BBC BLOGS - Richard Black's Earth Watch

Archives for December 2010

A big bite for conservation

Richard Black | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010



Sharks with diver

Overall, you'd have to conclude that 2010 was a better year than most for sharks.

Just before the Christmas season began, both houses of the UN Congress passed the Shark Conservation Act, which basically aims to end the practice of shark finning in US waters by making it illegal.

Conservation groups have been pressing all major fishing nations and blocs to do this.

Otherwise, what tends to happen is that dorsal fins are removed and their former owners left to bleed to death in the open sea - essentially a useless death, killing an entire animal in order to sell one small part comprising a few percent of its weight.

The EU recently showed signs of moving in the same direction, with the European Parliament endorsing a resolution calling for a shark-finning ban.

Meanwhile, the annual meeting of a body that has been a byword for "dysfunctional" in the marine environment, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (Iccat), agreed measures to protect oceanic white-tip, hammerhead and mako sharks to varying degrees - albeit rejecting other proposals, including a finning ban.

With the whole of the environmental landscape (and seascape) to choose from, you might wonder why I picked sharks for a final reflection of 2010.

One reason is that pressure of time and other things meant the three instances above did not get adequately reflected here on the BBC website - like many other things I would have liked to report over the year, but that were ultimately squeezed out of the mix.

A much more important reason is that in a sense, sharks encapsulate many of the factors at play when decisions have to be made on issues with a strong environmental component.

Shark fins in sack

A shark finning ban is in the bag for the US... but not, yet, everywhere else

Scientifically, we have a rough idea of the scale of the problem - although records are not as thorough, nor do they go back as far, as you might like.

We also understand to a fair degree the importance of sharks in the overall marine ecosystem.

And we know enough of their biology to deduce that they're particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure.

The animals are valued by people, but in very different ways - as functioning fish by divers, as providers of fins by fishermen.

Yet they are also unintentially side-swiped, through being caught accidentally on fishing hooks set for other species.

And in some quarters they are abhorred - as noted by events in Egypt, where tourists have recently been attacked, and where environmental groups have accused the authorities of needlessly killing sharks in a misguided response.

Plotting their future course is difficult, as no-one knows the future impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems, nor how future generations will choose to regulate fishing.

So we see how policymakers respond to this miasma of uncertainties and mixed interests... as we do on the much more convoluted issues of global biodiversity and climate change.

On those two big themes - both of which came through seminal moments this year, from ClimateGate to Nagoya to Cancun - the concept of global policymaking emerged in ruder health than many would have suspected at the beginning of the year.

I went through issues raised in Cancun in my previous post, so I won't go over that ground again - except to note in response to your comments, JackHughes and Spanglerboy, that of course I'm still seriously writing about global warming - do you seriously think that doing otherwise is an option, given the importance of the issue?

But the issues raised on biodiversity through the year, at the UN summit in Nagoya and elsewhere, are equally profound; and sharks are an exemplar par excellence of just why they are profoundly challenging.

The New Year is relatively devoid of set-pieces; but we will see governments and people who would influence governments putting together packages of options that will, in various mixtures, attempt to reconcile science with policy on these very big, complex and pressured issues.

You can see the progress on sharks as an indication that when governments are persuaded that an environmental issue really matters, they can and sometimes will deal with it effectively.

Equally, you could deduce that getting them to this stage can be as tough as trying to herd a shoal of great whites with a spoon.

We'll see how they get on.

In the meantime, best wishes to you all for a very happy beginning to 2011.

And if you'd like something to raise a smile as we make the transition, have a look at this climate change sketch from the UK's Armstrong and Miller show... made me laugh, at any rate.

Cancun splits opinion, but may mark way forward

Richard Black | 14:40 UK time, Thursday, 23 December 2010


Protest on beach at Cancun

Does the Cancun outcome give real hope for curbing climate change? Views diverge...

Within the last week we've run here on the BBC News website two articles by people knowledgeable about climate change that reach widely differing conclusions about the outcome of this year's UN climate summit.

Last week, Kevin Anderson, head of the UK's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, wrote that the outcome offers small comfort:

"There is currently nothing substantive to suggest we are heading for anything other than a 4C rise in temperature, possibly as early as the 2060s... it is hard to find any scientist seriously engaged in climate change who considers a 4C rise within this century as anything other than catastrophic..."

