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Archives for March 2009

Carbon: How much is enough?

Richard Black | 18:49 UK time, Thursday, 26 March 2009

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On my last entry, TandF1 posted a comment about a subject I've been planning to write about for a while - so what better time than now to delve into it?

The issue is this: how much carbon dioxide should each person on Earth be "allowed" to emit?

Put another way: if emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are to be limited, at some target date, to a figure that science suggests can stave off "dangerous" climate change, then how does that figure break down at the personal level, when shared out among the world's citizens?

(We are not talking here, pretty obviously, only about emissions directly produced by you or me or them over there, but also each person's share of emissions produced by others for things that benefit us, such as heating our house, manufacturing cement to build our house, or creating garden fertilisers to help our house look beautiful.)

As TandF1 noted, the figure that's being bandied about these days is two tonnes of CO2 (or its equivalent) per person per year.

It's derived from the ambition of halving global emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 levels, as expressed by G8 leaders during last year's summit in Japan. In turn, this may be enough to constrain the global average temperature rise to within 2-3C at most, which according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would avoid many of the most damaging projected impacts.

Currently, the average Briton produces about 10 tonnes per year - the average US citizen more, the average Chinese or Indian considerably less.

So a great deal of convergence is implied, and I should be remiss if I did not point up here the important role of Aubrey Meyer and the Global Commons Institute in developing the concept of Contraction and Convergence.

To get a quick idea of how the two tonnes figure translates to everyday life, you would reach it simply by driving a Tata Nano for 20,000km a year, or by taking a return flight from London to Bangkok or from Moscow to San Francisco. It does not, then, sound very much.

(These aren't intended to be exact figures, by the way, merely indicative; just like economic prudence, it depends on how you calculate it.)

Lord (Nicholas) Stern is among the leading figures on the political climate change stage that have promulgated the two tonne per person idea.

I had a chat with him a couple of months ago now and raised the question of what this actually means in practice. If the average Briton were to cut his or her emissions by 80%, as the idea implies, what would probably be producing those two tonnes, and what would have to change?

The big one, he said, was agriculture. It's relatively difficult to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas production from ruminant animals or fertiliser use, so this is where much of our two tonnes per person would probably have to go.

sheep_alanconnor595.jpg

Cutting the amount of meat eaten, as proposed recently by IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri, would reduce agricultural emissions, but that's a different story.

So, assuming this goal becomes adopted by a working majority of the world's governments and translated into policy - a huge assumption I know, but stick with it for the moment - every source of greenhouse gas emissions other than agriculture would have to shrink markedly or disappear completely.

So does that mean you wouldn't be able to drive from one end of the country to the other, or fly off to your favourite holiday destination?

The conventional answer to this is "no". According to the UK's Climate Change Committee, for example, which backs the 80% figure, many low-carbon or zero-carbon technologies would come in to do the job instead.

The committee's blueprint sees almost all electricity generation switching to renewables, nuclear, or fossil fuels with carbon capture and we would produce more than we currently use in order to power a substantial slice of transport. A similar picture pertains in the "wedges" idea developed by Robert Socolow (there are other conceptualisations too).

There are some areas where the idea that there's an easy technological replacement still looks a bit tricky, such as aviation, but the proposals carry no distinguishable whiff of hair-shirts or a bread-and-water diet.

There's also the question of carbon offsets, where rich countries (or potentially even rich people, if we had personal carbon allowances) pay others to reduce emissions for them - which could allow the rich to continue above two tonnes, while financially rewarding poorer people for staying below the figure.

However, other factors might conspire to reduce the two tonnes figure. TandF1 points out that population growth is one: the more people on the planet, the lower each person's emissions would have to be under this kind of regime.

The Carbon Budget Proposal, prepared by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and released in December at the Poznan UN climate change talks, adds another factor to the mix: historical equity.

It starts with the standpoint that the warming by, say, 2050 is caused by all the emissions that have gone into the atmosphere by that point, starting from the dawn of the industrial age.

Engraving of an aerial view of Clarks Anchor Thread Works at Paisley near Glasgow, Britain, during the 1880s

Each country, it argues, should be entitled to a share of that total amount that is proportional to its population over the period.

By this measure, countries that began emitting early, such as the UK, have by now already used up more than their share. The report proposes a financial mechanism whereby westerners would have to buy spare shares from developing nations, the annual price tag measured in hundreds of billions of euros.

I won't go into the financial aspects here; but the important bit from the carbon sharing point of view is that this approach to the issue effectively lowers the two tonnes per person figure even further if you live in a rich, developed nation.

(There is a fair amount of wrangling in learned discourse as to the merits of the "historical equity" idea, as you might guess. Some commentators argue it makes today's western citizens responsible for the actions of previous generations who knew nothing of radiative forcing; others say true, they didn't know, but developed countries still benefited from the economic growth associated with those emissions, and so should pay up.)

