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Archives for February 2009

Slow road to green reform

Richard Black | 10:20 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009


It's been nine years since a gathering of environment ministers in the Swedish city of Malmo declared that the world urgently needed to reform the way it governed itself environmentally.

Change was needed, they said, including a "greatly strengthened institutional structure for international environmental governance... that has the capacity to effectively address wide-ranging environmental threats in a globalising world".

In other words; the existing structures and mechanisms weren't effective for an age that was finding an ever increasing number of environmental problems at its door, and realising just how interlinked those problems were with human progress.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) didn't have the clout, it was said; responsibility was fragmented across international institutions, and the growing mountain of environmental treaties generally lacked teeth.

The ensuing years have seen various initiatives that would either reform the system or tear it up and start again. But even though many governments cite global environmental decline as a present and future disaster, there's been little progress on reforming the international bodies intended to lead the global response.

So you might think that as the issue raised its head again last week at UNEP's governing council meeting in Nairobi, the overwhelming emotion would be frustration.

And clearly there was frustration that despite nine years of talks and some constructive ideas, virtually nothing has changed.

Barack ObamaBut there was optimism too. And having spoken to some of the people at last week's meeting, much of it appears to have stemmed from just one word: Obama.

The single biggest event of the meeting was the agreement to regulate global emissions of mercury, a heavy metal pollutant with toxicities that include damaging people's nervous systems.

And the single biggest factor in getting that agreement was that the US, which had consistently opposed a binding treaty under George W Bush, gave its blessing.

The US volte-face thrust other reluctant countries such as China, India and Canada into the spotlight; and in the end, they all put their names to the deal.

This has some in the environment field hoping that the US transition will have the same impact on UN climate negotiations which reach a crucial stage at the end of the year in Copenhagen.

But perhaps more significant in the long term is the new US willingness to talk about reform of global environmental governance.

That appears to have given some other governments fresh enthusiasm for tackling the issue once more.

South Africa's environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk noted that his officials had told him there was no point in talking about reform, warning that "everyone will simply restate entrenched national positions, nothing too controversial, lots of code language, basically what they have been saying for nine years. It will be 'political theatre', Minister."

But, he said, he'd decided to prove them wrong, and had been encouraged that other ministers had offered "frank and constructive interventions" during the Nairobi talks.

So what happens now? Well, the UNEP meeting set up a consultation process intended to produce some kind of reform package by 2012.

Many countries, especially in the developing world, are keen to stage another major environment conference then - it will mark 20 years since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit - and although it's not confirmed yet, the summit appears likely to happen.

The 2012 timescale may have symbolic appeal but it does present some practical difficulties.

If the UN climate talks do produce a treaty as complex as many envisage, encompassing emission targets, clean technology transfer, funds for forest preservation with the rights of indigenous peoples assured, money to help poor countries adapt to climate impacts, and so on, it could make decisions on issues that logically ought to feature heavily in the overall environmental governance discussions.

The following year, 2010, is a crucial year for biodiversity, marking the date by which governments are supposed to have restrained the global loss of species.

It's entirely possible that a new set of targets and mechanisms will emerge at the annual UN biodiversity convention talks. But they too would pre-empt the environmental governance discussions focussing on 2012.

All this might seem arcane stuff, pitting one UN process against another. But it matters.

Here's one example. Biofuels were much touted as a partial solution to climate change a few years ago. It was only once people started working out the possible implications for biodiversity, food production, water extraction and so on, and working through the climate impacts of clearing forests to grow fuel crops, that previously enthusiastic governments thought about applying some brakes.

Under a single global environment framework, that sort of problem shouldn't arise. The various issues would be considered in the whole, not in discrete parts, so the left hand would know what the right hand was doing.

So you might think it would be sensible to sort the institutional side of things out first, before complex deals emerge on any particular environmental issue.

For many developing countries, a key aspect of this is building their capacity to deal with difficult issues.

