This post is by Dr Alice Bell, co-director of the climate charity Possible.
Chatter about emoji might seem frivolous. But whether it’s a drop of blood symbol helping to lift the taboo around periods or adding emotional context to conversations that have moved online during lockdown, emoji play a crucial role in modern culture. Like gifs, memes and other cultural references, emoji are part of how we talk to each other today. As such, it only seems sensible that the ever growing emoji vocabulary should include symbols relating to climate change. There’s an oil drum, a gas pump and a power station, so why nothing relating to green tech?
We’d noticed for a while people mentioning a lack of a wind turbine emoji – when they’re sharing news about wind generation, or just passing a wind farm on the train and excited to see them spinning – and figured that was a good place to start. It’s not just the physical turbines themselves either. The image of the wind turbine – arguably above all other green tech – has long been a symbol of climate action at large.
So, last year, working with Renewable UK, Possible submitted an application for a wind turbine emoji to the Unicode Consortium. Unicode is the official body which releases new emoji each year and is made up of executives from major digital giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google and IBM.
A wind turbine is not a windmill
Technically, anyone can submit an application for a new emoji, but the chances of it actually being encoded are small. And, indeed, they rejected our application. The reason? A windmill emoji is “currently under review” and “this would essentially duplicate most of the reasons for adding a wind energy device…as they are too similar.” It’s fair to say we were left a bit perplexed by their rationale. The modern wind turbine is a quite different bit of technology from a traditional windmill, and people will use these symbols to talk about quite different things. If we can have four different emoji representing an airplane, why not a wind turbine and a windmill emoji?
Unicode explicitly asks applicants to avoid justifying new emoji because they further a ‘cause’, no matter how worthwhile, so we left aside arguments based on climate campaigning. Instead, we provided evidence under Unicode’s categories of expected usage level, search frequency, distinctiveness and multiple usage. We found ‘wind turbine’ had been searched on Google more than both oil drum and gas pump since 2004, for example. It’s no surprise, perhaps, as wind turbines are increasingly part of our built environment and central to discussions about our low carbon future too.
We need to be able to talk about them
As the transition away from fossil fuels becomes more and more rapid and, with that, more and more controversial, we need to be able to talk about it wherever things are discussed, including places peppered with emoji. Maybe people are excited that a new wind power record has been broken, maybe they’ve gone for a day out in Brighton and love the sight of the Rampion offshore wind farm on the skyline. Maybe their sister has just got a job working on a new blade design. Maybe they really hate a new wind farm planned near where they live (complaints about wind turbines are important too), or perhaps they think it’s odd the Crown Estate makes so much money from it.
I often say the hardest bit of my job isn’t trying to build public engagement with climate change but rather undoing centuries of public disengagement with our energy system. As we creep ever closer to the middle of the 21st century and higher and higher up the temperature scale, it’s vital we have the vocabulary to talk about what’s going on.
For now, Unicode has stopped accepting emoji submissions, though they will resume in April. We hope they might reconsider at this point and offer some more climate themed emoji too. We know they also have a solar panel emoji currently under review (which would be great, but maybe just slightly less iconic than a wind turbine, visually speaking). I love that my phone offers me emoji to talk about VHS, floppy discs and even two different colours of CD, it’s high time I should be able to see a choice of green tech there too.