Friday, December 31, 2010
This is a familiar theme for Baron, who recently published an excellent book on the subject of scientists talking to the media: Escape from the Ivory Tower, a guide to making your science work. I've spoken at a number of her training events in the US. When it comes to turning media-shy scientists into confident speakers, she is really at the top of her tree.
Friday, December 24, 2010
In this year's special double Christmas issue of The Economist I have a piece on doctoral degrees. Our Christmas issue is always our most popular issue of the year, with lots of fabulous stuff for the holiday period. Go buy a copy.
Happy Christmas everyone.
The disposable academic
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time
Dec 16th 2010
ON THE evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar, asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.
In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.
One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Well done to everyone at SpaceX. This truly is a milestone.
Read more about how 2011 is going to be an exciting year in space in the World in 2011--The Economist's annual publication.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
All good things, though, come to an end, and the reign of these scientific aristos is starting to look shaky. In 1990 they carried out more than 95% of the world’s research and development (R&D). By 2007 that figure was 76%.
Such, at least, is the conclusion of the latest report* from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO. The picture the report paints is of a waning West and a rising East and South, mirroring the economic shifts going on in the wider world. The sans culottes of science are on the march. [Read more...]
Climbing Mount Publishable: The old scientific powers are starting to lose their grip, Nov 11th 2010 from PRINT EDITION, The Economist.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
A commenter on my just-posted item on alien diplomacy remarks: "for the UN this represents another important milestone in their quest for relevance."
Blog: The UN’s secretive alien ambassador, Sep 28th 2010, 16:03
Friday, September 24, 2010
Its all fuelling a sense of increasing doom about the proposal. Proposals which, let us not forget, are about a nation living within its means rather than spending money it doesn't have, and blowing what it does on billions of pounds of interest payments.
Listening to people try to justify their ludicrous entitlements or the status quo is really informative. For example, today comes news that hundreds of quangos (strange quasi nongovernmental organisations financed by government) are going to be abolished. Hooray. Will we miss the Advisory Committee on Organic Standards and Cycling England? I doubt it.
One quango under threat is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which oversees fertility treatment. Its work looks set to move elsewhere. This is the really good bit. The former head of this agency, Baroness Deech, was just interviewed by the BBC. She claimed abolishing it would not save any money.
She went on, "It only costs £5m and it's not taxpayers' money. Most of that £5m comes from the patients. Now if you redistribute the functions, you're not going to save anything."
Er, hello? Earth to Baroness Deech? Women undergoing IVF are asked to pay £100 quid a cycle to fund her quango. Are you suggesting this is some kind of voluntary donation? I've never had IVF, but the idea that I'd be asked to write a cheque to support the regulator and be told that this isn't a tax is insulting.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Updated: This story was in the top five most popular items on the Economist website during the week of September 10th to 16th.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
Marvel, too, at the fact that President Dmitry Medvedev has just tweeted that he has received the appeal over Pavlovsk and has given instructions for the issue to be scrutinised.
Friday, August 06, 2010
Check out this wonderful story about an American-Indonesian expedition that is discovering extraordinary diversity thousands of feet below the ocean surface in the waters of the Coral Triangle.
What lies beneath, The Economist, August 5th 2010.
Many scientists are uncomfortable about ignoring any caveats at all, which is why when you ask them what they think the findings of their research means they will frequently parrot, "more research is necessary". Schneider recognised that the line between science and advocacy was personal, and not something he could advise on. He explained it thus: "Every time you are faced with an opportunity to provide information, including insights on the consequences and risks of any given action or inaction, you will have to make careful judgement calls".
Schneider was not a liar. He was a brave and honest scientist, someone who decided to take the difficult road and argue the case for his science rather than burying his head under academic carpets. As such the world owes him a debt of gratitude for for his enormous contribution to science and, indeed, global awareness of the issue of climate change.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
In researching this piece, one of the pieces of Overmatter I did not use was an unpublished report by McKinsey (which was leaked to me by a source) that is pretty clear about what is known about the state of Indonesian forests. A large number of its contributors are the Indonesian forestry ministry.
The report states that deforestation of Indonesian forests peaked in the late 20th century at a rate of 1.9 million ha per year, and decreased to the current rate of 1.1 million ha between 2000 and 2005
However, it goes on to say that an increasing demand for pulpwood, palm oil, food crops will drive around 21-28 million ha of land conversions till 2030 along with mining and infrastructure. Further, that government plans for increasing pulp and palm oil production will require 11-15 million ha of currently forest covered areas to be converted.
Finally it says that deforestation and degradation is taking place across all regions and in all types of Indonesian forests--including protection and conservation forests.