At last week's Nairobi meeting, a South American delegate noted that her government's environment department possessed just eight full-time officials.

More than 500 international environmental agreements now exist; and with many of them highly technical in nature, it's impossible for governments with such small resources to represent their interests in the same detailed, specialised, forensic way that the richer countries do.

So a developing world priority is to rationalise this pile of treaties under one umbrella organisation and provide the technical support they need.

If all this is nine years overdue already you might think a little more urgency is called for - and for some observers, the 2012 target date is so far away as to constitute a feeble response to the scale of environmental degradation.

But at least, the slate has been wiped clean and a new process started that the world's most powerful government appears to endorse.

Can it work? If it can, will the outcome be tinkering, or wholesale reform? If it is reform, will a new body include rules and sanctions, as does the World Trade Organization? How will it link environmental issues to human development?

These are all key questions, and much wrangling lies ahead before any answers emerge; but the mercury deal is being seen in some quarters as an indication that the glacial progress in many environmental issues is about to accelerate.

High-quality climate

Richard Black | 15:10 UK time, Monday, 23 February 2009


I'd like to echo and amplify the comment by manysummits on my last post: "What a surprise when I turned on my computer this morning, and found 41 comments on this blog!!!!!!!!! I note the magnitude of the response, and the quality of the responses as well."

Iceberg melts in GreenlandA couple of mornings on and we're up to 73 comments - and with many on a previous post dealing with similar issues, it's time for a new thread.

It's especially nice to read comments from several posters who appear to be working scientists, and great accounts of some of the scientific and social complexities involved, not least from paulvanp and kalense.

Regular readers of this blog will know that personally I find discussion of BBC climate change coverage a lot less interesting than discussion of climate change itself, which is just a little more important in the overall scheme of things.

So I'll have a quick bash at the BBC-relevant points first. BishopHill, you and others raise the question of Chris Field's credentials and why his comments at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science merited media coverage.

As the new co-chair of the IPCC working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, he now has a leadership role in the periodic assessments of global climate change that are the most politically significant documents in the field; so his views on the subject will presumably carry some political weight, and are therefore worth reporting.

As to how well qualified someone who started life as a biologist is to pronounce on climate change; well, if you look at the scope of that IPCC working group, it's extremely broad, and I suggest it would be impossible to find anyone who has formally studied all of the relevant disciplines.

That situation, though, is hardly unknown in science. Even within universities, a dean of science could hardly be expert in every subject in his or her faculty; yet many intelligent and able people seem to make a decent fist of it, and it's highly unlikely, I would suggest, that Chris Field would have got the job if his peers didn't think him qualified.

PAWB46, you ask what evidence there is to back his "contention that things are moving faster than the IPCC projected in its major 2007 report" - well, I listed some of those pieces of evidence in my last post, as well as a few things that point in the other direction - so I'm not sure what's unclear.

(UPDATE 1: I mentioned in the previous thread that more research on this would be published early this week.

It's in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and aims to show that the chances of some major impacts occurring for a given temperature rise are higher than when the IPCC performed its previous major assessment in 2001. It's not available on the PNAS website yet, but in the meantime Andy Revkin of the New York Times has taken a look at it here.)

CuckooToo, you mention that the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) recently acknowledged errors in satellite readings of Arctic ice cover and asked whether I could "confirm all the BBC's headlines about sea-ice loss will be amended accordingly".

The answer is "no, I can't". The last story we ran using NSIDC data dates from December
2008, whereas NSIDC believes the satellite malfunction only affected readings from January 2009 onwards. If the error turns out to have affected earlier readings significantly, then we'll take another look.

A couple of other things to clear up from the last post. iainsteele, you ask whether I'm proposing "a kind of 'number of papers' type argument in deciding if climate change is/is not real". To clarify - absolutely not.