If things weren't already complicated enough, the Chinese report also points out that equal historical shares for all might not, in fact, be equitable.

If you live in a country where the weather's generally very hot or very cold, you might need to use more energy than in places where the seasons run more equably.

In a country with a sparsely-spread population, such as Canada or Australia, it might be reasonable to allow transport emissions a bit more leeway, and if your country is rich in coal but poor in natural gas, again, your allowance should also be bumped up a bit.

(The country that does best out of all this, by the way, is Russia, which nets about a 50% increase in its permitted pot.)

So let's go back to the original question; how much carbon dioxide should each person on Earth be "allowed" to emit?

Two tonnes by 2050 might be a starting point for discussions; but precisely how much, and by what means, are clearly questions where important nuances pertain.

Where there are grey areas, there is also much room for political wrangling; and of course any agreement on contraction and convergence towards some figure like two tonnes, with whatever caveats, in the end has to be negotiated between governments.

Now, my guess is that some of you are going to approve of the idea and think the world should move towards it as soon as possible, and others are going to hate it, and I'm sure you'll post comments as usual.

But for those turned on by two tonnes or thereabouts, I have a particular question: politically, how can it be turned into reality?

I ask not because I endorse the idea - that's not my job - but because I am struggling to see, through the realities of credit crunch and business pressures and electoral concerns, a political path that leads to its adoption, and I'd be interested in seeing whether anyone else has succeeded where I am failing.

Turning on to Nano-man

Richard Black | 14:55 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

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So far, just about everyone seems to love the self-styled "world's cheapest car", the Tata Nano.

Writing on these pages, Indian motoring journalist Hormazd Sorabjee writes that "It thrilled me with its 'proper car' feel"; while for Adil Jal Darukhanawala of zigwheels.com, "The Nano has the makings of a mega winner."

And what's not to love? A five-seater car that does about 20 km per litre (that's 56 MPG in old money) and costs $2,000 - come on! - and it's not the end of the line, with Bajaj, the company that principally populates South and Southeast Asia's roads with auto-rickshaws, planning to launch its own tiny car (the Pico?) within two years.

Nano launchJust about the only people sounding a cautionary note on the tiny Nano's giant appeal are environmental groups, notably the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

They judge it inappropriate for Indian cities, choked by traffic, where jams mean a journey across town can already be measured in hours.

"Cars may drive growth and aspirations, but they can never meet the commuting needs of urban India. Cars choke cities, harm public health and guzzle more oil."

CSE's simple prescription is more investment in mass transit schemes.

Although one can see the logic of their argument, it's hard to imagine it prevailing.

Many Indian cities already have swarming bus networks and suburban rail networks. They're slowly being supplemented by true mass transit rail systems - up and running in Calcutta and Delhi, under construction in Mumbai and Bangalore.

That's the good news from the CSE's point of view. Here's some of the bad:

  • Calcutta's system contains just one line, Delhi's three
  • during the 30-odd years since a legal framework for the Delhi metro was established, the number of vehicles in the city has risen 10-fold
  • according to the Delhi metro company, only about 2% of journeys in the city use rail

Delhi, and India, are hardly unique. Bangkok has acquired three mass transit lines within the last decade, which claim collectively to carry 400,000 people per day.

Bangkok SkytrainSounds impressive; but it's less than the population increase in the city since they were built.

I've found these trains a pleasant ride on my all too infrequent visits, by the way. Travel is quite fast; and Delhi's escalators even incorporate special devices to prevent indelicate snagging and ripping of decorative rush-hour saris.

You'd ride them by choice, I think, if you could; but even as their riderships expand, the number of people riding the roads swells further and faster.

Against this backdrop, the CSE's plea for society to put the Nano aside and rely on greater investment in public transport looks more than a little forlorn.

Much of modern Asia is mimicking in a few decades the development that Europe went through in many. When you can upgrade from a bicycle to a moped, you do; and with the advent of cars priced as cheaply as the Nano, the next upgrade - from two wheels to four - is likely to become just as routine.

It's here, in my view, that we find the environmental significance of the Nano.

Regularly these days we hear appeals from politicians, climate scientists and environmental campaigners for societies to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. It's urgent, they say, and - this is the key message - it can be done, if everyone and every country does his/her/its bit.

In the context of a climate change set-piece such as the Copenhagen conference that took place a couple of weeks ago, such words acquire their own logical underpinnings.

When you later emerge blinking into the street, taste the hydrocarbon-laden air and perhaps even hail a taxi yourself, you wonder how firm those underpinnings really are; whether it really can be done.

Auto rickshawPerhaps the lexicon of personal transport archetypes needs to acquire a new entry.

Rather than "the man on the Clapham omnibus", a previous generation's fictional commonsense arbiter, or "Mondeo man", the 30-something would-be-upwardly-mobile denizen of an anonymous dormitory town, we now need to introduce "Nano-man" - the Indian (or perhaps not just Indian) patriarch who now finds he can afford to transport his family by car rather than perched on the overcrowded seat of a moped, and - of course - why would you not? - chooses to do so.

