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Archives for October 2010

Nature protection - the new road starts here

Richard Black | 20:34 UK time, Friday, 29 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya:

Was it an end, or a beginning?

As delegates streamed away from the convention centre here in Nagoya - and stream they did, many of them having delayed flights to make sure no stone they could turn was left unturned - the talk was of a good agreement that now demanded implementation.

The 20 draft targets that were on the table at the beginning of the meeting all survived, in some form, in the final agreement.

Conservation scientists would have liked tougher targets on protection - 25% rather than 17% of the Earth's land surface, 15% at least of the oceans rather than 10%.

They'd also have liked a firm commitment to stopping biodiversity loss.

But the point had been well made through this year that degradation of nature would not stop simply by decreeing that it should.

If you want to stop biodiversity loss through the expansion of farming, you have to tackle farming. Likewise climate change, pollution, invasive species... etc.

That was the philosophy; and it, too, survived into the final analysis.

Perhaps the most fundamental component of the agreement here is that governments have pledged that "by 2020, at the latest, incentives, including subsidies, harmful to biodiversity are eliminated, phased out or reformed".

Meanwhile, biodiversity values will by the same date be in the process of being "incorporated into national accounting, as appropriate, and reporting systems".

The challenges in fuflilling the first of these, especially, is formidable.

Of course, the language in both could be tougher; those two words "as appropriate" are capable of many interpretations.

But put this alongside pledges to manage areas under agriculture and forestry sustainably, and to ensure fisheries have no impact on vulnerable ecosystems or threatened species, and you begin to see the teeth these agreement could have, if fully implemented.

For that, money is needed - in huge amounts - tens of billions of dollars per year, according to some estimates, with developing countries asking for even more.

The British and French environment ministers here assured me it could be done. So did economists who've been working on the issue for years.

But will it be? When economic reform is in the air, it's not just environment ministries that notice the aroma.

Which is why for many, the agreement reached here is just a beginning.

The process of persuasion inside governments and across industry starts now... or at least, after the weekend.

Many of those exiting Nagoya will spend that sleeping, through desire or sheer need.

Banking on innovation for green shoots

Richard Black | 09:01 UK time, Friday, 29 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan:

Blue-sided leaf frog

 

Maybe you thought it was all about the science of losing species and ecosystems, and the ethics of doing something about it.

But as the final phase of this meeting is making clear, it's largely about money.

Everyone here agrees that if governments are serious about halting the decline of species and ecosystems, then somehow more money needs to be spent on it.

As I outlined last week, estimates of how much more range from 10 times the current level to 100 times.

A problem occurring in the negotiations is that no-one knows how much is spent now - $3bn, maybe, if you take figures from bilateral aid - more still if you include spending by wildlife charities.

Anyway - the simple reality is that western nations are not going to be providing anything like 10 times the existing rate of funding, let alone 100 times.

So: how to raise these sums without the need to dip into strained national coffers?

The answer, in two words: "innovative mechanisms".

This'll be a phrase familiar to anyone who's followed the climate negotiations.

It generally means using some kind of market-based mechanism to raise funds - although there are exceptions, such as the proposed tax on international airline travel or international banking transactions, or the use of International Monetary Fund gold reserves to back "green loans", as financier George Soros proposed during the Copenhagen climate summit.

In the field of biodiversity, they don't all have to be international.

Costa Rica

 

Countries such as Costa Rica already generate revenue that's given to landowners to protect "natural capital", such as forests - raising it through something that's environmentally negative, in this case burning fossil fuels.

It plans to develop this "payment for ecosystem services" (PES) scheme further. Other countries around the world are following similar programmes, often without calling them PES - landfill taxes, paper bag taxes, farm stewardship schemes...

... although no country is yet implementing the full vision of PES across the board, as some groups of economists here have advocated.

Other innovative finance methods, though, would be international, such as the UN-backed REDD+ programme.

Here at the CBD, the European Union unleashed a paper illustrating another idea - the Green Development Mechanism (GDM) [497.01KB PDF].

The model is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) - the instrument, conceived under the Kyoto Protocol, that puts a levy on carbon trading and ploughs it back into projects in developing countries that lower emissions.

The CDM has been heavily criticised down the years, notably because the bulk of the money has flowed into countries that are already developing quickly, such as China, rather than into the poorest states.

Proponents of the GDM would say - but you can learn from the CDM's experience, and do it better next time.

Perhaps; although the levels of complexity involved in accounting for environmental services across the board are at least an order of magnitude larger than where only carbon is concerned.

Whatever the pros and cons, the floating of the GDM here illustrates two simple points.

One is that as far as funders are concerned, innovative mechanisms are the only game in town if funds of this magnitude are to be generated for environmental protection.

The second, leading on from the first, is that innovative financing is going to have to deliver if the degradation of nature in its various guises is meaningfully to be retarded.

Raiders of the lost bark

Richard Black | 10:55 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya:

The second Tuesday of this meeting was the day glamour came to town - in good and ugly guises.

On the good side, I had the chance to sit down with Harrison Ford - an actor whose oeuvre looms large for anyone of my generation, from Witness to Indiana Jones - and talk about the reasons why he's been advocating conservation for almost as long as he's been making movies.

Harrison Ford with the BBC

 

We explored other things that actors can and do campaign on - world poverty, HIV/Aids, and so on - so why conservation? And among organisations to support - why Conservation International, of which he's vice-president, and to which he's been a substantial financial donor?

We talked about whether movies can be used in education on issues like the environment; we also touched on the notable absence from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of the United States.

You can listen to his thoughts below. I refrained from any movie puns in the interview, but I think it's clear he regards biodiversity loss as a clear and present danger - for people, as well as for Earth's other inhabitants - and that he's drawing on a lot more than simple emotion.

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The ugly side was represented in the report from the Environmental Investigation Agency and Global Witness on the flood of hard woods coming out of Madagascar's poorly protected forests.

These are species such as rosewood that instrument-makers cherish.

But as we all know... love something that nature provides too much, and you may just love it to death.

China is the main destination for the wood nowadays.

But go back a few years, and much ended up in the US and Europe.

Indeed, Alexander von Bismarck, the eloquent EIA boss, described the presence of these music industry-oriented exports as having "opened the door" - perhaps "opened the floodgates" would have been more appropriate given the other imagery he used - or "broken the levee", given the context.

The US is cracking down on illegal timber more than just about any other importing country in the world.

