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Five to watch in 2009

Richard Black | 11:30 UK time, Friday, 2 January 2009

As the butterfly of 2009 emerges from the pupa of 2008, I thought it might be worth flagging up a few environmental themes and events to look out for during the year that lies ahead.

So here is my somewhat arbitrary and definitely non-exhaustive list of five to watch in 2009. I'd be glad of your input into what else is worth a look.

Buckingham Palace1. Apologies for being predictable; but politicking over climate change is going to figure high on the news agenda for much of the year.

By early June, negotiators will have compiled the first draft of a new UN agreement - a comprehensive global package including targets on greenhouse gas emissions, funding to help poor countries adapt to climate impacts, the transfer of "clean" technologies, money for forest protection, and much more.

The package is supposed to be finalised and signed off at the UN climate conference in December in Copenhagen.

Key things to look out for in the lead-in include what targets the US and Japan set themselves for reducing emissions by 2020, what kinds of targets developing nations indicate they'll be willing to adopt, the reaction of organisations lobbying for indigenous peoples and for wildlife to draft wording on reducing emissions by slowing deforestation, and whether the sums of money raised for adaptation look like getting anywhere near the $50bn per year ballpark that several reports have concluded is necessary.

The complexity is staggering. If it comes off, it will be by far the most complex environmental agreement ever concluded; if I were a negotiator, I would be getting all the sleep I could now.

2. While the UN process is firmly under the control of politicians, scientific bodies continue to look for new and better ways of gathering data about the important parameters of climate change; and 2009 will see the launch of satellites designed to answer some of the big outstanding questions.

The US Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Japan's Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite (GOSAT) (see here) will both plot production and absorption of carbon dioxide across the Earth's surface in unprecedented detail.

The absorption side is particularly fascinating, as the information we have on the behaviour of carbon "sinks" - and how that behaviour may change in the future - is still annoyingly sketchy.

Comprehensive data on how forests take up carbon dioxide would also be politically important, enabling more accurate targeting of funds for the protection of trees.

Meanwhile the European Space Agency is planning to launch its ice-measuring satellite CryoSat-2 during 2009 - four years after the first Cryosat was destroyed by a fault during launch.

Among other things, this craft should provide better indications of whether warmer seas and air are accelerating the melting of ice from the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets - a factor that could generate significant changes in sea level over the coming century, but which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledges is a major unknown.

3. Back on Earth, wildlife groups are denoting 2009 as Year of the Gorilla. The idea is to raise awareness about the factors causing most populations of this close human relative to decline - chief among them being the expansion of the human footprint.

Gorilla and baby gorillaDo these "years of the..." really work as awareness-raising tools? 2008 was variously declared as the year of the frog, year of the potato, and an extension to the year of the dolphin - there may have been a few others - but I'm not sure that the outlook for any of these really improved during the 12 months.

There are some hopeful signs for gorillas. The 10 range states recently concluded an agreement pledging, among other things, to prosecute poachers, establish reserves and minimise conflict between gorillas and humans.

Cameroon has just set up a new national park in a key area for the Cross River gorilla, one of the most threatened populations. But from Democratic Republic of Congo, we receive regular reminders of how fragile protection measures are rendered by the very human problem of civil conflict.

4. Early in the year, institutions connected to the life of Charles Darwin will be celebrating the bicentenary of the great man's birth, in a year that also marks 150 years since the publication of his seminal On the Origin of Species.

Parts of the book could have been subtitled On the Demise of Species; and I suspect Darwin would have understood the gorilla's problems rather well.

He certainly recognised that humans were taking species to and beyond the edge of extinction; but hinted that by concentrating on extinctions, we were missing the overall picture of natural decline:

"To admit that species generally become rare before they become extinct - to feel no surprise at the rarity of a species, and yet to marvel greatly when it ceases to exist, is much the same as to admit that sickness in the individual is the forerunner of death - to feel no surprise at sickness, but when the sick man dies, to wonder and to suspect that he died by some unknown deed of violence."

In other words, we should be noting the slide of common species into rarity as much as the final plunge into extinction; a thesis that the Year of the Gorilla patrons would no doubt heartily endorse.

Old whale5. The final of my five picks for 2009 takes us to the whaling grounds of the polar seas - and to the conference halls of Portugal, where this year's International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting takes place in June.

If this is a seminal year for climate change, it is no less important for whales and whalers.

For about a year and a half, various countries have been discussing whether a compromise package of reforms can be agreed between the various factions; and for a number of reasons, it appears that this initiative must reach a conclusion at this year's IWC meeting or be consigned to the graveyard where many previous attempts at reform lie interred.

The political obstacles are formidable and it is unclear whether all parties actually want an agreement.

If it does emerge, it will overturn in some way the moratorium on commercial whaling that has stood for more than two decades and which some cite as one of the biggest achievements of the conservation movement.

So that's five from me.

But what have I missed? What else do you think is shaping up as a key environmental issue for 2009?

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