We already know that between 1967 and 2000 the area under cultivation in Indonesia expanded from less than 2,000 square kilometres (770 square miles) to more than 30,000 square kilometres.
What we cannot say from these figures is exactly how bad the problem is right now. As recently as 2007 UNEP said deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil and illegal logging was so rapid that most of the country’s forest might be destroyed by 2022.
In considering how bad the problem might be, these factoids are useful:
1. each hectare of land can produce an average yield 4-5 tonnes of crude oil
2. the current average price of crude palm oil per tonne is about 800-900 US dollars. This is down from a peak two years ago of 2,000 dollars a tonne. (Oil World, and figure quoted by us)
3. although palm oil can be planted on degraded land, the conversion of forested land allows palm oil producers to use the sale of timber to fund plantations, providing up front capital prior to the first crop.
Given all these facts and figures, trying to argue that such a valuable crop is not a significant contributor to deforestation in a very poor forested country seems a tough call to me. One might as well nail $50 bills to tree trunks and expect them to stay there.
The one thing that our piece did not have the scope for was to ask that given that palm oil is such a significant contributor to economic growth in poor countries like Indonesia how does one get improvements in living conditions without causing environmental devastation? Its not easy to answer, but the fact that the government has announced a moratorium on deforestation thanks to a huge dob of cash from the Norwegian government suggests that minds are at least focusing on the problem.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Environmental activists such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Action Network having been pushing hard at the issue of palm oil.
Along with WWF and the new Forest Footprint Disclosure project, all are trying to raise awareness of the environmental consequences of palm oil, such as loss of rainforests and high carbon dioxide emissions.
The strategy has been to raise the level of corporate risk involved in the use of this commodity. The nasty KitKat video (man eats KitKat which turns out to be orangutans finger) was a recent example.
All these campaigns have been very effective, something I report on this, this week. I had assistance with the research on this project from the fabulous and diligent Tiffany Stecker, who is one of the first students on City's new Science Journalism course.
The article is currently the most read item on The Economist's website, if you exclude Kal's cartoon. Help keep it up there by reading the story.
Image with thanks from Marco Schmidt, via Wikimedia.
As a result, Fiona Fox, the smart and sassy head of the Science Media Centre sent an email to seven science journalists. She wrote to: Mark Henderson (The Times), Victoria Fletcher (The Express), Fiona Macrae (The Daily Mail), Sarah Bosely (The Guardian), Rebecca Smith (The Telegraph), Ian Sample (The Guardian) and Steve Connor (The Independent).
According to one of those who read her email, she expressed her frustration at the points that Greenslade and I raised and posed a question. She said that Jonathan Leake knew the material was embargoed and should have respected this, but then asked her correspondents, "am I wrong?"
I believe she is. Because you cannot embargo public information. As soon as the ESHRE published the abstracts, the game was over.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Some countries have well-established customary rights, ownership from long and continual use. One might think that this would be a strong basis for action to protect forests but apparently not. Over in Papua New Guinea, the government seems to have decided to give itself the power to remove any rights to consultation with landowners over activities on their land, or to allow citizens to challenge such decisions in the courts. These actions seem extraordinary. I would guess they are a response to the fact that many landowners have decided to sign up to carbon deals with private companies, some of which have involved dubious activities. But even so, Stern had it bang on: respect informal rights. Don't undermine them.
The real question is whether any international agency or government is going to endorse such extraordinary behaviour by funding deforestation projects in PNG?
If you want, you can sign the petition to reverse the Environment Act amendments.
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Friday, April 30, 2010
Things have been busy. The section head is away, I've been writing and editing at times. In no particular order, and not necessarily comprehensively. I had a lot of good feedback over these two pieces in particular.
Leader - Ban the trade in tuna but set a path to sustainable exploitation, March 18th, 2010.
A ban on the trade of bluefin is rejected, March 18th, 2010.
Oh, one other piece of information. Apparently I upset the elephant people so much at CITES, with my daring questions about where the evidence is to show that ivory sales increase poaching, that I became known as "the Dragon lady from The Economist". I really like that. Thanks to Iain Douglas Hamilton for letting me know. I'm thinking of getting a tattoo or something.
(* Update -4.5.10-: One of the authors of a recent Science paper, on the ivory trade, which includes Iain Douglas Hamilton, writes to tell me that this paragraph may imply to some readers that one of the authors of this paper dubbed me "The Dragon Lady". Such a suggestion was absolutely not my intention and I have no evidence, nor reason to believe, this is the case at all.)
To everyone working on ivory and elephants, please direct your time and attention to producing some good evidence that links one-off sales with increases in poaching. It is far more productive than hurling abuse, and it will give me something to write about when it arrives.
The fly - in a flap about Drosophila, April 29th, 2010
Whales - the fiant compromise (jointly authored with Ken Cukier in Tokyo), April 29th, 2010.