The Lacey Act dates from 1900, but was amended in 2008 to make it illegal for anyone to import timber that is illegally obtained according to the laws of its country of origin.

Last year, it led to a raid on Gibson Guitars - one of the world's most famous marques, its products played by a generation of legends from BB King to Nigel out of Spinal Tap... a story of which we have yet to see the denouement.

Back in 1997, in an expo outside the World Summit in New York, I recall encountering guitars proclaiming their sustainable sourcing - I even played one, a Fender I think it was, endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance as environmentally and socially sustainable.

How that guitar must be gently weeping now.

I totted things up. I reckon my house contains 11 musical instruments of varying characters that use wood in their manufacture.

Do I know where the wood came from? Probably in a few cases, I do - but I don't recall the manufacturers or vendors ever expending any effort on telling me.

In the words of Bruce Cockburn (and others): When a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?

Global Witness are making sure that where Madagascar is concerned, we do now. Buyers, as well as sellers, are starting to feel the force.

Obstacles to nature protection emerge as stakes rise

Richard Black | 10:27 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya:

It's fair to say there's a deal of concern here that what emerges at the end of this fornight's meeting could amount to less than it was supposed to.

Land being cleared in Indonesia

 

Mind you, it was supposed to amount to quite a bit - a pretty comprehensive and detailed plan for securing the preservation of the natural world, while ensuring its elements could be used sustainably and equitably.

That's a lot for one agreement... although in another sense, parties to the CBD have had 18 years to get to the point we're at now, when they decide whether or not to turn the convention's fine words into concrete pledges.

The reasons why agreement is proving elusive really fall into three piles.

One is simply the amount of words and clauses being argued here. Particularly for developing countries who can send only two or three delegates, there are lots of sessions to go to, lots of technicalities to master, and lots of politics to grapple with.

The second is that when countries get to the stage of making pledges that can materially affect the natural world, they come up slap bang against the hard realities that society currently needs to consume some of the resources that would be regulated under this convention.

That can result in corporate lobbying and disputes within governments - disputes that environment ministeries will typically lose, as environment ministers are typically relatively junior members of administrations.

The third reason is the scope that wily bureaucrats now have to play a legal game called "Trade the Treaties", where long and complex conversations ensue about which jurisdiction a given measure should come under.

As a taster, here's a bit of draft text from the negotiations taking place here on Access and Benefit-sharing, suggesting that exceptions from the proposed protocol should include:

"...Genetic resources [contained in Annex I of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provided they are used for the purposes of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture][under the Multilateral System of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, both current and as may be amended by the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture]..."

The multiple square brackets indicating lack of agreement may be the least of its problems.

I spent a chunk of Monday sitting in on small groups aiming to rationalise key bits of text.

Some of the detailed discussions were eminently sensible. In looking at conserving and protecting the coastal environment, for example, should governments agree to implement

"integrated river basin, and integrated coastal zone management"

...or...

"integrated river basin and coastal zone management"?

The grammatical difference yields a complete change of meaning.

In others, you could sense the profound underlying differences of vision and priorities that exist for different countries here; and especially on targets for marine protection, Trade the Treaties is in full swing.

If this meeting does go the way of Copenhagen, which remains a distinct possibility, it's hard to over-estimate the impact that will have on how concerned  people attempt to do conservation.

At the weekend, I shared a dinner table with one of the conservation world's most prominent and astute figures.

If this goes belly-up, the only solution for those aiming to do serious conservation will be to raise lots of money however they can, and spend it wherever they can, acknowledging that the belief (sustained since before the Rio Earth Summit) that these issues could and should be dealt with on a negotiated basis at international level is effectively dead.

It'll be a simpler game; but it risks all kinds of prioritisation that has little to do with need, and it also risks losing support for communities who need to use wildife sustainably in order to survive.

Much conservation, of course, already happens this way.

But global connections are also vital for some species and ecosystems. BirdLife International illustrates that fact with its new global map of important bird areas.

While checking it out on the BirdLife website, I also stumbled across their list of extinct bird species.

It put the talks here in stark perspective.

 

Bushmeat - ending the monkey business

Richard Black | 06:45 UK time, Saturday, 23 October 2010

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Many westerners would view the idea of eating monkeys with deep distaste.

But for people raised on bushmeat, in Africa and elsewhere, the equation is different.

"Forbidding hunting [bushmeat] is not a solution for the Baka," Messe Venant told a small gathering here.

Bushmeat on display in Liberia, 2006

The Baka people, from Cameroon, have always survived on whatever the forest provides.

In impassioned and colourful French, Messe compared the forest to a western supermarket.

"Everything we need, we go into the forest - for food or anything else," he said.

"The principal source of protein for the Baka is bushmeat."

In rural areas of Central Africa, even outside specific ethnic groups such as the Baka, bushmeat provides up to 80% of protein in peoples' diets.

Yet in many areas of the world, the growing appetite for meat from the forest supermarket is leading to local ecological crises.

It threatens wildlife in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including populations of some animals even closer to humans in the lineage than monkeys, such as gorillas and chimpanzees.

Animals disperse seeds - up to 75% of plant species, in some forests - so the disappearance of animals would present a much larger problem.

What's led to these regional crises is a mixture of human population growth, increasing trade that carries to meat to cities and even abroad, and - in some regions - civil conflict, which brings armed gangs into the forest where of course they must find something to eat, with their weapons providing the easy answer to the question of how to do it.

In doing so, they work against the interests of groups such as Baka who have always "shopped" in the forest - just as the arrival of industrial fishing fleets can in just a few years denude an area of species that have supported local fisheries for centuries.

Like banning fishing, simply banning bushmeat would not be the answer, even if it were feasible - which, given the realities of life in the countries involved, it's not.

And that's recognised under international agreements incuding the CBD, whose remit includes sustainable use of living resources.

A report prepared for the CBD two years ago concluded that attempting to ban bushmeat would drive it further into the hands of gangsters.

One idea that's been around for a while is encouraging people to eat other things instead. Keeping chickens or goats - sometimes in the forest - can be an alternative.

Here, Richard Robertson, a policy manager with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), discussed the use of certification schemes to promote self-regulation of hunting.

FSC-certified timber carries a price premium that companies earn by logging sustainably - so why not include sustainable use of wildlife in the criteria that companies have to satisfy before they qualify for the FSC logo?

