There isn’t anything particularly hilarious about Hellish fires raging in countries from Greece to Canada, the first climate change famine ravaging Madagascar, rain rather than snow falling at the summit of Greenland for the first time, or more than five million people dying of a disease probably caused by the plundering of wild animals. But somehow, the typically depressing business of reporting on environmental and social issues did occasionally cough up a reason to chortle in 2021.
Here are 14 things that made us less likely to reach for the bleach this year.
Greenwash becomes visible from space
2021 was a year when greenwashing — that is, companies and governments claiming to be more sustainable than they actually are — became so abundant that it spawned new variants like rainbow-washing (jumping on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender bandwagon) and virus-washing (using the pandemic as a platform to pretend you care about your staff). Happily, it gave cartoonists, satirists and memers plenty of material, particularly around the corporate-sponsored jamboree that was COP26.
Sustainability is at the heart of everything we claim
Almost as common as greenwashing this year was companies saying that sustainability is ‘in their DNA’, or ‘at the heart of everything they do’. If it was, then perhaps global emissions wouldn’t break new records every year. Here’s one of the trillion times companies spewed this hacked phrase in 2021:
“At Uniqlo, sustainability lies at the core of the brand’s operations, with its belief that its clothing has the power to change the world for the better,” wrote the Japanese fast fashion brand’s PR agency, announcing its participation in a webinar on ‘Unlocking the Power of Clothing” in January. Beyond preventing nudity, how is cheap clobber destined for landfill good for society? (Advice to corporates: stop saying sustainability is in your DNA. It’s not true and no one believes you.)
Sober by mid-century
In a bid to highlight the absurdity of carbon reduction targets that don’t have to be met until several decades away, satirical website The Shovel published a story before the COP26 climate talks in Scotland, about a man who pledges to stop drinking by 2050.
“The programme will see Greg Taylor, 73, continue to drink as normal for the foreseeable future, before reducing consumption in 2049 when he turns 101. He has assured friends it will not affect his drinking plans in the short or medium term,” the story reads.
Having a dig at entrenched interests and fossil fuels lobbyists, Taylor is quoted as saying that it was important not to rush the switch to non-alcoholic beverages.
“’It’s not realistic to transition to zero alcohol overnight. This requires a steady, phased approach where nothing changes for at least two decades,’ he said, adding that he may need to make additional investments in beer consumption in the short term, to make sure no night out is worse off.”
Sneering at carbon credits, a mechanism that will allow companies to trade planet-warming emissions, the story says that the elderly man will be able to bring forward “drinking credits” earned from the days he hasn’t drunk over the past forty years, “meaning the actual end date for consumption may actually be 2060.”
“To assist with the transition, Taylor has bought a second beer fridge which he describes as the ‘capture and storage’ method.”
That sinking feeling
Though entire countries disappearing beneath rising seas is no laughing matter, the foreign affairs minister of the low-lying Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, went viral with an image of him, and an unidentified man giving the ‘V’ sign, standing besuited in an area that used to be land but has now been claimed by the sea. It was one the most memorable images of the COP26 climate talks.
Cheating is okay if you buy an offset, right?
Carbon offsets, which allow firms to pay for someone else to cut or remove a given quantity of greenhouse gas, were repeatedly slammed for allowing companies to greenwash and dodge the hard work of reducing their carbon footprint. Climate Ad Creatives, a group of adfolk that makes ads to wake people up to the climate emergency, produced a video that used to marital infidelity to highlight the dubious promises of carbon offsets used to hit net-zero targets. “I paid him not to cheat on his wife for a whole month, so on the whole the world is a little less cheat-y,” says a character in their video.
A train… or a bus?
Erik Solheim, the ex-chief of the United Nations Environment Programme, is no stranger to trolling. Ever since he was asked to resign in 2018 after revelations that he blew almost US$500,000 on air travel and hotels in just 22 months, amassing the carbon footprint of a small island nation in the process, Solheim has attracted scorn on Twitter for his posts about the environment — particularly those about China. He has been criticised in the past for promoting the Chinese infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative (he’s now president of the Green Belt and Road Institute).
Solheim’s tweet in May of a video from state-run New China TV about a new autonomous smart electric train in China that runs on a virtual track was inadvertent troll fodder. “This is incredible!” he tweeted. “China is testing it’s new autonomous electric train that does not need traditional tracks. It runs on a virtual track. Can go everywhere.”
Netizens were quick to point out that this incredible invention could in fact just be a bus. “What’s next, Erik? Boats that don’t need water? Planes on land?” commented one Tweep, who pointed out that track-less autonomous buses have been in use in Norway since 2019. Another wrote: “This isn’t incredible. It’s called a bus. Buses are great, but they aren’t trams and lack almost all of the benefits of trams.”
