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Archives for June 2010

Petrolheads steer for green track

Richard Black | 16:40 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Comments (208)

I know some regular readers have me pegged as a bleeding heart liberal who's racked with pangs of self-hatred if I should so much as cycle over a worm or eat anything more technological than home-knitted organic muesli; so it may come as a shock that I really enjoy the high-octane buzz and top-end thrills of motor racing.

Yes, I know - the huge carbon footprint, the high-consumption lifestyles of the rich and famous, the gender division apparent in the way the drivers walk through an avenue of scantily-clad beauties on their way back from slaying a buffalo for dinner - sorry, winning a race - the blatant product placement, the publicity-hungry hangers-on...

But think instead of the skill involved in putting your car six inches from a concrete wall at 200km/hr, the quick-wittedness of the passing, the sheer technological exuberance of the chariots... well, it works for me.

McLaren_car_in_Grand_PrixIt clearly works also for people with real expertise in design and engineering. No surprise there; what would you rather work on - a Ferrari Formula One car or a Renault Clio?

One insider told me that if you want a technical job in F1, don't even bother applying unless you've got a top-line PhD as a minimum.

And that's what's intriguing, I think, about the "green" progress that Formula One has just unveiled, and the package of technological advances it's working on.

The goal that teams are probably going to settle on is this: to virtually double fuel efficiency of their cars between 2013 and 2018, with no loss of performance.

Out will go the 2.4-litre normally-aspirated V8 engines of current design. In will come something more akin on paper to what you'd find in the average family car these days - maybe 1.5-litre, turbocharged, in either a straight-4-cylinder or V6 configuration.

Fuel consumption would be cut from about 160kg per race to about 80kg. Yet they'd still accelerate from 0 to 100 in a flash and top 300km/hr.

The word is that the engine manufacturers - Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari and Cosworth - think this is do-able.

Ladies_watching_GPIf they're right, the big question is what it means for ordinary vehicles, from luxury liners of the road to carbon-fibre three-wheelers, from juggernauts to motorised rickshaws.

Lawmakers in the EU, US and elsewhere are mandating improved energy efficiency standards for vehicles. But the auto industry hasn't always lived up to promises in the past - and where is it going to get its ideas from, in any case, for leaner cars that we still want to drive?

I don't want to get carried away here, but what you have with the F1 brains trust is a kind of mini-Manhattan Project for auto engines. Set a demanding goal, provide a major pot of money and point enough brainy people in the right direction, and you stand a good chance of making it work - that's the theory, anyway.

It might seem a less purist approach to cutting carbon emissions than signing a global treaty on the subject, but that doesn't mean it won't bring in real savings - and even if you're not in the anthropogenic climate change camp, you might still appreciate the idea for the delay it will would bring to the onset of peak oil.

My colleague Andrew Benson who covers F1 for his day job has written more on this, so do read his thoughts if you're interested.

A petrolhead and a woolly tree-hugger writing the same kind of story - who'da thunk it?

Whaling commission: What's missing?

Richard Black | 16:31 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


En route from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

So the whales have been put to bed for another year; and at Agadir airport, amid all the tanned Europeans making their way back from their beach holidays (well, lobster-red in the case of Brits, obviously) I'm thinking about all the issues that didn't get solved this time.

Whale protestOne of the issues that concerns conservationists most about the IWC is where its competence ends.

For most of the time, its discussions concern just 12 species from the global total of about 90 cetaceans.

(I deliberately leave the number vague because there are always changes of mind about what's a separate species and what isn't, especially in the case of the beaked whales, the most enigmatic branch of the order.)

So it doesn't have a remit, for example, to regulate or even cast much of eye over the Dall's porpoise hunt off the Japanese coast, which accounts for about 15,000 animals each year, with perhaps a further 5,000 taken as bycatch in fishing nets.

Two years ago, the IWC's scientific committee recommended [300KB PDF] that the take be reduced to levels it considered sustainable, and asked for more research on quantifying the population size. But it is unable to mandate either.

The same is true of hunting for species such as beluga, narwhal, pilot whale, and Baird's beaked whale that variously takes place around the Arctic, in Japanese waters, and the Caribbean.

From the standpoint of ecology and conservation, this is absolutely illogical. Small cetaceans are just as capable of being rendered extinct through hunting as big ones, and often inhabit the same ecosystems.

It's also illogical from a territorial point of view. These hunts take place within national waters; but so does most hunting for minke whales, bowheads, humpbacks, gray whales and other species that are under the IWC's explicit aegis.

It stems from history; from the fact that at its inception the IWC was a forum of whale-hunting nations - with Norway and the UK in the vanguard at that particular point - with a remit to conserve commercially important species so there was something to hunt.

Is that appropriate now?

VaquitaMany would say not - and that if they were coming at the issue afresh, governments would either establish a body that encompassed all cetaceans, or one that acted on the high seas only - or (a favoured option of some within the hunting nations) a series of regional organisations analogous to Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) such as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission.

How much these bodies would be geared towards pure conservation and how much management of hunting they would do depends, of course, on your vision of cetaceans.

As it is, species such as the Dall's porpoise are left without any effective international management.

The same is true, more starkly, of the smallest cetaceans living in rivers or in coastal zones.

The baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, is almost certainly extinct, as we've discussed before on these pages; the IWC's scientific committee report from Agadir [1.7MB PDF] notes that only about 250 vaquita remain, while the Mekong River population of Irrawaddy dolphin numbers less than 100.

But noting the problem and making recommendations are not the same as mandating a solution.

Moves are afoot in certain areas.

One outcome of IWC62 will be a workshop on oil and gas exploration - prompted by the ongoing problems of gray whales around Sakhalin, by long-term concerns about oil exploitation in the Arctic feeding grounds, and more immediately by the Gulf of Mexico oil leak crisis.

Work goes on towards ensuring the whale-watching industry uses approaches that do not disturb the animals being watched, and on evaluating the risks that climate change might pose, for example by reducing the extent of polar sea ice.

The IWC's scientific committee is probably the world's most concentrated gathering of expertise on the issue; and despite the political games that go on when, for example, Japan's scientific whaling programmes is discussed, there's a mass of work centred there that could prove vitally important for whales and their smaller relatives in the future.

But overwhelmingly, the feeling is that its potential is constrained by the politicised wrangling over hunting - as is the potential of the commission itself to turn the committee's recommendations into reality.

The overall conservation picture regarding cetaceans is painted: but the capacity to do anything more than observe the painting and move on is small indeed.

Food for thought from Japan's accused

Richard Black | 08:27 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010


From the International Whaling Commission annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

One of the people I wasn't expecting to see here was Junichi Sato, whaling campaigner for Greenpeace in Japan.

He's one of the activists facing jail time for taking whalemeat from a warehouse back in 2008 - an action intended to draw attention to issues within Japan's Antarctic whaling programme.

Evidence in the case has now been heard, and the judgement is expected in September.