This is being trialled in the Wijma Concession in Cameroon, where there are early indications that companies are using guards to keep hunting gangs at bay.

Two issues at least might transpire to be challenging for this idea. One is that the vast majority of African-sourced bushmeat is consumed in Africa, whereas the certification is primarily an idea that works with western consumers who can afford to pay premium prices; the second is the ongoing issues around certified timber, in which management of Wijma has itself been part.

More intriguing was the notion put forward by Edgar Kaeslin of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

His idea is based on giving local people control over their own forests - giving the control back, rather, given that in the era before roads and miners and loggers and modern government, before the spread of rifles and before the modern era of rapid population growth, control was exactly what they had.

He hopes to begin soon a project that would do exactly this in four Central African countries.

The legal framework would be re-jigged so that communities - particular indigenous groups - had explicit jurisdiction over their lands.

Then it would be a question of trusting to their management methods.

Messe Venant painted a picture of simple Baka cultural norms that keep hunting under control.

Hunters are allowed to bring only one animal back from a trip, he said. Without the capacity to preserve meat, whatever's caught must be eaten there and then - there's no point in taking a massive haul in one go.

This is a marked contrast to how the bushmeat trade runs elsewhere.

Several years ago, in the Liberian capital Monrovia, I walked through a market where tables were laden with smoked and dried carcasses, including monkeys - and where the local "Mrs Big" distributed bullets to hunters, and expected their haul in return. The trade paid so little that they basically had to catch something every day in order to survive.

Here, there is both the incentive and the capacity to catch much more than nature's supermarket can sustainably provide.

There's general agreement, then, that banning the hunting of bushmeat - whether primates or not - isn't feasible, or indeed completely desirable. What westerners coo at, indigenous groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America depend on.

There isn't yet a solution on the table. But solutions are beginning to be explored; and that has to be good news for the forests and those who want to maintain their traditional lifestyles, living on what the forest has to offer.

Green dollars to save the planet?

Richard Black | 04:38 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya:

If there are any youngsters in your neighbourhood who are looking to you for career advice, environmental accountancy might be a good thing to recommend.

Ledger

Forget studying iconic animal species - forget plants - even forget fungi and soil bacteria.

Top of the agenda when it comes to saving nature - at least, here - is the notion of giving economic value to services the big outdoors does for us, and pricing out unsustainable use - Payment for Ecosytem Services.

Here's the thing. According to the draft agreement [1.74MB PDF] before negotiators here at the CDB, safeguarding nature across the planet will cost between $30bn and $300bn per year.

That's between 10 and 100 times more than is spent on it at the moment.

No-one claims, by the way, that these numbers are accurate down to the last dollar - they're indicative only.

And they indicate two things. Firstly, a massive spend would be needed; and secondly, given that most highly biodiverse areas are in the relatively poor countries of the tropics, that spend would mean another transfer of money from the industrialised to the developing world - at its upper end, a vast one, dwarfing both existing overseas development aid and the projected $100bn per year for climate change.

However, when you add a third figure into the mix - the $2-5 trillion per year that loss of nature is costing the global purse, according to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project - it still looks a good investment.

The key to making it work - at least in the draft agreement here - is to change the economic paradigm.

These are the key clauses - I've somewhat presumptuously taken out the infamous square brackets and tidied things up a bit (something that's much easier for me to do than for negotiators) so as to focus on the general sense:

- by 2020, at the latest, the values of biodiversity are integrated into national accounts, national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes

- by 2020, at the latest, incentives harmful to biodiversity are eliminated, phased out or reformed in order to minimise or avoid negative impacts and positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are developed and applied.

So if current economics encourages the degradation of nature - change the economics.

There are many reasons why the idea might be a tall order to implement, even if governments agree it here.

Dragonfly

What is the economic value of a tree - or a shrew, or a dragonfly? How can the costs and benefits of planting a field with monoculture maize be quantified against the costs and benefits of not doing so, and instead doing something with it that benefits biodiversity?

Mind you, it's something that some businesses are looking at already - some with an eye to their reputation, but others in order to secure their supply chain.

The clearest example cited by Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank capital markets expert who's leading the Teeb project, is Coca-Cola, which has adopted a commitment to "no net impact on fresh water by 2020", or "water neutrality".

It's not hard to see why. A heck of a lot of water goes into that fizzy pop; lose the ecosystem services that keep the water flowing - all those forested watersheds, for example - and business costs soar.

Even though there are questions about what "water neutrality" means, it's this sort of thing that environmental accountants envisage taking hold in companies and governments across the world - an economics-backed greening, where not much else has worked.

It's beginning to happen in Japanese companies too, according to Yoji Yokoyama, who works on biodiversity with Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency.

"Biodiversity has been thought of as a theme for environmentalists," he told me.

"But now many business persons are paying attention, and they study, and they've found it's a good topic for their business - they need to manage the risks."

The World Bank is set to come in on the act by unveiling an expansion of its Green Accounting initiative that will aim to analyse the economies of selected countries along environmental lines - we should find more about that next week.

Hence the careers advice - although perhaps you'd better wait until seeing this meeting's outcome before deciding just how much of a good idea it's likely to be.

Marine protection: The legal route

Richard Black | 14:59 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan:

The oceans may cover three-quarters of the world's surface, but they make a tiny contribution towards the total extent of area that governments have put under protection in order to promote conservation.

Despite a number of internationally-agreed targets, only about 1% of the marine environment is protected at the moment.

Compared with the land-based figure - 13% and rising - it's a drop in the ocean.

 

Fish and coral

 

Why this is, and what can be done about it, forms a large chunk of a report out here from some of the heavyweight bodies in the conservation field - The Nature Conservancy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the UN Environment Programme, and others.

One of the obstacles that Francois Simard, one of the report's authors, flagged up is international law.

Basically, the high seas, outside countries' exclusive economic zones, are generally a free-for-all.

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For everyone apart from those few powers with space programmes, the deep ocean is the final frontier - and the general approach down the years has been to catch as much as you can as soon as you can, before someone else gets there.

Is this sustainable? Francois and his fellows think not.

But if international law is the obstacle, then how can it be overcome?

If the open oceans belong to everyone, how can they be regulated without universal approval - which seems to be politically impossible?

I had a long chat with Duncan Currie, a lawyer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of international environmental law who's here with the Pew Environment Group watching what government delegates have to say about marine conservation as they discuss various proposed refinements to the CBD.

