The History of Greenhouse Gases and its Correlation to Colonialism

The biggest culprits of global warming are linked back to the Industrial revolution. A study by the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that there are five primary greenhouse gases that account for the 96% rise in global climate warming since 1750, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)

  • Methane (CH4)

  • Nitrous oxide (N2O)

  • Chlorofluorocarbon-12

  • Hydrofluorocarbon-23

Several scientists believe that the Industrial age was a turning point to environmental degradation. This was caused by the greenhouse effect, emitted through factories, which ultimately encouraged global warming.

Imperialism during the industrial revolution

Between the years 1750-1840, the world transitioned to a new age of industrial advancements, particularly in Europe and the United States. During this time, transitions were not only made from agriculture-based to industrial-based economies, but also from old imperialism to new imperialism.

Historically, old imperialism refers to physical colonial endeavours with the goal of establishing settlements and colonies in foreign lands. In contrast, new imperialism focused on endeavours to obtain cheap resources, crops, or labor. Therefore, it is discernible that new imperialism was motivated and driven by the industrial revolution’s need to further develop manufacturing processes. In other words, the Industrial Revolution prompted nations’ to fulfil imperialistic desires. This was achieved through controlling the supply line of resources from other countries. Towards the end of the Industrial age, these industrialised states were also required to globally expand their markets. This was done by selling goods, services, and establishing monopolies in less-fortunate countries.

The debate on how colonialism impacted global industrialisation

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to new imperialism. New Imperialism was the culprit of creating the need for industrialised states to obtain resources and labor necessary to support their newly industrial-based economies. Additionally, it gave nations an excuse to continue their power over colonies. Since New Imperialism was motivated by the Industrial Revolution, imperial powers often brought with them these advancements to foreign lands. Because they needed to sell goods internationally that were failing to sell domestically, colonised countries were exposed and given access to the wide European market, allowing trade opportunities and valuable knowledge of trading commodities. One instance in which colonialism brought industrialisation can be seen in how many of Africa’s factories were built by the Europeans.

As mentioned earlier, the industrial age is most commonly to blame for the global warming issue. But how did a historical event that precede two centuries lead to one of today's biggest environmental issues? While scientists have long since suspected the link between the Industrial Revolution and Greenhouse gases, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first suggested in 1896 that industrial activities could raise the earth’s temperature in the long run. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the greenhouse effect emerged as an imminent concern, that his work was taken into consideration.

According to the book Cultural Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, the greenhouse effect is “the atmospheric buildup of excess concentrations of greenhouse gases”, which “prevents infrared energy from escaping and traps the heat at the earth’s surface”. Industrialisation is the biggest culprit of releasing GHG, because emissions are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are required to energize factories and production. In other words, colonialism encouraged the mass spread of global industrialisation and was partially responsible for the continuous rise of greenhouse gases that followed.

This is further emphasised by figure 1.1, which illustrates the concentration of three greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over centuries. It is no coincidence the GHGs are among the five GHG that account for the 96% rise in global warming, neither is the fact that it first increased drastically around the Industrial Revolution.

Environmental impacts of greenhouse gases

  • Global warming - the greenhouse effect refers to earth’s process of warming the surface when gases in the atmosphere trap the earth’s heat. This natural process is unnaturally exaggerated by the surplus of GHG in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, one of the primary GHGs, has consistently risen for decades and traps extra heat within the atmosphere. As a result, the average global temperature continuously rises, as can be seen in figure 1.2.

figure 1.2
  • Air pollution - According to a study led by Jason West, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina, mitigating global greenhouse gas emissions shows additional benefits to air quality and human health. Greenhouse gases and air pollution both stem from many of the same sources, and the air pollutants (e.g fossil fuel emissions) from these sources are known to disrupt air quality.

  • Rising sea levels - The constant rise in sea levels is a byproduct of global warming, which means it also roots back to the greenhouse effect. The rising temperature causes more glaciers and sea ice from Antarctica and Greenland to melt at a rapid rate. This has caused global sea levels to rise nearly 40 cm this century alone.

‘Colonialism’ Today

Colonialism’s impact on the environment can still be seen in our present world. Right now, Indonesia has been affected by ‘economic colonialism’. This occurs when another country has economic hegemony over another. This happens when the ‘colonised’ country’s land resources are exploited by another.

For example, Indonesia is the second-largest ‘dumping ground’ for Australian waste, which is exported to places in East Java, such as the Brantas River. Further to this, Australia also exports its waste to India, Vietnam, and Malaysia, which are all developing countries. This is problematic because developing countries are usually blamed for releasing the most greenhouse gas emissions. This usually occurs when landfills are burnt off, which releases carbon and other greenhouse gases. Ironically, it is not entirely their fault, but developed countries who can not maintain their own waste. After all, if developed countries like Australia can not manage their waste, then how can developing countries?

Consequently, it is important to realise that while colonialism is, for the most part, a ‘thing of the past’, its effects on countries are long-lasting and devastating. Moreover, it is imperative to realise that colonialism still happens today in other methods, such as the exploitation of land by other countries. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, colonialism has sparked the emission of greenhouse gases, and it will remain to do so if nothing is done to stop it.

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  3. From the Industrial Revolution to Climate Change: What Happened and Why? - 2041 Foundation [Internet]. 2041 Foundation. 2021 [cited 16 June 2021]. Available from:

  4. The Warming Effects of the Industrial Revolution - Global Temperatures [Internet]. Climate Policy Watcher. 2021 [cited 16 June 2021]. Available from:

  5. Goush I. Since 1850, these historical events have accelerated climate change [Internet]. World Economic Forum. 2021 [cited 16 June 2021]. Available from:

  6. Avakian M. Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Can Improve Air Quality and Save Lives [Internet]. Global Environmental Health Newsletter. 2021 [cited 16 June 2021]. Available from:

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