The Insidiousness of Wiggle Words

The Insidiousness of Wiggle Words
Photo: Leon Neal/WPA Pool, Getty Images

The G7 ended this weekend with its traditional communique. These statements are engineered to precision, crafted by some of the most powerful governments in the world to express their vision for, in this case, recovering from the pandemic and addressing the climate crisis.

Surely a meeting of the minds this powerful would lead to some interesting and bold ideas to confront these challenges! Between some good standing about and the enjoyment of snacks and beers, progress must have been made.

If there was, it’s unclear. An increasingly troubling pattern is emerging not just with world leaders but corporations and even oil companies where “pledges” and “commitments” are made in flowery terms with no substance on how they actually plan to decarbonize. Useful, in this case, is stopping money, policies, and activities that release carbon dioxide and setting a firm timeline to do so. Reading the G7 statement, though, reveals none of that.

“Through global action and concerted leadership, 2021 should be a turning point for our planet as we commit to a green transition that cuts emissions, increases adaptation action worldwide, halts and reverses biodiversity loss, and, through policy and technological transformation, creates new high-quality jobs and increases prosperity and wellbeing,” the climate and environment section begins before going on to note “we commit to accelerating efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] global warming threshold within reach.”

Great stuff here, full of uncontroversial ideas. Preserving the only biosphere known to sustain human life seems like an excellent goal. Capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) would be in line with the Paris Agreement, granting a reprieve to small island nations and millions of people living on the edge of survival in our current climate, let alone one that surpasses that threshold.

To do that, there are a number of roadmaps for how to attain these worthy goals (if world leaders are feeling ambitious, they could even cross-reference them). The International Energy Agency put out a report last month showing the world needs to end new fossil fuel exploration and development next year. A report out just last week from the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services called for tackling biodiversity and climate change together, including recommendations along the lines of improving soil conservation and reducing fertiliser. That alone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 10%. Yet another UN report calls for reducing fossil fuel production by 6% every year this decade. There’s more, but the point is, there are many reports with concrete action items that all broadly align. Leaders have a veritable smorgasbord of policies to choose from, all with concrete goals and timelines.

The G7 chose [checks notes] almost none of them. Instead, there were commitments to “reaffirm” hewing to the Paris Agreement, “rapidly scale-up technologies and policies that further accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity,” and acknowledge that decarbonizing transportation “will require dramatically increasing the pace of the global decarbonization of the road transport sector throughout the 2020s.” Notice the lack of percentages, timelines, dollar amounts, or anything resembling concrete steps. Admittedly, the G7 communique is but one document and each country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement has more details as do national budgets and other policy documents. But those details do not include, for example, when fossil fuel subsidies or exploration will end, something basically every available line of research has indicated needs to happen to avoid a climate meltdown.

One of the big numbers the group does point out is the $US12 ($15) trillion spent or otherwise committed to economic recovery tied to the pandemic. Those funds have largely not been committed to a green recovery. Numbers compiled by the Rhodium Group show the EU leading the way, but just 17.3% of its funds have gone toward forward-thinking recovery. The U.S. sits at a measly 1.3%. That may change if the Biden administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress are able to pass a major infrastructure package with climate embedded in it — but things aren’t looking super hot on that front right now.

The issue with the G7 communique is that these nations are playing a game of chicken, with economies still tied to fossil fuels and powerful interests that support that status quo and a climate that can’t take burning much more oil, coal, and gas. That democratically elected world leaders are following in the footsteps of businesses rather than taking decisive action is a worrisome sign, especially given the overwhelming public support to address climate change. Courts and investors have started to call BS on companies that fail to create and implement adequate climate plans. If world leaders keep using the same wiggle words to escape taking action, they, too, may soon find themselves under increasing pressure as well.