BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for November 2008

UK: climate pioneer?

Richard Black | 14:12 UK time, Thursday, 27 November 2008

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If you're reading this in the UK, you might like to raise a glass this evening - either in celebration or commiseration, depending on your point of view.

From today, you are living under the only law in the world that obliges your government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the kind of figures that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) implies are necessary if the world's inhabitants are to avoid "dangerous climate change".

_44203454_chimpa.jpgThe UK's Climate Change Bill, which has just received Royal Assent, sets "legally binding" targets of reducing emissions by 26% by 2020, and by 80% by 2050.

Phew. Take a breath: these are big-sounding numbers.

The government's primary aim is, obviously, to slash UK emissions. But there is a second - to present a template that other countries could follow as they too look for effective policies.

Other leaders have already endorsed the 80% by 2050 target, most notably the US leader-in-waiting Barack Obama.

(Turning that into US law, incidentally, is a much bigger ask. Everything is measured against 1990 levels and since then, UK emissions have fallen by about 16% while the US's have risen by a similar percentage.)

One of the big questions is whether the bill will work; another is whether it is the most sensible way to achieve the size of reductions that the government considers necessary.

Firstly, that phrase "legally binding": what does it mean, exactly?

Well, one thing is for certain: no minister is going to be carted off to jail, turned out of their home or sent to the stocks for failing to meet the target, either now or in 2050.

They will be called into the head teacher's study - sorry, the House of Commons - and given a painful public verbal flogging; but that will be about all.

Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Miliband acknowledges that the lack of sanctions is a problem with the bill; but it is hard to imagine that any group of politicians anywhere would have gone further.

Then there are the political realities.

On Monday, the Climate Change Committee, the government's new advisory body, will present suggestions for five-yearly "carbon budgets" that can take us to the 2020 target.

Mr Miliband is obliged to take its advice into account when deciding the budgets, but not to follow it. Specifically, he must also take such factors into account as "economic circumstances, and in particular the likely impact of the decision on the economy" as well as fiscal social circumstances, "in particular the likely impact of the decision on fuel poverty".

So there is wiggle room.

And Mr Miliband - a relatively junior cabinet minister - will have to persuade or charm or beat colleagues from other departments, including the Treasury, to implement policies designed to achieve the carbon budgets.

It is also legitimate to ask why the UK needs its own target-based bill given that the EU sets targets across the entire bloc - targets which do have teeth, given the power of the European Commission to fine states that do not comply.

And there is another question, one sometimes asked about the Kyoto Protocol: is setting targets the best way to cut emissions?

After all, countries such as Spain, Greece and New Zealand all have Kyoto targets and intend to abide by them, but they have a very long way to go very quickly if they are to do so.

There is an argument for saying that targets are less important than just getting on with measures such as increasing vehicle efficiency, investing in home insulation and building a big fleet of low-carbon power stations that will each bring real reductions.

The Climate Change Bill, by itself, is an architect's drawing. It shows how the government wants its edifice to look; but by itself, it is a paper house.

Building the real thing is going to be a much harder task. And it will be interesting to see, in the months and years to come, what the rest of the world's would-be carbon cutters make of the UK's approach.

Whales point to home rule

Richard Black | 14:40 UK time, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

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The enthusiastic backing that Greenlanders have just given to enhanced independence from Denmark is largely to do with the wealth that oil and gas reserves could bring.

Whale huntingBut the territory - which perhaps we shall soon now have to refer to as a country - has its eye on other "natural resources" as well.

These are the whales and seals that the Inuit people have historically hunted, an activity which some in Greenland feel the West - for which you can read "Europe" - is unfairly trying to curtail.

More autonomy, they feel, will mean more rights to exploit the whales and seals and the trade they bring.

Part of Greenland's existing whale hunt is conducted under International Whaling Commission (IWC) rules permitting indigenous groups such as the Inuit to catch whales for eating. The other part involves species such as the belgua and narwhal that are outside the IWC's jurisdiction.

After the IWC turned down a bid to include humpback whales in the hunt, Greenland's fisheries minister wrote to Denmark - which represents it - asking whether the territory could, in effect, put itself outside the IWC.

Now, it seems, the wish is being granted. Probably not by next year's IWC meeting, but perhaps by the one after, responsibility for Greenland's whaling will transfer from Copenhagen to Nuuk, meaning the Arctic country would be free to leave the IWC it if liked.

The indications are that it does like; and it matters, because for the first time in decades, a significant whaling nation would then be outside the international organisation charged with regulating it.

The European Commission's approach to seal hunting has also aroused the ire of the Inuit, especially the proposal earlier this year to ban trade in seal products between and into EU nations.

Inuit leaders see whaling and sealing largely in the context of indigenous peoples' rights - the right to live a culture which may have very different standards than are common currency in London or Brussels or Washington, and which is vouchsafed by the United Nations.

Opponents argue that creeping commercialisation means there is a blurred line between an indigenous right and a commercial activity that would be banned anywhere else.