Yet this week, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programmes, argues that the outcome "has put the world back on track" to combatting climate change - although he acknowledges the speed of travel will leave many frustrated.  

Both are entirely reasonable deductions bearing in mind the standpoints from which each approaches the issue - Professor Anderson from science, Mr Steiner from politics.

In Cancun itself, even though many national delegations would probably have agreed with Professor Anderson's diagnosis, they went for the only politically feasible deal on the table - an agreement cleverly constructed by the Mexican hosts that allowed every nation to head home claiming at least a partial victory.

Every nation, that is, except Bolivia, which remained apart. Its objections were noted; but that's all, the Mexicans deciding that if every other country wanted the accord, that was consensus enough to move forward.

The Bolivians were incensed enough by this that there's talk of legal action - although it's not clear who they would sue. The UN overall? The UN climate convention? The Mexican government?

Thoughts are being drawn from lawyers expert in UN lore over what "consensus" means. Does it have to mean, in this case, all governments - or is all but one OK?

The question has a political angle as well. In the Bali summit of 2007, the single government holding out against the proposed deal was the US; if they had not in the end come round, would the Indonesian hosts have been as willing to "note" US objections and move on declaring consensus as the Mexicans were to work around Bolivian objections?

President Evo Morales

Bolivia's Evo Morales was the darling of some activists - but is the country right?

The Bolivia situation is also causing a good deal of angst among the pressure groups and think tanks which are trying to outline the strategy they'll pursue next year in the run-up to the UN summit in Durban.

According to the picture of climate science outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Bolivians are right: the Cancun agreement is too weak on emission cuts and, as things stand, the world probably will see temperatures rise beyond the 2C or 1.5C levels that most nations say they want.

Major effects are likely, not least on the icefields and water supplies of South America itself.

On the other hand, the Cancun agreement does explicitly acknowledge that fact.

It is also an agreement that explicitly requires more of the governments that signed it.

Furthermore, it starts to operationalise things that many developing countries and NGOs hold dear, such as finance for climate adaptation and a mechanism for paying countries to tackle deforestation.

And it is, politically, the only game in town, approved by governments of many nations at least as climate-vulnerable as Bolivia.

Which takes us back to the Kevin Anderson / Achim Steiner divergence.

My suspicion is that the strategy emerging will be to see Bolivia as the "conscience" of the UN climate convention. To swing behind the Bolivians and condemn the rest of the world for its "consensus" - as some groups are advocating - would surely close avenues of co-operation that many will want to pursue.

But there are other big questions to be addressed as well.

First and foremost is the question of "legal form", as it's known within the climate convention.

At one end of the spectrum of possibilities sits a legally-binding treaty. At the other is "pledge and review" - where each country says what it's going to do, unilaterally, and then looks back five or 10 years later to see whether the pledges were met.

The first of those options would follow the model of the Kyoto Protocol; the second concept is entrenched in the Copenhagen Accord, the minimalist document that emerged from 2009's ill-starred summit in the Danish capital.

The Cancun agreement attempts to be neutral on the question, setting the legal form of any new agreement to one side. To have done otherwise would probably have wrecked any chance of consensus at the summit.

There are elements that go further than "pledge and review" - for example, agreement that some kind of international system (very sketchy on detail at the moment) will be in place for monitoring and assessing countries' performance against their targets.

The Houses of Congress

International environmental treaties are traditionally unpopular on Capitol Hill

Nevertheless, chunks of language appear to have been imported directly from the Copenhagen Accord.

And although there are elements that require movement in a genuinely multilateral way - for example, the management of the new Green Fund - there is no indication that industrialised nations are required to negotiate their pledges upwards in order to meet the "emissions gap" they have themselves identified.

The US administration, meanwhile, has indicated once again that it will not countenance anything legally-binding in the near term unless China does likewise.

But bearing in mind the traditional hostility of the other US government, the Senate, to ratifying UN environmental treaties, there must be considerable doubt as to whether the US would in fact sign up to a legally-binding treaty even if Tuvalu, Togo, Tanzania and the rest of the developing world were prepared to.

And China, India, Saudi Arabia (and perhaps Bolivia) will certainly not accept legally-binding emission curbs unless the US, Japan and others do likewise.