(Apologies for the UK-centric examples there - I hope you can fill in your own regional equivalents.)

Western climate campaigners may worry about Nano-man, but if they reach for a stick to beat him with, a pepper-spray of "inequity" will be their desserts.

Car ownership in India, though growing fast, still amounts to only about 10 per 1,000 people - in the West, it's typically 50 times that. Neither western campaigners nor western politicians can make a cogent reason from that as to why Delhi's denizens must remain Nano-free.

And they will find little comfort behind the Nano's chief green claim. At 101 grams per kilometre (g/km), its carbon dioxide emissions are only a fraction down on the most frugal versions of existing small cars such as the Renault Clio (117g/km) or Nissan Micra (120g/km), even though their engines are significantly larger.

I suspect that what Tata sees as an affordable car, history will judge an icon of "small-but-clever-is beautiful" design. I expect that if I take my grandchildren to a motoring museum in a couple of decades' time, the Nano will stand in a line-up of revolutionary small cars alongside the Mini, the Beetle, the Model-T Ford and - er - the Trabant.

Tata's Nano is rumoured to be a great ride for the price. But it should scare the hell out of anyone assuming that the world has an easy trip to a low-carbon future.

A happy ending for Madagascar?

Richard Black | 08:29 UK time, Thursday, 19 March 2009

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To those fortunate ones closer to the age of lollipops than lager-bellies, the wildlife of Madagascar is doubtless best known through the lens of the 2005 DreamWorks movie, which saw the denizens of a New York zoo pitched back into a more - erm - "native" environment with, as they say, "hilarious consequences".

Golden_crowned_sifakaIn real life, though, Madagascar has become an important proving ground for a number of forward-looking concepts in conservation and sustainable development; which is why there is some concern in environmental circles now about the country's political turmoil.

President Marc Ravalomanana became a prominent developing world voice in various international processes connected with environment and human development, and sought ways in which his population could profit from preserving the indigenous wildlife rather than ransacking it.

International conservation organisations have been able to work alongside local communities, developing ecotourism ventures and sustainable forest products.

And as a reservoir of biodiversity, it's up there with the best the Earth has left to offer. It's home to 49 species of lemur - two had remained undiscovered until 2005 - it has about 30 bats, and thanks to its 100m-year isolation from any other landmasses, it posesses some unique species such as the fossa, a mongoose relative.

Amphibian experts estimate there may be as many as 4,000 species waiting to be discovered - and if that's right, maybe a quarter of them will turn up in Madagascar.

So whatever the rights and wrongs of Mr Ravalomanana's ousting earlier this month by Andry Rajoelina, it's an event of no little interest to conservationists.

There are two principal worries; firstly, that a power vacuum and civil unrest will create a situation in which local structures break down, allowing "harvesting" of species (plant or animal) that would be forbidden in more peaceful times - and secondly, that Mr Rajoelina (who has yet to unveil a policy platform on most issues) may turn away from the sustainable development path mapped out under his predecessor.

Marc_RavalomananaOne of the international groups that's been most active in Madagascar is the US-based Conservation International (CI); so I called up Frank Hawkins, who lived on the island for about 15 years and is now the organisation's vice-president for Africa.

In two previous periods of unrest (1991 and 2001), he told me, turn-a-quick-buck "harvesting" is exactly what had happened - with rosewood and the big-headed turtle (now critically endangered) among the prime targets.

Apart from its direct impact on wildlife, periods like this make life more difficult for communities and entrepreneurs attempting to make a sustainable living - and having them make a sustainable living is probably the only way to preserve the forests and their wildlife in the long term.

But, Frank said, there is also concern about the future of some innovative ventures that CI and other international groups have been working on with local communities.

On the international side, money will almost certainly begin to flow quite soon from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) mechanism that is very likely to become part of the UN climate change convention later this year. But where it flows to depends on stability; unless REDD funders are persuaded Madagascan forests really will be protected, they will look to other countries instead.

REDD is a kind of "carbon offset", albeit one that carries benefits to wildlife as well; but Mr Ravalomanana had also spoken of trying to develop "biodiversity offsets", where companies (locally or internationally) have to fund measures that compensate for the ecological damage they cause, whether it's avoidable or not.

FossaFrank also said there were proposals that would see downstream users of water, such as farmers, having to contribute something to the protection of natural zones upstream (such as forest or wetland watersheds) that naturally regulate the supply of clean water.

The potential loss - and until Mr Rajoelina reveals his hand, it is just "potential" - of these schemes would not just represent a significant step backwards for conservation locally, but internationally too.

While some developing country governments recognise that exploitative "business as usual" isn't really a forward-looking option, not many of them are pursuing the kind of innovation seen in Madagascar (Costa Rica is another outstanding example) that could, if they prove successful, be instituted much more widely.