Mr Sato and his fellow activist Toru Suzuki are looking at a possible penalty of 18 months in jail if convicted, which they expect to be.

Junichi SatoThe reason I was surprised to see him here is that at various times since the whalemeat "liberation" two years ago he's been prevented from travelling, or speaking to the press or even to Mr Suzuki.

If the fact that his bail conditions permitted travel, I was even more surprised (and pleased) that he's now allowed to talk to the press.

And after IWC member governments rejected the notion of a potential compromise agreement that would have cut the scale of Japan's Antarctic hunt, I was interested to get his take on events, his reflections on anti-whaling campaigns, and his projections for the future.

So we had lunch.

For someone who believes he's about to go to jail, he came across as relaxed and content in himself. After two years of suspense, he confirmed, the court verdict will at least get some certainty back in his life, whatever it is.

I've wondered whether in retrospect he might see the whalemeat removal as something of an own goal.

Coverage of the incident in Western countries endorsed the Greenpeace conclusions that here was clear evidence of wrong-doing in the government agencies that run whaling, and showed that whalemeat was in such oversupply that it had to be given away free to crewmembers and officials.

But in Japan it played rather differently. The activists were largely painted as common criminals; and the investigation that they were told would begin into the whaling agencies never materialised.

Greenpeace Japan lost about a thousand members as a result - roughly one-sixth of its membership.

But, he said - not many regrets. A better understanding of international treaties and agreements on human rights law might have enabled him to tell his story better; but as to the taking of the meat, it was vital to exposing the wrong-doing, he said.

The big news here - the failure of governments to reach a compromise - he views as a missed opportunity to take Japanese whalers out of the Southern Ocean.

Japan was prepared to reduce the scale of its Antarctic hunt to 200 minke whales per year.

Whaling factory shipOfficials from governments at the heart of negotiations have told me they thought Japan would have gone lower still, had it had the right signals from the EU, Australia and the Latin American bloc.

These countries had wanted the promise of a complete phase-out. But there is a view that going down to, say, 150 per year is effectively the same thing, as sending a fleet to the Antarctic for that few minke whales is simply not economic.

Mr Sato endorsed this view; Japan accepting less than 200, which could have been secured, would effectively have been promising a phase-out, he said.

If this is something of a rebuke for countries and environment groups that opposed the notion of a deal, his criticism of the Antarctic whaling programme itself is undiminished.

Any pretence that it's really conducted for scientific research is fatally holed, he said, by the fact that Japan was prepared to downscale the size of the hunt so drastically; if you really needed 850 for research, you'd stick with 850.

On the campaigning front, I reminded Mr Sato of a news conference he'd held back in 2007 at the IWC meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

At that time, Greenpeace still mounted annual expeditions to the Southern Ocean to obstruct the Japanese hunt.

Some Japanese academics had begun to say that the annual confrontations on the high seas were counterproductive, and that anti-whaling organisations would be better off stopping.

At the time, Mr Sato didn't accept that thesis. Now, he does - and indeed, Greenpeace isn't sending ships to the Antarctic any more.

The organisation's goal is unchanged - an end to Japanese whaling, certainly in the Antarctic. But it feels it can achieve more now by campaigning with words - by attacking the finances of the hunt, pointing up the reputational damage that Japan suffers as a result of the hunt, and so on.

Greenpeace Japan is a tiny organisation, and one of only a handful campaigning against whaling in the country. Therefore, the bulk of activism on the issue, the bulk of the pressure, comes from the outside world.

But does the outside world including the activist community understand enough about Japanese society, I wondered, in order to apply that pressure effectively - in order to find the right places and the right times to push, and the right occasions for restraint?

Mr Sato's answer - and this should perhaps be salutary for many of the campaign groups here that declaim long, loud and often about what Japan ought and ought not to do - is no, they don't.

We discussed two ways in which that manifests itself. One is that change can be wrought much more slowly than in the West; impatience is unlikely, therefore, to bring rewards.

The second, though, is that over the years, Japanese society and indeed the Japanese government has changed and is changing - as witnessed by the emergence of academics such as Jun Morikawa, whose recent book I discussed in a previous post, who are prepared openly to challenge the justifications put forward by the Japanese government for whaling.

This isn't the 1970s, Mr Sato acknowledged; and campaigners who want to effect change in Japan should not see things in the same terms as in that era.

Lunches come to an end, and so do blog posts: and so, soon, may liberty end temporarily for Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki.

I hope our conversation provides readers as much food for thought as it did for me.

Whale deal falls: but who wins?

Richard Black | 19:16 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010


From the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

It had always seemed unlikely that a bridge could be built across this particular stretch of troubled water and so it has transpired.

In the end, after two years of formal talks and almost 30 private sessions crammed into the opening two days here, governments proved unable or unwilling to leap across the divide between those that see whales as a natural living resource to be harvested sustainably and those that see them as special, intelligent creatures that should be completely protected from harpooning.

Whaling_boatThe main stumbling block was what happened to Japan's annual whaling programme in the Antarctic, which is conducted under regulations permitting the catching of whales for scientific research in what has been declared a whale sanctuary.

Those two features of the programme illustrate perfectly why it's the undisputed bete noire of the conservation movement and the primary target of anti-whaling governments.

Yet as things stand, they're powerless to stop it; Japan says the sanctuary itself has no scientific validity, and that scientific whaling is perfectly legal.

Many activists are very excited by Australia's forthcoming legal challenge in the International Court of Justice, but lawyers I've spoken to are not, believing it has little chance of success and will in any case take about seven years to follow through.

The inability to enforce their will is the main reason why anti-whaling governments came to the negotiating table.

Japan was prepared to curtail the hunt from its current annual maximum quota of 935 minke whales and 50 fins down to a few hundred minkes - perhaps 200 in 10 years' time - and to five fins, which many believed could easily be negotiated away.

But accepting that Japan could indulge in an annual Antarctic hunt of several hundred whales proved too much for anti-whaling governments to stomach. With Japan unwilling to go further, the deal was dead.

There were other points of contention as well, but that was the big one.

Children_and_whaleWhat no-one knows is where we go from here. People are talking about a "cooling-off period" while governments decide what to do - but, to all intents and purposes, the "peace process" appears fatally harpooned.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former New Zealand prime minister who has played a leading role in the diplomatic dance, will move on to other matters; Chilean IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira - another experienced diplomat - may not be permitted to remain in post, as his government frets about its image on the issue. The US is unlikely to remain as deeply in the game.

Without their leadership, there is no process.

Reactions from environmental activists have been mixed, and sometimes emotional. I was told of a heartfelt exchange between two former Greenpeace activists. One applauded the outcome. He thinks Australia will win its court case against Japan, and then impose trade sanctions that will force a stop to whaling.

The other counted the difference between the number of whales that Japan will now target each year in the Antarctic - a maximum of 935 minkes per year - and the number it might have been prepared to come down to in the event of compromise, probably around 300 per year averaged over the decade.

