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Hidden behind COP27: Colonialism in the Guise of Green Development?

Climate change has forced countries to adopt a wide range of policies and has ushered in a new era of multilateralism. However, does this approach benefit everyone? Are agreements done on equal grounds? In this article, Siwat Varnakomola reflects on the one-sided benefits the Global North reaps at the expense of the Global South, as green development becomes just a pretext for neo-colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources.

The main gate of the Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (COP 27)


Taking place from the 6th to 18th of November 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) acted as a forum for 'developed' and 'developing' countries to debate how to combat the global climate crisis. Regarded as the major success of this climate talk was the proposal to establish the global “Loss and Damage Fund”, which would seek to provide financial assistance to climate-vulnerable developing nations.

However, what was hidden behind this debate is the Global North’s continued systematic exploitation of these developing nations in the Global South and their resources in the name of green development. As this article will outline, COP27 can therefore be seen as having recast the 19th Century European colonialist narrative - seeking to civilise the ‘inferior’ Other to justify resource grabbing. If not contended, this continuation of colonialism would not only plague global efforts to address the climate crisis but may also prevent us from achieving a ‘just’ energy transition for years to come. As COP28 should emphasise, transcending this narrative is quintessential for ensuring a low-carbon future, where all people are included.

Green colonialism and the ‘unjust’ energy transition to a low-carbon future

The language of colonialism has gained momentum in the global climate conversation thanks to a 2022 IPCC report, which clearly stated that colonialism is a cause of the current climate crisis (Funes, 2022). Furthermore, as outlined by Grove (1996), the Global North has continued to capitalise on the resources, labour, and health of the Global South to accomplish their environmental policy goals - resulting in green colonialism. This has justified a new form of ‘civilising mission’ – based on promises to help tackle the climate crisis and facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy (Lyons & Westoby, 2014; Normann, 2020; Hamouchene, 2022).

Additionally, this form of colonialism has emerged at the national level. This has often taken the form of state-sponsored mass dispossession of the marginalised communities from their lands to allow multinational companies to establish green development projects. For example, Mackenzie et al. (2022) demonstrate how the Cambodian government has facilitated the Chinese enterprise, Hengfu Sugar, to invest in renewable infrastructure projects in rural Cambodia, depriving the Khmer villagers of access to their lands. This exposes that climate policies implemented by the state have often led to losses for marginalised communities, raising doubts about the nature of their intentions.

Reinterpreting global climate action through the colonial perspective

As seen in COP27, developed countries have frequently adopted market-based solutions, such as carbon offsets, to address the climate crisis and facilitate the energy transition to renewables - attempting to secure their low-carbon future (Ramachandran, 2021; Cullinan, 2022). Carbon offsetting is based on the idea that carbon emissions produced in one location could be offset by minimising the emissions from other parts of the world (Martin, 2021). Generally, has been done by planting trees in the Global South (Lyons & Westoby, 2014), 2021). However, carbon offsetting seems to contribute little to a reduction of global emissions per year (Lyons & Westoby, 2014; Martin, 2021), and has instead often resulted in the violent appropriation of indigenous communities’ territories in the Global South.

Evaluated through the colonial lens, this global race towards renewables has arguably been pursued at the expense of people across the Global South, in the guise of ‘sustainable development’. Through this process, the knowledge and values of the Global South’s peoples have been overshadowed by the colonialist narrative, which has labelled the Global South an ‘object of development’ that the Global North must help progress. Consequently, the people of the Global South have been confined to a position of Otherness within the global climate debate and policymaking. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of this narrative has become a justification for the Global North to execute imperial resource grabbing across the countries in the Global South. In most cases, this colonial resource-grabbing has been made possible by the coalition between the states, multinationals, and local elites (Lyons & Westoby, 2014). However, at the end of the day, the people who carry the burden of the climate crisis are those of the Global South, marginalised and exploited by the Global North.