So should the push still be for a legally-binding treaty? Or should movers and shakers take the line that the scale of the cuts is more important than the legal form of a new agreement, and work with governments to increase their ambition?

The position of Japan perhaps exemplifies the dilemma.

Clearly it is not going to accept further emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol when its current commitment period closes at the end of 2012.

Yet in terms of the scale of what it has pledged - a 25% emissions cut  from 1990 levels by 2020 - it is ahead of virtually every other country.

In Cancun, it and the other Kyoto refuseniks (with Russia and Canada to the fore) negotiated a clever little deal whereby pledges made by developed countries inside and outside the Kyoto Protocol will be entered in the same register.

That permits them to claim that pledges are equivalent, whether made under the protocol or not.

In fact, one possible pathway for the year ahead sees these three nations formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, as they are legally allowed to do - a pathway that could well lead to other developed nations doing the same.

Another pathway sees them staying within it after 2012 - ensuring access, perhaps, to its "flexible mechanisms" - but putting their emission pledges outside it.

So is Japan to be condemned for putting a roadblock in the way of a legally-binding treaty, or congratulated for pledging deep emission cuts in what is already a very energy-efficient economy?

Man on bike outside Chinese factory

China, and other developing nations, are pursuing their own clean development plans

Is there any point in pushing the legally-binding option given the very real political obstacles?

The issue is painted more clearly still by comparing the situations of Canada and Spain.

A few years ago, both were way off track to meeting their Kyoto targets.

Canada decided not to try; Spain embarked on a major renewable energy drive, has been buying carbon credits by the bucketful, and fully intends to meet its Kyoto goal.

The difference between them has nothing to do with the legal form of an international agreement; it is entirely a question of divergent political directions. The Canadian situation also shows that the notion that emission pledges can truly be considered legally-binding is highly questionable (as discussed here in the run-up to Copenhagen). 

Yet most developing countries and many other players are deeply wedded to the idea of a legally-binding deal, and the idea of abandoning the goal would be anathema to many - perceived as an admission of defeat.

Another strategic issue concerns the Green Fund.

Lots of work needs to be done - mainly outside the UN climate convention - in order to make it work as envisaged.

Finance ministers will ultimately have to commit money from national coffers, and agree on "innovative finance" mechanisms that will probably be resisted tooth-and-claw by elements of the business community.

Yet the sum that industrialised countries mean to raise - $100bn per year by 2020 - is not, according to estimates from bodies such as the World Bank and the International Energy Agency, enough for the twin tasks of helping the developing world "green" its energy sector and protect itself against climate impacts.

So should the strategy be to work with governments to fully operationalise the Green Fund, or push the point that more cash is needed?

One thing that is clear is that neither scientists such as Kevin Anderson nor pressure groups need any more to tell rich governments "our research shows you need to do more".

The wording of the Cancun agreement instead allows the message to be "you agree you need to do more - and you've said how much - and here's how we think you can close the gap that you've identified and say you're worried about".

For people who follow the politics of the climate in all its intricacies, the road to the Durban summit a year from now promises to be a fascinating one.

Kevin Anderson and the Bolivians are right - the Cancun outcome does not solve the problem of man-made climate change.

But Achim Steiner and the other nations are also right - it does open the door to the climate agreement that the science says is needed.

And that was a door that a year ago, in the chilling winds of Copenhagen, seemed firmly closed.

Cancun: The chihuahua that roared

Richard Black | 11:29 UK time, Saturday, 11 December 2010


If Copenhagen was the Great Dane that whimpered, Cancun has been the chihuahua that roared.

And what a surprise it was.Pablo Solon

Before the summit, expectations were so low that simply keeping the UN show on the road was all many observers (and some players) thought possible.

In the late morning of the final day, I came across Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh explaining to a couple of delegates that "this process is dead".

Yet half a day later, Cancun produced almost global consensus on words that spell out a need to step up, urgently, action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The agreement here "affirms that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time".

It "recognises that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science", and that countries should "take urgent action" to meet the goal of holding the increase in global temperatures below 2C, measured against pre-industrial times.

It establishes mechanisms for transferring funds from rich countries to poor and helping them to spend it well on climate protection, acknowledging the rich world's historical responsibility for climate change.

