Picture: Robin Brass / www.youthphotos.eu
Industry at a Rhine harbour at dusk.

Modern-day Europeans are fully aware of the fact that Europe's unprecedented welfare was mostly built on its colonial expansion. This colonial expansion was euphemised as the ‘White Man's Burden' on European peoples to spread their civilisation and bring its fruits to others. Exploitation of workers and exhaustion of resources were quite conveniently considered to be a fair trade-off for the benefits of European enlightenment and technology. Fortunately, few these days would subscribe to such a view. Even if not much is done about it, we acknowledge the tragedy of colonial wars and the devastation of local economies to suit Europe's needs.

Yet most people, even outside Europe, have no problem with the idea that Europe is some sort of ‘green' and ‘clean' leader. Europe now accepts the burden of colonialism on its conscience; but somehow it has managed to dodge the burden of industrialisation. The question is: has Europe done so much in the way of protecting the environment (i.e. being ‘green') as to make up for its great responsibility in imposing on the world a polluting and unsustainable economy?

The answer is: not quite. The West as a whole has largely cleaned up its own soil and air by moving most industry to Third World countries, particularly China. Amongst Western countries, Europe gained its reputation as an environmental forerunner mainly in the climate change negotiations, because of the roles played by the EU and the US respectively. This reputation has proven very useful. Although people might know that most Chinese pollutant industries are merely relocated from the West or produce for Western consumption, they tend to assume that it's mostly the US's fault. A quick look at the figures shows that there are reasons to doubt this. EU imports from China in 2008 stood at €247.6 billion; US imports for the same period added up to €245.510 billion at current exchange rates. Calculating who is to blame for most pollution relocation is more difficult; but I wouldn't hurry to blame it all on the US.

Comparisons often hurt, but in this case, it's clearly the US that's feeling the pain. Economically speaking, the US is the only nation-state commensurable with a united Europe. Its current massive carbon footprint and the extravagant habits of its population admittedly provide an easy target for criticism. Besides, as the most dominant military power, the US already attracts plenty of critics; adding environmental concerns to the long list is just too easy. Don't get me wrong, the US have been rightly criticised; but, by comparison, does Europe deserve any praise? Below I will debunk some common statements of the Green Europe myth:

"Europe's carbon footprint is very small compared to that of the US"

If we look at accumulated historic emissions, the EU stands on equal ground with the US. Given the longevity of most greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it would be only fair to consider accumulated emissions and not only current ones. This was suggested by Brazil at the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which led to the Kyoto Protocol. However, it was rejected by both the EU and the US as it would greatly increase their share of the reduction burden.

"Europe is a pioneer in environmental protection"

Actually, the US was the first to set up environmental institutions in 1970 and only the UK and Scandinavian Europe followed suit. Germany, for instance, didn't have a separate ministry until 1986. Early on, all these institutions were primarily concerned with the effects of pollution on their own soil and gave little attention to problems abroad.

"Europe has made a real effort to curb its greenhouse gas emissions"

In reality, it can easily be argued that most cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe were made thanks to side-effects from an event completely unrelated to climate change negotiations: the demise of the Soviet Union. With the disintegration of the Communist bloc came the end of very pollutant heavy industry throughout Eastern Europe, which was conveniently sent to China and elsewhere.

"Politicians in the European institutions are genuinely committed to ‘saving the environment'"

You might be dismayed to know that European moves towards a ‘greener' economy owe a great deal to the Commission's (and, to a lesser extent, the Council's) desire for attention. Scholars widely agree that environmental negotiations were targeted by the EU as a mere means to step up its presence internationally. For instance, American commentators often point to the fact that other developed countries were given concessions by the EU that were denied to the US just for the sake of showing off with an agreement.

Of course, on the whole, Europe and Europeans are doing (a lot) more than anyone else to tackle climate change and have very advanced environmental legislation. Look at the Carbon Trading Scheme, the compulsory targets which are ahead of everyone else's, the newly formed German consortium that aims at building massive solar power plants in the Sahara.

But let me go back to my original comparison. The White Man's Burden myth was based on elements of solidarity and responsibility which distracted most people from the awful consequences of colonisation and imperialism. We see this as hypocritical nowadays. Will we one day also find it hypocritical to have talked of Europe as ‘green leader' just because at some point it became convenient for Europe to address its own environmental responsibilities vis-à-vis the rest of the world? In other words, Europe ‘pioneered' environmental pollution; just how much credit can it get from a belated entry into environmental protection?

Europe may have made some key contributions in the fight against climate change, but its ‘key contribution' to creating the problem in the first place is undeniable. If we don't clearly acknowledge the latter, we risk continuing with the same kind of hypocrisy that took pride in the abolition of slavery even after making untold profits from it.

IN -1106 DAYS