Cosmic archeology - new ways to hunt for extraterrestrials, April 15th, 2010. (One letter writer accuses me of ignoring UFOs as evidence for aliens.)
Leader - Ban the trade in tuna but set a path to sustainable exploitation, March 18th, 2010.
A ban on the trade of bluefin is rejected, March 18th, 2010.
Aftermath of CITES - How the elephant hurt the bluefin, March 25th, 2010
Green.view, While stocks last, March 16th, 2010.
And various Babbage posts, GPS, Building Design, Electronic voting,
Thursday, March 25, 2010
It has been a pretty gloomy week for shark protection at the convention to protect endangered species, this year being held in Qatar. Although Japan pursued what it felt to be a princpled attack on the inclusion of marine species in CITES, particularly in the case of the sharks it is difficult to see how any other organisation could have been as effective in controlling the trade of sharks as CITES. However the reasons for this attack are explored in more detail in a piece published in The Economist later today.
After two weeks, what has the meeting to show for itself? A handful of iguanas and frogs, and a bettle, have trade protection. EU nations spent most of their time bickering between themselves, rather than lobbying other countries. The Americans went in with high hopes, but came out empty-handed, despite having a a big team here and having had several years to prepare. Japan was an effective force in getting exactly what it wanted. It helped, of course, that it takes a two-thirds majority to vote to grant a listing.
Although Appendix 1 listing for bluefin tuna would have been a good idea, it does seem that the organisation that currently manages the bluefin (ICCAT) is changing its tune, although the extent to which the secretariat can actually hold contracting parties to these words that follow remains unclear.
At the end of the CITES meeting, the chair of ICCAT, Fabio Hazin, said:
"the management measures adopted by ICCAT last year to rebuild this species and manage the fisheries were sound and in full conformity with the scientific advice. But much more important, Mr. Chairman, the measures adopted were not taken just as a way to escape from the risk of having the bluefin tuna listed by CITES. They were indeed the inauguration of a new era in ICCAT, in which management measures not in full conformity with scientific advice are no longer a possibility.
For those who have concern that ICCAT Contracting parties could have second thoughts in regard of the measures adopted last year, I can assure you that setting Total Allowable Catches beyond the levels scientifically advised as necessary to ensure sustainability of tuna stocks under ICCAT’s mandate shall no longer be acceptable to the CPCs [contracting parties]."
The fight for bluefin goes on to Paris in November.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
At CITES meetings governments vote on whether or not to support a ban, or a limitation, in the trade of an endangered species.
Here in Doha, there is an electronic voting system. About 137 governments (of a total of around 180) have turned up. They put a card into the voting machine, then they press the buttons to vote. I've not been here for the full meeting, but from memory I'm absolutely certain that if you press '2' you vote yes. If you press '3' you vote no. And if you press '4' you abstain.
Earlier today, during the Porbeagle vote, the CITES voting system failed and two nations were not able to record their vote. The system was reset. The chair asked everyone to vote 'yes' to test the system. Of the 137 nations that voted yes, 7 hit 'no' and 2 hit 'abstain'.
Unless I'm greatly mistaken, this gives us an error level of 9 for the voting at CITES. In other words, if 100 parties intend to vote yes, about 6.5% will accidentally vote another way. (I know, hard to believe it is so difficult to press a button.)
The interesting observsation is that this is an argument for proposing the hammerhead shark again for a vote at the Plenary meeting tomorrow and Thursday. The hammerhead failed by only five votes.
CITES convention has closed its main committee phase, and will end with the plenary. More news is expected as the hammerhead shark seems likely to be returned to discussion, as too the Zambian proposal to downlist its elephant populations from Appendix 1 to Appendix 2.
Coverage of CITES so far:
IT WAS a moment of some drama when delegates assembled in Doha came to vote on a ban in the trade in bluefin tuna on March 18th. The previous evening many representatives of the 175 member nations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) had been at a reception at the Japanese embassy. Prominent on the menu was bluefin tuna sushi. (more...)
A ban on the trade in bluefin tuna is rejected, Mar 18th 2010
Ban the trade in bluefin tuna—but set a clear path to sustainable exploitation, Mar 18th 2010
While stocks last
Some ivory sales are a good idea. This one isn’t, Mar 16th 2010
Interesting few days in Doha at the CITES convention. The politics are fascinating. Many species have not fared as well here as conservationists had expected. With the corals and bluefin failing to gain a listing on this trade convention.
I will be chairing a side event today in a room near the press centre.
