BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for November 2010

Four degrees of hurt

Richard Black | 14:05 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010


It's possible, with the right kind of lighting, to see the ongoing UN climate negotiations as some kind of sealed-in world where Alice in Wonderland logic holds sway.

In this world, with the right amount of political will and political acuity, decisions are going to be made that will keep temperature changes at the planet's surface from rising more than 2C - or even 1.5C - above pre-industrial times.

Alice and the white rabbit

The hurdles are huge, it's acknowledged.

But with the correct key for each door and a range of foods to shrink this demand and grow that ambition, the Cheshire cat will end up with a big smile on its face and the post-fossil fuel world will at some point return to normal - whatever that is.

However, projection after projection finds that the actions pledged by governments fall far short of what's required to keep the world below 2C of warming with any great level of confidence.

The latest, from the UN Environment Programme, found 2.5C is likely even if governments do the maximum they have pledged.

If they do the minimum, 5C by the end of this century becomes feasible.

Meanwhile, as others have argued - notably Roger Pielke Jr in his recent book The Climate Fix - political and economic realities make it progressively less likely that countries will make the swift transitions away from fossil fuels that would be required to peak global emissions within the coming decade.
This, perhaps, is the real world.

And in response to its growing reality, a number of scientists - with some reluctance - have been arguing that attention should be paid now to assessing the implications of the bigger changes that are becoming more and more likely.

I say "with some reluctance" because dipping a toe into these waters can imply an acceptance that all hope of 2C is gone - and for many researchers, that's a very uncomfortable conclusion even to dally with, let alone endorse.

As the Cancun summit opens, the UK's Royal Society publishes an edition of its journal Philosophical Transactions that is given over to analysis of "a 4C world" - stemming, in large part, from a conference held in Oxford last year.

As Oxford academic Mark New writes in the preface:

"Many emissions policy scenarios had (i) underestimated the rate of increase of emissions in the last decade and (ii) been unrealistically optimistic about when global emissions might peak, given the time it takes to transition out of carbon-based energy systems.

"A pessimistic, or some might say realistic, appraisal of the slow progress of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, also suggested that avoiding two degrees would be highly unlikely, and that the chances of warming by four degrees in this century much less unlikely than previously thought."

Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, presenting their analysis of pledges and pathways, write in stronger terms:

"Despite high-level statements to the contrary, there is now little to no chance of maintaining the global mean surface temperature [rise] at or below 2C.

"Only if Annex 1 nations reduce emissions immediately at rates far beyond those typically countenanced and only then if non-Annex 1 emissions peak between 2020 and 2025 before reducing at unprecedented rates, do global emissions peak by 2020."
Severe coastal spray

No countries, whichever part of the world they're in, have pledged anything of the sort; which adds to the thesis that 2C is now a mushroom-seated, hookah-fuelled dream.

So what would a 4C world look like - or a 4C+ world, if you take 4C as a minimum - according to the projections contained here?

In some respects - rather blurred, you would have to conclude.

Robert Nicholls and others calculate that by 2100, it's plausible to think of a sea-level rise anywhere between half a metre and two metres - which in terms of the practicalities of protection, is a huge uncertainty.

But other specialists come to starker conclusions.

Philip Thornton and colleagues have this to say about food:

"The prognosis for agriculture and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa in a 4C+ world is bleak.
"Already today, the number of people at risk from hunger has never been higher... and it is estimated that it may exceed 1 billion in 2010.

"Croppers and livestock keepers in Sub-Saharan Africa have in the past shown themselves to be highly adaptable to short- and long-term variations in climate, but the kind of changes that would occur in a 4C+ world would be way beyond anything experienced in recent times."

The financial consequences of trying to adapt to all these changes are potentially huge. While the Copenhagen Accord is supposed to usher in a deal that will provide poorer countries with $100bn per year from 2020 for mitigation and adaptation, this report says:

"...the severity of impacts at 4C will require much greater investment"

... with the cost of sea defences alone being put at anything up to $270bn per year.

All in all, these papers conclude, it's over-simplistic to think in terms of 4C being twice as bad as 2C:

"A 4C+ world may require a complete transformation in many aspects of society, rather than adaptation of existing activities; for example, high crop failure frequency in southern Africa may require shifts to entirely new crops and farming methods, or sea-level rise may require the relocation of cities."

In so far as the scientists assembled here come up with a prescription, it is to increase research effort on the big unknowns (such as answering the outstanding questions on sea-level rise), take a new approach to adaptation so plans are implemented that can cope with a 4C+ world as well as a 2C world, and research geo-engineering technologies in case they need to be deployed at any stage.

Oh - and one more:

"The papers in this issue add urgency to the need to swiftly curb emissions..."

The fact that the 4C question is being seriously asked shows that for some, urgency is proving as elusive as a white rabbit in Wonderland.