A couple of weeks ago, CI wrote to me about the establishment of the first nature reserve in Papua New Guinea, another country fabulously rich in wildlife and where many undiscovered species are presumed still to exist.

It's a development that should bring benefits to both people and wildlife. Communities will receive better access to health and education in return for managing their lands sustainably.

Papua New Guinea is at the beginning of a path on which Madgascar embarked more than a decade ago. But the current lesson of Madagascar is that all effective in-situ conservation, whether national parks or species protection or sustainable logging or whatever else it may be, depends in the end on good and stable governance.

Environmentalists will be among those casting an anxious eye towards the island state and hoping its tensions die quickly, rather than its conservation ambitions.

A climate tidy

Richard Black | 08:39 UK time, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

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Hello, web! I said HELLO, WEB!

Sorry - this is the first time I've posted since the BBC adopted this new wide blog format, and I'm just not used to all the extra room for words to echo around in.

What should we do with it? Write longer sentences, with sub-clauses, parenthetically inclined, by the dozen to embellish, decoratively, the empty white aisles? Provide more pictures and video clips and graphs to underpin and overlay the essential themes?

Or perhaps we could introduce a marking system based on variable emoticons, where the shape of a cartoon mouth would indicate in real time the prevailing character of the feedback flux from readers on various elements of the blog?

On the other hand... perhaps I'll just get on with writing the entry while those questions simmer at the back of the brain somewhere (I do like the emoticon idea, though... one for the tech boffins perhaps).

Textile_worker_in_ChinaIt's been a busy few days on climate science and politics. As I've suggested in previous posts, the buy-in of major developing countries is going to be crucial if negotiators from the EU and US want to achieve their self-declared aim of tying up a new global deal on climate change at the UN summit in Copenhagen in December... and the two biggest, China and India, have each just made their feelings a little clearer.

At a conference in Washington DC, China's climate negotiator Li Gao said countries importing goods from China should be responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with those products.

Recent research suggests energy expended by Chinese businesses making goods for export to the US accounts for perhaps one-sixth of its greenhouse gas emissions.

China has reaped heavy criticism, not least from the US, for its rising emissions (now the largest of any country) - yet a big chunk of that rise comes from making goods to satisfy US consumers;so should they count as Chinese or US emissions?

A corollary is that "carbon leakage", as it's called - the exporting of polluting industries to developing countries that do not have emissions caps - can raise the total volume of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions, because the developing country's factories may be less regulated.

Mr Li's suggestion is a non-starter as it stands - not least because, as EU negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger pointed out, if Western nations assumed responsibility for these emissions, they would demand the tools to control them, which would clearly impinge on Chinese sovereignty and so be politically impossible.

But the wider point stands; it is pointless cutting back high-carbon production at home if all that does is stimulate more high-carbon consumption from overseas. There is some scope, perhaps, for looking at this through carbon trading.

And of course, Mr Li's comments direct the issue politically back at the developed, high-consuming world, which is politically astute.

Meanwhile in Delhi, India's climate envoy Shyam Saran was criticising Western nations for trying to tie funding for carbon cuts to the freeing of markets. "Once we start going in that direction, it means we start going for protectionism under green label," he said.

Mr Saran's words reverberated across the defile that exists between the developed and developing worlds over how much money the West should provide to help poorer nations green their economies and protect against climate impacts.

Developing countries want rich nations to cough up on on the basis that they have caused the problem - period. But some Western politicians are willing to commit sizeable funds only if developing countries agree to emissions curbs.

What should we make of these rumblings?

I think one key point is the timing. Within the next three months, a small team of officials must draft text to go into the sequence of UN meetings leading up to Copenhagen.

The first of those sessions begins in less than two weeks. I think we can expect more opening gambits to be deployed between now and then.

Organisers of last week's climate science conference in Copenhagen will be hoping that the draft text pays some attention to the main message coming out of their conference - that trends are advancing at or beyond the worst projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and therefore meaningful political action needs to come swiftly.

We've discussed this on previous posts, of course - and if you haven't seen it, I would point you to Mike Hulme's article in our Green Room series this week, where he argues that the "main message" represents the views of only a handful of people, and certainly not the broader mass of delegates.

But I concluded last time by asking if anyone would like to help scan the conference abstracts for interesting presentations. Several of you did - for which many thanks - and while I won't dwell on all the things you pointed up, there are a couple of things I wanted to comment on.

City_roofsSo londonjimi, you looked at cities, which are generally warmer than the surrounding region - meaning that if temperatures rise generally, city-dwellers are going to be feeling that on top of the urban heat island effect.

There are some ideas around about planning cities more thoughtfully in order to reduce the heat. Planting trees in streets, painting roofs white, rooftop gardens, smart buildings, cycling... the local possibilities are several.

But what about local funding? While in many countries you can get grants for installing renewable energy equipment, is there any city that's awarding financial incentives to plant urban trees or whiten roofs? Should there be?