Fin_whaleOver the 10-year period, that's potentially more than 6,000 extra minke whales killed.

Originally, Japan intended to target 50 humpback whales per year as well. It suspended that element of the programme while the compromise talks demonstrated progress. It's not adding them back in yet, officials told me; but it's a strong possibility for the future.

Those are the conservation costs potentially borne through the death of this process.

Groups that opposed a deal, though, believe that other factors - declining demand, rising costs, international pressure, direct action - will bring an end to Japan's whaling well before those costs materialise. For them, the element of legitimising whaling that was implicit in the deal would have prolonged Japan's programme beyond its natural life.

And the principle of the moratorium remains intact: whaling is not endorsed by the global community, and other countries that might have contemplated starting, such as South Korea, do not have that point of principle on which to stand.

So is the collapse of this process a victory or a defeat for the conservation movement?

Here, you'll find people prepared to tell you both stories and draughts to the different visions of defeat and victory will doubtless be drunk long and loudly in the bars of Agadir.

Whaling: Interested parties

Richard Black | 16:13 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


From the International Whaling Commission meeting in Agadir, Morocco:

Whenever governments come together to discuss issues such as whaling, climate change, international trade or whatever, you might be tempted to think that the priority would be the common good.

Whale tailYou might assume, for example, that when fish stocks are under threat, all governments involved in the issue would start from the standpoint that they all have to do what's necessary in order to preserve those stocks for the common interest of future generations.

The assumption would be completely wrong.

National interests are what predominate - as demonstrated most recently in the environment arena at the Copenhagen climate summit and again at the CITES meeting in Doha - and sometimes a fairly narrow reading of the national interest.

Here in Agadir, as delegates debate in their private sessions an issue of huge significance to many people around the world, national politics are again at work - and could help determine the outcome of the talks on the proposed "compromise deal" in ways you might never have predicted, and that sometimes have little to do with whaling itself.

Take the US, which has been in the vanguard of anti-whaling nations attempting to build a compromise deal with Japan.

Now, the Obama administration is coming under fire from environmental groups and indeed ordinary citizens over its handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, and to a lesser extent over its actions on climate change.

Finalising a deal here could well bring more opprobrium from the green lobby, on the grounds that it has "sold out" whales.

Conversations have been had within the administration, consequently, on whether it should curb its apparent enthusiasm for a compromise and instead pursue a more purist line - not because that would be the right thing to do, but because it would suit the immediate political interest.

There hasn't been a complete change of tack, but there are nuances, with its opening statement here set to vow that "First and foremost, the United States continues to support the commercial whaling moratorium."

However, the long-time US priority for the IWC is to secure subsistence whaling quotas for the indigenous Inupiat of Alaska.

So its draft statement would justify its desire to move on from the status quo by saying: "We believe it is fundamentally unfair that indigenous whaling be the only whaling regulated by the Commission".

Subsistence quotas are usually reviewed every five years. The draft compromise document [353KB PDF] would enshrine them for 10 years - which, you have to think, is one of the "many positive elements" that the US notes in the draft package.

Australia, meanwhile, is emerging as the most hawkish of the anti-deal countries.

Undoubtedly that stems in part from genuine abhorrence: yet could it also be influenced by the fact that there's an election coming, that whaling and climate change are both very much live issues, and that polls show the government is taking a real pasting from the electorate over its recent climb-down on climate change?

Could that help explain why it lodged its action against Japanese whaling in the International Court of Justice while still engaged in the small-group discussions on a compromise that conclude here?

One notable absentee is the Chilean chairman of the IWC, Cristian Maquieira.

Officially, he's absent for health reasons.

But the talk among Latin American delegates is of a "diplomatic illness", with Chile's government concerned that strident criticism of the notion of a deal from environmental groups is damaging the country's reputation and so preventing Mr Maquieira from attending.

If that's correct, the absence of his considerable diplomatic experience is judged by Chile to be in its national interest, whatever it means for the talks.

On the other side of the coin, Iceland has emerged as the most hawkish of the whaling nations.

Its single fin whaling company, Hvalur hf, wants to build an export trade to Japan. In times of economic hardship and rising unemployment, it argues that whaling can make an economic contribution that's small from a global perspective, but significant locally.

The owner of Hvalur hf, Kristjan Loftsson, also has interests in the fishing industry and believes that if Iceland joins the EU, as the government wants, application of the EU's much-derided Common Fisheries Policy will seriously damage the local (and fairly well-managed) industry.

For all these reasons, Iceland will not accept a clause in the proposed deal that would mandate local consumption only for whalemeat. In fact, Mr Loftsson suggests such a clause might be in breach of WTO rules.

Whatever happens here, his whaling boats are set to sail again soon - perhaps as soon as next week.

And what of the EU? Here, there's an added complication, because while some government officials would be pushing primarily for acceptance or rejection of a deal, the priority for others would be to ensure adherence to a common EU position in the interest of displaying unity across the bloc.

The big unknown is what the Japanese government considers to be in its national interest: continuing with the principle that high-seas scientific whaling is legitimate, or deciding that it's not, that securing internationally-sanctioned quotas for its coastal whaling communities is more important politically, and that here is the best opportunity it's likely to have for many years to make a graceful exit from the Southern Ocean?

What part will economic hard times play in that decision, or reputation damage from the recent publication of evidence on Japan's funding of IWC allies?

How that coin comes down is the single biggest factor in determining whether compromise can be achieved here.

But it isn't the only one. Some of the other national interests are arousing concern around the negotiating table; and as New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully put it, a break-up must therefore be considered more likely than a breakthrough.

Celebrities draw blood on whaling

Richard Black | 15:10 UK time, Friday, 18 June 2010


Celebrities are joining the "fight against whaling" this week in rarely-seen numbers.

In a video produced by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), model Alice Dellal daubs and spatters a wall and herself with what I presume is intended to pass for whale blood, while intervening shots show us butchered bits of cetacean.

Christopher_EcclestonMeanwhile, former Dr Who actor Christopher Eccleston warns us that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is about to embark on a meeting that could see the lifting of the 24-year-old commercial hunting moratorium.

"Don't let them," he enjoins - seeking to "be the change" without the aid of a sonic screwdriver.

A major rock star is about to lend his voice to the cause, I'm told; and you can listen to Pierce Brosnan's fulminations against Japan any time.

Whenever celebs are involved in an environmental issue, I can't help wondering how much of the story they've been told, and to what degree of complexity they have grasped the political realities.

Taking Ms Dellal and Mr Eccleston's certainties at face value, it appears unthinkable that anyone who is anti-whaling could view the reforms on the table at next week's IWC meeting in Morocco as a positive development.

Yet many of the activists who have been with the issue for the longest time - including some veterans of early Greenpeace forays - are urging now that whale peace be given a chance.

Let's be clear about the choice facing the anti-whaling movement, and facing countries that abhor the industry.

