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Archives for May 2010

Climate funds lack clarity

Richard Black | 10:55 UK time, Monday, 31 May 2010


FloodThe international development charity Oxfam has a new report out asking some fundamental questions about climate finance.

If you recall, two different financial pledges emerged at the Copenhagen summit: "fast-start" money to the tune of $30bn over the three-year period 2010-2012, and the much larger amount of about $100bn per year by 2020.

Both sums are supposed to be raised in and by industrialised nations, and made available to their poorer counterparts - to help curtail their greenhouse gas emissions, and to help them adapt to impacts of climate change.

Estimates of the true costs of these changes in the developing world vary significantly, and it's worth recalling that neither figure emerged from genuine negotiations - both were floated well ahead of time by western leaders, and changed not a jot as Copenhagen proceeded - so whether the sums are enough is one of the issues that Oxfam doesn't want us to lose sight of.

The other issues that it flags up are ones that in principle should be easier to answer, but which right now are about as murky as the Gulf of Mexico.

Is the money new, or are western countries seeking to redirect existing aid budgets? Will any of it be offered as loans? How much will come from the public purse?

Underlying these is the most fundamental of all: will it actually materialise?

These questions are not easy to answer, largely because there is no single conduit for funds.

Donor governments insist that bilateral transfers of money can count towards the total; and as these contributions can be wrapped up as components of bigger projects (for example, as additional funds to flood-proof a school being built with aid money), there is obviously a lot of potential for figures to jump magically from one column of the ledger to another.

At the April session of the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) in Bonn, EU representatives announced that by June they would have a report on the table summarising and clarifying contributions from EU member states.

It's not happened, and the idea now is to bring it out by the end of the year. So we will be one-third of the way through the "fast-start" period before we discover whether the EU is actually making good on its part of the $30bn pledge, and whether any uncomfortable questions hang over the raising and disbursement of the funds.

Farmer_in_droughtGiven their domestic political difficulties, clarity from the other two major promisers of money - Japan and the US - is in even shorter supply.

Oxfam flags up a couple of other specifics. Some governments, it relates, are keen that money transferred through the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) should count towards the bigger long-term target of $100bn per year.

CDM money is spent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, certainly. But the reductions accrue to the western countries that are paying for the reductions - so allowing this as a contribution to meeting the Copenhagen pledges would be a clear case of double counting.

Secondly, some governments are apparently arguing that some of the $100bn should be proffered as loans, not as a transfer of funds.

As Oxfam points out:

"Climate finance is not aid. It is not an act of charity, or an expression of solidarity with poor countries, but a legal obligation under the UNFCCC."

The outcome of last week's Climate and Forest Conference in Oslo both illustrated how some governments are attempting to move forward, and highlighted some of the obstacles that encumber the process.

The Norwegian and Indonesian governments agreed a deal that on the surface at least enshrines accountability on both sides.

Indonesia agrees to halt deforestation for two years: Norway agrees to hand over $1bn if it does so, and will demand evidence before it parts with the cash. As part of the mechanism, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says he will "personally monitor" the forestry sector.

So far, so clear.

The conference also trumpeted the news that western countries had upped the sum they were pledging to combat deforestation in 2010-12, from the $3.5bn announced in Copenhagen to $4bn.

What we don't know is whether the extra half billion is additional money, or whether it comes from the overall $30bn pot.

Given the overall lack of transparency that Oxfam and others are flagging up, my bet is that no-one could tell us.

Europe debates climate 'ambition'

Richard Black | 14:18 UK time, Wednesday, 26 May 2010


Connie Hedegaard, the EU's Climate Commissioner, is seeking to open a debate on whether the bloc should adopt a tougher target than it already has for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Connie HedegaardBack in the early months of last year, EU leaders signed off a target of 20% cuts from 1990 levels by 2020, rising to 30% if a global deal emerged at the Copenhagen summit that would see other countries and other blocs taking a commensurate share.

So the deal didn't emerge, as we know. But emissions aren't rising at the moment either - in fact, the latest evidence from the European Commission showed that carbon emissions from industries within the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) fell by 11.6% during 2009.

The recession, in a nutshell, has turned the calculations that led to the twin targets of 20% and 30% on their head.

According to Ms Hedegaard's latest notice, the cost of meeting the 20% target is now 48bn euros per year, down from 70bn when the numbers were crunched in 2008.

The new cost of a 30% target, meanwhile, comes out at 81bn euros per year.

The commission notes that the difference between going for 20% and 30% is just 0.2% of GDP.

Last month, meanwhile, researchers published a paper showing that aiming for 20% amounted to less ambition than "business as usual".

The commission isn't overtly advocating a jump in ambition to 30%, just saying that it wants "an informed debate" on the issue. Its announcement today categorically does not amount to a new European Union policy, as has been claimed in some quarters.