If anyone has any examples they'd like to point up, please do.

simon-swede, you picked out a presentation [pdf link] on potential synergies between measures to improve human health and curb climate change, which I also thought was really interesting.

The last UN climate conference in Poland threw up the idea that improving the stoves that many of the world's poorest families use for cooking could yield significant climate and health benefits at very low cost - and that's one of the ideas that researcher Kirk Smith draws out.

The most radical, though, is improving access to contraception. Helping women in the poorest developing countries to choose their family size and the age at which they start giving birth could, he suggests, be a win-win idea, reducing population growth (and by extension, long-term carbon emissions) and improving the health of mothers and children.

I wonder whether it's yet arisen in discussions in various UN climate processes, such as the Clean Development Mechanism?

Just as I'm preparing to put this post to sleep comes news of the latest comments from Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official.

Put the credit crunch to one side, he warns European leaders, and stand by the financing commitments you made to developing countries at the Bali UN conference more than a year ago - otherwise there may be no deal at the end of this year.

Didn't I suggest there'd be more jockeying for position in the next few days? Now where's my smiley gone...

Fast words on warming; snail's pace on whales

Richard Black | 17:20 UK time, Friday, 13 March 2009

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On Monday, I trailed a couple of meetings taking place this week that I suggested might have a significant impact on environmental issues: the climate conference supported by the Danish government taking place in Copenhagen, and the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) meeting in Rome.

At the end of the week, I want to look back at both and try to distil some of the themes emerging and what they might mean. But to be honest, with the climate conference, I'm going to need your help.

I'll come to that in a moment - first, let me deal with the whaling meeting.

WhalesThe context, as regular readers of this blog will know, is the "peace process" instigated more than a year ago by the IWC's chair, Bill Hogarth, which is attempting to find a "compromise package" of reforms that both pro- and anti-whaling countries could see as a step forward.

Dr Hogarth's original aim was to agree the package at the main IWC meeting in Madeira in June. A preliminary document was drafted earlier in the year, and the Rome gathering was a kind of "where are we up to now and what do people think of it so far?" kind of affair.

No-one I've spoken to who was there has reported major progress; words like "breakthrough" have been absent. But there are four things, I think, worth flagging up.

The first is that if Japan is to reduce or even end its Antarctic hunt, as many of its opponents want, the IWC is going to have to allocate a catch quota around Japan's coasts for four of its traditional whaling communities - that's the political trade. So how are IWC scientists going to set that quota - according to the comprehensive but laborious process (the Revised Management Procedure) developed over many years, or via some more ad-hoc but much quicker sums?

To achieve anything at the Madeira meeting, it'll have to be the latter. So, those leading the process now have to decide what they would want to ask the IWC scientific committee to do - and the committee's response, which won't emerge until the late stages of the Madeira meeting, will be crucial in determining whether coastal whaling can be introduced in the next few years.

To add pressure on the coastal discussions, the South Korean delegation said that its traditional whaling communities have the same need for whale meat as Japan's - hinting strongly that they too would like to secure a small legal catch (already many tens of whales are caught, officially by accident, in fishing nets each year).

And this is the second point of interest; anti-whaling countries are likely to be more cautious about granting Japan a coastal quota now that South Korea has crystallised fears they already had about the concept overflowing into other countries.

The third point is that there was, I'm told, very little meaningful discussion of scientific whaling at the Rome meeting. It's going to have to happen sometime, because for many environment groups it is the biggest elephant in the room; but who is going to have the cojones to raise it, and when, knowing that proverbial blood on the carpet may swiftly follow?

Finally, the US delegation - which punches far, far above the weight of a single country in this arena - is apparently willing to play a long game with this process. So, failure to agree a package in Madeira will not necessarily signal the end of the road - which probably, on balance, improves the chances that reforms will eventually happen.

A small working group is scheduled to produce more detailed proposals in the middle of May, and I'll do my best to bring you the details as soon as I can.

OK - now to the climate talks. They've certainly generated a lot of headlines - my first Google news search this morning yielded more than 1,000 articles - and most of them have been of the "we've got to do something because things are worse than we feared" variety.

You'll probably have seen the stories on sea levels rising and ocean acidification that my colleagues David Shukman and Roger Harrabin wrote earlier in the week, and Matt McGrath's story on what you might call the main conference outcome - a call to action by the scientists organising the meeting, saying that key trends are happening so fast that the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report are in danger of being realised.

Certainly many of the studies presented did suggest that things are as bad as, or perhaps even worse, than the IPCC projections.

But others suggested the opposite. Jonathan Bamber and colleagues concluded [pdf link] that rather than the Greenland ice sheet melting irreversibly at a global temperature rise of 3C, it might need to reach 6C before it started happening.

The same group also suggested [pdf link] that the volume of water stored in the West Antarctic ice sheet has been overestimated, and that there's enough to raise sea levels globally by about 3.5m rather than the 7m figure that has often been used.