Well, yes, the UN Law of the Sea Convention does present obstacles. But Duncan gave me a few intriguing examples of how clever use of law - and politics - is getting around that problem.

Firstly - as I've noted before - there are, especially in the Pacific, a number of countries that in a sense are tailor-made for marine conservation, consisting of sparsely-populated archipelagos spread over huge tracts of ocean.

If one country implements a protected area - as Palau did last year to combat shark-fishing - that's an awful lot of water put under protection (always presuming the resources are there to enforce it).

If a number of neighbouring countries take action together, the result is amplified beyond arithmetic.

Enter, then, the Nauru Agreement. Here we have a number of Pacific states deciding, in concert, to regulate fishing not only in their territorial waters but in the waters in between.

As Duncan outlined, this is fairly straightforward in essence. Countries with big fishing fleets want rights to fish in the territorial waters of Micronesia, say, or Kiribati, and need a licence from that government to do so.

What the Parties to the Nauru Agreement decided was that if the EU or Japan wanted to catch lucrative tuna in their territorial waters, they had to pledge not to fish in the areas in between.

And it's working; these areas of international waters are now under, or are coming under, protection. The countries, of course, are making more money that way too from licences.

Map of Nauru Agreement areas

The Nauru Agreement is protecting the holes between national fishing zones

Parts of the North Atlantic - the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone - have also been protected, through the Ospar Commission.

A region in the middle of the ocean where in the past fleets "exploited all and depleted some of the predominant seamount-aggregating populations of demersal deepwater fish (roundnose grenadier, redfish, orange roughy, sharks)" is now, in principle, safe from further exploitation and depletion.

Lastly, there are the resolutions regulating bottom-trawling (the kind of fishing that depleted the Charlie Gibbs region) that have gone through UN General Assemblies in recent years.

They don't stop bottom-trawling; but they do strongly request governments to make sure the likely environmental impact is assessed before fishermen begin on a particular stretch of seabed, and to make sure fleets desist if that impact looks like being significant.

With all that, though, it looks as though a lot more clever lawyering will be needed if the internationally-agreed target of 10% is to be reached any time soon - let alone the higher figures of 20% or 30% that according to some conservationists would be in the long-term interests of fishermen themselves.

The new report - Global Ocean Protection: Present Status and Future Possibilities - cites data showing that at present rates, it'll take until 2080 to reach 10%.

Solving nature loss: Child's play?

Richard Black | 12:16 UK time, Monday, 18 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan:

"The children are the future," says Homer Simpson in a favourite quote from the TV series.

"We've got to stop them now..."

UN convention, Nagoya, Japan

 

At the opening ceremony here, there was lots of talk of children being the future.

The caveat was, though, that we are stopping them - not in the sense that Homer meant it, I suppose, but in the sense that our generation's unsustainable use of nature's resources is going to stop future generations from having the prosperity they're entitled to.

And the Nagoya meeting was positioned as this generation's chance to put things right.

Jochen Flasbarth, head of Germany's Federal Environment Agency, was first on the scene, describing a simple test that government negotiators could deploy in order to tell whether they've done something positive for the world during their two weeks here.

"Imagine you come back home. Your kids are waiting for Mum or Dad coming from this strange conference somewhere in the world.

"Can you explain what you have done here in Nagoya? Can you explain and can you justify what you have done?"

Next up was Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), who said in his speech that this two-week conference with its mountains of papers was actually about something very simple.

"When I speak to my two sons, seven- and nine-years-old, who sometimes get bored with their father talking about the environment, one thing that I see in them is an intuitive understanding that what we are trying to address here makes absolute sense as a child."
Novo river, Brazil

 

One of the childish things we put away as we become adults (and then government negotiators), he seemed to imply, is that intuitive understanding.

He was trumped, however, by CBD executive secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf.

"Let's have the courage to look in the eyes of our children and admit that we have failed, individually and collectively, to fulfil the Johannesburg promise made [in 2002] by 110 heads of state to substantially reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010.

"Let us look in the eyes of our children and admit that we continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, thus mortgaging their future."

Invoking "the children" might seem a cheesey thing to do, although according to economists working with UNEP, Mr Djoghlaf is absolutely correct - the global economy will be worse off in the future because of the current generation's unsustainable habits.

It's like this, they say: nature has bequeathed us a world full of gold - but the gold comes in the form of trees and water and fish and clean air, insects that pollinate and worms that aerate soil, and myriad other things you can conjure up.

The more capital we draw from this bank, the less there is to produce interest for the next generation.

According to this picture, the real-world balance sheet is firmly in the red - and set to get redder, as the global population swells towards nine billion people and societies consume more, eating up ever more of nature's capital, meaning future generations will receive progressively less interest.

Do most delegates here accept the vision? I'm not sure - many come from countries that are getting richer, where lives are becoming easier, through conventionally-fuelled economic growth.

Even if they do, there are two problems.

One is that they cannot see their task here through childrens' eyes - they are diplomats, charged with promoting the national interest, however that might be defined by the governments they represent.

The other is that even the best intentioned parents don't always manage to do what's right by their children - as Homer Simpson would surely agree.

Folding the hopes of thousands

Richard Black | 16:58 UK time, Sunday, 17 October 2010

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From the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan:

Everywhere in Nagoya, there is origami.

Arriving at the airport, I was presented with an origami crane; more adorn my hotel room.

Paper cranes

Origami cranes symbolise hopes for agreement on protecting the real thing

At the conference centre, which houses the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting for the next two weeks, origami animals and fish adorn a globe, with paper cut into geometric countries and continents.

Japanese conservationists encourage youngsters to hone their origami skills, on cranes and more.

It's tempting to see symbolism everywhere:

- government delegates, like the children, attempting to represent complex real-world issues with two-dimensional pieces of (conference) paper;

- major, society-encompassing issues such as the expansion of agriculture, burgeoning use of natural resources and emissions of pollutants folded into the single issue of biodiversity;

- the hopes and aspirations of a cohort of Copenhagen-saddened concerned people folded into a fortnight in a single city.

All of these representations are to some extent accurate; yet like the origami cranes, none of them does justice to the real thing.

Conserving life across the planet is a simple aim - but against the complexities of modern society, including the growth of the human population and the near-universal desire for economic growth, its enactment is far from simple.

Doing origami

Making a biodiversity agreement will be more challenging than making paper cranes

If it were, we wouldn't be here now.