It sets out parameters for reducing emissions from deforestation and for transferring clean technology from the west to the rest,

Achieving this needed a couple of fudges.

The US partly achieved its main priorities - giving the World Bank first go at running the big new fund, and having some degree of international monitoring on China's emissions - but the wording also allows China and other developing countries to escape with their sovereignity, as they see it, unaffected.

And Japan and Russia have been given a way to slide away from the Kyoto Protocol while maintaining the pledges they made around the Copenhagen summit.

Given the constraints of time, Copenhagen's legacy of mistrust and the domestic political concerns of countries from Japan to the US to India, this is much more than anyone had expected.

The back stories of how these deals are made are always long, involved and - at this timescale - untold.

But clearly the Mexican host government constructed a process that sought to include everyone, and that addressed the really knotty issues in small groups of interested parties, and kept at it until a way through was found.

Unlike Copenhagen, there was listening as well as talking.

So that's the roar.

However, if the agreement here acknowledges the need for deeper and faster emission curbs, it doesn't provide a visible way to achieve them - merely "urging" rich countries to do more.

The Kyoto Protocol text itself is still full of square brackets and options - on many, many issues.

And some of the important, tough details have been kicked into the long grass - notably, the issue of "legal form" - whether the next climate agreement should seek to be legally-binding or not.

So in terms of the most vital question for any climate accord - how much will it contribute to restricting man-made climate change? - you would have to answer, not as far as to meet the needs that it identifies.

But in the view of many observers here, it's laid the foundations for the comprehensive agreement they want.

Eyes now turn to Durban in South Africa, where next year's summit will be held.

In a sense, that's the last chance to get further targets under the Kyoto Protocol agreed, because the current targets run to 2012 only.

Building the deal that's desired by small island states, African nations, other "vulnerable" developing countries, the EU and many environmental groups won't be easy - far from it. There are many political obstacles on that road.

But the dog is rescuscitated and up and running... we'll see how far it goes.

Time to get down to [business] at Cancun

Richard Black | 19:27 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010


From the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico:

I've been rifling through the main documents that delegations are discussing here, with a view to finding out how far they have to travel if they're to leave here clutching a piece of paper more meaningful than a plane ticket.

There are two key documents - one concerning the Kyoto Protocol, the other everything else (Long-term Co-operative Action, or LCA, in the jargon).

Screen grab of one of the negotiating texts

Delegates in Cancun now have to make progress on negotiating texts

They're neither the behemoths of negotiating texts that we've seen in previous climate meetings, nor a back-of-a-cigarette-packet political declaration such as the one that emerged at the end of the Copenhagen summit.

One's 36 pages, the other 48 - plenty of space to flesh out headline ideas, yet easily digestible.

Unfortunately for those who wish to see conclusions here, they are horribly full of bits that have yet to be agreed.

The Kyoto Protocol document in is worse state than the other one. I'll give you a paragraph as a taster:

"The Parties included in Annex I shall, individually or jointly, ensure that their aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the greenhouse gases listed in Annex A [bis] do not exceed their [total] assigned amounts, calculated pursuant to their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments inscribed in the third column of the table contained in Annex B [and determined by applying the principle of historical responsibility, their emissions debt and addressing the needs of developing countries5] and in accordance with the provisions of this Article, with a view to [ensuring a fair allocation of the global atmospheric space to all Parties and] reducing their overall emissions of such gases by at least [X][50][49][33][15] per cent below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2013 to [2017][2020]."

The square brackets, indicating things that are still up for decision, offer hugely different pathways - reflecting the hugely different outcomes that various parties want here.

And to put this in context, that paragraph is the first in one two-page option for that bit of the protocol. There's another option, of similar length - and bits of both are in brackets.

Campaigners in the sea, Cancun (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Campaigners are making the most of the Mexican resort's shoreline

Elsewhere, we find wording on how governments should account for greenhouse gas emissions from managed lands, or greenhouse gas absorption by managed lands.

What should be included? Every single option in this bit - re-vegetation, forest management, cropland management, grazing land management, and wetland management - is in square brackets... as is the paragraph itself.

The second document contains at the top some pretty impressive-sounding commitments... governments should co-operate so as stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations below 350 parts per million of CO2-equivalent, collectively halve emissions by 2050, and scale up commitments to providing money for poorer countries.

