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    COP28: Beware the Weasel Words

    Dubai’s COP28 is a good time to play a game of Weasel Word Bingo.  As the 97,000 delegates and observers thrash out the various statements and declarations that will hopefully help save the planet, it is worth remembering the immense power of words.  Seemingly innocuous terms can be surreptitiously slipped into what should be binding action statements to effectively create loopholes and once more kick the oil can further down the road.  So what are some of the typical “weasel” words on the COP28 bingo card?

    Emissions

    While the world agues about whether to commit to phasing out or phasing down fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia has reportedly been trying to tag the word “emissions” onto any references to fossil fuels in the draft text.  Phasing down or out fossil fuel emissions leaves room for oil and gas production to merrily continue in a utopian future in which carbon emissions are largely captured with largely unproven and thus far unscalable technology, which leads us to the second couple of terms on the bingo card.

    Unabated

    The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) is a voluntary fossil fuel association comprising Aramco, BP, Chevron, China National Petroleum Corporation, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Petrobras, Repsol, Shell, and TotalEnergies.  It is a major advocate of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) and carbon offsetting as the main solutions to abate harmful emissions, and the word unabated is therefore one of its key weapons in the battle to keep pumping oil.  It is systematically added to emissions reduction targets to take the potential sting out of them for oil producers.

    Operational

    The OGCI is also very keen on this seemingly harmless term.  They always keep a few “operationals” in their pockets so that they can sneak them into greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction statements.  “Operational” neatly cancels out any obligations to reduce Scope 3 emissions, which represent the overwhelming majority of the carbon footprint of fossil fuel production and use.  It conveniently limits oil producers to having to reduce flaring and electrifying parts of their production and distribution processes.

    Predominantly, substantially

    Qualifying terms are the enemy of climate action.  The likes of Al Gore and António Guterres are loudly advocating for simple, straight-forward language to be used in climate commitments.  The IEA’s Fatih Birol is also eminently clear when he states that no new oil and gas projects can be allowed in a 2050 net-zero scenario.  Instead, committing to be “predominantly” or “substantially” fossil-free leaves ample scope for ducking and diving and being harder to pin down than a runaway piglet covered in crude oil.

    Recyclable, circular

    Another Laundromat favourite bugbear, the promise of endlessly reusing plastic is an attractive proposition in theory.  The food industry has been in far greater focus in Dubai than at previous COP events.  It is responsible for most of the 400 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste produced globally each year.  The Laundromat has found many examples of the word recyclable being used to mask negligible real-world recycling rates.  COP28 attendees should ask a popular maker of hard-to-recycle multilayered fibreboard cartons at the Swedish Pavilion for more information.

    Greenwash bingo may be fun way to highlight a serious problem, but the Laundromat sincerely hopes that the language agreed for the final COP28 joint declaration will be crystal clear and unequivocal, leaving no space for prevarication and obfuscation. 

    Image courtesy of Trond Giæver Myhre from Pixabay
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard Tyszkiewicz
    Richard has over 30 years’ experience in the international investment industry. He has worked closely with major Nordic investors on consultancy projects, focusing on the evaluation of external asset managers. While doing so, Richard built up a strong practical understanding of the challenges faced by institutional investors seeking to integrate ESG into their portfolios. Richard has an MA degree in Management and Spanish from St Andrews University, and sustainability qualifications from Cambridge University, PRI and the CFA Institute.

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