The UN Environment Programme sees this meeting as a key moment - a time ripe for action.

The main reason is that 2010 was the year by which governments had pledged to be sorting it out - if not to have stopped nature loss, to have curbed it significantly. It has not happened, by a long way.

So, like children who have failed exams, delegates meet to discuss why, and what to do next.

As a result, attendance and profile are higher than for most CBD meetings.

Governments, including the UK's, have been talking about the issue noticeably more than in previous years.

There will be more journalists here than usual; and a number of environment groups that range across the piece have made biodiversity a priority issue for 2010.

To that extent, it's a miniature version of the Copenhagen climate summit. That too saw an unfamiliar priority given to an environmental issue - the difference being that Copenhagen commanded presidents and prime ministers.

The comparison is not a fortunate one for champions of biodiversity, given how Copenhagen panned out.

And the bitter developed-v-developing country dynamic that played a major part in scuppering negotiations there is being felt here too.

It may be, as the UN believes, that this is a key moment to sort out some sort of comprehensive regime for protecting nature.

But many, including the UN, believed that last December was a key moment for sorting out climate change.

Origami cranes are given in Japan as good luck charms. Fold a thousand of them, and a real crane will grant a wish.

The paper-folders of Nagoya have certainly done their part in preparation for this meeting. We'll see whether their charms have been enough as the fornight unfolds.

 

Climate ship trims sails but keeps captain

Richard Black | 09:30 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010

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IPCC plenary meeting, Busan:

Smog in morning in China

The IPCC hopes its reforms will cut through any smog of confusion

So: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came to South Korea with Rajendra Pachauri in charge, and it leaves with Rajendra Pachauri in charge.

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Despite calls for him to go from some sceptics and environmentalists alike, it's worth noting that although reports from the InterAcademy Council, the Dutch government's environment agency and others found faults in IPCC processes, none of them concluded that chopping off the head would improve the workings of the body.

The review and reform process instigated earlier this year was always about much more than one person.

It's fundamentally about two things.

One is updating the governance of an organisation conceived 22 years ago - before the internet revolution, in a less responsive era of governance, and before attacking the science of climate change became such an important political strategy.

The other is making sure that its rules on issues such as dealing with critical comments and non-peer-reviewed material are followed to the letter, and improved if they are not completely fit for purpose.

Whether the IPCC leaves South Korea with all of these issues fully tackled is, however, another matter.

The InterAcademy Council, in its recent review, noted that it might take time for the IPCC to assess some of its recommendations and decide what to do about them; change did not have to be explosive, it said.

Even so, it is hard to escape the feeling that the government delegates who sit on the panel and are finally responsible for it are making a big meal out of some pretty straightforward decisions.

Rajendra Pachauri

 

Dr Pachauri denied that the divisive politics of the UN climate convention had spilled over into the IPCC meeting - but that view was not shared by other delegates I spoke to.

The IAC report has been available for governments to consider since August; is it so difficult to reach decisions on issues such as whether to appoint a new chief for the small and overworked secretariat?

If the reforms that have been decided are implemented in full, though, it's hard to argue that the IPCC will not be a more effective body producing better honed and more wide-ranging assessments of the global climate.

Nothing can guarantee there will be no repeat of "HimalayaGate", especially given the ever-increasing mountain of scientific material that the IPCC has to assess.

But next time around - the fifth assessment (AR5), due out in 2013-4 - we should, in principle, see a report that clarifies much better which conclusions are based on solid evidence, and which sit on more ephemeral grounds.

We should see a more robust review process, ensuring critical comments are not only read but analysed and acted upon.

If mistakes are made, they should be corrected more quickly and more transparently.

And we should see an organisation less vulnerable to malicious attack - partly because potential conflicts of interest will have been assessed and dealt with ahead of time, and partly because when organisations are open to constructive criticism, there tends to be less of the malicious stuff around.

However AR5 turns out, Rajendra Pachauri will be here to usher it in, barring some major mishap.

Although the IAC recommended that IPCC chairs should serve only a single term, governments decided there was no reason to truncate his second term halfway through - and as I understand things, not a single delegate pressed for anything more.

The flamboyance may be turned down a notch, given the acceptance that the IPCC's job is to inform policy-making, not to recommend policies - and indeed, that was evident in South Korea, in a more restrained press conference performance than we have been used to from the usually ebullient doctor.

But he is, and remains, very much in charge.

Successive reviews found there was no smoking gun in his leadership role, just as they found no smoking gun on the issue of mainstream climate science itself.

All the frenzy of the last year has not changed that - though it may yet, perhaps, lead to a new, more open and more effective era for a modernised IPCC.

 

Climate body seeks new wardrobe

Richard Black | 10:29 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010

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IPCC plenary meeting in Busan: The future of the world's climate science authority is being decided behind the glass and steel facade of a modern conference centre in South Korea's second city.

The BEXCO centre's principal event this week is the Busan International Footwear and Textile Fashion Show.

But the Intergovernemntal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is also in residence for its annual plenary meeting.

And while designers and seamstresses make last-minute adjustments to their creations in one part of the centre, in another, climate scientists and government delegates are deciding reforms aimed at re-clothing the IPCC in some of lustre that it flaunted at the time of its last assessment report in 2007, but which in some people's eyes has largely rubbed off over the last year.

Rajendra Pachauri

 

The erroneous melting date for Himalayan glaciers, allegations of conflict of interest against chairman Rajendra Pachauri, flawed and inconsistent treatment of scientific uncertainties... these and other issues were held by some to mean that the emperor was either clad in disreputable rags, or wore no clothes at all.

Successive reports, notably by the Dutch government, have found nothing to challenge the basic picture of a warming world that the IPCC and many other scientific bodies have painted in recent times - whatever the findings may have been about the behaviour of some individual scientists.

Yet this isn't enough; and IPCC chiefs know it.

As the body charged with assembling and collating data and projections for the international community, they know it has to be rigorous in its methodologies and beyond reproach in its governance - and seen to be so.

Governments know it too; after all, they're paying for it.

Hence the UN decision earlier this year to commission a review of the IPCC from the InterAcademy Council, an umbrella body joining many of world's science academies.

We've reported on the conclusions and recommendations before, so I won't go into them again in detail here.

In parallel, IPCC committees had also begun to consider some of the same issues - such as how to make the treatment of scientific uncertainty more consistent, and how to deal with potential conflicts of interest.