It sounds impressive... until you realise that none of this is agreed.

Elsewhere there are signs of twin visions at work.

So this meeting will either establish an adaptation committee to help poorer countries adapt to climate impacts... or decide to discuss further how to achieve the objective.

It will either decide to aim for reaching a legally-binding instrument, or an "outcome" - a word capable of flexible interpretation.

Developed countries will either commit to providing 1.5% of their GDP by 2020 to help poorer nations, or commit to a goal of mobilising $100bn per year by 2020... note how different committing to do something and committing to a goal of doing something can sound.

And all of this is to be worked out by the end of Friday...

Who's pushing each of the twin visions is a slightly tall order to unravel - especially bearing in mind that the information we journalists get on these matters is fragmentary and sometimes spun, always covering only a tiny part of the whole, and that governments never reveal their private hand in public.

But in general, the US is clearly arguing for weak, vague outcomes - and indeed their lead negotiator Todd Stern has hinted as much in press briefings, repeatedly batting away questions on detail.

Japan, Canada, Russia and Turkey are opposed to further emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol - and the first three are said by some sources to be blocking concrete progress here, alongside the US, also preferring a weak agreement.

The vast majority of developing nations want a strong deal with a legally-binding instrument to follow, quick mobilisation of financial resources and - above all - to stop discussing these things and start doing them.

But there are intriguing splits developing. Some hard-liners - notably Bolivia, which was at one stage asking rich countries to pledge 6% of their GDP by 2020 - are being accused by others of blocking progress by sticking out for principles that may be politically unachievable.

But they have their fans too - particularly as they remind rich countries again and again of where the majority of humankind's greenhouse gas emissions came from, and which countries got rich on the back of those emissions.

In some quarters of the developing world, there is grumbling about India and China as they continue to resist any constraints that might be legally binding - but they also have their supporters.

Discussions are continuing; and indeed as you read this, some bits might already be out of date.

But other elements are likely to go down to the wire.

The important question, given that there are so many undecided issues reflecting such a divided community, is whether the final gavel here will fall without agreement on anything.

Unlikely marriage powers ahead

Richard Black | 21:18 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


From the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico:

No-one here really wants to be doom-laden about it, but it's a reality that more and more are having to face: the UN climate process could be grinding to a halt.

Island in the Maldives (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Researchers from Scotland will look at the potential of marine energy in the Maldives

If things go badly wrong at this meeting, it won't fall apart completely. Instead, as UK Climate Secretary Chris Huhne put it:

"People next year won't send a senior minister, they'll send a junior minister, and then the year after they'll send a senior civil servant.

"In a few years' time it'll be the local ambassador, and it'll wither on the vine."

That would lead to a UN process completely inadequate for dealing with the scale of climate impacts in years to come, as outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and numerous other science bodies.

All of that is to play for here.

But in the meantime - and partly born out of frustration with the UN process - small groups of countries and companies are exploring initiatives for themselves that could be small pieces of a much bigger climate picture, and perhaps trailblazers for others.

The links depend on common interests, historical links, and perceived constructiveness. Sometimes the pairing helps with wider geopolitical aims.

So we have Norway and Indonesia hooking up on forestry, the UK and India working together on green technology, Japan and Indonesia exploring geothermal power... and so on.

The latest, unveiled here, puts together what is at first sight an unlikely pair of bedfellows - Scotland and The Maldives.

Together, they're dipping their toes into uncharted waters - exploring the potential of the seas around the Maldivian islands for marine power.

Illegal timber in Indonesia (Image: Reuters)

Norway and Indonesia have already formed a partnership with the goal of protecting forests

Scotland has wild shores aplenty, and a commitment to meeting 80% of its electricity through renewables by 2020; wind may do the majority of that, but marine energy potentially has a part to play.

The Maldives has plenty of sea - 90,000 square kilometres or thereabouts - and needs renewables if it's to meet its target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020.

Expressed in these terms, it looks more like a good marriage.

In the initial phase, scientists and engineers from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen will explore - using Scottish money - the potential for wave, tidal and ocean thermal generation around the Maldivian archipelago.

If things look good there, marine power companies (of which Scotland has several) will look to come in and actually build stuff, with support from the Scottish government and the EU.