But if you take an issue such as temperature trends in Antarctica, what you see in the scientific literature is a succession of papers that have taken different approaches to the question, using datasets that have become richer over time - so the picture is built up gradually, I would suggest, rather than consisting of a single "Eureka" moment.

(I hope that clarifies what you found bizarre, RolandGross.)

The point you raise, programmer101, is highly germane here. While some studies look for temperature trends across Antarctica, others (including the GRACE satellite mission) are looking for net changes in mass; yet others are studying the dynamics of ice melting at the continent's edge. All are important in building a complete picture.

kalense, your comment on whether scientists take positions on evidence or belief is incisive and much appreciated.

I think it varies depending on the precise question being asked. As you point out, the states of knowledge on questions such as "is the climate changing?" and "what will the impacts be in a century's time?" are very different; they're both important questions, but we're far more capable of answering the first from currently available evidence than the second, and therefore any scientist's view on the second must depend more on belief than on the first.

Stephen_McIntyre, you ask that I clarify my post because "there should be no dispute" about who pointed up errors in the recent "Antarctic warming" paper published in Nature by Eric Steig and colleagues.

(For anyone new to the specialist climate science blogosphere, Steve McIntyre's blog Climate Audit regularly analyses datasets and mathematical techniques used by climate researchers.)

On this occasion, Steve, I'm going to disappoint you. I wrote on my initial post that "accounts vary as to who pointed them out", and they clearly do; the tale at RealClimate (again for the uninitiated, a specialist blog run by a group of climate scientists, including Eric Steig) differs from yours, and starts here at comment 148.

So there is some dispute, and it's a dispute I'm not going to get into any further; as I've written previously, this blog is aimed at the general reader, it covers all environmental topics, and there is a level of detail which is inappropriate here.

(You'll see from another RealClimate thread, pmbbiggsy, that there's also another side to your contention that "Eric Steig has refused to release the code he used".)

BishopHill, you raise a small straw man by asking why I don't "link to Climate Audit when discussing the Antarctica study? Is it more than your job's worth?"

But I did link to Climate Audit...and now we have Steve McIntyre's presumably the P45 is on its way.

(UPDATE 2: Climate Audit is back online so here's the link as promised.)

On a previous post, calcination, you wrote that you "would like open access to scientific journals. It would let the illiterate cherry pick papers to support their case, but I think that would be outweighed by the ease with which they can be combated with corrections, and anyone interested could browse the databases."

I couldn't agree more. I first had the thought a decade ago when covering the infamous controversy over the MMR vaccine.

One study showed the UK public believed that the scientific community was split roughly equally on whether the vaccine led to autism. In reality, only a tiny minority of academics gave credence to the idea, and the evidence in the scientific literature was overwhelmingly against it.

If access to all those studies in the original journals had been open, perhaps public perceptions would have been different, and perhaps we would not now be seeing cases of measles in the UK.

A few years ago, open access was all the talk in the scientific publishing world - I recall making a radio documentary about the pros and cons - but it seems to have died down now. If any of you have a finger on this particular pulse, perhaps you could let me know why.

And I'd be interested in your further thoughts on what open access would mean for public perceptions of climate science too.

A questioning climate

Richard Black | 12:53 UK time, Friday, 20 February 2009


On climate blogs I've been visiting lately, discussions have formed around three main themes - cold weather, Antarctic temperatures, and the respective values of caution and catastrophism in climate discourse.

I'd never presume to have definitive words on any of these topics, if indeed definitive words exist.

But all three have raised a few thoughts in my mind that I'd like to share and discuss a bit further.

Cooling down

snowman152.jpgAt least in my part of North London, it has certainly been a colder winter than we've been used to (I'll not call it "bad weather", because the sight on our first white morning of two youngsters building what was presumably the first snowman of their young lives was far too uplifting for that description).

Turn the globe upside down, though, and the picture looks very different.