It is either to condemn and fight and declaim for what they all really want - a total end to whaling - or to accept that that is not for the moment realisable (they have after all been trying for decades) and to work for something that is markedly better than the current situation.

I outlined in April the elements of the 10-year reform package that now now lies before IWC delegations, which is being debated now in preliminary meetings in Agadir ahead of Monday's formal opening.

Three of the groups prepared to countenance a deal - Greenpeace, Pew and WWF - set out their six "bottom lines" in a press call during the week:

•An end to hunting in the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary
• Domestic use only for whalemeat - no international trade
IWC science must be used to set quotas
• No hunting of threatened species
• An end to use of the scientific whaling regulation
•If there is a consensus, all governments must agree not to lodge an objection (as IWC rules allow)

Whaling fleetHere's Pew's Sue Lieberman:

"A number of NGOs are looking at the current proposal from the chair and saying they don't like stuff in it.
"What we're saying is it can be made good. If we leave Agadir with no decision or no progress - that is not victory."

I gather that a number of anti-whaling countries are also setting "bottom lines" that are very close to the Pew/Greenpeace/WWF position.

I'm told that a modified package is likely to emerge by Monday morning that is closer to their lines of thinking.

If so, what are its chances of adoption?

The plan's backers - principally the US - are clearly hoping for consensus.

That appears to be an unlikely prospect. If anyone's clever enough to construct a form of words that could simultaneously please Australia at one extreme and Iceland at the other, they should immediately be put to work solving world hunger and nuclear proliferation.

So we're into the politics of voting blocs.

The EU commands more than a quarter of the votes, so its position is critical.

In principal, EU states are supposed to agree a common position on all environmental issues and to vote en masse.

But must that be done by consensus, with the inability to reach a consensus implying the need for a mass abstention?

Or can it be done by majority?

Or is there a third possibility - that countries can vote individually, according to their own consciences - as the UK did at the recent CITES meeting in defiance of the common position (a vote that has brought no recriminations from the European Commission)?

ProtestSoundings I've taken indicate they are close to agreeing a common position.

But it's entirely likely that negotiations during the week will throw up subtly different options for compromise, which some EU nations may find acceptable and others not; we'll see whether the bloc is nimble enough to respond on the hoof and maintain its co-ordination in what's likely to be a highly pressured environment.

Australia and the Latin American countries appear to be setting a higher bar for approving the deal than other anti-whaling nations such as the US and New Zealand.

South Korea, meanwhile, may vote against anything that doesn't give it similar whaling rights to Japan, while the positions of nations such as China and Russia are hard to gauge.

In short: all is to play for.

And the mechanics of the process received a late twist when it emerged during the week that the Chilean IWC chairman Cristian Maquieira, who outlined his case for trying to agree a deal in our Green Room series last week, will not be making the trip to Agadir - officially for health reasons, though some are voicing suspicions that his government vetoed his continued involvement because of the political opprobrium it was bringing.

For the vast majority of people stuck outside the circle of the IWC's immediate politics, the picture can appear hazy.

For example: the reform package can be viewed as a lifting of the 1986 commercial whaling moratorium. Yet given that Iceland and Norway are for historical reasons allowed to hunt commercially now, it could also reduce the number of whales being commercially killed each year. Confused?

Scientific whaling would end around Japan's coasts. But it would catch roughly the same number of whales, maybe more; but the hunting would have a different label, prompting some to ask: what's the point?

I'll be there during the week and endeavouring to clear the fog and make sense of it for you.

Any questions that you have, please post, and I'll do my best to answer them.

In the meantime: anyone prepared to tell Chris and Alice that it's not quite as simple as they're painting it?

UPDATE: I've posted some details of the EU's agreed position at comment 60 below.

Oil spill muddies green political waters

Richard Black | 15:41 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010


Brown pelicanSince it first emerged that the disaster on the Deepwater Horizons oil rig would produce an oil tide of serious proportions, prescriptions for the future from people concerned about it has fallen into two main camps:

• those who see it as a wake-up call on the need for the US to adopt a serious clean energy plan majoring on efficiency gains and renewables

• and those who see it as a technical issue of limited implications, implying only the need for better technology and better regulation in the oil exploration business.

With his address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night, President Obama has placed himself firmly in the radical camp.

"For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.
"Time and again, the path forward has been blocked - not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candour.
"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1bn of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf [of Mexico], we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude."

Barack ObamaThis is powerful stuff - a complete and utter shift of tone and emphasis from the eight years of George W Bush's administration, and more damning of "big oil" than during the eight preceding years under Bill Clinton.

Mr Obama is making exactly the connections that many in the green movement have been urging him to make for months, since it first became evident that climate and energy legislation might struggle to pass the Senate, well before the Gulf oil leak began.

The US consumes about one fifth of the world's oil, and logically must choose from three options:

• continue to buy oil from overseas, including from countries that the US regards as essentially hostile

• explore for more oil at home

• reduce consumption, through frugality and/or alternative fuels.

The problems of the first option are being flagged up louder than ever before, not least by some sections of the military and by veterans' groups such as Operation Free, with their contention that paying for foreign oil puts American troops and American citizens in danger.

The problems of the second are now being shown dramatically along the Gulf of Mexico's shores.

But implementing the third way is not entirely hurdle-free.

The first problem is that there's no easy substitute for oil. You can replace coal-fired power stations with natural gas plants or nuclear reactors or wind turbines; but replacing the oil that provides the petrol on the service station forecourts is a different question.

Electric cars, biofuels, even hydrogen may all have a role to play. But they all carry a substantial amount of baggage too; and the most radical - electric vehicles - implies a massive amount of infrastructural change, more than can be accomplished in a single US presidency.

The second problem is that if you wanted to make this huge infrastructural switch, you would have to put in place all the fiscal carrots and sticks, and all the regulation, to make it happen; similarly with any large-scale switch to city living based on public transport.

Some of this is expensive; and companies are not going to make "green" investment decisions whose effects will play out on a scale of decades without some certainty about the longevity of the "pro-green-tech" political climate.

New York trafficMore pertinently, political opponents can easily make it sound expensive - despite the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that prospective legislation would cost Americans about the price of a postage stamp each day.

Which brings us to the third issue: the Senate, which remains apparently unconvinced of the need for a wholesale switch of the kind Mr Obama is advocating.

Quite what their vision is - whether they endorse options one and two above, or just plan to hope for the best - isn't entirely clear; neither is the question of whether they actually have a coherent collective vision.

We've had the Kerry-Boxer bill, then we had the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill - now there's a third version on the table from by Senator Richard Lugar, who proposes scrapping any notion of cap-and-trade legislation and using conservation measures instead to reduce fuel consumption.

With each of these iterations, prospective Senate legislation moves further and further away from the bill passed by the House of Representatives last year, implying progressively more difficult politics to reconcile the two.

It's ironic, also, that the pro-coastal-drilling measures implanted into the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham version largely as a sop to the oil industry must now look to much of the US like a dark stain on the nation's shoreline.