And while the new UK government supports moving to 30%, other countries - notably France and Germany - have issued cautionary words.

We can assume that some Eastern European countries are in their camp, given their previous opposition to strong carbon curbs; and industry groups such as Business Europe are lobbying against 30%, arguing that:

"[I]t would send the wrong signal to European industry in times of economic crisis."

How the 30% target might be achieved is very much up for debate. With the ETS still many euros short of a carbon price to challenge companies, mandatory energy efficiency improvements, "green" taxes and increased international trading of carbon credits are among the possible options.

As Ms Hedgaard indicates, there are two other calculations that EU governments will be making as they decide whether they should take the plunge into deeper waters.

New tidal energy deviceOne is purely political. Many EU governments have liked to see the bloc as leading the global community on climate change - a position that was stripped bare with breathtaking ease in December as the New World Order swept through Copenhagen's halls.

Moving to 30% now, it is argued in some quarters, would allow the emperor to don the robes of leadership anew.

The other calculation primarily concerns longer-term economic factors, and is centred on the notion that investment now in "green" technologies will pay dividends economically in the future.

As Joss Garman of Greenpeace UK (which supports a move to 30%) puts it:

"For a long time China has been getting ahead of us in green technologies, but this move would help us to catch up in the global clean tech race, as well as reducing our dependence on fossil fuels from dangerous sources like offshore oil drilling. Only polluters would lose out.
"So if European leaders agree to raise the climate target, it will be a win all round, providing a much needed boost to our economic recovery, raising our competitiveness and slashing our pollution."
The numbers you put into this longer-term analysis depend to a certain extent on what guesses you make about future climate politics.

A strong UN deal at some point, with stringent targets supporting a high carbon price, would increase the economic case not only for wind energy, but also for others such as wave and tidal power that are so nascent that it's hard to envisage a mass blooming before 2020.

Invest in them now, reap the economic benefits later, is the argument - with another strand coming from concerns over peak oil and gas.

Enthusiasm for this vision is not limited to environment groups, with finance house Ernst and Young commenting:

"With energy markets around the world competing for the attention of new investors, economic growth can be the direct result of our ability to harness sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and tidal.
"Europe can therefore be at the heart of this economic activity, rather than on the periphery."

Will the lure of global leadership on global climate politics and the shiny new green-tech economy be enough to persuade the bloc to make a move?

We shall see - and perhaps as soon as next month, when EU leaders gather for their next big summit.

Wildlife - a good bet?

Richard Black | 17:19 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010


Bookmakers_at_racecourseDefinitely the oddest take I've yet seen on the Gulf of Mexico oil leak passed across my desk today, in the form of a notification from bookmakers Paddy Power that they're taking bets on the first species to go extinct as a result of the pollution.

Kemp's Ridley turtle garners the shortest odds at four to five. Candidates at longer prices include elkhorn coral and the smalltooth sawfish at 20 to one.

Intrigued, I called up Ken Robertson, the firm's head of communications, for a quick chat.

The bets weren't exactly flooding in, he told me.

But given what he sees as BP's lack of success in tackling the leak, it's a book likely to remain open considerably longer than a horse race, or even a full cricket test-match series.

I wondered, though, whether species extinctions are a suitable subject for gambling. Isn't inviting people to estimate the relative odds of two species taking the dodo trail in the pursuit of cash just a bit - well - tasteless?

Mr Robertson countered with the opposite notion. It's actually a positive thing for conservation, he said, because punters whose knowledge of the natural world extends to horses and greyhounds might discover a bit more in the process of trying to beat the odds.

If he's right - and I'd welcome your views on whether he is - then this must count as one of the most innovative strategies ever devised for "spreading awareness".

Kemps_RidleyCampaigners - and sometimes politicians - spend hour after anguished hour debating how to reach people who are not currently interested in, or aware of, environmental issues.

Their standard output is the report - often eminently worthwhile, but reaching few beyond the immediate circle of those who already follow that particular thread.

A case in point from the last couple of days is BirdLife International's recent (and thoroughly worthy) report on European lack of progress towards the 2010 biodiversity target.

"We know what to do. The question is: do Europeans have the will and the courage to take action before it is too late?"

... said BirdLife's Ariel Brunner.

Another question - perhaps more important - would be: do Europeans know about the situation? It's hard to care either way if you don't.

Brown_pelicansThat many people are unaware even of hugely raucous environmental issues was demonstrated graphically by the BBC survey on climate change earlier this year, which showed that about 40% of the UK population had not been aware of the Copenhagen summit - extraordinary from the standpoint of someone who saw it leading the news agendas of virtually all British broadcasters and newspapers for a solid fortnight, but true nevertheless.

So, reaching the punters that other campaigns do not is, for many, an absolute grail.

Environmental groups paint murals, film-makers recount the demise of life in the oceans.