Australia's brutal forest fires have raised questions about the possible role of climate change [pdf link] in creating conditions that make fires more frequent or more rampant. The issue there isn't what cold conditions have to do with a supposed warming trend, but whether the warming trend has anything to do with the tinderbox conditions.

Those questions aren't answered yet. But it's clear that if you're looking to seasonal weather as an indicator of how the climate is changing globally, the global picture you paint depends very much on where you are in the world; and it's equally clear that all such pictures will be unreliable.

In earlier years of reporting climate change, news media were regularly accused of attributing any unusual or extreme weather events to climate change - and often the accusations were justified.

I hope that on the whole, professional journalists and broadcasters do not make the same mistake these days; but it seems to me that in the blogosphere, the two are still often confused. One cold winter, or even five consecutive cold winters, do not tell you anything about a longer-term global trend, and no-one's interests are served by pretending otherwise.

This was one of the points made by Vicky Pope of the UK Met Office, one of the country's most prominent climate scientists, in a recent article for The Guardian.

There are several themes to Dr Pope's article, which is well worth a read.

Some scientists overplay the "threat" of climate change, she argues. Media organisations ignore studies that go against the "it's all getting worse" narrative, such as recent evidence that a recent acceleration in the flow of Greenland glaciers had ceased; and the discourse around the issue errs in asking whether scientists "believe" in climate change, when scientists actually take positions based on evidence.

That someone in Dr Pope's position would write along such lines created a major stir in some circles, though quite why it should have done I'm not sure, given that many other equally eminent climate researchers have taken a similarly cautionary position down the years (including Mike Hulme, former head of the Tyndall Centre, on these pages just over two years ago).

But the points she raises are all, I suggest, worth a mull.

Yes, some scientists have on occasion gone beyond the data in arguing that climate change will bring global catastrophe; not least in the US, where there was a feeling in some quarters that only extremely graphic projections of future doom could shake the Bush administration into curbing greenhouse emissions.

Yes, news organisations are prone to reporting studies that paint a more extreme picture - and not just in climate change. That partly stems from the assumed link between lurid headlines and audience interest (and hence income), and partly because issues develop narratives, and stories that fit the narrative are more likely to make the cut.

Neither situation is ideal, but both are understandable given that scientists and editors are all human beings with human emotions.

Where I do part company with Vicky Pope to some extent is in her argument that it is not a question of scientists "believing" or "not believing" in climate change.

Instead, she writes: "Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity's activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming."

I understand where she is coming from. In a previous life I worked for publications dealing with fairly advanced medical research, and one of the standard questions we asked was "what does this study tell you about how drug x or drug y should be used?".

On one occasion I received a memorable but not very helpful reply from an eminent cardiologist: "The data tells you what the data tells you" - which is basically Dr Pope's position.

But clearly, highly intelligent, highly educated people can look at the same set of scientific evidence and come to radically different conclusions - not, perhaps, on the basic issue of whether climate change is or isn't happening, but certainly on what the pace is likely to be and what threat it poses.

Which brings me to the warnings made at the weekend by US scientist Chris Field to the effect that the pace of climate change had been seriously underestimated, and impacts would in fact "be beyond anything that we've considered seriously in climate policy".

As a recently elected co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) working group on impacts and adaptation, Dr Field's analyses are likely in coming years to reverberate along the corridors of power, and not just in Washington DC.

There is some evidence to back his contention that things are moving faster than the IPCC projected in its major 2007 report.

Greenhouse gas emissions, have been rising faster than anticipatedthe oceans may be losing some capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, there are hints that the more potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide are being released from Arctic regions, and several projections indicate that sea levels will rise further by 2100 than the IPCC projected. (More evidence to back Dr Field's case will be published early next week, by the way).

But equally you can find reasons for suggesting the situation is less calamitous than the IPCC painted. One is the research on Greenland glaciers mentioned above. Another is a recent finding that the Amazon basin may be less vulnerable to temperature rise than previously believed; and there are indications that the economic downturn is slowing the rise in carbon dioxide emissions.

