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What Do Rich Countries Owe Their Old Colonies? More Than Once Thought.

A new report from Carbon Brief shows how accounting for empires tips the historic emissions balance.

British colonialists in India.

The British pose in India.

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

At the height of Britain’s power, it was said that the sun never set on its empire. The crown’s tendrils stretched around the world, with colonies on every continent but Antarctica — though I’m sure if there had been anybody around to subjugate on the ice, the crown would have happily set up shop there, too.

The British were not, of course, the only colonial power; many of their European brethren had empires of their own. All that colonization takes energy, and the days of empire were also, for the most part, the days of coal. But as countries around the world gained their independence, they also found themselves responsible for the historic emissions that came from their colonizers burning fossil fuels within their borders.

A new analysis from Carbon Brief aims to correct that record. Using the same methodology as an analysis of historic emissions conducted in 2021, researchers found that accounting for colonial rule dramatically shifts the responsibility for climate change towards the historic European powers. My home country of India, for example, sees its share of historical responsibility fall by 15%, while the UK, its former ruler, sees its share nearly double. The Netherlands’ share, meanwhile, nearly triples.

This is a rare kind of post-colonial accountability, and it thoroughly reshuffles the ranking table of biggest historic polluters. The UK, for example, rises from 9th place on the emissions chart to 5th — above India, which sits steady at 8th — while the Netherlands goes from 35th to 13th:

For years, developing nations have been pushing for wealthy countries — many of which are former colonial powers, their riches built through pillage — to pay for a loss and damage fund that some argue should have its contributions decided based on each country’s historic emissions. It’s unlikely this Carbon Brief analysis will affect discussions at COP28 in Dubai, where the loss and damage fund will no doubt be a point of negotiation yet again, but it’s a striking report regardless. The colonial powers have tried their best to wash their hands of their violent legacy; soot stains, it seems, are a bit harder to erase from the record.

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Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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