Climate Change Direct action Ecosocialism Imperialism Indigenous Peoples Internationalism Just Transition

Why green energy is not enough – a perspective from the Global South

From Labour Hub

There’s nothing progressive about ‘going green’ if it replicates the traditional models of exploitation in poorer countries. Mike Phipps reviews The Geopolitics of Green Colonialism: Global Justice and Ecosocial Transitions, edited by Miriam Lang, Mary Ann Manahan and Breno Bringel, published by Pluto.

Earlier this year, I reviewed a book about green colonialism, focusing on North Africa and the Middle East. It discussed the dispossession of indigenous people from their land, using colonial-era laws to do so, and the diversion of valuable water sources – all in the name of pursuing a transition to green energy.

As this new book highlights, the problem is global. Ecuador’s unique tropical forest is now being torn down in the search for balsa wood to build Chinese wind turbines. In South Africa, huge hydrogen plants for exporting ‘clean’ energy are imperilling the way of life of communities which rely on small-scale fishing and agriculture. And in South America’s lithium triangle – in the high Andean salt flats where over half the world’s lithium resources are located – indigenous people are struggling to preserve the scarce water sources that are increasingly being grabbed by international mining conglomerates to equip electric cars with lithium batteries. All these dispossessions are legitimised by the label ‘green’.

The claim on unlimited raw materials from the Global South is just one aspect of this new colonialism. Carbon offset schemes, which serve to postpone the urgent structural changes needed to tackle polluting production processes in the North, are another. A third is the use of sites in the Global South for dumping toxic waste from renewable energy production. A fourth is the way the prosperous North targets the South as a market for selling renewable technologies at high prices, part of the “asymmetric architecture of global trade.”

Ecological modernisation in Europe is driving up demand for key raw materials. Demand for lithium is expected to increase forty-threefold by 2040 compared to 2020, copper twenty-eightfold. Lithium mining in Europe, with its traditions of political freedom and civil society protest, has been met by considerable local opposition. This is due to its environmental impact, particularly in terms of polluting the water table, as Xander  Dunlap points out in another new Pluto title, This System is Killing Us.Resistance to these threats is less easy to organise in more distant, repressive states.

Yet, such resistance is happening – and not simply in opposition to the environmental destruction, debilitating though that may be, that the new green extractivism is causing. Recent protests also highlight fundamental questions about societal and global power relations.

Copper mining in Peru, for example, is capital-intensive: few jobs are provided locally to offset the impact on the loss of livelihoods and  damage to the environment. These realities led over 100 indigenous people, who were dispossessed of their land, to occupy the Las Bambas copper mine in April 2022.  Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have seen similar protests.

Lithium mining in particular consumes unsustainable amounts of water, endangering the way of life of indigenous people in arid regions especially. Chile and Bolivia at least have some regulatory framework, unlike Argentina where extraction is based entirely on a neoliberal model with very low royalties for the government.

It’s clear that simply replacing individualised fossil-fuel transport with lithium-based electric vehicles is not sustainable. A reduction in consumption based on new collective models of transport will be required in the Global North. And that requirement extends beyond transport: as long as developed countries pursue growth strategies based on over-consumption, a neocolonial power imbalance towards the Global South will be maintained.

Besides grassroots resistance, initiatives are also being taken at state level to break the cycle of so-called green extractivism. Indonesia has sought to shift its position from being a raw material to a finished product exporter, producing finished electric vehicle batteries, rather than just their components. To do this, it banned the export of certain raw materials, instead refining them in-country. It also nationalised the mining sector and introduced protectionist policies to nurture its fledgling domestic industries. Predictably these steps fall foul of international trade rules devised by the Global North.

During the Colombian presidential campaign of 2022, the then candidate and now President Gustavo Petro announced he would suspend new hydrocarbon exploration and ban fracking as a means of reducing the use of fossil fuels in the country. The pledge cane 27 years after the U’wa people issued a manifesto saying they would rather face a “dignified death” than have their land exploited for oil production.

In other Latin American countries, indigenous people and farming communities have proposed “leaving the oil underground” as a way of tackling the climate crisis. Over the years, this campaign has grown in support.

The authors are clear: a green transition must be socially just, at a global level. This means de-commodifying energy and seeing it as a part of the commons, to which people have a democratic right and which should be democratically controlled by them.

Mike Phipps’ book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.