From the UK point of view, it makes a lot of sense.

If UK companies develop new technology, they'll need new markets into which to sell it. And just as prairies are natural territory for wind turbines, archipelagos ought logically to work for waves and tides.

Deploying pilot projects might be less arduous in The Maldives, without the red tape that still bedevils the UK's renewables sector.

And for The Maldives, it's a chance to get an advanced foot on the ladder of a new generation, potentially, of renewable energy devices.

If thing do go belly-up here, we're going to see more and more of this sort of innovative partnership on climate and related issues, such as energy and forestry.

Companies want it, governments want it, NGOs want it.

For them, such projects are "facts on the ground" that can prove to others that a low-carbon energy future is viable, and so render many of the objections raised in fora such as the UN climate convention null and void.



'Terrific ten' given days to save the world

Richard Black | 17:55 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


From the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico.

Enid Blyton had five (and then seven) - Ocean had 11 (and then 12).

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, president of the UN climate summit here, has gone for 10 - 10 people who have just three days to save the planet.

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State Chris Huhne

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State Chris Huhne

OK, that's a bit of hyperbole - the planet itself is going to be fine, whatever holds for life on it - but there's no doubt that the task Ms Espinosa has handed to 10 ministers here is a tough one.

In five pairs - developing country paired with rich world counterpart - the ministers have been charged with finding compromise routes through the trickiest areas of negotiation.

Sweden and Grenada are looking at the shared vision - the over-arching description of what countries want this process to achieve. Currently there are at least three distinguishable visions - arguably many more - held by different groups of countries.

Spain and Algeria will discuss adaptation, while Australia and Bangladesh have finance, technology and capacity building.

Taken together, these areas really deal with how rich countries help poorer ones to deal with climate change - adapting to impacts, and developing along "clean" lines - as they are obliged to do under the climate convention.

When it comes to cutting carbon, New Zealand and Indonesia get to deal with the big picture - developing countries, the US, the long-term goals - while the UK and Brazil have secured possibly the thorniest of issues, the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Japan said definitively at the beginning of this conference that they would not accept further emission cuts under the protocol; developing countries demand that it continues.

You might ask why they're so insistent on the protocol - why should the vehicle chosen for the West's carbon cuts matter, so long as the cuts are big enough?

In part it's because of the protocol's legally-binding character, in part because it contains procedures to channel support to developing countries, and partly because they figured that rich countries promised, so they should keep their promise.

So the UK's Chris Huhne - barely six months into his term of office as UK climate and energy secretary - and Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira have to find a way between the archetypal Scylla and Charybdis.

Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira

Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira

The pairs of ministers are holding meetings with key countries, and are supposed to report back to the Mexican chairs early on Wednesday.

Mr Huhne and Ms Teixiera have so far talked to Japan, the G77 group of developing countries, Australia, the African group. Talks are set with Russia, Canada, the small island states; there'll also be a free-for all session where anyone can come and pitch in their ideas.

Japan, reportedly, was "robust" - when you've come out with such a strong statement as they have, it's not easy to pull back without a great deal being promised in return.

For all 10 ministers, this is a painstaking job. But Mr Huhne outlined the importance of getting the fundementals sorted here, before he and others begin the big push for a legally-binding deal next year.

"You can't expect to have an 'instant coffee' solution - just add hot water and you've got a climate change treaty," he told reporters.

What we have is more of a sushi preparation scenario - a slice of fish here, a smattering of wasabi, a substantive lump of rice folded into a tasty envelope of tofu - specialist work indeed.

Luckily, the 10 ministers have legal teams to help them - people who are adept at melting and casting and re-melting and re-casting language until it takes on a form in which all parties can see beauty.

And it's probably no exaggeration to say that on their capacity to do so, plus the personal chemistry ministers manage to generate with sometimes aggrieved and sometimes belligerent delegates, hangs the the success or failure of Cancun.


Hot and cold oil in Cancun climate

Richard Black | 18:55 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010



Demonstration on beach in Cancun

Campaigners have accused governments of having their heads in the sand regarding the urgent need for action

Reading the runes of Cancun's first week at a distance (the BBC, unlike Britain's best-selling daily paper The Sun, is deploying its correspondent on site for only the second half of the meeting this year), it seems that the familiar top-line story of villains and double-dealing is underpinned by something a little more subtle.