And Busan is where all of this comes out for debate. Internal and external recommendations alike are being discussed, with the aim of reaching at least some conclusions by the time the meeting wraps up on Thursday evening.

All the documents being discussed are on the IPCC site, and prominently so - perhaps one small sign of a desire to appear more open than in the past.
      
The key documents are the responses from governments to the IAC report. (They're in two documents because not all governments met the initial deadline.)

As with many other international organisations, national governments set the IPCC's agenda, make the decisions and hold the purse-strings; so they will get what they want out of this.

You can see that not everything the IAC recommends will necessarily sail through.

For example, the Czech Republic appears to be adamant in its response that the use of "grey literature" - studies and reports that do not appear in peer-reviewed journals - must be eliminated.

Other governments point out that much "grey literature" comes from sources that suggest it'll be thoroughly and properly done - reports from government agencies, UN institutions, academic institutions - and that in some areas, there is very little peer-reviewed material to use.

On the issue of IPCC management, too, there are different ideas.

The IAC recommended the introduction of an executive director - a senior figure who would effectively become the manager with day-to-day responsibility for running things properly - and an executive board empowered to make decisions when they had to be made quickly.

But some governments here are asking what the point is, and whether it's necessary to introduce a new layer of management.

It's perhaps extraordinary that in an issue where the stakes are so high, the establishment of a single management post in a tiny secretariat should become an object for wrangling over - but there we are.

There's clearly a lot to get through in the four days; and delegates I've spoken to are wondering just how much can be achieved.

There are many familiar faces here, diplomats who also represent their countries at UN climate convention (UNFCCC) meetings (and a lot more besides).

Some are hot-foot from Tianjin in China, where the last round of UNFCCC talks has just ended.

According to some accounts, they've brought the politics with them, and the industrialised-versus-developing-country and US-v-China rivalries that represent the past and present of the UNFCCC are playing out here as well.

We'll see. Others here talk of a constructive atmosphere, and a common belief that to leave here with nothing changed would be a serious dereliction.

Doubtless, not all of the seams will be stitched in Busan - some will require a good amount of detailed attention and a report back at a later date.

But everyone agrees that after 20 years, the original wardrobe is looking a bit dated, and something has to change.

The key question is how much of a revamp the politics will allow - and whether frustrations stemming from within the UN climate convention will yet deposit a nasty stain on the garment being put together here.

Tianjin talks and a 'global work party'

Richard Black | 17:54 UK time, Friday, 8 October 2010

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This Sunday - 10/10/10, if you care to write dates that way - is set for what's probably the biggest mass event ever in pursuit of curbing climate change.

At the heart of things is 350.org, which is calling the event a "global work party":

"It’s been a tough year: in North America, oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico; in Asia some of the highest temperatures ever recorded; in the Arctic, the fastest melting of sea ice ever seen; in Latin America, record rainfalls washing away whole mountainsides.

"So we’re having a party."

At the time of writing, there are 7,014 events registered  in 188 countries. 

Time lapse photo of 350 logo outside Sydney Opera House

 

One question you're probably asking is: what sort of events are these? Another might be: what difference will it all make?

Earlier this week The Guardian chose a sample it felt particularly worthy of mention; the 10:10 campaign group (which is also behind the day of action, having found itself in the critical firing line over its recent "splattergate" video) has also dipped into the barrel.

From the former list, I'm sorry I won't be in Tokyo to witness, in the flesh, sumo wrestlers cycling to practice.

350.org's site lets users search for events near them. One near me is a family which intends to install solar photovoltaic panels on its house: clearly something with carbon-cutting potential, but not exactly on the far side of radical.

A lot of cycling initiatives are planned; a lot of recycling initatives too.

Energy saving, energy diversifying; tree-planting in Afghanistan, education on "vampire" electronics in the US; building a solar-powered fish farm in Mexico, demonstrating "eco-charcoal" in Cote d'Ivoire.

Will this all make a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions?

Hardly; rather like the mass switch-offs that WWF and other environmental groups have mounted in recent years, it's intended to be as much about awareness as about a concrete effect.

Man outside factory in China

 

Common in the rhetoric surrounding these events is the idea that politicians are fiddling while Rome (or somewhere more tropical) burns; so those who want something done should do it themselves.

Participants aim to persuade political leaders that the public does want movement on this issue, to encourage them to go further than they have as yet.

The context for it all is to be found in Tianjin in China, where the latest round of UN climate talks appears to be proceeding along familiar lines.

The US is holding to the position I mentioned earlier in the week - that it will increasingly look to other fora, outside the UN process.

China turned its rhetorical guns on the US, saying it was quite prepared for the world to have nothing substantial in place by 2012 when the existing carbon reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol expire.

That would almost certainly scupper any prospect of a global carbon market, and would remove any degree of international oversight from national emissions pledges.

Even the lead negotiator for the habitually supportive EU, Artur Runge-Metzger, suggested the UN process could be near the end of its road unless countries substantially narrow their differences by the end of December's UN summit in Cancun, Mexico:

"If Cancun does not produce a solid outcome that takes the fight against climate change forward, then I think [the UN process] risks becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the world.

"We meet in these wonderful places, travel miles to come here. If this process is not effective, then people will say, 'If you can't come to agreement, then why should we bother supporting you?'"

The last sentence could be interpreted as a criticism of the entire process - or as criticism of developing nations, whose participation in the talks is funded, through the UN system, by rich countries.

Opinion poll after opinion poll finds substantial numbers of people (whether it amounts to a global majority is another matter) in many countries in favour of strong action to curb emissions.

Doubtful of this action coming through international political channels, this weekend's "work party"-goers suggest rolling up the communal sleeves; the latest manifestation of the well-worn mantra "think globally, act locally".

Enough to cut carbon as much as mainstream climate science says is necessary? No. An example of citizen action in the face of political inertia? Definitely.

Bluefin numbers shift in murky waters

Richard Black | 14:49 UK time, Thursday, 7 October 2010

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A fascinating document has fallen into my lap from a meeting now going on in Madrid looking at tuna stocks and catches.

Tuna in fish market

Tuna in fish market

The question it asks - perhaps without intending to - is this: can the Mediterranean bluefin industry ever be properly monitored?

With the bluefin having become something of a cause celebre recently, it's a question with major ramifications politically, commercially and ecologically.