The story about sea levels rising faster than IPCC projections were expected; the organisation was open in 2007 about excluding estimates of "accelerated" melting of icecaps and glaciers from its assessment because, it concluded, not enough was then known about the processes to model them accurately. And since 2007, other studies have also concluded that the IPCC figures were too low.

The acidification trend, also, has been well documented, so it's no surprise to see more details emerging on that.

But many of the other studies are just that - individual studies. They haven't been through the full IPCC review process - or even, in some cases, through the normal peer review process of a scientific journal.

As Andy Revkin of the New York Times notes, this has led some scientists outside the conference to suggest these studies are being given more weight than they deserve, and to suggestions that the "message" from Copenhagen is perhaps being overplayed - which could, Andy notes, backfire on the organisers.

Nevertheless, whatever the qualifications, I believe the conference conclusions will have significant political impact through the year, as negotiators try to formulate a new global climate treaty.

(I mentioned this in my earlier post - and although not everyone commenting agreed with me, no-one has produced a concrete reason why I was wrong).

The Danish organisers are going to draw up a full report of the conference which should be available before a core meeting along the UN process, in Bonn in June.

As a passing note, the Danish meeting bears a strong resemblance to the Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change conference in 2005 initiated by the UK government. Hosted by the UK Met Office, it definitely played into political circles globally, and many of the conclusions found their way into the IPCC 2007 assessment.

I'd be interested in your general thoughts, as always. But I'd also like to invite you to help trawl the research papers presented at the conference; my brief foray showed there is lots of interesting stuff there, but around the wheat there's a lot of chaff too, a picture that will be familiar to anyone who's done their time at scientific conferences.

So what I propose is that if you're interested and have a moment or two, go into the conference abstracts, find a subject area of interest, and then pull out one abstract that you think takes us forward in some way and post a comment telling us what the finding is and why you think it's important.

You can choose from several fields of climate science, economics, social policy - even the role of the media.

If you don't find a subject heading that particularly interests you, then why not begin near the beginning of the list if the first letter of your surname comes early in the alphabet, and near the end if you're a Zworykin, a Yarsley or a Xerxes.

Hopelessly random and unstructured, I know - but I hope it'll throw up a good mix of what you find interesting, and then perhaps there'll be room for another chat about it early next week.

Fish feel man's deep impact

Richard Black | 09:50 UK time, Thursday, 12 March 2009

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It's often been said - I've no idea who started it, but it was good of him or her - that we know less about the Earth's oceans than we do about the surfaces of other planets.

Well, this week we've found out a little more; fishing close to the surface can have a significant impact nearer the bottom of the sea.

Violet cod or blue antimoraThe Royal Society's Proceedings B journal publishes research from the northeast Atlantic - off the southwestern coast of Ireland, to be precise - showing that at depths of about 2.5km, populations of many fish species are significantly lower than they were 30 years ago.

Eel numbers at these depths have halved.

There could be a number of factors involved; but the most likely, according to the researchers, is the commercial fishing operations that have started in the last 30 years for deep-water species such as orange roughy and roundnose grenadier.

Yet most commercial trawls don't go down anywhere near that deep - about 1.5km, in this location, is the maximum - so what's going on?

Many deep-water species spend their early years at shallower depths, moving down along the continental slope into deeper waters as they mature; if they're killed when they're relatively young, they'll never make it down the continental slope into deeper waters.

So far, so logical - and perhaps so inescapable, assuming that we want to continue to eat fish from the sea. But what's perhaps unexpected is that the effect is occurring even with species that we don't eat.

David Bailey's explanation - he's the Glasgow University scientist leading the study - is that trawls dragged across the ocean floor in search of orange roughy and other desirable fish catch at least 13 species that we don't want.

Either these are crushed by the trawling gear, or taken up to the surface in the nets and discarded.

If they were all discarded alive and their chances of survival were good, then presumably they'd just swim back down again and we wouldn't be seeing their numbers fall. The fact that we are suggests that at least a significant proportion of the discarded fish are either dead when they're thrown away or die shortly afterwards.

Arrowtooth eelIt would be nice to have more certainty about the scale of the issue. But, David Bailey tells me, there are only three places in the world's oceans where there has been long-term monitoring of deep sea fish.

In parts of the Pacific, scientists are also apparently finding that where fish are heavily caught near the ocean's surface, deeper species decline - here, perhaps, because less detritus falls to the seafloor for scavenging.

What does it all mean for people trying to manage fisheries? Well, if this is a widespread trend, then clearly the impacts of fisheries may be felt a long way from where the fishing actually happens; moving one or two kilometres in depth could mean moving tens of kilometres horizontally, if the continental slope is gradual.

Perhaps the finding should inform the design of Marine Protected Areas, making them bigger than they might have been otherwise, although that wouldn't meet with universal support - there's some suspicion in fishing circles that left to themselves, the tree-huggers of the environment community would protect just about everything and ban fishing completely. It's not true, but it's a politically significant suspicion.