Rock bands develop "lower-carbon" tour plans, wildlife groups encourage us to take the kids out for a day's nature observing in the countryside (you know, that other place, the one where we don't live, that has more cows than cars...)

But still - in the campaigners' world view - the balance weighing public opinion stubbornly refuses to shift.

Whether Paddy Power's product will make any more difference to people's "awareness" of environmental issues is anyone's bet at the moment (sorry, I'm contractually obliged to use at least one cheesy pun in a piece like this...)

But if it does, you can expect to see quite a few greens queuing up to talk to the bookies about other issues that might be worth a flutter.

'Playing God' with the climate?

Richard Black | 15:34 UK time, Friday, 21 May 2010


Biotech supremo Craig Venter's latest foray into "synthetic life" is raising all sorts of questions within the domain of medical and scientific ethics.

One of the potential uses which he's looking at for synthetic bacteria - sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - potentially also breaks new ground in the ethics of human effects on the natural world.

Craig_VenterDr Venter's proposed CO2-suckers, if they ever materialise, would basically constitute a new entry into the field of geo-engineering - using technology to ameliorate human-induced climate change.

Existing proposals include those with a notion of biology, such as using iron filings to stimulate the growth of oceanic plants or switching to growing crops with reflective leaves.

But most lie firmly in the physical domain - whitening roofs, putting a giant sunshade in space, or spraying the atmosphere with dust to mimic the sun-reflecting and planet-cooling effect of volcanic eruptions.

What should we call Dr Venter's vision? "Bio-geo-engineering"? "Geno-geo-engineering"?

If you tend towards apocalyptic thoughts, here's one for you: out-of-control CO2-sucking bacteria that multiply beyond measure, hoovering up every last molecule of the stuff and leaving none for plants and trees.

OK, it's a bit Night of the Living Dead, I know - but even if your thoughts don't run in a B-movie direction, you might conclude that here is a technology that would require a great deal of contained research and soul-searching and international agreement before it was ever let loose on the natural world.

So far, the international community of nations has been lagging behind the entrepreneurism of start-up geo-engineering visionaries.

Ocean fertilisation was first out of the blocks, with universities and research institutions mounting so far a dozen or so field investigations over the last decade, with mixed results - and with at least two companies, Climos and Planktos, aiming to use the approach commercially.

Ocean_cloud_shipA couple of weeks ago, The Times reported that Bill Gates was funding a project co-ordinated by the San Francisco-based Silver Lining Project that would trial cloud-building - sucking up water from the sea and spraying it into the air, providing nuclei for the formation of clouds that would reflect solar energy back into space.

As Ben Webster noted in his article:

"The British and American scientists involved do not intend to wait for international rules on technology that deliberately alters the climate.
"They believe that the weak outcome of December's climate summit in Copenhagen means that emissions will continue to rise unchecked and that the world urgently needs an alternative strategy to protect itself from global warming."

Russia, too, is seeing the beginnings of real-life geo-engineering experiments.

Last summer, Yuri Izrael - a former deputy chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a senior governmental adviser - oversaw experiments that injected sulphate aerosol dust into the atmosphere at low levels, and claimed to see a reduction in solar energy transmitted to the Earth's surface.

I'm told that this summer, the Russian group may try larger experiments that involve ejecting the dust from the back of a plane.

Why senior Russian advisers should be interested in this technology isn't immediately obvious, given that Russia is more lukewarm than most other countries to the idea of curbing global warming, and given that ex-President Vladimir Putin has spoken of the benefits that a bit of warming could bring to his nation.

Irrespective of the whys and wherefores though, the point is that geo-engineering research is happening, here and now.

So far it's been on a fairly small scale. But at some point, if you're talking about technologies with the potential to have a planet-wide effect, you have to move out into the big field - and if you take the IPCC's projections seriously, you'd need to start doing it soon.

How any such large-scale research projects should be evaluated, regulated and monitored - and who should control such undertakings - is an issue that's slowly emerging into the daylight.

The American Enterprise Institute, for example, argues that there should be no real international participation, either in the technology itself or in making rules that would regulate it.

The institute's Lee Lane recently blogged:

"About 40% of the world's population, mostly those in very poor countries, has not even heard of climate change; therefore, insisting on proof of global informed consent as a precondition for testing climate engineering amounts to saying that climate engineering can never be tested."

He continues:

"The US constitution enjoins our government to promote the general welfare, and the context is clearly a national one. A US government that allowed abstract notions of global informed consent to block action needed to protect Americans from harm would soon find itself out of office - and rightly so."

Others argue that all the world's peoples are absolutely entitled to have a say in issues that may affect them markedly.

Sun_shield_in_spaceLast year, a paper in Science contended that sun-obstructing technologies could increase drought. And if aerosol deployment in northern Asia, for example, affected the monsoon further south, shouldn't countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have a say in whether the aerosols are deployed or not?