Examples of this are plentiful (Haag, 2022; Hughes et al., 2022; Sasa, 2022). One example is the European Union’s (EU) investment in biofuel plantations in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). By importing biofuels from the SSA, the EU has relatively achieved its transportation energy goal. However, this has been to the detriment of the SSA locals, who were violently displaced from their lands which were used to grow foods for domestic consumption, to instead allow European private companies to grow biofuel crops (Discoversociety, 2020). Likewise, after the Norwegian firm, Green Resources, was granted a 50-year licence from the Ugandan government to exploit two degraded forest reserves, local villagers have frequently been vilified as ‘illegal encroachers’ and ‘trespassers’ in licence areas (Lyons and Westoby, 2014, p. 19). In both cases, the repercussions on indigenous livelihood were profound. This has included the destruction of crops, housing, and trading centres, alongside the arrival of the company’s plantation activities.

The EU’s plans to extract green hydrogen from North Africa: colonialism in green?

A more recent case is the EU’s plans to exploit North Africa’s abundant hydrogen resources in light of the European Green Deal (EGD) and the Russian war in Ukraine. While the EU has set the goal to steer a net-zero economy across the member states by 2030, this year's Russo-Ukrainian war has exposed the EU’s Achilles’ heel – a heavy dependence on Russian gas. These factors have compelled the EU to tap into green hydrogen in North Africa and Ukraine to tackle such vulnerability and facilitate its energy transition to clean energy. As highlighted in a 2022 REPowerEU joint communiqué, the EU plans to import up to ten million tonnes annually by 2030 (European Commission, 2022).

Both before and after COP27, this move has impacted three North African countries - Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco - as their governments welcomed the EU’s investment. Last year, an Italian company, Eni, partnered with Algeria’s state-owned enterprise, Sonatrach, to establish a 1,000 Mega-watts solar-powered green hydrogen plant in Algeria (Reuters, 2021). On the 16th of November at COP27, the EU and Egypt signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on ‘a strategic partnership on renewable hydrogen’ (Habibic, 2022). A few days later, Germany pledged to finance almost 40 million euros for the construction of Morocco’s first green hydrogen plant (Anouar, 2022).

Although certain scholars have viewed this strategy as advantageous to the local people (Chatzimarkakis, 2022; Farrand, 2022), others strongly disagree (Hamouchene et al., 2022; Cullinan, 2022). The former group supports the expectations that this investment will provide jobs for the local people, ensure their access to renewable energy, and boost their economy. The latter, however, demonstrates that the EU’s investment would not only deteriorate the locals’ communities and their environment. but also transform the locals’ lands into ‘sacrifice zones’ to export green hydrogen to Europe (Hamouchene et al., 2022).

Furthermore, the EU’s quest to exploit green hydrogen in North Africa has come at considerable financial costs. Recent research has pointed to the unrealistic nature of the EU’s ambition to import green hydrogen from North Africa due to substantial production and transportation costs (Corporate Europe Observatory, 2022). However, it is expected that North African people will be the ones who pay these costs - increasing fears of exploitation.

All things considered, the EU pouring investment in the above North African countries displays and reproduces a form of imperial resource grabbing in these countries - justified in this case by the EU’s promise to reinforce their energy transition and encourage sustainable development. Rather, it seems to be the EU that will benefit the most at the expense of peoples across these countries. In all the above cases, this EU’s move is made possible by a lively partnership between the European multinationals, the North African governments, and the local elites - implicating many actors in the perpetuation of colonial narratives.


The 19th Century European colonial pattern of exploiting the resources of ‘inferior’ others has been shown to continue today in the form of ‘green colonialism’. All of the conversations discussed above highlight this ‘unjust’ nature of the transition to a low-carbon future, and have sparked the global community to ask how we can ensure a truly ‘just’ transition for years to come. This article contends that overcoming green colonialism requires the inclusion of indigenous knowledge and values into climate policymaking, and for the state to take lead in this process. As part of this drive, COP28 ought to include more representatives from marginalised communities and ensure that their voices are heard within the global debate. Although the question of how to combat the climate crisis is still open-ended, the truth remains that a just transition will not be achieved through the sacrifice of other peoples’ lives. As this study has emphasised, overcoming this form of colonialism should seek to trigger an approach to climate policy that would leave no one behind.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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