More research, and more regular monitoring, would be an idea. But it costs - days at sea with deep-water research trawls do not come cheap - and with various life-forms in the oceans also affected by shipping, climate change, acidification, pollution, and so on, how can you ensure researchers are not simply chasing a moving target?

Some are urging a moratorium on deep-sea fishing in much of the open ocean.

But is this justified? Heavy bottom trawls can devastate deep-sea ecosystems such as cold-water corals, there's no doubt about that; but most tracts of sea bed are not rich nurseries for life but relatively barren expanses of mud or silt. That's industry's argument; conservationists counter that fishing fleets target the most ecologically vulnerable areas because that's where the most fish will be found.

Another approach to the problem might be to eliminate discards, as is being pursued in other fisheries - at least that would mean everything caught is put to use.

But many of these accidentally-caught deep-sea species have little commercial worth, with watery flesh that yields poor taste and nutritional value - bringing them home for fish meal, even, might not be profitable.

I think we are going to have to live with the fact that if we want to harvest seafood, we can certainly be smarter about how we do it, but there will never be an impact-free fish lunch.

A whale of a week for climate

Richard Black | 15:12 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009

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Two of my five picks of environment stories to watch this year may have significant new chapters written this week - and the new US administration of Barack Obama is a key player in both.

In Copenhagen, climate scientists, economists and policy makers will be meeting for a three-day conference that will share some of the latest thinking on the likely impacts of climate change, how the natural world is already being influenced, the costs and benefits of various types of action to mitigate it and adapt to it, and so on.

About 1,000 miles due south, in Rome, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) holds discussions that may indicate whether the latest initiative to reform the fractured organisation, and to bring some more order and oversight to whaling and whale conservation, will end in harmony or discord.

Clash over whaling in Southern OceanThe Copenhagen meeting is an important one. It will be the final major global attempt to weave the various strands of climate research together before the annual UN summit, in the same city, in December, which is supposed to formulate a new global climate treaty - bigger, longer-lasting and more profound than the Kyoto Protocol.

The proper global body for this, of course, is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but that produces major assessments only every five years or so, and they are by definition somewhat out of date because of the organisation's lengthy collation and review processes.

So the Danish government thinks there's a need for something a bit sharper off the mark, yet still authoritative - hence this week's meeting.

Prominent on the agenda are some of the big unknowns. By how much are sea levels likely to rise (an issue on which the IPCC was, by its own admission, cautious in its 2007 assessment)? Are natural "sinks" such as forests and oceans absorbing less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as some recent studies suggest? Can practices in agriculture or forestry be modified so more CO2 is absorbed?

On the economics side, there will be discussion of what various plans for curbing emissions might cost the global economy, and which economic tools would be the best ones to deploy.

Anders Fogh RasmussenThe scientific conclusions will all still be couched in the language of probabilities, but the political dignitaries, such as Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, are likely to use more concrete terms when they outline the implications.

Whatever the demands are for "action now", the conference is unlikely to change the underlying political realities.

Many Kyoto adherents are some way off meeting even their protocol targets [174Kb PDF] for reducing emissions and in difficult economic times, it will be hard for industrialised countries to make the financial contributions that the developing world is likely to demand as the price of a new global agreement.

So many eyes will again turn to Barack Obama and his pledge to lead the world anew on climate change.

But given that US emissions have risen by about one-sixth since 1990 - the baseline year for all these calculations - his administration will struggle to pledge carbon cuts by 2020 that look huge in the context of scientists' and activists' demands for immediate and drastic reductions.

There was talk a couple of months ago that one of Mr Obama's senior energy or environment people - or even the president himself - might pitch up in Copenhagen, though that now seems to be off the agenda, which will presumably save them being asked lots of questions about a US climate policy that has not yet been formulated.

Where the Obama administration has acted decisively is on whaling.

More than a year ago, the US chair of the IWC, Bill Hogarth, opened a process of dialogue aimed at finding some kind of compromise "package" that both the whaling nations and anti-whaling campaigners could live with.

One of the big unknowns was how the incoming Obama administration would view the issue. Heavily lobbied as it has been by conservation and animal welfare groups, would it endorse the process, or would it despatch Dr Hogarth summarily from its payroll and bring in someone who would maintain a "no whaling at any price (except for indigenous peoples)" line?

On Friday, the White House revealed its hand in what is, to my mind, an intriguing and constructive statement.

The most significant sentence is that "failure to resolve these issues is not an acceptable outcome to the United States". That places fresh weight behind the Hogarth initiative.

However, the US remains opposed to commercial whaling, thinks that lethal scientific catches (the regulation under which Japan now hunts) are "unnecessary", and has "significant concerns" over moves by Icelandic and Norwegian companies to re-open the international whalemeat trade.

Orbiting Climate ObservatoryAccordingly, for any eventual deal to be acceptable to the US, it "must result in a significant improvement in the conservation status of whales".