Three years ago, the London Convention, which deals with maritime pollution, declared that deployment of ocean fertilisation should not happen yet: a yes to research, but a no to actual use for the time being.

Since then, the UN biodiversity convention has tightened the line, requesting governments:

"... to ensure that ocean fertilisation activities do not take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities, including assessing associated risks, and a global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanism is in place for these activities; with the exception of small scale scientific research studies within coastal waters."

This had practical ramifications for the German/Indian Lohafex expedition, which endured an on-off existence even as the Polarstern research ship was on its way to dump six tonnes of iron filings into the Southern Ocean (with negligible results, in the end).

For the last two weeks, government delegates have been meeting in Nairobi to make recommendations for measures that should go before October's summit of the UN biodiversity convention.

For the first time in an international treaty organisation, there is a concrete move [58Kb PDF] to go beyond iron fertilisation and apply international oversight across the field - including, presumably, anything that Dr Venter or his genome-engineering peers might come up with.

It tells governments to ensure...

"...that no climate-related geo-engineering activities take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts."

In the time-honoured way of UN matters, the paragraph is swaddled in square brackets, so isn't universally approved - Canada was reportedly leading opposition - but it's likely to receive some kind of airing, if not resolution, in October.

Critics could certainly say it looks vague as it stands - does the word "activities" encompass research, for example, and if so, at what scales?

You could also argue that the potential risks of geo-engineering affect much more than biodiversity, and ask why, therefore, it should be dealt with under this convention.

Activists, though, were delighted that the step had been taken, Neth Dano of the ETC Group commenting:

"Big industry and big science increasingly want to press ahead with geo-engineering either as a 'plan B' or a free pass to avoid reducing emissions.
"It's the big lie that lets them pretend that we can all carry on flying, driving, and consuming- business as usual!"

So there it is: the gauntlet has been laid down to those who argue that research into and deployment of geo-engineering should be left to the world's major powers and the companies that reside in those nations.

But if it's accepted, would that mean research slows to a snail's pace, risking the corollary that if and when we find the Earth needs a sunshield in space, we won't be ready to build one?

IPCC review: friend or foe?

Richard Black | 19:44 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010


"Now that we're in the kitchen, we have to take the heat," said Rajendra Pachauri.

"And we have to recognise that the stakes are very high. So we have to prepare ourselves for criticism, and this is not something we have done in the past."

Indeed not. The worlds of climate science and politics were very different in 1988 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the organisation that Dr Pachauri now chairs, came into being.

Rajendra_PachauriConcern there was about the potential of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions to produce a net warming of the planet's biosphere, which was why the organisation came into existence.

But computers on which scientists ran models were mere calculators beside today's petaflop behemoths; and many of the observation systems that now provide valued data, such as the global flotilla of Argo floats, were barely at the stage of conception, never mind in their infancy.

As a result, the risk of warming might have been perceived as real, but it also went unquantified.

And as a result of that, there was barely a prospect of painful greenhouse gas emission cuts, never mind the wholesale decarbonisation of economies within a few decades that many now advocate.

Fossil fuel lobbyists had barely begun to organise, and a webless world did not facilitate the instant fractious exchanges of angry words and equations - the game, sometimes played on astroturf, that now makes the climate blogosphere as relentless as Shinjuku station in rush hour.

And so we come, via the hockey stick and the passing of the Waxman-Markey bill and "ClimateGate" and Copenhagen and erroneous Himalayan glacier melting dates and the Tea Party movement to this, the start of the UN-commissioned review of the IPCC on a sunny canalside morning in Amsterdam.

The scene in the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences was a world away from the media scrums of the IPCC report launches in 2007, let alone the Copenhagen maelstrom.

The review panel of 12 academics - their CVs richly adorned with professorships and advisorships and awards - sat around a U-shaped table in a bare room while a handful of reporters and support staff scattered themselves around chairs at the back.

At the top of the U were the first people to present material to the review - Dr Pachauri himself and IPCC secretary Renate Christ.

Their presentations consisted mostly of background material about how the IPCC works: how it selects lead authors for its reports, how it relates to governments, how its cycles of reporting run.

Along the way, Dr Pachauri unveiled some issues that had concerned him for a while.

Communications with the public have historically been poor. Support networks are established for the duration of one assessment cycle, meaning that if something subsequently goes awry - such as discovering you've put the wrong date for the melting of Himalayan glaciers in your report - the team that should be in place to assess and deal with the issue has already disbanded.

GlacierThese things are very small beer compared with the assault cannon constantly being fired in the IPCC's direction, and specifically at Dr Pachauri.

The organisation is accused of deliberately selecting report leaders "fully signed up to the global warming theology", as you might put it, and of deliberately excluding dissenting voices through a variety of mechanisms.

It is accused of routinely neglecting the influence of natural climatic cycles in its projections, and of concocting projections of the world's socio-economic future that bear little relation to reality.