These are all disparate elements of a complex picture. How do you rate them? Which do you regard as more or less important?

We are back to what you believe; and if Chris Field sees catastrophe in the picture before him, he is entitled to say so, just as Vicky Pope or Mike Hulme are entitled to urge restraint.

Warming up

antarctica152.jpgAnother element in this vast and disparate research landscape was the paper I reported on a few weeks ago indicating that Antarctica is, on average, warming up.

There's been a bitter spat between some of the paper's authors, who also maintain the realclimate blog, and some of the more "climate sceptical" denizens of cyberspace, with explosive terms such as "fraud" and "libel" being thrown around.

It's not the first time that such spats have arisen, of course, and it's not the first time that I've wondered if you could become the next billionaire by inventing the electronic version of a scary Victorian nanny who would make the errant climate offspring stand in opposite corners of their cyberworld balancing servers on their heads until they learned to be civil to each other.

There are problems with some of the data-sets used in the Antarctic paper, and although accounts vary as to who pointed them out, we should be grateful that they were pointed out.

Importantly, however, the scientists involved in the study say their basic conclusions are unaffected by these issues, and I have not seen any analysis categorically claiming the opposite - though I doubt we have heard of the last of it.

Caution or catastophe?

Another general point we can pull out of this episode is that single scientific papers rarely prove or disprove anything - they simply add to the mass of evidence we have on a given issue, and should be seen in that light.

Once they're out there, they can be pored over and pulled apart and criticised, any novel methods replicated and perhaps cast aside or improved - and through that process the whole field of research moves on.

Another is to guard against false assumptions of what "we know". Many reports of the Antarctic paper suggested that before it came out, "we knew" that Antarctica was cooling; but that isn't actually the case.

The 2007 IPCC report [pdf llink] concluded that "Antarctica has insufficient observational coverage to make an assessment"; but the temperature graph the IPCC prepared for land south of 65 degrees South (which includes virtually all of Antarctica) contained hints of an upwards trend.

So the argument I have seen often that "the paper must be wrong because we know the Antarctic is cooling" just doesn't make it.

The climate blogosphere is full of straw men; and as always, the only sure-fire way to burn them is to go back to the original, authoritative sources.

So here's my brief take on it all. Science is a repetitive process, and often it's only when we come to something as weighty as an IPCC report that the various bits of evidence are brought together and assessed. Only then can there be some reasonably definitive exposition of what we "know" - or as researcher John Christy has phrased it, "At our present level of ignorance, (what) we think we know" .

Individual pieces of research rarely prove anything by themselves, though they're a lot more valuable than opening the window, seeing what the weather's like and making a "commonsense" leap to what's happening with the climate globally.

In the meantime, scientists, politicians and Joe and Joanna Bloggs down the pub are all entitled to give their own assessments, and often there is a fair amount of belief involved, even for the scientists.

To me, there's little wrong with that. It's what we do with politics and football and music and film, and I don't see why climate discourse should be different.

There are facts out there, and we should recognise them as such, just as we should with medicine and social issues and economics; but there is freedom to believe too, and that, the last time I looked, was supposed to be a universal human right.

Whales swim backwards

Richard Black | 09:10 UK time, Friday, 13 February 2009


As regular readers of this blog will know, 2009 could be as significant for whales and whaling as for climate change.

For half a year formally, and for much longer than that informally, governments in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have been talking about the possibility of finding a "compromise" package that could satisfy both the pro- and anti-hunting blocs - or, if not really satisfy them, then at least provide something they would prefer to the current situation.

I spent the beginning of the week in Lisbon at a seminar organised by the Pew Environment Group, the last in a series aimed at bringing important players together in an off-the-record setting where possible parameters of such a package could be thrashed around - which gave me the chance to gauge reaction to proposals which an IWC small working group released a couple of weeks ago.