CITES Roundtable: How business contributes to wildlife conservation
Every day, the planet's nearly 7 billion people are consuming biodiversity without knowing it, ignoring the source. Cancer medicines, food delicacies, lipsticks, chewing gums, perfumes, clothes
and many other products contain ingredients provided by wild nature. When a species arrives on a CITES list, it can be seen as the result of a collective failure. Sometimes those failures rest clearly with unregulated markets, but there are many cases where governments, corporations and consumers are inadvertently pursuing unsustainable agendas with regard to the use of our natural capital. For instance, overfishing and excessive logging are destroying marine and forest
life every day. Sourcing, traceability and reputation are three keyissues that need to be addressed if the world is to manage the business risks to biodiversity in a more responsible manner.
The debate would be articulated around the harvesting, transport and retailing aspects of the business in reptile skins. It will ask what can be done to help business to plot a course from unsustainable to sustainable businesses? How do we rebalance the conservation responsibility along the whole value chain?
James MacGregor, International Institute for Environment and Development
Giannina Santiago, Government of Columbia
Don Ashley, International Alligator Crocodile Trade Study
Burak Cakmak, Director of CSR, Gucci
Eduardo Escobedo, Economic Affairs Officer, UNCTAD BioTrade
Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will consider how best to regulate trade in animals and plants. This year among the many proposals the bluefin tuna is proposed for a complete ban in trade, and Zambia and Tanzania want to sell some ivory. There will be discussions about sharks, corals, the polar bear and the bobcat.
I'll be filing one or two pieces on the CITES meeting. One, on elephants, is due to appear in our Green.view column on Tuesday, if all goes to plan.
I'll be heading out to Doha on Saturday 20th, and I'll be there through until the end of the event on the 25th. I'll be on a pretty tight schedule while I am there, so the best way to contact me is to send me an email.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
The Guardian says, "Last autumn Greenpeace dubbed the Neol [sic] Kempff project a 'carbon scam'."
The Nation says, "The project had to admit it had saved 5.8 million tons or less--a tenth of the amount it had originally claimed. Greenpeace says even this is a huge overestimate. It's a Potemkin forest for the polluters. "
So given that no carbon offsets have been created, where exactly is the scam?
Let us back track. Last year, Greenpeace did an investigation into the Bolivian project known as Noel Kempff. The Noel Kempff project was led by US conservation organisation The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC wanted to save an area of rainforest, work out the greenhouse gas emissions savings made and potentially generate carbon offsets which could be sold to its partners (two energy-producing companies).
When the project began, over a decade ago, the idea of forest offsets were new and nobody had any idea the extent of the emissions savings that might be possible---so a guess was made. The project was going to have to do some seriously investigative carbon accounting. It did. It found that only a tenth of the carbon was saved. This isn't suspicious. This is the way science works.
Before I continue, I need to declare a conflict of interest. Last year, The Nature Conservancy paid my economy ticket flight to talk to a group of their scientists about science journalism at their centre on Santa Cruz island. (I was there with some other journalists doing the same thing, including Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post, and Ken Weiss from the LA Times. I met some of TNCs people, although none that connect to this story as far as I am aware.)
More importantly, though, later in the year I found myself researching something on palm oil and talking with Greenpeace. And it was Greenpeace that introduced me to the Noel Kempff project, told me that TNC was involved, and said a report was coming. At some point, when I came to write on REDD-related issues, I was told about its concerns over Noel Kempff in more detail. Interesting, I said but I need to put these questions to TNC. (Greenpeace were hesitant about doing this, but I went ahead anyway.)
In an email on August 25th I wrote to one of TNC's press officers:
"One thing I wanted to ask TNC about was the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project in Bolivia, which TNC funded to 2.6m along with a bunch of energy companies. It was an early avoided deforestation scheme started in 97, with an eye on Kyoto. But avoided deforestation didn't get approved in Kyoto as we all know, so it generated voluntary credits under some 1605B scheme in the US.
I understand Greenpeace are working on something about Noel Kempff and they are going to say that auditors found massive amounts of leakage (15-43%; quite a large error however on this) and while the project promised benefits of about 60m metric tons, this has been reduced to only 5.8m, a reduction of 90% in the carbon benefits--which means all the power companies are using much higher figures for their offsets than are actually being offset albeit voluntarily.
They also tell me, something that is hard to believe, that seems to be some idea that these credits could now be revived and put through as a REDD type project. Would you be able to comment on any of this?"
The answers I got from TNC were good ones (all pasted below). This seemed most significant, "To date no certified offsets (credits) have yet been issued to any of the partners. Until that happens, the project partners cannot report or use certified offsets in any voluntary or compliance carbon credit regime.
Sadly, TNC's answer also showed that the issue was far too technical to resolve in the few lines I had----so Noel Kempff ended up as overmatter. It was irritating at the time but TNC said its carbon policy people were trying to talk to Greenpeace, and I figured that a number of these technical issues could get ironed out prior to the report, or at least discussed in some scientific context.