Turning animal magic into money

Richard Black | 17:05 UK time, Wednesday, 24 November 2010


If you're planning to come to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, don't bring a hunger for bluefin tuna with you; you'll be disappointed.

London's Olympic Committee is one of a number of authorities and businesses that have just pledged to play no part in the marketing of bluefin "until the fishery is sustainably managed".

Supermarket giant Carrefour and sandwich chain Pret a Manger are among the other signatories to the Tuna Market Manifesto - something that conservation group WWF has been trying to establish for a while.

Tuna protest


It's the latest weapon deployed in the war of ideas playing out in Paris at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat).

The EU is once more cast as villain of the piece, following the decision late last week that it would push for the maximum quota recommended by Iccat scientific advisors - 13,500 tonnes per year - a number that those self-same scientists say means there's a 40% chance that the species will not replenish itself by 2022.

According to some legal experts, this EU position is actually contrary to its own laws that commit the bloc to pursuing a precautionary approach; but there it is, that's the agreed position.

There are two ways in which initiatives such as the Tuna Market Manifesto can influence things: because their boycott might hit the profits of the tuna industry, or because it might hit the reputation of the industry and its political supporters.

To really damage profits, one senses that a lot more companies would have to come on board; so we're into a reputational fight.

Countries such as France and Spain have already taken a lot of reputational hits over tuna in recent years, apparently in their stride; so whether a boycott from Carrefour is enough to disturb their dreams must be doubtful.

On the other hand, bluefin retailers certainly stand to suffer reputational damage themselves if they remain associated with the product.

As a recent report from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found, the past 15 years have seen flagrant breaking of rules across the Mediterranean, with fishermen aided and abetted by their national authorities.

In perhaps the most memorable quote from the report, a French captain, Roger del Ponte, told reporters:

“Everyone cheated... there were rules, but we didn’t follow them. It’s like driving down the road. If I know there are no police, I’m going to speed..."

Hence the desire by a number of companies now to stand visibly apart from a trade that could lead to the commercial extinction of a flagship species.

If this is a case where businesses exempt themselves to safeguard their reputation, a different tack is being tried to help tigers.

This week's International Tiger Forum in St Petersburg has seen the 13 range states sign up to an agreement aiming to double tiger numbers by 2022 - co-incidentally, the same year by which Atlantic bluefin tuna are supposed to be back to their full glory.

But where is the money coming from?

There are funds on the table from the World Bank, the US and other governments and conservation groups.

Bengal tiger


But when ongoing measures could cost as much as $350m over a decade, that might not be enough.

Jean-Christophe Vie (JC), a conservation scientist with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is in the early stages of building a new operation that aims to secure funding for tigers and other species from businesses.

The advantage for businesses is primarily reputational; but not completely.

When I talked with JC at the recent UN biodiversity meeting in Japan about his Save Our Species initiative, he made this case.

Say you're a company named after an animal, and then that animal goes extinct. What will that do for your business?

(After all, I don't see many companies named after the dodo, the baiji or the ichthyosaur.)

By contrast, how good will it look if you play a leading role in safeguarding a species from whom you've gained so much advantage in terms of image down the years?

And image is clearly why companies choose these names. I see a car marquee called Jaguar - but not one called Sloth. I see a line of personal care products called Dove - nothing comparable under the name of Thrush. I see Dolphin showers and baths - but I'm offered nothing under the name of Lamprey.

The exemplar here must, in fact, be the tiger.

Thailand has Tiger beer and Tiger pool cues. Tiger Stripe Products in the US will sell you military-style clothing and other goods.

In the UK you can watch a TV programme produced by the Tiger Aspect company while eating a snack from the Tiger Tiger range. Tiger Fixings will provide your building supplies - some of which you might use to install products from the Dutch Tiger Bathroom company.

And if any of these experiences prove unsatisfactory, you can write a letter of complaint on paper purchased from Tiger Stationery.

And so on.

Some companies have already signed up to Save our Species - at the Japan meeting, the mobile phone giant Nokia was much in evidence - but so far, nowhere near enough to provide the kind of funding needed in the tiger arena, let alone on a broader scale.

Saving tigers, like tuna, could be an easy way for businesses to earn a few stripes. But only, as they say, while stocks last...

China hints at new climate future

Richard Black | 14:34 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010


At a recent meeting in Tianjin, there's been intriguing discussion about where the host country, China, is going on climate change.

Factory with chimney

And where it's going is, it seems, towards national legislation to restrict the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

This national law is likely to emerge as part of the next five-year plan.

Details are scheduled to be announced in a few months' time.

The sneak preview of forthcoming legislation emerged at a meeting of the National People's Congress of China and GLOBE Legislators' Forum (GLOBE being the organisation Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment).

Other sources confirm the new law is more than just a subject of conversation within the Chinese political elite - it is a firm plan.