They're basic and broad-brush, but the central short-term element of the possible deal they suggest is that Japan scales down its Antarctic hunt - conducted under rules permitting whaling for "scientific research" - and ramps up catches around its coasts.

Confrontation in the Southern OceanThe reception this idea received in the big world was generally hostile. Anti-whaling governments said there should be an immediate end to Japan's Antarctic hunt without any commercial or quasi-commercial coastal quotas; while in Tokyo, fisheries minister Shigeru Ishiba said he would accept nothing that compromised Japan's "research whaling".

Anti-whaling organisations, whose attitude is crucial to the prospects of the peace talks, were generally scathing of the "package", but not in terms so scarlet as to indicate total, irrevocable opposition.

But they're not falling over themselves to make it work either, in public or in private - and given that it could bring a substantial reduction in the number of whales Japan kills each year, that is significant.

A key question, then, is whether the public stances of the various parties leave enough wiggle room to concoct a workable compromise.

My instinct, following the Pew meeting, is that a form of words could be found that both sides could eventually live with.

But despite that, I would now bet against a deal materialising.

Why? Well, for one thing, it is not entirely clear what Japan's priorities are.

For many years it has argued [pdf link] that four of its traditional whaling communities need an annual take of minke whales, for nutritional, cultural and economic reasons.

But there is also a fundamental philosophy alive in Japan and the other whaling countries that sees whales as wild creatures to be hunted like any others and whalemeat as a commodity to be traded like any other.

Politically, gaining the coastal quotas would almost certainly mean sacrificing this principle, because I don't believe the anti-whaling side will accept a deal that leaves Japan's biggest single hunt (the Antarctic) open for more than a few years or that allows international trade at all; so there is a choice to be made.

A second reason is that as it stands, the package leaves out many issues important to the anti-whaling side. They want trade banned, they want bycatch [pdf link] (accidental, and sometimes not-so-accidental, entrapment in fishing nets) dealt with, and they don't want Norway's annual hunt (with quotas almost as big as Japan's) to be ignored.

A third, and somewhat cynical, reason is that some on both sides of the whaling issue have much to gain from maintaining the status quo. One voice in the anti-whaling camp tells me that some campaigning organisations raise more money through running adverts lambasting the Japanese "slaughter" than through anything else they do; while on Japan's side, the Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the scientific whaling programmes, would presumably diminish in prestige and budget if those programmes were to shrink markedly.

A fourth reason is simply inertia. Everyone involved has lived with the current impasse for years. There is suspicion on both sides, many key details remain to be sorted out, time is short, and a single perception of betrayal or dirty dealing could be enough to make either side walk away.

But the clincher is that none of the small working group's members who I have asked directly are now optimistic about the process's success - a distinct change, in some cases, from their views just a few months ago.

Humpback whaleAnother factor, possibly significant, is that Japanese officials are involved with a plan [pdf link] to set up an alternative international treaty organisation if the IWC fails to "normalise" - ie to return to its original purpose of regulating commercial whaling.

Some anti-whaling groups regard this as just a negotiating tactic. But, I gather, the process has advanced to such a stage that an entire draft convention exists, including a requirement that any country signing up would have to leave the IWC.

It also includes wording to the effect that culling cetaceans could be employed as a method of increasing fisheries yield - an argument that has long been anathema to many fisheries scientists, and that is challenged once again by a paper in this week's Science journal.

Could such a treaty come to fruition, gain members, and effectively replace the IWC?

Certainly there would be legal challenges; certainly there would be political difficulties; and it's not certain that even the Japanese government would decide to jump ship into waters so bloody with confrontation that today's turbulent seas would look like miso soup by comparison.

For the anti-whaling nations, Japan's involvement with such a venture is a sign of bad faith. Japan counters that the real bad faith lies in the anti-whalers' failure to abide by the wording of the 1982 commercial whaling moratorium, which committed the IWC to review by 1990 the impacts of the moratorium on whale stocks and consider revising it.