How wrong one can be. A few months on and I don't think either the readers of The Guardian, The Nation, nor (sorry Chris) REDD-Monitor, have had really much chance to hear from TNC about what it thinks of the project, which is a shame because it is pretty interesting.
The Guardian's Fred Pearce described it as "the ultimate greenwash nightmare", and he goes on to write "Both BP and AEP [American Electric Power] referred questions about the progress of the project to The Nature Conservancy." There is a reason for this.
And John Hari makes it quite plain what he thinks of TNC and Conservation International when he writes, "They are not part of the environmental movement: they are polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted."
The question of whether business is having an influence on these groups is an important one. But I'd only say that organisations are made up of individuals, and based on the employees of these organisations that I've met, I would be hard pushed to describe any one of them as "sucking on the flesh of environmentalism". But, then, I would freely admit that I'm probably quite biased towards having a positive view of the contribution that business can make to conservation. I spend a lot of my time writing about economically rational use of the environment and why business will be part of the solution. For one thing we need businesses to put a fair price on the environment, which they can pass to consumers so that we can all pay the real costs of our consumption and lifestyle. If putting a price on CO2 means that the energy companies pay for some forest carbon offsets this is not bad if they actually work.
Is there a risk that some businesses will be looking towards short-term goals of promotion rather than long-term goals of sustainability? Of course.
Rights and wrongs
Now at this stage I'll be brutally honest. I'm not sure I know who is right over Noel Kempff Greepeace or TNC. But I do fear that Greenpeace is turning Noel Kempff into a political football.
There are several things going on. Firstly, at a simple level, the science of carbon accounting has moved on quite a lot from 1996. That isn't surprising or interesting. Secondly, Greenpeace does not like projects such as Noel Kempff, which account for carbon at a local level. Because deforestation has shifted, the benefits of the project may be negligible. Having said which, hindsight is a wonderful thing and one might imagine that if Noel Kempff was created today, that it would involve other national-level policies to discourage deforestation.
Sub-national accounting is problematic, lets be honest, Greenpeace do have a point. But if asked, TNC would probably argue that you have to start from somewhere and end up with national-level accounting. As the article in The Nation reflects, there is a lot of suspicion about such a viewpoint. Is it really coming from TNC or its business sponsors who, in reality, don't intend for national-level accounting to happen? Finally, there is the ultimate political football, forest offsets for US domestic emissions. For those that don't want sub-national accounting to be part of future plans in America, creating controversy over this US-backed project seems an obvious strategy.
Overmatter: Questions were put to Karen Foerstel, at The Nature Conservancy press and publicity department about Noel Kempff project. Her response, on 26/8/09:
"We have not seen any report from Greenpeace, nor has Greenpeace contacted us about the Noel Kempff project, so we can’t respond to what may be in that report.
However, below you will find answers to your specific questions.
Overall, the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project was launched as a pilot project with the intent of testing and refining the science of forest carbon accounting and monitoring, and developing best practices for future REDD activities. Already, the Noel Kempff project has resulted in the creation of a set of methods that are being used in other projects (such as the World Bank BioCarbon Fund projects) and in standards (such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard).
Since the beginning of the project, the Conservancy and its partners have strived to be fully transparent, documenting carbon monitoring, accounting for leakage, and continually updating our methods based on lessons learned. As the world’s first REDD project to be certified by a third party, all partners understood that this was a pilot project that would test different methods and provide valuable lessons learned for future REDD projects.
Noel Kempff has allowed us to learn by doing and to pave the road for future REDD projects. We and our partners are working hard to make sure that any REDD regime created in the future is based on the highest standards of accountability and science.
Below are answers to your specific questions. I can set up a phone interview with our climate experts working on this projects if you have any further questions.
1) “auditors found massive amounts of leakage (15-43%)”
In verifying the carbon benefits of the Noel Kempff project in 2005, SGS (Societe Generale de Surveillance), a Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism approved verifier/auditor, found that leakage for the Noel Kempff project is 11%.
The 15 to 43% figure you refer to comes from a preliminary analysis that was conducted by Brent Sohngen, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at Ohio State University. Sohngen created a model of the Bolivian timber market and applied that model to estimate the change in logging across Bolivia that would result from the cessation of logging on the three timber concessions that were retired as part of the Noel Kempff project.
Sohngen’s model predicted that logging would increase in the remaining Bolivian timber concessions, and that leakage could range from 14% to 43%. The higher leakage estimate was based on an assumption that timber prices in Bolivia would be highly sensitive to supply changes.