Dr Pachauri himself is accused of making money out of promulgating climate concerns, despite recently being cleared of financial irregularities by auditors KPMG.

The last time I wrote about this review - when UN secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced its constitution back in March - I was already receiving emails assuring me that it was a whitewash, and I don't expect this to change.

Review panel chairman Harold Shapiro, a Princeton University economist and former advisor to both the George Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies, assured me it won't be - they are "neither friend nor foe" of the IPCC.

When I asked him whether critics who have seen the IPCC at first hand will be called - I mentioned both Richard Lindzen and John Christy in this context - he replied that this sort of

"...'thoughtful critic' - very very respectable and highly thought of scientists with criticisms of the organisation - we definitely want to hear that."

And anyone can send in comments - they're already arriving, apparently.

What's interesting me is that scientists I've spoken to, both in camps that are seriously concerned about climate change and those that find IPCC projections overblown, want this review to succeed.

By that, they mean changing the organisation as much as is necessary to help it do its assigned job as best it can: improving the quality of its scrutiny, removing inherent biases if they exist, supporting lead authors better as they wade through an every-rising tide of scientific papers, and enhancing communication of findings to the public who ultimately are paying for it.

It's a big task, let's be honest; Professor Shapiro acknowledged as much.

The 12 panellists are already very busy people, and there is a stack of material to get through and an army of people to hear from - and all before the end of August.

One presumes none will be having a relaxing summer break this time around, stuck as they'll be in Dr Pachauri's ever-warming kitchen.

Much-drilled bill signals climate endgame

Richard Black | 22:56 UK time, Wednesday, 12 May 2010


And then there were two...

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham having departed the group, it was left to Democrat John Kerry and Independent (Democrat-attached) Joe Lieberman to unveil the latest version of the US climate bill, which now sports the distinctly Stars-and-Stripes title of the American Power Act.

Joe_Lieberman_and_John_KerrySince its last incarnation, the bill has clearly gained a few clauses and lost a bit more than Mr Graham's name on its title-page.

The entire bill [pdf link] weighs in at 987 pages; and no, I haven't yet read them all, so what follows is of necessity a quick and incomplete skim.

I'd be delighted if any of you want to pull out any details and dissect them.

So we have the continuation of the cap-and-trade principle, but a more gradual phase-in than was previously the case. Industry would not have to come on board until 2016.

That's one of the industry sops; another is the extension of support for new nuclear power stations.

Consumers - voters - heck, ordinary people - gain assurances that revenues raised through the proposed new law will largely go on reducing fuel bills.

Although this features very prominently on Senator Kerry's crib-sheet [pdf link], I must admit to being somewhat in the dark about how it's supposed to work, so if anyone has the full picture, perhaps you could post.

One ingredient that should please authors of the Hartwell Paper, the alternative climate policy vision that we featured earlier in the week, is a section aiming to curb short-lived warming agents such as black carbon, HFCs and methane.

And if there is no global climate deal, countries that would be able to out-compete the US as a result of extra costs imposed by the bill would eventually have tariffs imposed on exports to the US.

Some of you may find more than one irony in this clause - I'll leave it to you to point out what they might be.

But what's making headlines are the proposals - trailed well before the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster - to encourage oil and gas drilling off US coasts, including the sharing of revenues with coastal states.

Since those proposals were trailed, senior political figures in several states including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have said they don't want it - they'd rather raise revenue by some other means than risk the ecological and economic damage now being visited upon the Gulf coast.

Oil_in_Gulf_of_MexicoSo the new bill contains even newer measures that would allow states to block drilling within 75 miles of their shores.

You may be asking a question at this point: does the bill see US oil production as a boon or a millstone?

The answer must be a bit of both, depending on whose support it is chasing.

The drilling-or-not-drilling aspect is really a microcosm of the subtle shape-shifting the bill has had to go through to reach this stage, squeezed as it has been by resurgent climate scepticism, the loss of the Democrat super-majority, and now by BP's misadventure.

Andy Revkin in the New York Times describes what emerges as "a classic piece of American legislative compromise, with multi-billion-dollar incentives and investments and favours".

All the give and take creates three potential problems.

Firstly, the sops you give to one faction may antagonise another. Secondly, the package may become simply too unwieldy to suit anyone; and thirdly, it may lose sight of its core intent, which - at least according to the pre-election rhetoric from Mr Obama and Mr Kerry - was curbing US greenhouse gas emissions.

So is passing it politically feasible? And if it does pass, would it affect emissions as much as President Obama promised it would during his election campaign, or as much as mainstream climate science concludes is necessary?

Senator Graham has indicated support. But other Republicans who might have given their support are coming under increasing pressure from their party's right, and there are those on the left who now protest that the bill doesn't go far enough.

Clearly, the bill has been too much of a behemoth for many analysts to get their heads around immediately.

Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) gives it a cautious welcome, though emphasising that there's a lot of detailed reading to be done.

But she's already read enough to conclude:

"The bill's core carbon pollution limits are solid. These emission limits get tighter every year and will drive investments in clean energy that create jobs, cut pollution, and end our addiction to oil from dangerous locations, both offshore and overseas."

However, the Center for Biological Diversity begs to differ. The bill, they conclude...

"...will not solve the problems of global warming and continues pandering to the fossil fuel industry - including expanded offshore oil drilling - that created the problems in the first place."

However the political numbers game plays out, and whatever the bill might or might not do for emissions, one thing appears certain - we are now in the endgame of this issue.

Its outcome will be of vital importance not only for the US, but for the world in general.

US legislation - however battered about by pork-barrel winds - would breathe new life into global climate negotiations. Abandonment would take most of the air that remains out of its lungs.

Either way, it's that important.

Will and equity - does climate alternative offer enough?

Richard Black | 15:32 UK time, Tuesday, 11 May 2010


No-one I know who survived the two-week incarceration in Copenhagen's Bella Center in December believes everything is tight and rosy with the UN climate process.

Copenhagen_installationThe yawning chasm between the rhetoric of "the most serious problem facing humanity" and the reality that governments are nowhere near agreeing effective remedies is as wide as that between BP's need to stem the Gulf of Mexico oil spill quickly and their confidence in being able to do so.

So even those most committed to the ideal of a new UN climate treaty are keen to hear new ideas - thoughts outside the box of the Bella Center, or indeed outside any other box, that could make a real dent in humanity's greenhouse gas emissions.

Into that scene comes The Hartwell Paper, a free-standing (and, according to its authors, free-thinking) alternative analysis not only of the prescription, but also of the malaise.

Out goes the framing of climate change as an "environmental problem" that requires a global wrapping of sack-cloth and ashes to "solve".

Out goes an initial focus on carbon dioxide; out go carbon trading, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), REDD and all the other measures that give the Kyoto Protocol and its putative successor the appearance of having been designed by Escher on acid.

In come "politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic" policies that take aim at issues relating to energy and "human dignity", but make a dent in emissions at the same time.

Meanwhile, the finance that the west is due to pay to the rest for climate damages would flow through the simple (and, some might say, long overdue) step of having industrialised countries live up to their word of providing overseas aid amounting to 0.7% of GDP.

(You can read more details in our news story, and in the article that one of the academics behind the report, Mike Hulme, has authored for our Green Room series).

Whether it's the answer that Copenhagen's lost souls are seeking is another matter.

It certainly cuts through some of the tangled bureaucracy of the UN process that has, at times, seen Kafka-esque wrangling over details such as how tall a bush must be to be considered a tree, and how closely spaced they must be to constitute a forest.

It's refreshing to hear adaptation money being called what it really is - aid. The change of nomenclature could actually lead to more money flowing, as well, because currently there is a real lack of clarity over where funds mooted at Copenhagen will come from, how they will be transferred, and even whether they have to be additional to existing aid.

But there are some holes evident in the paper too; I'll just deal with three.

Firstly, its advocacy of first chasing warming agents that may be more tractable than carbon dioxide assumes that isn't happening already; but it is.

UK methane emissions are less than half their level in 1990, because the government and industry found cutting them was cheaper and easier than tackling CO2 - and that's under domestic targets stemming from the Kyoto Protocol.

Making_a_solar_cookerEfficient wood stoves that minimise output of black carbon, and solar cookers that produce none of the stuff, are chasing CDM funding.

As one of the architects of Kyoto, Gracelia Chichilnisky, suggested recently, there's no reason why such facilities can't be installed in their millions across Africa and the poor portions of South Asia once the players involved become as skilled at tapping CDM funds as the Chinese factories that have thus far absorbed most of the money.

Short-lived, intense warming agents could certainly be tackled faster than is happening at the moment - but so could CO2 itself.

Secondly, there's no notion here that developing nations would buy into the kind of voluntary mechanisms espoused here.

The UN climate convention sets the principle that poor countries likely to be hardest hit by climate change are able to negotiate deeper carbon cuts in the wealthy world.

In brutal terms, if Tuvalu is going to disappear under the sea, it can tell the US, Japan and so on that they must cut emissions faster than they've pledged to, and have some expectation that it will be listened to.

Any analysis of Copenhagen would show this hasn't really happened.

But the ideal is there; and giving it up would finish the demolition job begun by the Copenhagen Accord, by acknowledging the end of the 20-year principle that climate change ought to be sorted out on an inclusive, equitable basis. It's not something that the Tuvalus of this world are likely to be wildly happy about

That not one of the 14 academics behind the Hartwell Paper hails from the developing world perhaps tells its own story.