Portugal will host this year's IWC meeting; and as one of the Portuguese delegates at the Pew symposium said, they will try to make the "package" process work, not least because "you don't want to invite someone to dinner and then see him die at your table".

Some delegates believe the death will come sooner - next month, in fact, when IWC commissioners meet privately in Rome to discuss the small working group's proposals.

The experts Pew assembled this week concluded that a high-level meeting of government ministers would be needed to break the deadlock. It's far from certain, though, that even that would succeed. It is, after all, government ministers who have been making the most strident comments in the last two weeks.

Is a deal salvageable? Probably, I think, it is, just; but if it is to happen, I believe anybody who really wants it is going to have to come up quickly with something significantly more bold and generous than we have seen so far.

Fin words, bright waters

Richard Black | 08:48 UK time, Friday, 6 February 2009


Well, blow me down - who'd a thought it?

The very day after a study damns all of the world's big fishing countries for failing to meet goals on responsible fishing that they've signed up to, along comes the European Commission with a proposal aimed at making its shark fisheries, at least, clean and above board.

Hammerhead sharkThe timing (although purely accidental) is almost poetic.

Demonised by Hollywood, vulnerable because of their slow reproduction, and with only their dorsal fins prized as food, sharks are not most people's ideas of special, beautiful creatures whose salvation should dog our conscience daily.

Demonised by environmental groups, vulnerable to abuse because its structure virtually ensures governments will annually scrabble over quotas like dogs over a bone, and with virtually nothing except its scientific advice prized as worthwhile, the Common Fisheries Policy is not most people's idea of an effective way to regulate this most independent-minded of industries.

But sometimes, pairings that look unpromising on paper can surprise you; and though lots of details remain to be filled in, the European Commission's proposals could potentially bring real change.

That change is badly needed, in Europe and elsewhere, is illustrated by a study just published by some academics based at the University of British Columbia and the environmental group WWF. For the shorter version, published in the journal Nature, you'll need a subscription, but WWF's much longer take on it is open to all.

What these specialists have done is to analyse how various countries regulate their fishing industries, and then see how well they match up against the UN's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

Adopted just over 12 years ago, this voluntary agreement says countries should regulate fishing according to the precautionary principle, preserve stocks for future generations, look after habitat, control vessels flying their flags, and so on and so on - not a bad basic recipe book, in fact, for managing fisheries sustainably.

So how do the regimes run by the 53 countries accounting for 96% of the global catch match up against this recipe book?

Not terribly well, is the conclusion; not a single one merits more than a 60% mark, according to the assessors.

The best performers include Norway, the US, Canada and Australia, while North Korea, Myanmar, Angola and Nigeria bring up the rear, each with a score less than 20%.

One of the most interesting findings is that countries' scores correlate very nicely - almost linearly, in fact - with their performance on indicators of governance, such as the World Bank Governance Indicators or the corruption index compiled by Transparency International.

It's not surprising; but it's a salutary reminder that without the good rule of law it's very, very difficult to conserve anything with a monetary value.

So where are the best countries falling down?

SwordfishThe authors conclude there are very few that adequately constrain the size of their fleet - and historically ships in the water means fish coming out of it, no matter what the regulations - and that most, including the EU nations, do too little to reduce bycatch, the accidental (and sometimes "accidental on purpose") snaring of one species while trying to catch another.

You could conclude from this, of course, that the Code of Conduct must be a ridiculously ambitious document, if not a single country is meeting its aims.

To which the answer could be: but all these governments signed up to it, so obviously they thought it worthwhile and achievable.

In the real world, of course, the politics of fishing can obscure the best of aims.

So by far the most tantalising phrase in the commission's shark proposals is that the EU would "establish catch limits for stocks in conformity with the advice provided by ICES (the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) and by the relevant RFMOs (Regional Fisheries Management Organisations)".