You can interpret some of the developments as indicating that governments are looking at the latest data on temperatures and weather, then looking back to Copenhagen and asking "what have we done?"

The fingers of blame so far have been pointed principally at a fairly unfamiliar target: Japan.

A leader on energy efficiency, and a champion of the Kyoto agreement around the time it was signed 13 years ago, it now finds itself in the firing line from developing countries and from campaigners over its decision to say a categorical "no" to any chance of setting further targets for emission reductions under the Kyoto Protocol (KP).

This is a story that began in the middle of the year at one of the preparatory meetings in Bonn, when Japanese and Russian negotiators lined up side-by-side against more KP.

On the surface, the reasoning is simple. Not all big emitters are inside the protocol; so why seek a further agreement that doesn't set targets for, for example, the US and China, the biggest two emitters?

The reason why China isn't covered in this way is simple, yet something that some western governments apparently have trouble remembering from day to day; it's a developing country, and thus under the terms of the UN climate convention itself, it does not have to take the lead in cutting emissions.

Its per-capita emissions remain much lower than those of the US or Japan.

Caricature of Naoko Kan

Japan's Prime Minister found himself lampooned over objections to the Kyoto Protocol

What's exercising Japan, principally, appears to be the fact that China is set to emerge as the dominant East Asian economy.

At a time when Japan-China relations are also strained by a spat over ship collisions in the waters of a disputed island and by China's restrictions on exporting rare earth elements to Japan, giving way to Beijing on climate change is, it appears, not feasible.

On the face of it, Japan's stance makes agreement on an eventual package near impossible; it won't take more cuts under the KP, but developing countries won't budge without extending the protocol.

Add in the fact that no-one can yet be sure how the US can meet its target for emission cuts, and potentially you have a recipe for stalemate.

But this is where the more subtle undercurrents come in.

Exhibit One is India. In Copenhagen, its government was bullish, sticking out for nothing that could be taken as international restraints on its emissions, and co-leading with China the BASIC group of big developing nations that wielded the most power during the conference's final days.

Now, we have Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh talking of "being a bridge between the developed and the developing world".

As part of that bridge-building, Mr Ramesh has been working on a proposal for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) - in other words, making sure countries are constraining emissions as they say they are - that could answer concerns China has about preserving its sovereignty, while allowing the US administration to tell the Senate it has its eyes on what China is up to.

India, so I hear, now has reservations about the BASIC bloc - as do Brazil and South Africa - although a rending asunder isn't imminent.

Exhibit Two - much more profoundly - is the progress being made by countries involved in the Cartagena Dialogue.

Australia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Peru, Samoa, Thailand, the UK... just some of the loose grouping of countries from very different circumstances that all want to see progress within the UN climate framework.

Its genesis is curious.

Rare earth smelter in China

China's protection of rare earth elements has angered Japan - and others

On the final morning of the Copenhagen meeting, a group of about 20 leaders assembled in a chilly room expecting to meet Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and talk about a political agreement.

Mr Rasmussen didn't turn up - the previous evening, he'd launched his new-look, stripped-down Copenhagen Accord on unsuspecting leaders at the state dinner, and was busy pursuing that elsewhere.

Not quite knowing what to do, the leaders decided they might as well use their time constructively; and so the Cartagena Dialogue was born.

Meetings have taken place during the intervening year - and so it comes to be that there is at play in the meeting a group of nations determined to be constructive and build more than bridges.

They've managed to set up an informal group to discuss the Japanese/Kyoto issue and its wider context, for example - something that various blocs have vetoed in the past.

Finally come the comments from President Nasheed of The Maldives, who I interviewed in London at the launch of a new report on climate vulnerability.

He went further than developing country chiefs generally do in public about the case for breaking down the traditional silos that countries usually inhabit.

The G77/China bloc encompasses nearly 130 nations including oil-rich Saudi Arabia, small island developing states, really poor countries such as Togo and Haiti and ones that are rapidly developing towards western levels of affluence.

By any analysis, their interests in the climate issue are not the same. Yet historically, the shape of the UN process has assumed they are, by having them all inside the G77/China umbrella.

