately, helping poorer countries develop in sustainable ways is in the interest of wealthier populations too, because climate change will affect lives everywhere. Ignoring the glaring social inequalities of past development and current responses to climate change ensures that much of the globe’s population will believe they have little choice but to lean on fossil fuels as they develop, and slowing global emissions may come far too late.

Patrick Grenier is an environmental sociologist at Vanderbilt University. His research and teaching address questions at the intersection of structural inequality, development processes, and environmental change. The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.


13 Comments on "How colonialism’s legacy makes it harder for countries to escape poverty and fossil fuels today"

  1. dissident on Sat, 3rd Jul 2021 1:24 pm 

    How the prices of boutique alt-energy options make them non-competitive with cheap coal and oil based solutions.

  2. Hello on Sat, 3rd Jul 2021 1:58 pm 

    >>> helping poorer countries develop in sustainable ways is in the interest of wealthier populations too

    but how? Gorilla noses are simply useless. And without successfully playing the victim card to gullible Europeans they would long have been extinct, as a failure of evolution.
    The only reason gorilla noses are still alive is because gullible europeans feed and cloth them.

  3. Duncan Idaho on Sat, 3rd Jul 2021 5:10 pm 

    “No one should be surprised when the whole bankrupt piece of garbage implodes.”

  4. makati1 on Sat, 3rd Jul 2021 6:33 pm 

    Duncan, the whole shebang is ready to blow. I hope you are prepared. The future will not be even close to the past when the dust settles. I only hope it is not radioactive,

    It certainly will not be like the techie’s wet dreams. More like Dante’s Hell. I hope I am wrong, but…

  5. makati1 on Sat, 3rd Jul 2021 6:53 pm 

    Hello, not prejudiced are you? LOL “…Gorilla noses are simply useless. And without successfully playing the victim card to gullible Europeans they would long have been extinct, as a failure of evolution…”

    Sorry, but you never seem to notice where such prejudiced info comes from do you? It ALWAYS comes from white (Western) owned sources who have kept the colonies down for centuries and people like you. I agree with the “1619 Project” view of Amerikan history. We occupied Amerika by killing the millions of natives, on purpose, to steal their land.

    It never stopped. We still occupy countries (Iraq/Syria/etc.) to steal their resources. Any country that even tries to be free and develop independently, we destroy. Amerika is a terrorist country and always has been.

    Now it is our turn to be destroyed. WEF’s Covid-19 Plandemic is doing it fast. this is not over. Your closed mind deserves what is coming. Buckle up!

  6. Michael Rynn on Sun, 4th Jul 2021 3:51 am 

    Too late now. Who wants to adopt life-systems destructive ways of our industrial machine civilization? That is where all the global emissions problems come from. Drop those fast or else. India and China are fools to want it. Discussion is meaningless until all the fossil fuel powered machines are turned off. This must be happening now. In the mean time, consider what is happening now as low latitude tropical forests turn to deserts, and people from the ruined wastelands of European colonization have to migrate to high latitudes with the rest of surviving species, north, as heat waves move over the greater part of the world with higher wet bulb temperatures. I’m sure you will welcome them and share your lands and homes.

  7. FlipFlop on Sun, 4th Jul 2021 1:24 pm 

    I saw a good video on why Africa is so poor:

  8. Theedrich on Sun, 4th Jul 2021 2:20 pm 

    The CIA has long spied on and bribed U.S. allies. We know this from a combination of Freedom of Information Act divulgations, confessions of retired CIA operatives, whistleblowers (think Edward Snowden, Julian Assange), and revelations of the so-called “allies” themselves.  Since its inception, this Murder Inc. operation has also financially and successfully supported favored foreign political parties in Japan, Europe, Latinoland and elsewhere to defeat parties it has disliked, e.g, Leftist ones or those economically adversarial to the U.S.  This subversion (which often includes murder) is called “democracy.”

    The American system is one massive con job.  And what the government and its gangs of henchmen did in former decades, superrich and non-American political psychopaths have also been doing since ca. 1990, wagging the Yankee dog for their own benefit.  The masses are little more than cattle shoved around at will by media propaganda and carefully crafted distractions.

    The sheep are told to sacrifice their lives for vacuous abstractions such as “patriotism,” “equity,” “fairness,” etc., while the globemasters direct them to suicide.  Education itself is now little more than another psywar tool in Whitey’s death march.

    Due to the law of diminshing returns on a global scale, the situation in the Petri dish is now nearing collapse, so the guns must be turned more obviously on White populations.  It is the only way to concentrate all power in the hands of the uber-elites, in one final coup.

    Which may end in the Twilight of the Gods.

  9. makati1 on Sun, 4th Jul 2021 5:16 pm 

    So Mike, China and India are fools to want what the West has? No prejudice there. Go Asia!

    Climates change. People move. What you seem to be saying is, YOU don’t want YOUR lifestyle to suffer. Or do you want to go back to the time before the first machines and oil?

    Not going to happen. This ‘reset’ is going to fail. All it will do is speed up the collapse of the West. Centuries of Western countries putting down and plundering the rest of the world, is now boomeranging. So be it. About time.

    Fun to watch Mother Nature at work redesigning her home. Humans are just another animal. Nothing special. The earth’s next ecology will not have that mistake again. Maybe rats will be the dominant species? We won’t be here to see.

  10. makati1 on Sun, 4th Jul 2021 5:31 pm 

    The world is waking up to the REAL

    A 10 minute read, worth your time, I think.

  11. Biden's hairplug on Mon, 5th Jul 2021 3:38 am 

    Little chance for a 2nd British Empire:

    “New British tank good for nothing”

    “Major design flaws in Army’s new armoured vehicles, report shows”

    The usual British manufacturing weakness in full display. No cars, no wind turbines, no nuclear power stations, insufficient food production, no truck drivers, just unfounded claims about imagined greatness as compared to other European nations, that are supposed to supply them with goods they can’t manufacture themselves.

    “The Incredible Shrinking British Army
    What happened to the once powerful British military?”

    “At the current time, the British Army has about 74,000 troops—8,000 below its target of 82,000. That number is likely to fall to the low 60,000s, should recruitment efforts be halted as about 10,000 or so soldiers retire annually.”

    “Global Britain” is rapidly turning into a joke, a has-been that can’t face reality. The real fate of Britain, or England rather, is becoming Europe’s own impoverished Cuba.

  12. Biden's hairplug on Mon, 5th Jul 2021 3:57 am 

    The new Chinese colonialism. Afghanistan: the West out, China in:

    “China makes its move on Afghanistan: Beijing prepares to fill the vacuum left by Biden’s premature military exit from the nation with $62B investment plan for its ‘Belt and Road’ program”

    China already effectively has taken over Pakistan from the West, now it does the same with Afghanistan.

    Important geopolitical consequence: Iran becomes physically connected to China via Chinese satellites. China could keep the current government in the saddle against the Taliban. Expect roads, railways and pipelines to be built between Iran and China, as is already the case between China and Pakistan:

  13. Biden's hairplug on Mon, 5th Jul 2021 8:01 am 

    Zuckerborg. Even the English have enough of this punk, sorry apneaman:

    “Mark Zuckerberg’s cringeworthy Fourth of July electric surfboard video gets the meme treatment as flag-bearing tech mogul is pictured eaten by Jaws and floating aboard the Titanic”

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