If that is interpreted strictly, it would mean countries sticking to advice they routinely ignore now when it comes to other species - as evidenced, for example, by the recent EU-backed decision to keep the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery open next year when scientists are virtually on their knees pleading for a suspension.

Let us be completely honest: globally, fisheries have struggled to adapt from a past where supplies could easily meet demand to a present where fishing technology and demand are so big that the commercial extinction of many species is a real possibility.

A number of countries, including diverse bedfellows such as Norway and Namibia, have shown that setting strict rules and enforcing them firmly is, in the long run, best for fishermen as well as for conservation.

But clearly even these top performers are a long way from achieving management that is, in terms they have signed up to, truly "responsible".

Let us see what teeth the European Commission's shark plan retains as it passes through the surgeries of the European parliament and the Council of Ministers; if European governments really do decide to look after some of the ugly ducklings of the ocean, conservationists will have more confidence that they're serious about implementing truly responsible practices across all of their fisheries.

Dry Amazon, dry world?

Richard Black | 14:13 UK time, Tuesday, 3 February 2009


Whisper this in case you're near any BBC managers looking to cut costs - just occasionally this job gives you experiences so special that, to be honest, you would have paid for them willingly.

Tap with water dropletA little over two years ago I had one of those experiences: a week in the Amazon making a BBC World Service radio documentary about sustainable forestry - what it means in the Brazilian context, how it's being implemented, and whether it can work.

It's a part of the world I hadn't visited before and, as usual in these situations, some of the people you meet are as special as the places you see - a cousin of the noted activist Chico Mendes, for example, who makes a living by collecting Brazil nuts and other things that the forest provides.

We met a female timber magnate who'd come from a family of dodgy loggers but who was trying to "go straight", a state premier who'd established a nursery growing saplings of Amazonian trees for replanting, and environmental campaigners passionate about making forestry sustainable but equally adamant that their state produced the best beef in the world (and it really was good).

Perhaps the least expected encounter was with a scientist from the US, Foster Brown. He's worked in the region for many years now and was writing a report on the wildfires that sprang up in unusually large numbers in 2005. The fires coincided with a period of very low rainfall in Acre province - drought, in fact, with rain virtually absent for months.

I pinched myself to remember where I was - in the middle of the Amazon basin, a region that's a byword for the verdant ebullience of nature, in something that's called, let us remember, rainforest.

Acre has had dry seasons quite regularly in fact, many of them related to the El Nino/La Nina cycle in the Pacific Ocean some 800km (500 miles) away. What made this one different was that, for the first time in living memory, villagers complained of not being able to get enough water.

Two things had changed from previous dry periods. More and more people were living in the region, partly as a result of the local population growing and partly because of the government's decades-old policy of "settling" the Amazon and making the region economically productive.

Sawmill in Amazon regionThe expanding population in turn meant more mouths thirsty for water, more land cleared of its natural water-conserving vegetation for cattle-ranching, more water consumption by that cattle, and consequently a landscape through which fire could travel more rapidly and easily.

The result in 2005 [pdf link] was an estimated $50m of direct economic losses and a state of emergency declared in three provinces.

It struck me that here in the Amazon we had a microcosm of the factors that mean more and more societies around the world are having to think about water harder that they've had to before.

The issue isn't population growth or economic development or climatic factors - it's all of them.

Some regions and some societies are more capable of adaptation than others, of course; and while economic development can cause shortages, it can also be a way to overcome shortages.

But who should own water, and how should it be managed to make sure that economic progress leads to cleaner and more reliable supplies rather than depletion?

Certainly, water is far too complex a topic for a single blog post. So it's lucky that - as if by magic - I can refer you to a series of articles that Clare Davidson, a colleague who covers business affairs for the BBC website, and I have written and commissioned.

We'll be rolling them out over the next two weeks - here's the first - and I'd be most interested at any stage to chat here about the issues raised.

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