Precisely what'll be in it isn't clear, but I gather it's likely to include firm, legally-binding targets for improving carbon intensity - thus putting a brake on rising emissions.

One possibility is that it will set in stone the pledge made by China to the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) [156Kb PDF] under the Copenhagen Accord:

"China will endeavour to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45%
by 2020 compared to the 2005 level..."

...turning the word "endeavour" into something a bit more mandatory.

Another is that it will increase the scale of that pledge, which according to some analyses doesn't go much beyond historical rates of improvement.

Sources suggest the government has three roles in mind for the legislation:

 • further stimulating the domestic clean energy industry;
 • curbing emissions, in response to concerns over climate impacts on China;
 • providing a legal mechanism under which authorities can force recalcitrant businesses and regions to comply with national goals.

What it will also do, however, is cast in even greater contrast the US's failure to pass legislation.

A lot has been written about the results of the mid-term elections, which increased the proportion of people opposed to climate action in the US Congress.

Even before then, the prospects of legislation were fading away. As the Washington Post puts it:

"Cap-and-trade was dead. Now it will be deader."
Hu Jintao and Barack Obama

Is President Hu overtaking his US counterpart in delivering climate legislation?

Now, President Obama is apparently pinning his hopes on the regulators - particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, which is being asked to set new rules for emissions from various sectors of the economy.

However, apart from the obstacles this may face in the form of legal action, there's no certainty that it can deliver the 17% cuts by 2020 (from 2005 levels) that the administration says it wants.

The same Washington Post article makes the case that it can't.

But the key role of legislation was already signalled in the language of the US pledge to the UNFCCC [pdf link]:

"In the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation, recognising that the final target will be reported to the [UNFCCC] Secretariat in light of enacted legislation."

So given that legislation is now deader than dead... what is the US target? Does it in fact have one?

The signs are that few delegations to the UN climate summit in Mexico want to see a big fight when it opens for business next Monday.

But the fact that the US position has materially altered since Copenhagen - from 17%, to an undetermined figure that is certainly less than 17% - is likely to be aired regularly.

The Copenhagen plan suffered from several issues, one of them being timing - in particular, coming just before China began drafting its five-year plan, the over-arching framework for policies across government.

But now, the scene is set for China - if it so chooses, and if draft legislation is mature enough - to stage something of a diplomatic coup in Cancun by detailing what its new law will cover, how far it will constrain emissions and how it will ensure compliance - all details that the US is unable to provide about its own emissions future.

All eyes on France, as tuna wars loom

Richard Black | 17:34 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Paris and Brussels are presently seeing skirmishes over the fate of what's become the oceans' most iconic creature - the Atlantic bluefin tuna.

This week and next, the French capital hosts the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat) - the organisation charged with ensuring this species and many others are fished sustainably, but which has in conservationists' eyes so badly mismanaged its task over the years as to garner the alternative appellation of the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tunas.

Tuna protest


Earlier this year, Iccat's scientific advisers said continuing at this year's catch level of 13,500 tonnes was feasible but only carried about a 60% chance of rebuilding stocks by 2022.

You can call this a 40% chance of failure, if you want.

The European Commissioner for fisheries, Maria Damanaki, has suggested going for 6,000 tonnes a year.

But French agriculture and fisheries minister Bruno Le Maire said France is holding out for the full 13,500, which he described as "recommended by scientists".

He also said French fishermen were "the most controlled, the most responsible and the most respectable" in the Mediterranean.

This was not endorsed by a report on a new Iccat scheme to monitor catches, which emerged a couple of months ago, and found that as things stand, it's basically impossible to determine the true size of the annual catch.

Other EU countries, meanwhile, would prefer a catch of zero, at least for a few years, while stocks rebuild.

At the time of writing, this EU divide is being addressed in Brussels, as national representatives try to agree a common position.

Word is that the "pro-fishing" group has been meeting in one room, and "pro-fish" countries in another not a scenario that suggests a meeting of minds is imminent.

A couple of other factors need to be thrown into the mix here.

One is the position of the US, which has in recent years pushed a zero quota.

But following the results of the mid-term elections, the Gulf of Mexico oil leak (which may have badly affected bluefin spawning there) and the stalling of climate negotiations, the Obama administration is not in as firm a position as it might wish to push any environmental agenda aggressively.

Sushi chef prepares sushi from a bluefin tuna


Nevertheless, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), is currently in Europe to talk with other delegations about tuna.

The other big player is Japan, where 80% of bluefin is eaten.

Its officials have long warned about mis-management of the Mediterrannean stock.

And earlier this year, the Mitsubishi group of companies, which controls most of the bluefin trade in Japan, issued a statement indicating it supported strong measures to preserve the fishery.