The president might have embraced the oil-spill-means-clean-energy agenda much as his green advisers have been recommending; but without something coherent from Congress, there's a limit to how far he can turn the vision into reality.

And there's another highly cogent issue. His handling of the immediate crisis hasn't exactly gained plaudits everywhere; in fact, as the Huffington Post spells out in a round-up of reaction to that portion of his speech, many observers are apparently pretty dismayed.

If this damages the presidency, it also damages political initiatives close to the presidency - such as clean energy and climate legislation, making it easier for opponents to delay, obfuscate and reject.

Revealingly, on the sidelines of the UN climate talks last week, US analysts were openly discussing the possibility that nothing in this area would pass the Senate before the end of 2013.

Rather than clarifying things, what the president described as "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced" may in fact turn the political waters murkier than ever.

Valuing nature, doing what with the numbers?

Richard Black | 15:58 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


African wild dogLast week's decision to set up a global organisation to provide governments with advice on biodiversity wasn't entirely unexpected, but wasn't a shoo-in either.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IBPES) will be loosely modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - presumably taking into account of whatever recommendations the ongoing review of IPCC practices come up with.

It's been a long time coming - five years, in fact, since publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), the pioneering attempt to catalogue the health of the biosphere from the equator to the poles.

MEA flagged up in as much detail as could be mustered that "human activities threaten the Earth's ability to sustain future generations", as my colleague Jonathan Amos summarised things back in 2005.

It also flagged up the fact that with six and a half billion people on the planet, pushing to something around nine billion in just 40 years' time, the state of the biosphere was a moving target that would need to be monitored closely - not least for signs that its declining health was threatening human wellbeing.

The former French President Jacques Chirac helped push things forward shortly afterwards; and the impetus given by him and others has now proven sufficient to overcome the objections of those countries that felt biodiversity loss to be overwhelmingly a national rather than a global issue.

Following last week's deliberations in South Korea, the organisation should be in play by the end of the year.

For advice on how the IPBES should function and what lessons should be learned from the IPCC, last week's meeting would have had to look no further than its vice-chair Bob Watson, the former IPCC chief dethroned in 2002 by the US in favour of the current incumbent, Rajendra Pachauri, whom the administration of George W Bush and its supporters in the US oil industry considered less alarmist and more tractable.

Jacques ChiracDr Watson - currently a senior UK government advisor, among other things - will find himself on the other side of the planet this week, in Montreal.

There he will be one of four "witnesses" testifying on Tuesday to the IPCC review, which as regular readers will know is conducted under the auspices of the InterAcademy Council.

(This is the review's second public session, following the opening in Amsterdam last month.)

Joining Dr Watson on the witness stand will be:

All four have inside knowledge of the IPCC; and it seems reasonable, on the basis of what they've said previously in public, to assume that none will unequivocally endorse everything about the organisation.

Bob Watson and Chris Field, for example, had words to say in the UK's Sunday Times some weeks ago about possible errors in the IPCC's 2007 assessment.

John Christy described on this website several years ago what he saw as the politicisation of the panel's scientific pronouncements, and has more recently espoused the notions of removing the panel from the UN system and transforming its publications into some sort of wiki operation, with the current state of knowledge or ignorance being constantly discussed and updated.

As noted here previously, the review is also seeking submissions from anyone who cares to write in; and although I don't have an exact number for those submissions, I'm told that the flow has been quite impressive.

Climate sculpture(Both Roger Pielkes - senior and junior - have posted some comments.)

Whatever emerges from this review in October should, in principle, strengthen the IPCC and increase the credibility of its reports.

But while governments are addressing this issue, they might like to debate another: conclusions that the IPCC produces, or that the IPBES will produce, are in a practical sense useless unless they result in political decisions commensurate with those conclusions.

After all, one can only assume that governments want to set up such institutions if they intend to be guided by their analyses - otherwise (to put it crudely), they're establishing a mechanism that can tell them how far they are up the creek without ever intending to paddle out.

In that light, it was salutary once again to find the UN climate convention negotiations last week still riven through with ideological and procedural wrangling that threatens to prevent any meaningful progress in the foreseeable future.

Back at the Nairobi summit in 2006, the talk was all of having a new international legal instrument tied up by 2009, so companies and investors could survey the lower-carbon field on which they would be playing after the current Kyoto Protocol targets expire in 2012, and make sensible decisions.

That was back when a genuinely global carbon market, acting on a meaningful carbon price set by tough emission caps, seemed something that might actually happen.

Now, a rather different question is being asked: will anything at all be in place by 2012, other than the nationally determined and in all meaningful senses voluntary targets inscribed on the Copenhagen Accord?

One wonders whether at the IPBES meeting in South Korea last week, a parallel question materialised: once we've told governments how bad the biodiversity situation is, what's the basis for believing they'll do anything about it?

Climate talks eye level playing field

Richard Black | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 11 June 2010


From the UN climate talks in Bonn:

On the final day of this two-week session, a new text [304KB PDF] emerges - which is likely to form the basis of the most difficult negotiations between now and the end of this year's UN climate summit, in Cancun, Mexico, in December.

If you want the official title, it falls within the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long-term Co-operative Action under the Convention.

The shorter version is that's it got most of the fundamental and hard stuff in it - what the ultimate goal of any agreement should be, whether rich nations should be subject to an overall cap on their emissions, how the $100bn per year by 2020 pledged by the rich for the poor will be raised and distributed - and so on.

Climate_football_matchEarly reactions from delegates suggest that chair of this particular working group, Zimbabwe's Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe, has done a pretty good job in steering between the various minefields strewn across this process.

In particular, she's avoided explicit references to the Copenhagen Accord, the pale document signed off by a group of countries at last December's summit, which is dearly beloved by the US but abhorred by many other nations.

There are, though, things that all the various parties will find difficult to take - and there are interesting doors to compromise thrown in as well.

An overall goal is posited of reducing emissions globally by 50-85% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Developing countries have repeatedly resisted calls for a global cap on emissions, because they deduce - accurately - that it implies a cap on their collective emissions: total cut minus industrialised countries' cuts equals their cuts.

The maths says that when all is said and done, this would result in them accepting lower per-capita emissions for decades than Western nations, which they see as hindering their chances for equitable development.

The call for parties to "co-operate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions by 2020 at the latest" will also irk many developing countries.

If that's a potential stumbling block for the poor, the rich nations are likely to baulk at wording that would see them having to find most of the $100bn per year they've pledged from the public purse, with "innovative mechanisms" such as a "Robin Hood" tax consigned to a supporting role.

Verification that everyone's really making the emissions cuts they've pledged is high on the US agenda.

Whether they'll be satisfied by the chair's proposal that developing country governments will verify their own emission cuts without international oversight we'll have to wait and see.