But, because timber prices in Bolivia are not highly sensitive to supply changes (the country is considered a “pricetaker” not “price-setter”), a final estimate of 14% was used to calculate leakage! from 1997‐ 2005. But, again, when SGS verified carbon benefits in 2005, it found overall leakage for the program to be 11%.
2) “While the project promised benefits of about 60m metric tons, this has been reduced to only 5.8m.”
Noel Kempff was designed as a pilot project and proposed for inclusion in the US Initiative for Joint Implementation (USIJI) in 1996. (The USIJI has since become obsolete with the US’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol). In the USIJI proposal an initial estimate of the carbon benefits of the project was made, based on the best data available at that time. That estimate was that 53 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent would be prevented from being released over a 30-year period.
However, in the USIJI proposal and in the agreement signed by the project partners, it clearly stated that this initial estimate would be refined as targeted research was carried out during the course of project implementation. The project partners, including the energy companies, understood that this was a pilot project and no guarantees (or promises) were made as to a set amount of carbon benefits that would result from the project, nor whether the avoided emissions from forest protection projects would even be eligible in future compliance regimes.
Over the past 13 years, the Noel Kempff partners have pioneered methods to determine the carbon benefits of reducing degradation (stopping logging) and reducing deforestation. This work has created a set of methods that are being used in other projects (such as the World Bank BioCarbon Fund projects) and in standards (such as the Voluntary Carbon
Standard) today. The project partners have documented and reported on the advancements made and the revisions to the carbon estimates over time. We and the other project partners are very proud that other projects and programs are now applying the methods developed for Noel Kempff.
As new methods were created, tested, and applied, the carbon benefits of Noel Kempff were revised, with updates to the numbers occurring approximately every two years. In 2005, the Government of Bolivia selected SGS to verify the project benefits. SGS applied the applicable standards for afforestation and reforestation projects created under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism to verify the project benefits. The verified results are that between 1997 and 2005 1,034,107 metric tons of CO2 equivalent were prevented from being released. SGS estimates that over a 30-year period (1997-2026) 5,836,961 metric tons of CO2 equivalent will be prevented from being released.
3) “All the power companies are using much higher figures for their offsets than are actually being offset albeit voluntarily.”
To date no certified offsets (credits) have yet been issued to any of the partners. Until that happens, the project partners cannot report or use certified offsets in any voluntary or compliance carbon credit regime.
Also, as you know, how - and if - forest carbon credits will be accepted under future markets is still being debated. It is unclear if the carbon benefits from the Noel Kempff project would be eligible under a future climate/carbon compliance regime. Such regimes usually have a cut off dates for project inclusion. For example, under the Clean Development Mechanism, afforestation and reforestation projects must have a start date after January 1, 2000. It will all depend on the rules of the regime.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
While the government of Papua New Guinea has been trying to set up an approved scheme through official channels (via payments from other donor governments such as Norway as well as the UN), the private sector has been far quicker off the mark. One entrepreneur in particular having signed up many of the country's forest landowners to “broker” their carbon on international markets. These are the "guilt" markets whereby offsets are sold to voluntarily to buyers such as airline passengers or corporations that emit a lot of carbon and wish to green up their image.
The international donors are at a loss. Should they support the government's attempt to participate this market? This decision is difficult because Papua New Guinea is still reeling from the affair of irregular carbon credits produced by the government's own office of climate change (OCC).
No report has emerged into the collapse of the OCC last year, and as time progresses it seems less likely that one will appear. This is wrong. A major problem emerged last year, and no questions have been answered. Those who live in Papua New Guinea say this is just the way the place works.
I would argue that, as someone said recently: sunlight is the best disinfectant. Without transparency, things will continue to fester and it will make it impossible for the government to attract the international donors that it wants.
Ilya Gridneff, the Australian Associated Press reporter in Papua New Guinea, and I have been writing about this on and off since the middle of last year. (We were jointly awarded a UN climate-reporting prize in December.)
Ilya has a fine update on the ongoing saga here.
(Another recent item is here.)
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
I leave today for London. But as I woke this morning at 5.30am, I remembered that I had one last job to do before leaving. The bay was inky black and the street lights around the harbour were still twinkling. There, on my bedside table was an empty plastic sample tube.
I rubbed my eyes, sat up and got to work spitting in the tube. The instructions told me, “do not eat, drink, smoke, chew anything, brush your teeth or rinse your mouth for at least 60 minutes prior to collecting your saliva”. A couple of mouthfuls was all it took to reach the fill line, then I screwed on the blue cap and a clear preserving fluid ran into it. I shook it a bit, put the tube into a bag and Fedexed it off to a local company called Pathway Genomics. Welcome to the genetic revolution. Please deposit your DNA on the way in.
