The climate and ecological crises are a legacy of systemic racism and people of colour suffer disproportionately from their harms, a Greenpeace UK report says. Globally, the report says, it is people of colour who, despite having contributed the least to the climate emergency, are now “disproportionately losing their lives and livelihoods” by the millions because of it.
“The environmental emergency is the legacy of colonialism,” the report says. This was because colonialism had “established a model through which the air and lands of the global south have been … used as places to dump waste the global north does not want”, the report says.
It adds that similar inequalities are visible in the UK, where almost half of all of waste-burning incinerators are in areas with high populations of people of colour. In London, black people are more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution, and black people in England are nearly four times as likely as white people to have no access to outdoor space at home, it says.
YouGov polling alongside the report shows widespread ignorance of the racial divide in environmental impacts. of those polled, 35% believed that people of colour were no more likely than others to live close to a waste incinerator; 55% believed there was no difference in exposure to air pollution between white people and people of colour in London; and 47% believed there were no significant differences between ethnicity groups in access to green outdoor spaces.
Produced in collaboration with the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, the report traces the roots of the environmental emergency to colonialism, slavery and the plunder of resources from the global south. Greenpeace says it is making environmental justice a central pillar of its work.
“We argue that the outcomes of the environmental emergency cannot be understood without reference to the history of British and European colonialism, which set in motion a global model for racialised resource extraction from people of colour.”
The report’s publication makes Greenpeace UK the latest big campaign group to link racial justice to the environment agenda. Pat Venditti, its executive director, described the issues as “two sides of the same coin”.
“This is why it’s absolutely vital that, as a campaigning organisation, we help to shed light on the links between racism and environmental harm and make it a central pillar of our work,” Venditti said. “As a predominantly white organisation located in the global north Greenpeace UK recognises that it still has a lot of learning to do. But we’re pulling out all the stops to make sure we get it right in future.”
Mainstream green groups have “not done enough to recognise the links between systemic racism and climate change”, says the report, in acknowledgment of long-held criticism of the environmental movement’s understanding of the impact of racism.
It says Greenpeace UK has “work to do to centre environmental justice” in its campaigns and will do so “through its relationships with impacted communities, other allies and the wider environmental and climate justice movements in the UK and around the world”.
The report is a key development in a journey begun by Greenpeace and many other institutions in 2020, when Black Lives Matter anti-racist demonstrations spread across the world after the murder in the US of the civilian George Floyd by a police officer.
Asad Rehman, the director of War On Want, an anti-poverty charity that campaigns on environmental justice, said he welcomed the report, “especially as many big NGOs historically ignored issues of race and intersectional justice”.
Rehman said: “They have been forced to address this because the broader climate justice movement is shifting the discourse and narrative. However, it’s still baby steps. What we now need to see is that reflected in their policy demands, their campaigns and internally in their organisations.”
The report could be a resource for Greenpeace supporters, who are largely white, to help with understanding the racial context of the climate crisis. By drawing together examples of environmental racism in the UK and abroad, and showing the roles UK institutions have played in them, it aims to tell the environmental justice story in a way that audiences can relate to.
Greenpeace UK said it would also be launching two initiatives to support environmental and social justice groups. It will offer warehouse space to grassroots groups for the design and planning of campaigns, and create a fund “to contribute to the initiatives of groups that advocate for social, racial and/or environmental justice”.
“Funds can help cover things like venue costs, equipment rentals, materials for actions, investigations or workshops, or setting up a community fridge, to name a few,” Greenpeace UK said.
Dr Halima Begum, the chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said: “This report, by two leading organisations in their respective sectors, reminds the world of something that should be glaringly obvious – the climate crisis is also a racial crisis.
“Speaking as someone from one of the sacrifice zones identified in the report, whose father’s village in Bangladesh remains underwater due to the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, this report confirms that we cannot overcome the environmental emergency faced by the entire planet without addressing patterns of global racial disparity.”
Pollution and deprivation
Newham, in east London, has the largest minority-ethnic population of any local authority area in the UK, and it is one of the most deprived. It is also the most polluted.
On average, Newham residents, 71% of whom are from ethnic minorities, are exposed to levels of particulate matter air pollution that is a third higher than World Health Organization limits, and one in seven are exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide above the UK’s limit for human health.
Poor air quality in the borough kills 96 residents a year, according to the local authority.
“There are days, particularly in a really smoggy day in autumn or winter, where it’s really noticeable how heavy the air feels to breathe,” said Liam O’Hanrahan, an outdoor learning teacher at Newham primary school. “You do physically notice the pollution. And that’s before you get on to the kind of journeys that children have to make coming to school, where I know they’re walking down extremely busy roads.”
Yet it seems Newham can expect more traffic, not less. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has approved a £1.2bn tunnel beneath the Thames, connecting Newham’s Silvertown area with the Greenwich peninsula.
Campaigners say the tunnel will vastly increase congestion in the borough, and that the decision is at odds with Khan’s efforts to show leadership on pollution and climate issues. Newham and Greenwich local authorities have called on Khan to ditch the scheme. Rokhsana Fiaz, Newham’s mayor, said the project would undermine pollution and climate-change commitments.
Daniel Rodrigues, a builder who lives close to where the tunnel will emerge in Newham, says pollution in his local area is bearable – though he moved to the area with his family from west London to try to protect the health of his daughter, who suffers from a lung condition.
Rodrigues and fellow campaigners believe the new tunnel will lead to thousands more cars in the area.
In its latest report on racism and the environment, Greenpeace UK highlights the building of the Silvertown tunnel in Newham as a key example of environmental injustice in the UK. The group said it reflected a “bigger picture … in which people of colour are disproportionately exposed to, and are particularly vulnerable to, air pollution”.
Khan’s office has said a tolling scheme on the tunnel and the existing Blackwall tunnel will manage demand and reduce congestion.