However, perhaps the biggest hole in the Hartwell principles concerns the notion that western governments are going voluntarily to increase their spend on the issue - by coughing up the 0.7% of GDP in aid, and by imposing a hypothecated carbon tax that would kick-start renewable energy research and development.

For one thing, there's no guarantee this tax money would be a more effective spur to clean energy development than the combination of Kyoto-rooted incentives (including the EU's Emission Trading Scheme) and self-interest (in countries without secure access to fossil fuels) that we have at the moment.

More importantly, there's nothing to suggest governments want to introduce such a tax.

Lest we forget, a carbon tax, to be applied across the rich nations, was most definitely in the air in the run-up to the Kyoto summit of 1997.

It didn't happen - mainly because those rich nations didn't want it. Largely as a sop to the US, bureaucracy-heavy market mechanisms were introduced instead, although politics in Washington DC, Tokyo and Canberra - along with the toxic Copenhagen fallout - are currently conspiring to curtail their reach.

But, the simple question remains: if rich countries didn't want a widespread carbon tax then, what evidence is there that they want one now?

One long-time observer I spoke to took Occam's famous razor to the confused and festering corpse of global climate politics.

Failure to agree a meaningful way forward on climate change was nothing to do with the complexities of the Copenhagen architecture or any mis-framing of the issue, he said.

It was simply that big countries, especially the US, didn't have the will to make it happen.

And that, one suspects, might be enough to derail prospective global approaches rooted in the leafy, free-thinking environs of Hartwell House as well as those forged in the fetid cauldron of Copenhagen's Bella Center.

A financial trick in the familiar biodiversity tale

Richard Black | 15:08 UK time, Monday, 10 May 2010


Often when I've written about biodiversity down the years, I've been assailed by a strong sense of deja vu.

While "we're screwing up life on Earth" still sounds like big news to me, it isn't always to news editors, whose reaction is often along the lines of "but we know that".

And in truth, the deja vu feeling is justified. Although the evidence that prospects for life-forms on Earth (other than humans) are declining in several different ways gets clearer and clearer, the basic message is as it has been since well before 1992 when governments signed the UN biodiversity convention.

Hawksbill_turtle_hatchling_and_eggLet me pick out a statistoid from the UN's third and latest Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) report, launched at the Zoological Society of London on Monday.

The abundance of vertebrates - mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish - decreased by about one-third between 1970 and 2006.

Let's put it another way.

If you'd added up the numbers of mammals, fish, birds etc in the world in 1970, and done so again in 2006, one-third of them would have disappeared in between times.

Is it just me, or is that a truly staggering figure?

A couple of other things caught my eye from GBO-3.

One is that over the same time period - 1970-2006 - the Earth's human population almost doubled.

The second concerns the 21 "subsidiary targets" that governments set in 2002, alongside their headline target of significantly curbing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

The main 2010 target has been spectacularly missed
, but some of the 21 subsidiary ones have partially been met, in some regions of the world at least. They're indicated in GBO-3 by a bit of green in an otherwise red circle.

But cloaked in complete red, indicating complete failure, are the two that are most fundamental when it comes to preserving the extent to which human lives depend on what nature supplies :

Reducing unsustainable consumption of biological resources, or that impacts upon biodiversity


Maintaining the capacity of ecosystems to deliver biological resources that support sustainable livelihoods, local food security and health care

There are, of course, significant problems in trying to track trends precisely across a world in which the capacity to observe rigorously is not uniformly distributed, and where reliable documentation gets swiftly less global and less plentiful as you go back in time.

Nevertheless, there are few signs even in the most expertly documented countries that ecosystems are returning to full health.

The big white hope of the biodiversity world is, as those of you who follow this stuff regularly will know, the idea of quantifying the economic benefits that nature brings, and then persuading people and governments and businesses that these economic benefits make preservation of said ecosystems a wise policy option.

Oriental_stork_nestingWe'll have a lot more detail on this coming later in the year, but in the meantime I wanted to offer you a couple of snapshots that were offered to me at the GBO-3 launch.

First, a feathered tale from Japan. In the 1970s, Oriental storks left the country; modern rice farming methods, including pesticide use, concrete irrigation canals and keeping paddy fields under water for shorter length of time had reduced their chances of finding prey so much that they couldn't survive.

The global population of this spectacular but endangered species, by the way, is less than 3,000.

In 2003, authorities in Toyooka City, in the south of the main island of Honshu, established incentives for farmers to adopt more traditional farming methods with a strong organic component.

The results: yields are down, but the rice sells for a higher price. The storks are back, and visitors are flocking to see them.

These two factors combined have increased municipal income by more than 1%.

This win-win outcome is in microcosm what the UN Environment Programme (Unep) hopes to achieve across the world by stimulating awareness of biodiversity's economic value.

But are governments interested - those same governments that have so signally failed to meet the 2010 target?