Pathway has been set up in competition to some of the consumer genomics companies launched a year or two ago. 23andme, Navigenics and deCODEme. It offers a surprising number of different tests, for $399. Navigenics cost $999, and 23andme costs $499. deCODEme is also quite pricey but this company is bankrupt at present and has been bought up. The fate of its consumer genetics division remains unclear. Another company, Counsyl, has also started up just offering to test for carrier genes of rare conditions ($349), which makes Pathway look like pretty good value.
Of course when taking this test this morning there were all sorts of things going through my mind. Excitement at discovery and fear of finding out something bad. Of course, genes are not destiny. But they do tell you something about what might make you sick, and most of us like to go through life without having to think about this sort of thing. And when I visited the lab yesterday, I was told that I could actually register so that if there was anything I didn't want to know about, I could chose not to have these results shown to me (or Pathway's genetic counsellors that review their customers' data).
None of us are perfect, something that becomes increasingly evident as we age. Genetic information means that I'll have the best information possible to understand how to look after this body through, I hope, many more decades alive on this planet. What would be better for me, an hour doing cardiovascular training or yoga or swimming? Maybe my health and genetic profile will give me some clues about how best to look after myself.
I'd also be interested in any clues to my ancestry (also promised as part of the test), and on which migratory path they took around the globe. The tests will also tell me if I am a carrier of any genetic mutations that can cause genetic disorders, and also whether my genes are likely to cause any adverse responses to drugs that are given for medical conditions.
I'm particularly thrilled about discovering one very trivial piece of information, whether I have a fast or slow caffeine metabolism. If you have a slow caffeine metabolism it means that caffeine hangs around your body far longer and it is much more likely to give you a heart attack.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
An important case was heard today, Tuesday 23rd February, at the Royal Courts of Justice in the United Kingdom.
It was the case of Simon Singh v the British Chiropractic Association. This case has turned into a focal point for the broader issue of libel reform.
Libel reform is an issue that a lot of people should be interested in...
- Got kids? Don't think you are free to discuss what you think of childcare ideas with other parents on the web. Link
- Rely on new medicines and drugs? Don't think that academics are free to raise any doubts they have about their efficacy or safety. Link
- Got a business or reputation to protect? Don't think that Britain's restrictive and archaic libel laws protect you. They don't, unless you happen to have enormously deep pockets. The cost also constrains newspapers from publishing the truth. Link.
- Think that because you live abroad, British libel laws don't affect you? Think again. If you publish or speak in the UK, British laws apply to you--no matter how few copies of your words are read here. Link. Also see Wikipedia on Libel Tourism.
Libel reform affects everyone. We need laws designed for the 21st century. Laws that consider both freedom of speech and access to the law.
If you agree.......please sign the petition, and ask your friends to sign it too. 100,000 signatures are needed.
- Update June 2014: this post is getting a little out of date. Please refer to this page.
- Updated July 2012: Although I no longer work in the Science and Technology section, this post is pretty popular so I thought I would update the names to reflect the current situation in the science department.
N.L. Chicago, July 2012.
Monday, February 22, 2010
The AAAS meeting in San Diego has been something of a blur. The highlight so far has been a session called The Brain on Trial, which was an attempt to reproduce the courtroom discussion surrounding the admissibility of evidence from an MRI scan of the brain in a court case. Judge Luis A. Rodriguez, from the Superior Court of California in the County of Orange, presided over the session. There were lawyers for the prosecution and the defense, and two expert witnesses in neuroscience.
This session was the AAAS at its best. Well thought out, and well planned. The scenario was a trial in to the murder of a woman called Jane Owens by a former lover Will Johnson. Will Johnson is on trial for first degree murder, however the defense would like to argue that he has a lesion on his brain that makes him incapable of forming an intent to kill--and therefore could not have planned to murder Jane Owens.
Theoretically, lesions of the type that Mr Johnson has (in the cortex, which is the planning region of the brain) could lead to a failure to form an intent to kill, it equally might leave him completely or mostly normal. In addition, one would expect that such a failure in ability to plan would be reflected in his everyday life as well, from getting up in the morning to put on his pants, to making his dinner at night.
The difficulty that arises with the evidence of a lesion that no scientific data exist that would help a juror decide how likely this lesion was a factor in the murder. Indeed, many people have lesions in their brain and walk around entirely unaware of them.
The prosecution didn't want it admitted in evidence, and argued it would be likely to confuse, mislead and take a great deal of court time to discuss. The defense wanted it included, arguing it was evidence. The scientific experts provided different views of the evidence, according to which side they represented, but both would agree that the lesion was far from proof that Mr Johnson could not have formed an intent to kill.
The judge took the not-unreasonable view that it was up to the jury to decide. But of course the prosecution then used this evidence to suggest there was "reasonable doubt". It was fascinating to watch, and the audience voting (as jurors) suggested that such evidence would sway them from a conviction for first-degree murder.
