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2010: Intruders on a biodiverse year?

Richard Black | 10:59 UK time, Thursday, 31 December 2009

In a somewhat dank and dreary London back garden, I've just been watching grey squirrels carrying off and eating bits of stale Christmas cake that we'd left out for them and the birds.

If we'd been quick enough with the camera, it would have made a fantastic picture, with the bushy-tailed squirrel perched on the back fence holding an impossibly big slice of cake in its paws.

A grey and a red squirrelBut would it have qualified as a true nature picture - feeding by humans in an urban setting of an introduced species that has out-competed (and probably passed disease to) its local counterpart, the red squirrel, displacing it from the region?

It may be a somewhat boring question to ask given the visually charming vignette being played out - but it serves perhaps as a reminder that amid all the climate change clamour of the last few months, other issues of how the human hand is changing the natural world have not gone away.

The effects of cities and introduced species on nature are, in fact, a couple of strands that ought to feature prominently on these pages during 2010.

The UN system has declared it the International Year of Biodiversity - and the big political set-piece is October's meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Japan.

Eight years ago, governments set themselves the target of significantly curbing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. It's a target that isn't going to be met - that's been clear for some time - but the October meeting will see ministers batting around some ideas on why it hasn't been met, whether anything can be done about it, and whether a different kind of target is needed now.

We know the most important reason why biodiversity loss isn't being curbed already: the expanding human footprint. But do governments have the capacity or the nerve to tackle issues such as the growth of the human population, the rate of resource consumption, the spread of agriculture, and so on - all (as some will see it) to save a few birds and trees?

If the Copenhagen climate summit had produced anything resembling a definitive conclusion, I would be confident about biodiversity loss assuming centre stage during 2010 - and not before time, many would argue.

As it is, I'm not sure whether it is destined once more to languish in the shadow of climate change. The bones of Copenhagen are going to be picked over during the next few months, that's for sure; and as we go through the year, governments will have to decide whether they want to invest political capital once more in the idea of a negotiated, legally-binding treaty.

Given public statements on the issue, you might assume that many of them will find the heart, and that Mexico (the location for the next UN climate summit) will become as talked about during 2010 as Copenhagen was during 2009.

But as I wrote in my final post from Copenhagen, events there left many people absolutely stunned - and it is not clear whether the most important governments now want climate change to be dealt with in the forum of a UN convention.

Many "non-state actors", though, surely do; and we'll need to keep more of an eye than usual on the groups that make up what we usually refer to as "the environmental movement". Copenhagen was a disaster for them - and how they respond, whether they step up the scale of direct action on climate change, and whether their capacity to lobby is changed in a recessionary world may all be "live" issues as 2010 speeds by.

The lack of appetite within some important governments for tackling climate change on a global basis also calls into question whether they will continue to back a global approach to curbing biodiversity loss.

What else can we look forward to over the next 12 months? Well, the story of the e-mail hack from the University of East Anglia ("Climategate" in some quarters) is definitely not played out yet, with investigations running and with the identity of the hacker(s) and any significant paymasters still to be revealed.

That's one for any budding John le Carré to savour; and also one to watch in the context of the severely delayed cap-and-trade legislation now before the US Senate.

A fin whale swims in Sitka Sound, Alaska Thursday 16 September 2004The conclusion of a two-year "peace process" within the International Whaling Commission (IWC) falls in the middle of the year, a process that could conceivably see agreement between vehemently opposed countries to regularise some of the practices that currently cause so much dispute.

Or will politics intervene? Will Japan's budgetary review curb its Antarctic hunt, or will an end to Iceland's whaling be made a condition of its probable EU accession?

In March, we'll see a different battleground being prepared for the camps fighting over bluefin tuna, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is due to consider whether stocks are so low that an international trade ban should be invoked.

It'll probably be a bloody conflict, because once one commercially important fish species is made subject to a CITES ban, campaigners will be queuing up to protect others under the same convention - and some countries are adamant that such a precedent must not be set.

As far as UK domestic issues are concerned, 2010 is a key target year on waste. Under EU legislation, the amount of biodegradable waste going into landfill is supposed to have been cut by 25% from a 1995 baseline. The government reckons the country is more or less on course - we'll see.

The year will also see the introduction of the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme, a cap-and-trade system that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from about 5,000 UK businesses and institutions not covered by the EU Emission Trading Scheme. It'll be a challenge for some of the organisations involved; in the post-Copenhagen-non-agreement period, how enthusiastic are they likely to be?

A general election is looming - May is the bookies' favourite; March a distant second.

David Cameron on top of the Scott-Turner glacier on the island of Svalbard, Norway - 20 April 2006Based on past experience, it seems unlikely that environmental concerns will become big election issues nationally, particularly as - on the surface - there's not the breadth of a wind turbine's blade between the major parties on climate change.

But you never know. The Tories have a powerful "climate-sceptical" contingent in their hinterland, while there are significant divides (for example on nuclear power) with the Lib Dems.

In wind-abundant Scotland, it seems likely that energy independence and methods of electricity generation will feature on party manifestos; while in Wales, the simmering row over culling badgers for bovine TB could become something of electoral significance.

For those of us immersed in environmental issues, as well as for anyone who likes to spend time following them, it looks like the antithesis of a quiet year ahead.

Better grab any slices of Christmas cake that remain while you can.


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