And the compromise? Well, that relates to advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that developed nations should cut their collective emissions by 25-40% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The new fudge factor introduced by the chair is to leave the baseline year blank - effectively legitimising the legerdemain that has seen successive developed countries - Australia, Canada, the US - select baseline years for their own pledges, and present them as big reductions.

Bolivia - among the most outspoken of the developing countries these days - has already slammed the document as being biased towards the west, its UN ambassador Pablo Solon declaiming:

"If this document is going to be the outcome of Cancun, then the future of humanity and Mother Earth is really in danger."

But other experienced observers, such as Kaisa Kosonen of Greenpeace, reckon it's time for a quiet think, and are urging delegates to think about the whole package rather than immediately tearing the bits they don't like into shreds.

With just half a day to go here, most eyes are already elsewhere.

Mexican and South African football supportersMany are turning to South Africa, where - in UN climate terms - the presidency of COP17 is about to do battle with the presidency of COP16.

In normal people's language, that'll be South Africa kicking off against Mexico in the first match of the World Cup.

Some usually sober-suited delegates are sporting football shirts, and the session here is scheduled to finish early enough that all the South Africans and Mexicans, at least, can find a convenient bar in which to watch the match in comfort.

We'll see - early finishes are not this process's forte.

Some eyes are also on Brussels, where EU environment ministers are meeting to discuss whether to increase the bloc's emission pledge from a 20% cut (from 1990 levels by 2020) to a 30% cut.

They won't make a decision this week - it probably won't come next week either when EU heads of government meet - but presumably it might conceivably come later this year, if EU leaders appreciate the extra leeway the recession has given them, and believe it'll kick-start international talks that by then look like they're going somewhere.

And a few eyes have been cast westwards to Washington DC, where the US Senate has just defeated a proposal to relieve the Environmental Protection Agency's duty to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

Passing this motion would have spelled big trouble for the climate legislation that is before the Senate. It's still in trouble, no doubt about it - but it's still alive.

Whether or not it eventually passes is probably still the single greatest in-country obstacle to the eventual agreement of a new UN climate deal - as it has been for so long.

Bonn's obscured climate vision

Richard Black | 17:52 UK time, Thursday, 10 June 2010


From the UN climate talks in Bonn:

Halfway along the temporal road from Copenhagen to Cancun: is the glass half-full or half-empty?

There's been lots of chat of that kind in the corridors here.

Bonn road sign

The incoming head of the UN climate convention, Christiana Figueres, reckoned it is less than half full, but that governments would fill it up in due course - though more slowly, she acknowledged, than many countries might like.

What's clear, though, is that the glass itself is much smaller than it was before Copenhagen - a spirit measure compared against the all-encompassing stein in which you might buy a beer here.

A comprehensive, global, legally-binding deal in Cancun this December is still sought by many smaller developing countries.

But China doesn't want it - at least not on terms the West would accept - there appears to be little appetite among other major players such as Russia and Japan, and as for the US - well, it's a sign of how fast things have turned around since Barack Obama's election that some delegates are saying the US is now a bigger obstacle than it was under George W Bush.

So if not a global deal in Cancun, what then?

Two possibilities are being sketched out. One envisages some kind of over-arching framework, or vision, with all the details remaining to be worked out afterwards.

The other sees bricks being added to the wall one by one, as soon as they can be fired. A finance mechanism, a deal on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), agreement on transferring clean technology to poor nations... etc, etc etc.

Given the comprehensive toppling of Copenhagen's grand ambition, you can see the intuitive appeal of both approaches, but that doesn't mean either will be easy.

Take the first option. Negotiations on a "shared vision" have been going on for about five years now... it still doesn't exist on paper, for the simple reason that it doesn't exist in reality - there are at least five very different visions out there in the world of where this process should lead.

And some will ask what is the need for a new vision or a new framework, given that two exist already - one from the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, one from the Bali summit of 2007. It's not time to talk but to deliver, many developing nations will argue.

Then take the second option, the brick-by-brick bottom-up construction.

There are both practical and ideological reasons why many of the poorer countries will not agree to this readily; here's one hypothetical example that shows why.

The amount of money a "climate-vulnerable" country will need to "climate-proof" itself will depend to a large extent on how far and how fast the major emitters cork their gases.

So why would you agree to a sum of money unless you know how far and how fast the developed world is going to abate its emissions?

There are many more linkages that are more subtle, more involved and more realistic, but I hope the point is clear. That's why many maintain they want the whole package on the table before they'll agree to any small bits.

Divisions that have existed for many years between the huge bloc of developing nations are becoming clearer.

IslandsFor example, the vast majority of countries here wanted a technical paper to be drawn up exploring options that society would need to adopt to limit the temperature rise since pre-industrial times to 1.5C. It's been a demand of the small island states, but the EU, Australia, Japan, US, Africa Group etc all saw no reason to object.

But four oil-producing states did - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Venezuela.

Tomorrow, my bet is that at least one of these will talk of the common interests of developing countries and their brothers and sisters in the South.

And Venezuela, mind, is a member of the ALBA group that wants the temperature rise to be kept under 1C - which has always raised eyebrows, given its status as a major oil producer.

Meanwhile, the EU raised some eyebrows by failing to provide - as promised two months ago - a clear breakdown of how much money had been released under Copenhagen's "fast-start funding" pledge, and how it is being spent.

Its internal analysis, which I've seen, says that a little more than the 7.2bn euros pledged for the period 2010-12 has been committed by member states, who are the ones with the big wallets.

But only 73% of it is confirmed to be in the form of grants. So the rest is loans? It seems so - yet was that clear at Copenhagen?

Is the money "new and additional" to overseas development aid (ODA), as it's supposed to be? Some and some, it appears - the UK's line is that its contribution is ODA money, but that as its ODA spend is rising towards a target of 0.7% of GDP by 2013, it's additional each year to the level of ODA that was spent previously, so it is new and additional.

Other countries appear to have yet looser definitions of "additional".

As one veteran of many negotiations said to me here: usually as you progress through a series of negotiations, the number of outstanding issues comes down until you can really grapple with the few difficult ones.

Here, the complexity of the process appears to be mounting - a chink of clarity appears, then is swamped by another attempt on the part of some country or other to obfuscate.

Anyone, please, able to tell me I'm wrong?

Snakes, seascapes, and the value of nature

Richard Black | 17:58 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010


It's called an "enigmatic" decline: animal species and populations dying away for no reason that anyone can discern.

When there's a trend without an apparent cause, the questions come thick and fast.

One senses that herpetologists all around the world will be asking some of those questions now, in the light of a scientific paper suggesting that snakes are in decline globally - a decline especially marked, in many of the populations studied, since about 1998.

Smooth_snakeIt would be easy to overdo the concern here.

Data is phenomenally scarce; and it could be that when more research comes in, as the scientists hope it will, the picture will look less alarming than the one they've painted - of marked falls in population size, several of 80-90% in little over a decade, sometimes in areas where the snakes are protected.