I'm told that privately, The Maldives isn't the only country wondering whether it's worth it, or whether countries should instead work in alliances that truly reflect their interests.

The bridge-building isn't without its domestic perils.

Mr Ramesh's efforts are being condemned in India - while in the US, four senators are now demanding that the administration withdraws the $1.7bn it's earmarked for climate assistance in poor countries this year, citing the national debt (measured in trillions of dollars).

It's far too early to speculate on whether Cancun will be a failure or a success - partly because no-one really knows how to define those terms - and at the time of writing, rumour has just emerged that a separate political agreement, a Cancun Accord maybe, is being drafted.

That, if it's true, will bring very uncomfortable echoes of Copenhagen. Usually reliable sources think it isn't true - in which case, there's a question to be asked about who said it was, and why.

Lots of smoke, and obscured mirrors - that's the UN climate process.

But some see in the shape of Cartagena a reason to hope that some of the smoke can be dispelled over the remaining week.

A healthy argument for biodiversity

Richard Black | 18:42 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010


An apple a day might not keep the doctor away... but if an article in this week's Nature is correct, a little bit of biodiversity might be the trick.

The link between biodiversity and health is a topic we've been into previously on this blog - almost two years ago, in fact.

That concerned a paper showing that rates of schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia, and something you definitely don't want to catch) could be reduced by environmental management that preserved a diversity of snails in ponds and rivers.

The schistosomes that cause the disease spend part of their lives in snails - and preserving the diversity appeared to mean that parasites would enter snail species in which they couldn't develop, leading to fewer of the things emerging to infect people.

White-footed mouse

The white-footed mouse is an efficient carrier of the Lyme Disease bacterium

That study is among those featured in the Nature piece, which reviews evidence from many different human diseases - malaria, hantavirus, West Nile virus - as well as some affecting frogs and plants.

So across the board, does biodiversity provide some kind of protection against disease?

In general, yes, the scientists conclude - and for a number of reasons.

West Nile virus, for example, is carried by mosquitos. Infected mosquitos bite birds, the virus multiplies within the bird, resulting in a higher virus load, more infected mosqitos and eventually, more infected people.

Several studies in the US have shown that when the diversity of bird species is high, the risk of humans being infected is relatively low - perhaps, again, because mosquitos are busy pumping their viral load into birds where the virus will not multiply.

You might argue that the impact of diversity loss ought to depend on which species are becoming depleted.

If it's a disease carrier that's disappearing, the net impact on human health ought to be positive.

What this analysis suggests is that in many different cases, the survivors are species that do carry disease.

Again in the north-eastern US, for example, Lyme Disease - a very nasty tick-borne infection - is carried and indeed amplified by the white-footed mouse, an abundant species and one that appears to be adaptable enough to survive the fragmentation of forests.

The opossum, on the other hand, which is a poor host for the bacterium, doesn't handle degraded land too well and moves on - potentially leading to an increase in disease transmission.

Thinking back through recent history, there are pretty obvious examples where this general rule (if rule it is) breaks down.

Clearing the Kenyan highlands of mosquitos during the colonial era obviously brought down insect diversity - but had a hugely beneficial impact on malaria.

Another limitation of the analysis is that it only looks at infectious diseases. Monoculture crop plantations might drive away animals that would otherwise decoy pathogens - but if they provide greater volumes of food, the net impact on human health might still be positive.

One of the intriguing possibilities signalled in the review paper - which, in the interests of clarity, I should signal is written by 13 scientists from a variety of institutions in the US and from the Zoological Society of London - is whether you could use information about ecology and how it's changing to identify potential disease hotspots.

Could you spot places where biological diversity is being truncated, and model what's likely to happen in terms of vectors and hosts and contact with people?

Alternatively - could such modelling studies provide new reasons to conserve some of nature's remaining diversity?

Bearing in mind what governments signed up to at the recent UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Japan - namely, that

"By 2020, at the latest, biodiversity values have been integrated into national and local development and poverty reduction strategies and planning processes and are being incorporatedinto national accounting, as appropriate, and reporting systems"

- you could assume it will provide additional incentives for conservation.

A 1993 paper estimated that Lyme Disease cost the US about $1bn per year... and beside sums like that, the cost of keeping a few tracts of opossum-friendly forest intact might look like money well spent.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.