To begin at the beginning: this week's meeting brings together members of the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (SCRS).

It advises the government representatives who make decisions within the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat).

Anyone familiar with the field will know that the Atlantic bluefin is in trouble, having undergone a swift population decline - largely because of the recent dramatic expansion of fleets in the Mediterranean, which has led to sustained increases in legal and illegal catches.

The big players now are purse seine boats, which use nets to encircle and then scoop up whole groups of bluefin as they spawn. Many of the fish are transferred to ranches and farms, where they're kept in cages until they're plump enough to command maximum profit.

One of the biggest problems identified by Iccat is how to keep track of the fish during this chain of events.

How many fish are actually caught by purse seiners, and how much does the catch weigh? How much goes to ranchers, and is the process traceable?

The 2010 fishing season saw initial operations of the Regional Observer Programme for Bluefin Tuna (ROP-BFT), designed to monitor the biological production line, and operated by consultants MRAG and Cofrepeche.

It is their draft report back to Iccat that has now fallen into my lap; and very revealing it is.

To the very basic question of all - how much the purse-seiners caught - there are two sets of answers. One consists of data submitted by vessel captains - the other, estimates made by observers on board those same vessels.

And they differ - sometimes hugely.

Using captains' records, the total catch for the 2010 season was 3,829 tonnes; but the observers' estimates tot up to a mere 2,367 tonnes.

Some of the national figures are even more out of whack. French vessels reported a catch double the observers' estimate: Greek captains, even more remarkably, reported a haul of 37 tonnes, while observers on Greek boats saw them catch not a single fish.

How can this happen? The consultants pull no punches:

"The principle reason cited by observers was that there was no reliable means to accurately estimate the number and weight of tuna caught."

Some observers discussed this with the vessels' crews, and tried to use the insights gained to make more accurate estimates; but this appears, if anything, to have muddied the already turbid waters:

"One observer consulted the master on interpreting sonar images which resulted in catch estimations 20%, 25%, 50% and 60% greater by weight than the vessel declaration."

Adding to the confusion is the practice of joint fishing operations, where a group of vessels working together can decide to share the catch, even though only one of them may have physically caught the fish.

This, presumably, explains the Greek situation. It certainly presented a challenge to observers, with the consultants' report noting:

"...no fishing operation was conducted, yet (documents) were generated, which the observer was obliged to 'verify', 'certify' and to countersign."

The observer programme was designed to follow the fish through the chain, monitoring the transfers to towed cages and thence to farms.

Here, another curiosity arises: the weight of tuna registered as having been transferred, at 4,136 tonnes from vessels' records, is considerably larger than the amount that was supposed to have been caught in the first place.

Purse seine net

Purse seine net

And when the fish were deposited at farms, the figure swelled again, to a declared weight of 10,188 tonnes.

(The latter figure is, I'm told, under review, with records being checked to eliminate any double-counting; however, I'm also told that a purse-seine owner admitted at the Madrid meeting that catches had been a lot higher than the figures submitted by fleets.)

The report contains a lot more in this vein, with some passages hinting at ways in which illegally caught tuna could be introduced to the supply chain.

The consultants do have suggestions for improving the process; but even so, their report provides on-the-ground evidence of just how hard it is to monitor the number and weight of bluefin being extracted by this most extractive of fishing methods, especially when not all players in the lucrative industry appear to have welcomed the monitoring.

This week's SCRS meeting will conclude by making recommendations on the catch quota for next year, which covers all fishing methods rather than just purse-seiners; they're to be published on Friday.

The recommendation, I gather, will be that anywhere in the range between 0 and 13,500 tonnes for 2011 is consistent with Iccat's declared objective - namely, to set quotas that give at least a 60% chance of restoring the Mediterranean bluefin fishery to health by 2022. (This year's total was 13,500 tonnes.)

However, the scientists are also likely to note that somewhere closer to the 0 figure would be precautionary given the uncertainties noted by this consultants' report.

The size of the discrepancies is worth emphasising. There's more than a fourfold difference between the lowest and highest indicators of catch (the observers' reports from purse seine vessels and the weights arriving at farms, respectively).

Getting a quota wrong by a factor of four would be enough to take a fish population to commercial extinction. It's that important; and it's with that caveat that the SCRS recommendations will go forward to the Iccat meeting in Paris at the end of November, when national delegates will decide how precautionary they want to be for next year.

Livestock: Lengthening the shadow?

Richard Black | 17:20 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

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The environmental impact of meat is something of a well-done dish.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Sir Paul McCartney are just two of the public figures who have called on us all to eat less meat in order to curb the rate at which the world warms.

The number most commonly cited in this arena - that the meat industry is responsible for about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions - comes from a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow.

Cow

 

The figure is a somewhat curious entity, in that it its veracity is easily challenged, and yet manifestly incomplete.

Easily challenged, because like all kinds of accountancy, you can cut the numbers in a variety of ways - and the 18% figure can look way too high if you do the sums differently.

Yet manifestly incomplete, because raising livestock clearly impacts the world in a number of other ways - climate-changing gases are not its only legacy.

Time then, perhaps, for a more holistic assessment.

And here - as opportune as a spoonful of apple sauce to a dishful of roast pork - comes just such an analysis, from Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie University in Canada, in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

What they've attempted is to calculate the environmental impact of livestock in 2050, and relate that back to "planetary boundaries" - the points beyond which it would be unwise to pass if humanity wishes to avoid serious degradation of environmental systems.

They calculate that the total amount of meat we'll be eating in 2050 is about double today's levels, given the growth in the human population and the rate at which we're getting richer (and thus spending more on high-value foods).

Factoring in likely changes in the efficiency of farming systems, they estimate that the climatic impact of meat production on this scale would "occupy 52% of humanity's suggested safe operating space for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions".

But that's not all.

Agriculture hugely increases the amount of reactive nitrogen in the environment - and the use of fertilisers implicit in this meat doubling picture entails, they calculate, that the "sustainability boundary condition" for reactive nitrogen would be surpassed by 117%.

Meanwhile, livestock production would occupy 72% of the "safe operating space" for human "appropriation of biomass" - a measure of how much of the world's primary productivity is being consumed by us, with less left over for everything else growing on Earth.

The notion of "planetary boundaries" was expounded at length in a paper published in Nature last year. That paper contains one of the sets of suggestions for boundaries that are out there in the scientific literature, and which the Dalhousie team uses in its analysis.