Herpetologists are familiar with enigmatic or idiopathic declines. Nearly two decades ago, a widespread pattern of decline was noted in amphibians - particularly frogs - and turned out to be largely down to a disease that no-one even knew existed, the fungal infection chytridiomycosis.

There's no evidence yet of such a disease sweeping through the world's snakes; but you can be sure the question will now be asked.

Amphibians - as we've discussed before on this blog - are also threatened in various areas by pollution, hunting, collection for the pet trade, and above all by the expansion of human habitation.

Could such a mix of factors also be behind the snake findings?

Mention of the year 1998 inevitably raises the question of climate.

The year saw abnormally high temperatures in many parts of the world, due to the combination of the long-term warming trend and particularly vigorous El Nino conditions; could this have affected the snakes directly, or their prey, or their reproduction - and could it really have done so on three continents?

The jury is well and truly out; but this could be the beginning of an intriguing scientific detective story.

It may seem like a leap from the forests of West Africa to the depths of the oceans, but it was one that I found myself making when thinking about how and why we get fascinated by issues such as the apparently falling snake numbers.

Earlier generations, in an era when access to information beyond the boundaries of your community was limited and tools of mass communication were restricted to the written word, had little opportunity to be enthused about the flatfish of the ocean deeps or the rhinoceros viper of West Africa.

For many of us, the earliest glimmerings of fascination came through the writings and films of pioneers such as Jacques Cousteau, whose centenary falls this week.

Jacques_CousteauThe Silent World nestled on my bookshelf as a kid, as it did on countless others.

Without Cousteau and his aqualung and his desire to film places and things that no-one else had, would we have reached the stage where every British kid knows what a koala looks like and what it eats, and where people in the hottest countries on Earth are familiar with the shapes and habits of the polar bear?

The interest raised by such figures was probably a precondition for the explosion of environmental awareness in the 1950s and 60s, and led to legislation - especially in developed countries - that placed species and ecosystems under protection.

These have had concrete benefits, no doubt about it; in the snake study I mentioned earler, all the populations not shrinking were under protection plans.

But Cousteau and his fellows didn't get the whole job done. Every year, the Red List of Threatened Species and other publications detail the increasing pressures on nature, and how nature is succumbing; and on a global scale, the pressures go on rising, with inevitable consequences.

Something else is needed, many argue; a more coherent institution that will collate all the available data and present it in structured form, that will set out the ecological and economic costs and benefits of various courses of action, and allow peoples and their governments to make properly informed choices.

By the end of the week, we could have such a body.

Governments are meeting in South Korea with the aim of making a final decision on whether or not to establish such a body.

Its title wouldn't be as compelling as The Silent World - the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) will win few contests for snappiness - but it could potentially give us global snapshots of nature and its value, and how we're losing that value, in a way that's never been done before.

Will it happen? Not sure: some countries, even those rich in biodiversity such as Brazil, are unconvinced, arguing that it's not an international issue and that they can study and look after their own nature.

IPBES proponents say that's all very well - but clearly not enough governments are doing so, otherwise the Red List would be painting a more positive picture each time it comes out.

The new organisation could collate and potentially even commission research on snakes around the world. It could document how much snakes are worth to various societies, in terms of their ecological role as top predators and through more direct channels such as their use for food.

It would arguably complete the information revolution on nature that people such as Jacques Cousteau began in the first half of the last century; and it could provide hard facts that might lead to the preservation of snakes and much, much more, in a way that all the undeniable fascination and sentiment aroused by the pioneering naturalists of yesteryear has not been able to do.

We'll know by the weekend how that situation stands.

As for the snakes - well, that'll probably take years to decipher. Watch this space...

Bridging the energy gulf

Richard Black | 18:04 UK time, Monday, 7 June 2010


The Deepwater Horizon rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is causing questions to be asked further afield about the place of oil and oil exploration.

Brown_pelicanThe International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has just released its demand for a global moratorium on exploration in any "ecologically sensitive" area.

Into this category the organisation puts all deep-ocean sites, and anywhere in the polar regions.

IUCN is an unusual organisation in that its members include governments and non-governmental organisations.

Because of its governmental membership and principally governmental funding, it's usually very cautious about making any statement with a political bent; so this should be seen as something reasonably serious from the conservation end of the table.

Those observing BP's attempts to stop the oil flow from the stricken blowout preventer might conceivably agree with IUCN director-general Julia Marton-Lefevre's conclusion that:

"The technology to minimise the risks and impacts of catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is obviously lacking at present."

IUCN's call echoes others made recently in regard of European oil exploration.

Kriton Arsenis, the Greek Member of the European Parliament, recently intervened in a parliamentary session to demand a moratorium on exploration in EU waters, saying of the Gulf of Mexico leak:

"Every day thousands of tonnes of oil leak into the sea, directly threatening marine species such as sharks, whales and dolphins and five species of sea turtles, out of the seven that exist worldwide. The impact on local communities and the economy is immeasurable."

Many rigs currently operating in EU waters are markedly older than Deepwater Horizon, he noted; and if President Obama were demanding a moratorium on new exploration, the EU should do the same. He wasn't the only MEP making the same point.

Marine conservation group Oceana has also weighed in.

Italy is planning to issue 24 more exploration licenses in its part of the Mediterranean Sea, including some close to Venice, it says, with Croatia, Egypt, Libya, Malta, Spain and Tunisia also granting new concessions:

"[...] even though the Mediterranean is in fact the most hydrocarbon-contaminated sea of the world."

IUCN, Oceana and Mr Arsenis all go on to argue that the obvious solution is massive investment in renewables. Thus from IUCN president Ashok Khosla:

"Our transition to a clean energy future must start now - investment in research and development for clean technology and energy efficiency must be ramped up. Our economies need to be built increasingly on low carbon inputs."

Oceana, meanwhile, bemoans the relatively low level of investment in wind turbines around the Mediterranean compared with oil and gas rigs.

Kriton_ArsenisIt seems a reasonable conclusion to draw that the reason behind the disparity is simply financial; if companies saw more profit in building wind turbines than exploring for oil and gas, they'd want to build turbines.

Would imposing a moratorium on oil exploration, as Mr Arsenis proposes, alter that equation? Or would energy companies move to oil drilling somewhere else, rather than wind power locally?

What all this speaks to is a need for joined-up thinking in whatever energy policies countries pursue - and these days, a joining-up also between energy and climate policies.

If it's maintained, for example, a moratorium on US drilling must in the end reduce the US oil supply.

So either the country must have done the groundwork for a switch to another domestically-sourced form of energy - whether that be nuclear, renewables, coal, biofuels or whatever, plus perhaps some energy efficiency improvements - or imports must increase.

And if it really intends making cuts in its CO2 emissions on the scale that President Obama pledged at the Copenhagen climate summit, some of those domestic options are ruled out.

Ditto Europe. Currently the EU has targets for renewable energy and efficiency gains by 2020. But with the international carbon price too low to stimulate "green" investment through the parallel climate-change commitments, other legislative tools have to spring into play if those targets are to be met.