The cultural history of whale hunting is a powerful argument around the Arctic, and found new traction this year in Canada's Nunavik region where hunters landed their first bowhead whale of the modern era.

Even as Greenland eyes a prosperous oil- and gas-fuelled future, it is clear that the Inuit are keener than ever to keep alive these traditions which mark their past, however much infuriation they cause elsewhere.

What is less clear is whether societies opposing whaling and sealing have the power - or, indeed, the moral right - to do anything about it.

Toppled on tuna

Richard Black | 16:05 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008

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There are few things I like on my plate more than a strip or two of bluefin tuna sashimi, succulent in its red-raw elegance.

Protesters at meetingThat's why I was hoping the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), which concluded its annual meeting yesterday, would prove to be that rare thing - a fisheries management body that does what its scientists recommend.

Last week I floated the idea that Iccat might suspend fishing on the beleaguered Mediterranean bluefin, as an independent expert panel had recommended earlier in the year, to protect the rapidly declining stock while member nations sorted out the problems they clearly have with the size of their fleets and making them stay within the law.

How wrong I was. Iccat scientists had recommended a catch quota next year no greater than 15,000 tonnes [pdf link]; Iccat voted for 22,000. Scientists said the fishery had to close during the May and June spawning season; Iccat members closed it for just 15 days of that period.

According to accounts from the meeting, the European Commission pushed most assertively of any party there for higher quotas.

Yet EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg described the outcome as a move to "strengthen decisively" measures to rebuild the stock.
Unless the laws governing mathematics and biology have suddenly changed, I am struggling to understand how.

The scientists that Iccat engages to study the state of the fisheries produce forecasts of what will happen in many different imaginary futures with various combinations of measures in place.

The most significant of their conclusions is that the only scenarios where the decline stops and recovery begins are those where fishing is banned during the spawning season of May and June.

And that is precisely what we do not have.

When I speak with the European Commission's fisheries spokeswoman Nathalie Charbonneau, she explains that the decisions on the catch quotas and the length of the season are part of a "comprehensive package" which also includes mandatory inspections of boats over a certain size, a freeze on the size of the fleet in the region, and moves to punish rule-breaking more effectively.

All true, and all good; although the reality is that with each country retaining responsibility for sanctioning its own fleet, a slap on the wrist is still just as likely as a spell in prison.

And it is no substitute for closure during the months of spawning.

The US, which argued for the scientists' advice to be implemented in full, said it was "disappointed" with the outcome. Delegation chief Rebecca Lent said it "continues to put the species as a whole in jeopardy".

I hope I am wrong, but I think it lessens by quite a way my chances of being able to enjoy the odd slice of raw bluefin into my dotage.

When I interviewed one of Spain's top fishery officials on the issue two years ago, he explained that "for sure we are friends of fish; but still more, we are friends of fishermen".

And I think that says it all; except that the fishermen, too, must founder when there is nothing left for them to catch.

Happy tail?

Richard Black | 15:54 UK time, Thursday, 20 November 2008

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Hold your breath; you may be about to see one of the biggest and boldest U-turns in the history of mankind's management of the seas.

TunaThe International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat) is meeting this week in Marrakech; European negotiators arrived carrying a plan that would see bluefin tuna fishing suspended completely in the Mediterranean for a year or more.

Certainly something needs to happen. Recent years have seen fishermen deploying ever bigger and cleverer technologies in an effort to catch what is probably the most valuable fish in the sea.

The results have been entirely predictable; with catches soaring and illegal fishing rampant, numbers are crashing and boats are finding precious few of the really big fish that once made up their entire catch.

The European Commission ended this year's season early, with fisheries commissioner Joe Borg complaining of "countless failures to properly implement the rules", including French boats that had fished for three weeks and not declared any catches.

Last month, the biggest tuna-fishing nation, Spain, backed calls for a suspension, while Italy is also reportedly supporting a ban.

Japan, the destination for most of the catch, recently agreed cuts in its own tuna catches and has said for two years that Mediterranean quotas are unsustainably high, while the US has been the strongest voice for restraint.

By the time the meeting ends next Monday, will Iccat negotiators have been shown to be bold enough? There are many parties in the talks, such as Libya, whose positions are impossible to gauge; and even within the EU, France is thought to oppose any stringent moves.

Iccat's decision will be closely watched. A suspension would be a marker, showing that even the most powerful commercial interests on the seas can be sublimated, and quickly, when the case for conservation is clear.

It will also be fascinating to see how member countries would go about putting a proportion of the tuna vessels "beyond use", as the opposing factions used to say in Northern Ireland.

It is not a trite analogy; the key to saving the bluefin is, in the end, to reduce the number and size of boats chasing it.

Some countries, including the UK, have staged reductions in their fishing fleets in an attempt to spread the pain of falling quotas for species such as cod; but here, we would be talking about an abrupt halt, in vessels that are not designed to do anything but scoop up tuna.

The temptation will be to take a milder medicine; to shorten the fishing season still further, to create more "safe havens", to cut quotas.

My instinct is that this is the way Iccat members will vote; if they do, we may be having the discussion all over again in two years' time.

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