Reportedly, it has enough bluefin in its freezers to survive a year or two without new meat arriving.

And its statement - hard to find on its website, but nestling in my in-box - is pretty strong:

"[We acknowledge] that the BFT stocks in the Mediterranean are over-fished...we support and urge that, as a minimum, scientific recommendations are strictly followed in the management of runa populations...

"We endorse calls for the establishment of a BFT spawning sanctuary around the Balearic Islands and an immediate ban on BFT fishing around the Islands... [we call] on the Japan Fisheries Agency to not back down from the leadership role that the global community now expects it to fulfil..."

Intriguingly, a pre-Iccat seminar in Paris convened by environmental groups heard suggestions that a new alliance was emerging against the big fishermen - an alliance of small-scale artisanal fishers, environmental groups and (by extension) supportive governments.

If Ms Damanaki's vision turned to reality, this might be the outcome: 6,000 tonnes per year for artisanal fishers, and nothing for the big purse seine boats whose modus operandi is to scoop up huge agglomerations of bluefin as they come together for spawning.

France only has 17 purse seine boats, operating for about one month in 12. Yet the political force they and their counterparts in other countries wield is still significant.

Last month, at the UN biodiversity summit, the EU proclaimed itself a champion of nature and vowed to take the economic value of biodiversity and ecosystems into account when taking political decisions.

This year's Iccat meeting, some are arguing, is the first real test of this commitment.

Copenhagen or Babel? A climate conundrum

Richard Black | 11:32 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010


It's the time of year when an environment correspondent's thoughts turn inevitably to the UN climate summit.

A little less than a year after filing into the frozen wasteland of Copenhagen's Bella Center, we're looking this year to the sunnier climes of Cancun in Mexico.

Already the wordplay is being sharpened: rather than (No)-Hopenhagen, are we talking about Cancan, Cancan't, or Cancouldawouldashoulda?

Human chain protest on island

Cancun should not be the end of the UN climate road, activists insisted earlier this month

While UN officialdom begins its attempts to manage expectations, editors in news organisations (including this one) are asking how they should cover the summit, what readers/listeners/viewers might be interested in, and how to place Cancun in a historical landscape transmuted by Copenhagen.

There may be some useful thoughts in a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at Oxford University, in partnership with the British Council.

Written by former BBC correspondent and editor James Painter, Summoned By Science surveys how news organisations around the world reported climate change during those two tumultuous weeks.

Among the findings is that less than 10% of articles (from the media groups and countries surveyed) majored on climate science, the overwhelming majority focussing on the political dramas played out in the conference halls.

And what of "Climategate", the heat surrounding the batch of e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit immediately before the summit?

Countless thousands of words since have been written about this incident, and the fallout from it - notably by Fred Pearce in his thorough, readable and provocative book The Climate Files.

For James, the question is whether the media gave too much or too little prominence to the e-mails during the Copenhagen summit.

His conclusion: far too much was made of the episode by certain publications in certain countries, but almost exclusively in English.

Expanding that notion, he concludes that in the developing world, the voices of "sceptics" or "deniers" were hardly heard at all.

It might depend how you define such terms, of course.

Wind turbines on row of houses

Climate journalism has been buffeted by powerful winds over the last year

Across the entire piece, the most widely quoted group of people - as you'd expect - was the political leaders of countries engaged in the talks, and some of them would fit comfortably inside a working definition of "climate-sceptical".

Nevertheless, it's an intriguing conclusion - especially set alongside the finding that the countries with the biggest volume of Copenhagen coverage were Brazil and India, while Brazil and China gained the distinction of each dispatching more than 100 journalists to the talks.

For what it's worth, I don't agree with the view that there was too little science in Copenhagen reporting.

The time for science was surely beforehand, in painting the background; something we had been doing for years.

At Copenhagen itself, there was so much politics that articles were already bursting at the seams; after all, the entire summit was predicated on appreciation across the political scene that the basics of the science were settled, "Climategate" or no.

Whatever you make of these conclusions, the question for many of us is how best to proceed.

As the report notes, there is evidence of "climate fatigue" among audiences, and even among editors.

Some editors, judging by comments in the report, were persuaded by "Climategate" that the entire edifice of climate science was a crock, and have chosen to cast an already "difficult" subject out of their news pages and programmes.

Yet the fundamental reason for reporting climate change - because it threatens major changes to our lives, and the prospects of future generations - endures.

Summoned By Science discusses all kinds of potential remedies, from greater scientific understanding among journalists to higher awareness among scientists about how to use social media to disseminate findings.

The debate is, in truth, a pale shadow of the one that has been going on within science itself in the wake of the numerous inquiries into "Climategate", and the UN-commissioned review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But it may be just as important, given that the mass media remains the most significant conduit for information on the issue.

With Cancun about to dawn, this is an ideal time for some new ideas.

Over to you.

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