Otherwise, banning oil and gas exploration from seas around North America and Europe is likely to increase exploration in other regions of the world that might be just as ecologically sensitive.

There are many candidates; but such areas might include Sakhalin, where IUCN has spent many years researching the dangers to grey whales, Iraq (the historic Fertile Crescent) or the Indonesian archipelago (coral reefs by the score).

For Europeans and Americans, that would put rigs out of sight and out of mind. But not out of the oceans.

Profiting from nature's portfolio

Richard Black | 08:29 UK time, Friday, 4 June 2010

Comments (193)

We've had a fair bit of chat here in recent months about diversity in the natural world, and why it matters - with some regular posters asking whether in fact it matters at all.

Bear eating salmonI've tried to lay out some of the evidence - there is quite a lot - showing that diverse ecosystems tend to be more robust and also inherently more productive, which leads to real human benefits when we're talking about an ecosystem that provides something we need, such as food.

This week the journal Nature places another brick in the wall.

Ray Hilborn and colleagues from the University of Washington (the one in Seattle) looked at records from one of the most valuable fish in US waters - the sockeye salmon, sales of which fetched the somewhat mind-boggling sum of $8bn over the last half a century.

(That's just the value of the landed fish - when you take into account other aspects such as tourism revenues associated with recreational fishing, the true value to the US economy is presumably higher.)

Sockeye salmon are especially plentiful in the waters around Bristol Bay on the western coast of Alaska - a large expanse of sea into which nine major rivers empty their waters - and their salmon.

Each of those rivers is fed by tributaries, and some feature topographically tortured sequences of lakes along their length.

What this translates into is a subtly diverse range of habitats for the sockeye salmon. And with their famous homing instincts, the fish have thus segregated themselves into over 100 more or less discrete populations (presumably there is a bit of interbreeding between them) that lead subtly different lives, including coming downstream at different times.

The researchers asked a simple question. Supposing you didn't have all this diversity - suppose you just had one batch of homogenous salmon - what then?

Now, any perturbation (a rough winter affecting something that fish eat, for example, or a big storm on a certain day) is going to affect the entire batch pretty much across their range.

Sockeye salmon in streamThe homogenous population would see much more see-sawing in output, culminating in a ten-fold increase in the number of fisheries closures, the university team concluded.

Because all the salmon would "run" at the same time, the fishing fleet would have to be bigger in order to catch the same total number of fish - a less economic endeavour.

Among the non-economic impacts the team enumerates, salmon diversity improves prospects for predators such as bears, which can get around from stream-to-stream taking advantage of the seasonally-varying abundances.

Would you invest all your money in a single stock (assuming you dabble in such things at all)?

The wise answer would probably be no, and certainly not over an extended period. Unsurprisingly, the extra robustness of the output from the diverse salmon stock is termed here the "portfolio effect".

However, the other conclusion from the paper is that reducing nature's portfolio is exactly what has been going on further south along the Pacific coast.

More populated as these regions are, more altered by the needs of cities and industry and agriculture, nearly a third of the pre-industrial-era 1,400 Pacific salmon populations have been wiped out since the arrival of European settlers.

It doesn't translate into a species extinction or even close, so it raises but small signals in the conservation community; but on the fishing industry, it's probably had a big effect already, simply through reducing the portfolio.

Bristol Bay is not immune from the spread of development and the growing need for resources.

Whether or not there should be oil drilling there has been a live issue for years, and there are proposals on the drawing board for a big multi-mineral mine - Pebble Mine - which opponents fear could pollute local waters, to the detriment of the fish and all that stems from the fish.

Quantifying the economic benefits of the sockeye salmon's ecological portfolio won't guarantee the mine won't be built or that the area won't see vast oil and gas extraction in the coming years - nor should it, you might say, because the world needs oil and gas and copper and molybdenum, just as it needs fish.

But it should make for more rational decision-making, enabling local people and the authorities to factor in more accurately the costs of development as well as the benefits.

And on the broader stage, it provides one more argument for ecological diversity - and why the current loss of it is concerning many policymakers, even as they struggle to find ways of containing that loss.

Sustainability: Choices, choices, choices

Richard Black | 14:50 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010


A group of experts convened under a UN umbrella has been taking a look at what aspects of our global society are the least sustainable; which things are depleting natural resources fastest, which are causing the most environmental damage, and which are the biggest threats to the prosperity of future generations.

CowsIt's bad news, I'm afraid, because the biggest culprits are the things we need most fundamentally: food and energy.

We're used to emissions from fossil fuels being fingered as the principal drivers of the man-made greenhouse effect.

But the report from the UN Environment Programme's International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management also points up the immediate polluting effects (and health consequences) of burning coal, wood, oil and gas.

Meanwhile, other types of emission also compromise human health and the natural world, such as nitrogen run-off from agricultural land, which causes eutrophication in freshwater systems and the seas.

On the resource side, the report flags up the coming declines in oil and gas reserves as stumbling blocks on the developing world's path to prosperity. But shortages of key ingredients for alternative technologies - such as platinum and rhodium - are also causes for concern, it says.

When it comes to the Earth's self-replenishing resources, wood and fish are the ones we are using least sustainably.

Farming, meanwhile, is fingered as the principal reason why natural habitat is being lost for so many plants and animals, with high consumption of meat - relatively heavy on land and water use - flagged up as a particularly unsustainable aspect of western diets.

More than half of the crops we grow are used to feed farm animals.

Solar panelsMuch of this, you may be thinking, is not terribly radical; it's the usual depressing story of people trying to live ordinary lives, and copping the blame when what they need to live and progress starts running out or overloading nature's waste-processing capacity.

What I think is interesting is the way the global picture is re-framed.

So rather than talking about "stopping climate change" or "reducing the health impacts of wood-burning" or whatever, the panel makes two principal offers.

Firstly, it's using real, quantified studies to pin down as far as is possible the real costs and benefits of many of the things we do; and it's doing so in a holistic way.

Secondly, it's offering choices rather than a prescription: rather than the language of "we have to stop doing this", it's a matter of "if society develops this way, these are likely to be the consequences for your children's generation; and here's how it changes if you develop that way instead".

In some ears, this will be ringing an alarm bell that resonates to the tune of "here's another UN anti-growth message".

It actually isn't; it's about rationalising growth. As the panel summarises its remit:

"All economic activity takes place in a limited, natural what economic activities contribute most to the use of natural resources and the generation of pollution?"

And having produced answers, choices and some solutions then emerge.

As one of the panel's co-chairs, the eminent German scientist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker, told me:

"One strategy is to decouple wellbeing from resource consumption. Another is to select resources in relation to their environmental impact, and so it's important to know where the big impacts are."

This report doesn't offer an easy path to curbing the expansion of our global footprint; it doesn't come close, in fact.

But it does suggest a way in which the overarching issue encompassing the world's environmental, economic and social ills might be addressed, and development maintained, without costing the Earth.

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