According to Nick Nuttall, the Unep spokesman at the GBO-3 launch in London, 30 developing country governments have recently approached Unep asking for advice on how to "green" their economies and live within nature's boundaries.

That sounds like a new twist on the old story to me.

Whether it's enough to prevent a further 30% drop in the abundance of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, with the human population set to increase as much between now and 2050 as it did between 1970 and 2006, is another matter.

Deep reflections on the ozone story

Richard Black | 18:54 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010


BAS Halley baseThere'll be a party in the chemistry labs at Cambridge University this Friday.

But no-one will turn up with hugely coiffured hair, the champagne will be served warm, and if a fire should break out, there'll be nothing to use on it but old-fashioned water, CO2 and sand.

Well... that's how life might have turned out if industrial chemists had not come up with easy replacements for the ozone-destroying chemicals such as CFCs that a few decades ago were threatening to denude the Earth of its protective stratospheric ozone layer.

They did find alternatives, and the Montreal Protocol mandated their use; as a consequence, the ozone layer's long-term future is more or less assured, and we can carry on using similar products powered by different chemicals.

The party - well, this being science there will be some serious chat amid the frolics - marks the 25th anniversary of the Nature paper that confirmed the existence of an "ozone hole" over the Antarctic.

The ozone layer isn't completely healed yet, despite the swift switch away from CFCs and their fellows that occurred in the years following the Nature paper.

With ozone destruction abetted by lower stratospheric temperatures (a corollary of tropospheric warming), projections now suggest it could be 2080 before springtime concentrations have risen to pre-CFC-era levels.

Balloon measurements at HalleyOne of the three scientists whose measurements confirmed the ozone depletion, Jonathan Shanklin, has an article in this week's Nature in which he reflects on the discovery itself (made with Joe Farman and Brian Gardiner) and mulls over what the ozone story has to say about other environmental issues that are nowhere near as "solved".

"My perspective is that luck played its part, as in many other scientific discoveries.
"The story provides an example of how to capitalise on good luck in science - researchers should be reminded to question their preconceptions, for example to ensure that people don't see only what they are looking for".

The "luck" came in several forms. One was the location of the British Antarctic Survey's Halley research base on the Antarctic Peninsula, which proved - serendipitously - to be a good place from which to see the "ozone hole", which was often offset to that part of the continent.

Another was the fact that as someone without meteorological training, Shanklin was not affected by preconceptions of how and where ozone destruction "ought" be happening - he just called the numbers as he found them.

However, it was the more generalised closing reflections in Dr Shanklin's article that really caught my eye:

"Perhaps the most startling lesson from the ozone hole is just how quickly our planet can change.
"Given the speed with which humankind can affect it, following the precautionary principle is likely to be the safest road to future prosperity.
"Although the focus is on climate change at present, the root cause of all of our environmental issues - a human population that overburdens the planet - is growing.
"Future historians may note that although humanity solved one unexpected environmental problem, it bequeathed many more through its failure to take a holistic approach to the environment."

Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan ShanklinI called Dr Shanklin to talk through the ideas a little more.

As other observers have previously noted, there were several factors that made the ozone problem relatively tractable.

The science was clear-cut, he told me - the observations from ground and space brooking little dissent.

There was public pressure because of fears of skin cancer. Industry was therefore keen to seek a solution; and industry found that chemical alternatives were available at insignificant extra cost.

But other, more complex, issues do not feature the same mix of tractable features:

"With climate change, to those working in the field, the issues are pretty clear-cut, but if you're not an expert it's harder to understand competing views; and there's a very vocal group that says the science is wrong, it's all down to natural cycles.
"The timescale is rather different because you're talking about decades before you notice a change. And the other thing is that it sounds rather nice - 'greenhouse warming' - and it will need massive changes in lifestyle to effect a cure."

But climate change he sees as just one manifestation of the fundamental canker beneath:

"There's increasing loss of biodiversity, many areas have water shortages; there's a whole range of things, and they all point in the same direction: as the human population, we're using up the resources of our planet at an unsustainable rate."

In principle, he argues, every citizen of the Earth should have roughly equal opportunities to benefit from its resources.

Achieving that end while living as a species within sustainable limits would, though, imply vast cuts in Western consumption - and perhaps, he says, this is where the West should be heading.

But consumption cuts, and curbs on population growth, can only be achieved through consensus:

"How to get from here to there is a question for the economists, and there'll be a Nobel Prize for anyone who comes up with something than everyone can sign up to."

There's a limit, then, to what the short history of ozone layer depletion can tell us about the world's deepest conundrums.

But it was a real threat - an industrial advance that brought real, swift and measurable damage to one of the biosphere's key ingredients - and it has been brought under control with a huge degree of consensus between activists and industry, and between rich and poor.

As a result, the champagne can be safely refrigerated for Friday's party; and if anyone's seriously considering spraying up a huge beehive, only aesthetic barriers stand in their way.

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