G7's promised 'decarbonization' is a long way off — but it's not just symbolic

Stephen Harper has agreed to a G7 statement that oil and gas really have no long-term future because they threaten the health of the planet. No, the PM didn't experience an epiphany, he made a political calculation the other side had made a massive compromise — and it was time to seize it.

Stephen Harper saying that oil and gas have no long-term future is a dramatic development

RAW: Harper says G7 unanimous on environment

8 years ago
Duration 1:47
Featured VideoPrime Minister Stephen Harper address the G7's unanimous statement on the environment.

Summits can be dull, dull, dull. 

Summit communiqués, in fact, are actually designed to be dull. Even those of us paid to read the endless paragraphs of bureaucratic gobbledegook tend to nod off somewhere between sections one and two. That way, we can't see how little they actually say.

But how's this for something to snap the most jet-lagged cynic awake: Stephen Harper has agreed to a statement that oil and gas really have no long-term future because they threaten the health of the planet.

OK, take a deep breath. It's not like he had some blinding epiphany, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Rather, Harper made a political calculation that the other side had made a massive compromise — and it was time to seize upon it.

Germany has a deal for you

Here's the deal: the most powerful woman in Europe had agreed to water down her cherished ambition to have the world's most powerful democracies agree that fossil fuels must be phased out by 2050.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to a G7 communique Monday that admits fossil fuels are to harming the planet and promises to seek global 'decarbonization' by the end of this century. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sounds like a long way off? Well, it wasn't nearly far enough for Merkel's most reluctant partners in this grand design: Canada and Japan. After a political career spent promoting the extraction and sale of oil and gas, Harper was not going to sign their death warrant.

And, by the way, a whole lot of Germans were nervous about it, too. Along with‎ plenty of Americans. And do the French and the British not like driving gasoline-powered cars?

Merkel, typically, had been thinking ahead. As the summit drew near, she made it clear the funeral for oil and gas didn't have to be in the year 2050. How about be the end of the century?

Think about it. To be applauded as a climate hero? For a promise you won't live long enough to regret?

The D-word's OK now

And so it is done. It will be the leaders' grandchildren who get roasted for failing to reach the goal set by Chancellor Merkel in her statement at Schloss Elmau:

"We emphasize that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required, with a decarbonization of the global economy over the course of this century."

Decarbonization! The D-word! Suddenly, it's OK.

And in the short term? Nothing much happens. As Harper ‎put it, "nobody's gonna start to shut down industry and turn off the lights."

So it's symbolic, right? Meaningless, even?

No and no. It's not about turning off the lights; it's the principle.

That principle, never before endorsed with such clarity by the mighty nations of the G7, is that the burning of oil and gas‎ must end or the planet will fry.

Take it from a politician who's spent a decade defending the oil industry against all comers. And Harper surely didn't sign up  to Merkel's plan because he had a revelation. Rather, he may simply see it as a pretty good deal: it buys time — lots of time — for an industry that is now officially doomed.

In the future, Harper said, "We simply have to find a way to create lower carbon-emitting sources of energy."

Yes, that was Stephen Harper speaking. So, new rule: not all summits are dull.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.