The statement is so close to the thinking of some of the less radical conservation groups that it could almost have been written by them, although it remains the case that some campaign organisations will be implacably opposed to any deal.

What the statement does not say explicitly, but implies heavily, is that even if no deal results by the forthcoming IWC annual meeting in June, Washington will remain committed to achieving reform - which is important, because the original timeline was beginning to look impossibly tight.

As to what will transpire this week, we must wait and see. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun has twice in the last few months reported that Japan will reduce the size of its Antarctic catch next season; and although this has been denied by Fisheries Agency officials, it would be an obvious next step for Japanese negotiators to take, offering something as a token of a desire to progress, but not something so significant as to indicate a desire to progress at any cost.

(As one long-term observer of whaling issues observed to me recently, this is to a large extent a game of chess - although perhaps poker would be a better analogy).

Whatever the outcome of the week's deliberations, the importance of the intervention from Mr Obama's administration cannot be exaggerated. Its attitude is vital on this issue - as it will be in achieving a workable climate treaty at the end of the year, which is, on the face of it, a far more complex undertaking than sorting out how many whales are killed each year.

What both whaling and climate negotiators will strive to avoid is the fate of one of my other five picks of the year, Nasa's Orbiting Climate Observatory satellite, which crashed on take-off last month. No BBC blog is certified as 100% jinx-free, but here's hoping this one is.

Fish farming and the green gap

Richard Black | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

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There's a bit of a spat going on in the activist community now over fish-farming.

It's a new arena for a familiar argument; should green groups engage with something that on balance they'd rather not have around, or should they simply campaign against it?

Fish farm

The immediate focus is WWF's recent announcement that it's co-founding a new organisation, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, that will eventually develop global standards for an industry that at its worst could serve as a dictionary definition of the term "unsustainable".

WWF's rationale is that the industry is here to stay - the Earth's growing number of mouths needs it - so it's imperative to get involved with businesses and regulators and spread best practices across the world.

A coalition of other NGOs disagrees. "We believe that these attempts at certification are funded and industry driven," they say, arguing that the proposed sustainability standards endorse techniques that are inherently unsustainable, and that the concerns of local peoples and indigenous groups are being ignored.

We've seen similar argument played out over many issues, including the greenhouse gas emissions of energy companies and various aspects of farming.

But perhaps the best recent analogy is the palm oil industry, which WWF chooses to work with, not least through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - a body that Greenpeace dismisses as "little more than a greenwashing operation".

Farmed fish

On aquaculture, it's an increasingly important argument; because as a major report just released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) makes clear, the industry is set to spread into ever more waterways and supply more ever more food in the years to come.

The industry now provides almost half of the fish that we eat. And with just over half of the world's wild fisheries classed as "fully exploited" and a further 20% "depleted", it seems clear that if the coming extra billions of humans are to eat fish and other marine products at the same rate that we do now, the majority is going to have to come from aquaculture.

The FAO's State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report also concludes that wild catches are likely to go down rather than up as the climate changes. Warming waters will push species from their natural environs, it suggests, perhaps separating fish from their habitual food or disrupting the breeding cycle; and ocean acidification also poses threats.

At its worst, aquaculture is an absolute bane; it pollutes, spreads disease into wild populations, and reduces the health of wild stocks through escapes and interbreeding. The natural defences of mangroves are cleared for shrimp ponds that quickly leave soils saline and barren, and fish that could feed poorer mouths are minced up to fatten the carnivorous species to which western palates seem umbilically attached.

At its best, though, it is a benign and placid business providing local employment and local nutrition, with minimal ecological impacts.

Regulators, environmental groups and scientists all have roles to play if the industry is to improve its overall performance.

Scientists can find vegetable-based substitute feeds for carnivorous fish (research that is well underway at the moment, and not before time, with fish farms consuming 85% of the fish oil produced globally).

In conjunction with business leaders, scientists can also look for ways to run the farms symbiotically, so the waste from one product becomes food for another - something that is already being developed, not least in China, which possesses by far the world's biggest aquaculture industry.

And environmental groups? They can play several roles, I would suggest; keeping regulators honest, consulting on ecological standards, and helping to shape the market so consumers become keener to eat species with a lighter environmental footprint.

Whether they can better achieve those ambitions from inside or outside of the tent is for each group to decide; and perhaps there's merit in having a bit of both.

Aquaculture isn't growing as fast as it was a decade ago - partly because of increasing pressure on China's waterways - and the FAO reckons governments will need to nurdle the industry along if its output is to increase in line with projected demand.

So there's clearly an opportunity to nurdle it in a direction that's environmentally as well as financially sound.

It's important that all the major players get it right. As a species, we will increasingly depend on the food that aquaculturists provide; but we also depend on them leaving behind lakes, rivers and seas that are fit for us and the rest of the Earth's inhabitants to use.

PS Click here for a pop-up picture gallery of future fish food.

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