Some pointed out that they had similar modes of transport in their countries, albeit a bit less fancy.
Others proposed innovations that might impress Solheim.
Don’t mention the wind
When the resources minister of Australia, one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels and avoiders of climate action, was interviewed on national television about the viability of a wind farm backed up by battery power, it was always going to be difficult to get a straight answer.
The appropriately named Keith Pitt engaged in a Monty Python-esque debate (watch the video here) with his interviewer on Sky News about why he had rejected funding for a green energy hub in north Queensland. “What I can tell you is that intermittent wind and solar is not dispatchable,” said Pitt. “But it is if the battery is big enough?” countered reporter Tom Connell. What followed was a bizarre exchange in which Pitt refused to acknowledge that battery storage can provide a dispatchable supply of electricity.
“This man is Minister for Resources in the sunniest and windiest country in the world,” posted one Tweep. Another commented: “Keith Pitt is Liberal Party idealogue who’s in the pockets of the fossil fuel brigade. There can be no mention of renewable energy technology unless you are bagging the shit out of it.”
What is carbon capture and storage?
Australia’s federal government pledged in April to spend an extra A$539 million (US$399 million) on new “clean” energy projects, including A$264 million on carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) projects to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Not everyone was convinced of the carbon-sucking effectiveness of CCUS tech, which has an unfortunate reputation for being a get-out-of-jail-free card for big polluters. Among them is Craig Memery of Australian energy advocacy programme PIAC Energy, who tweeted:
American politicians have an illustrious history of saying things about the state of the planet not entirely rooted in fact. Donald Trump, for instance, once called climate change a scam cooked up by the Chinese. In 2021, it was Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s turn to enter the history books of misinformed blunders with the suggestion that the Paris Agreement, a global climate deal that involved 197 countries (that’s almost every nation on earth) was forged for the people of Paris. US Activist and politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez couldn’t resist trolling Cruz, asking him if he believed that the Geneva Convention, an international treaty drawn up to protect people during armed conflict, concerned the views of the citizens of Geneva. Cruz, who is a graduate of illustrious schools Harvard and Princeton, has got a blooper reel of climate gaffes. In 2015, he told a late-night chat show that there is no truth to global warming. “Satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years there’s been zero warming, none whatsoever,” he said, to the consternation of climate scientists.
Burger King, grilled
Context is everything in social media. When Burger King tweeted “Women belong in the kitchen” on International Women’s Day, Twitter didn’t get the joke. The fast food chain was trying to tackle sexism in the culinary world by advocating for female chefs, but without the context of the entire Twitter thread to explain its initial post the brand was immediately torched in a woke firestorm. ”Burger King using sexism for clickbait 🤦♀️” wrote Stephanie Reed, a social media manager. The brand later deleted the tweet and issued a ‘We hear you, we’re sorry’ apology.
Wow no cow
At US$6 million for 30 seconds of airtime, there are probably better things to spend money on than a superbowl commercial. But cow-free milk brand Oatly did just that with one of the most annoying ads ever made. Try watching this and not singing it to yourself endlessly as you find yourself walking to the shop to buy a carton of Oatly. “They made a commercial so terrible they got other people to write articles and talk about their brand for them,” wrote one hater of the ad on YouTube. The ad, which features Oatly chief executive Toni Petersson repeatedly wailing “wow, wow, no cow”, was banned in Sweden after the country’s dairy lobby sued Oatly.
Greenhouse face mask
Is the air you breathe too dirty or smelly? Then you probably need to wear a greenhouse filled with aromatic plants on your head. This is what Belgian artist and social worker Alain Verschueren does as he wanders the streets of Brussels. His “portable oasis” is a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which sits on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by thyme, rosemary and lavender. The 61 year-old developed the idea in Tunisia 15 years ago, but has not worn it until this year, when face coverings became mandatory. An asthma sufferer, the head-greenhouse is more comfortable than a face mask, he told Irish news channel RTÉ News.
Titanic goes again
The news that a replica of the Titanic would be setting sail next year, on the same route that passenger liner took on its fateful voyage in 1912 was greeted with the cheery probability that this time it might not sink. Thank you, climate change, for melting the ice caps.
At COP26, while 190 countries made pledges to stop burning coal, with 100 nations promising to curb methane emissions, Australia was dancing in the other direction. In tribute to his country’s efforts to be a climate inaction world champion and protect its position as one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels, comedian Dan Illic launched a subvertising campaign in the streets of Glasgow, which hosted the climate talks this year. Up went posters of kangaroos with their tails on fire and a call to action to cuddle a koala before they become extinct.
Did we miss any? Let us know. This story is part of our Year in Review series, which journals the stories that shaped the world of sustainability in 2021.
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