Dead Zone imaged from satellite

The Gulf of Mexico often shows a "dead zone" - here imaged in red by satellite

When you get down to the specifics, all of the proposed boundaries are of course estimates.

And there's unlikely to be any single limit beyond which things suddenly become unbearable the world over. After all, the most spectacular impacts of excessive fertiliser use - the so-called "dead zones" in the oceans - are exactly that - dead zones, not a dead totality.

So any and all of the numbers can easily be challenged. 

But the exact numbers are not the point.

Rather, it's the conceptualisation - the notion that here is humanity travelling in some kind of vehicle and heading rapidly towards a giant elastic band, and if we plough into it full-tilt, we will be flung backwards at quite a rate of knots.

The task is to deduce exactly where the elastic band lies, and what scale of impact is bearable; when it is wise to withdraw

The concept has been fully developed, with big reports and loads of numbers, in the field of climate change, including the Stern Review. It's less well developed in terms of other proposed "planetary boundaries" - but as this paper shows, it's beginning to be more developed, and integrated across the various domains of humanity's interaction with nature.

So I think we can expect more of the same - elastic bands with progressively more sophistication.

What we do with the projections, however, is less clear.

Campaigning explodes as climate process risks disintegration

Richard Black | 15:55 UK time, Monday, 4 October 2010

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This week marks a first for China - the first time that the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and therefore (you can argue) the country whose decisions will most affect the global climate over the next few decades, has hosted a meeting of the UN climate convention.

Sign outside UN climate talks

 

Whether the location will play a part in the progress of the talks is an unknown at this point.

Will China use the stage to announce a measure that could rebuild trust in the fractured UN process, such as tighter regulations on energy efficiency or concessions on international verification of its emissions?

Will it tighten the verbal screws on industrialised nations, especially the US, which it says have not lived up to their pledges on the issue?

Answers may materialise by the end of the week, along with signs of whether trust and progress are on an upward or downward path as December's summit in Cancun, Mexico, looms.

What is certain, though, is that almost a year after the Copenhagen summit, there is tangible fear among some long-time observers that the UN process is close to becoming moribund.

As one such observer recently said privately:

"We are now on the edge of seeing the entire international climate regime system disintegrate and fail more or less irreversibly."

And with it, many would argue, would go any hope of restraining the global average temperature rise within the 2C limit that has become such a commonly-cited touchstone of "maximum safe" warming.

Indications are that the US - which effectively holds power of veto over the talks - is angling to downgrade the role of the UN process.

Officials have constantly and openly praised the Copenhagen Accord, the document agreed behind closed doors by a handful of countries in the last throes of that summit, as a template for action - conscious as they are that it does not have the status of an official UN agreement, and that it's predicated on the concept of unilateral, voluntary actions, rather than the negotiated approach implicit in the UN climate convention.

Factory with smoke in China

China has the highest per-country - but not per-capita - emissions

Assuming that developed countries do come up with significant finance to help their poorer brethren, the Obama administration's preference is to channel this through the World Bank rather than through a UNFCCC body.

And short-term "fast-start" finance, meanwhile, is proceeding through a set of bilateral and multilateral channels without the necessity for any central clearing-house.

All of these acts, and others, work to downplay the central importance of the UN process, and to open up the entire field of climate change agreements to the forces of "politics as usual".

As we have seen over the last year, some developed countries are lobbying for regulations on counting emissions from deforestation in a way that allows them to claim high credits and continue, therefore, to increase industrial emissions.

Fast-start finance can be allocated on the basis of historical ties and in the context of western countries' desire to cement important trade relationships.

There is little notion here of the world finding itself in a mess that affects everyone, and plotting a coherent path out of that mess in a way that helps those at the greatest risk most - which is what the UN convention is ostensibly about.

Now, the talk from officials and politicians is "no binding deal in Cancun - but aiming for a binding deal in South Africa (at the end of 2011)".

If anyone can show me (a) that the US will be able to demonstrate by then that it can meet its Copenhagen Accord target of a 17% cut in emissions between 2005 and 2020, or (b) that there will be genuine desire across all important parties for a binding deal by the end of next year, then please post a comment.

Away from the negotiating halls, environment groups continue to seek new ways of "getting the message across".

Climate change has always been a difficult push for campaigners - and as the years go by, a number of different tacks are inevitably tried, some with more success than others.

Into the "others" category come June's incident with the Saudi Arabian flag and the German toilet bowl - and, last week, the video message from the 10:10 campaign that saw children in a classroom being erased from the register of life if they didn't sign up to urgent climate action.

Written by Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame, the video went a fair way to redressing the numerical imbalance between celebrations and wakes inherent in that earlier effort.

By way of an apology, 10:10 themselves say:

"With climate change becoming increasingly threatening, and decreasingly talked about in the media, we wanted to find a way to bring this critical issue back into the headlines whilst making people laugh."

... a statement that testifies to the increasing desperation many campaigners are feeling at the way things have been going since the beginning of the end of Copenhagen.

Whether or not it made anyone laugh, it's certainly backfired. Dissent among campaigners extended to some groups, including Bill McKibben's 350.org, publicly dissociating themselves from the video.

Gillian Anderson in video

Gillian Anderson starred in the "No Pressure" video

And as with the Saudi toilet incident, people are talking about a campaign bloop rather than the campaign itseif.

The environmental lawyers' group FIELD, meanwhile, is disinterring one of the oldest ideas in the campaigner's handbook - that countries affected by climate impacts could take their higher-emitting counterparts to court for damages.

I first heard of this notion - and I doubt it was new then - back in 1997, at the Earth Summit Plus Five meeting in New York.

There, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives told me that he and the Alliance of Small Island States was exploring the possibility of suing high-emitting governments if and when their countries disappeared under the waves.

FIELD's new analysis harks back to the 1972 Stockholm Declaration - agreed at the first UN environmental summit - Section 21 of which states that governments have the responsibility...

“...to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.

A number of actions have been brought under this rule in various courts, one recent example being the suit lodged by Ecuador against Colombia in 2008 over herbicide spraying along the border, which the plaintiff said was damaging people and wildlife along the Ecuadorian side.

The complexities of building a quantified case for "emissions damage" would be immense.

The fact that such a possibility is being explored again is yet another example of how disillusioned many are feeling about the prospects of governments coming up with anything meaningful through the channel they are all publicly committed to using - the UN convention.

 

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