This was a hypothetical example, and any court case would (one would hope) not end up hanging on a dodgy MRI scan (and with an absence of psychological evidence of past or current mental problems). But the entire session was a graphic window into how science can be used in the courtroom.
Whether or not scientists believe that their research is reliable evidence of anything, it may well appear in the courtroom.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
On the face of it, one might wonder why Fortune 500 companies would be willing to investigate, and then reveal, the extent to which the products they buy are from unsustainable, or even downright illegal, sources. And, true enough only 35 companies participated in the FFD this first year.
It turns out, though, that some companies are interested in doing this. One reason is the reputation risk that may come with their brand, whether it is Clarke's shoes, Dove or Kit Kat, companies have a great deal of money banked on a brand, and they know what damage can be done when the NGOs get nasty.
Another reason, partly related to this, is that dealing with unsustainable ways, or with practices that are likely to bring in bad PR (like cutting virgin rainforest), is also something that asset managers want to know. This sort of project helps investors identify how an organisation’s activities and supply chains contribute to deforestation, and how this links with their forest footprint and their value. FFD says it is backed by 34 financial institutions with $3.5 trillion in collective assets under management.
At the end of the day, companies need to know the provenance of the products they buy. They need to know whether what they sell is legal and sustainable. The issue of child labour harmed parts of the clothing industry, and so there is the possibility that rainforest destruction could become a similar kind of problem. Pictures of dead orangutans are powerful, and shareholders don't like it. It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Indices do affect companies. Access to Medicines index, I hear, is already leading companies to change their policies towards drug access.
On a final word, for now, on the FDD. It brought together some quite interesting people from both sides of the fence. From the corporate world and the green NGOs. This conversation, which I caught part of, was overheard...
Paper industry man: Why did you call for a 12-month moratorium on cutting forests?
Green NGO man: We didn't, we called for a 12-month moratorium on cutting virgin rainforest for paper?
Paper industry: But we don't cut virgin rainforest for paper.
Green NGO: What about [unclear name of place in Asia]?
Paper industry: That's degraded land.
Green NGO: We don't think so.
Paper industry: Well why don't I locate the satellite images so we can sit down and show you.
Green NGO: Fine, but you'll also need to look at where the concessions are.
Paper industry: Well we only take out what we call wood residues from these areas.
Green NGO: Well we call it virgin rainforest.
Friday, February 05, 2010
Quantifying this sort of thing is probably helpful, but is it really that surprising?
Thursday, January 21, 2010
So the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) messed up and included a bogus fact in its report about melting glaciers. Then it made things worse by not wanting to correct it when it had the chance. Now would be a good time for the IPCC to do a bit of soul searching and confess if there is anything else in its multi-volume tome we might need to know about. The one thing that would kill the IPCC , and the climate consensus dead, would be a damaging drip, drip, drip of stories emerge about legitimate concerns over its reports that were ignored or papered-over. More of this kind of thing and we will see headlines that the IPCC sexed up its reports. With the failure of
For anyone seeking to undermine the current climate change agenda, an obvious line of attack is to steadily undermine the scientific credibility of the evidence and to throw as much mud and confusion that genuine controversy seems to emerge. Then journalists must go back to balancing their stories about climate change (with a climate denier for every climate change scientist). Hacked emails and melting glaciers may only be the start.
My colleague Oliver has composed a fine article on the non-melting glaciers earlier this month.
2010 is a big year for biodiversity. Biodiversity has always been the poor sister of climate change. Always the bridesmaid, and never the bride. But this year it get its shot at the limelight, with a meeting of the biodiversity convention coming up, and it being 'International Year of Biodiversity" as well as the bi-annual CITES meeting in March, we can expect plenty of media coverage of the biodiversity crisis, extinctions and international trade bans.
The Biodiversity Convention is an international treaty that seeks to conserve and make sustainable use of biodiversity, as well as to make sure there is a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of genetic resource. There is a big meeting of the parties later this year, in
Practically every country in the world signed up in 1992. The
I published something online this month about ecosystem services (the things that nature provides, like clean water and pollination) and biodiversity. Its about attempts to value the environment are worried about by people who care about biodiversity.
Price fixing: Why it is important to put a price on nature. Jan 18th, 2010.
Deforestation Finally, what has happened to the deforestation agenda? While
So the United Nations "REDD" agenda (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) looks to be fatally holed beneath the waterline. But if REDD is dead, it may also be a case of long live REDD.
There is still a lot of activity in various fora, so it is not at all clear where things are and there are still likely going to be huge sums available for various forest-related activities. I'll blog about this a bit this year, with the tidbits I pick up here and there. The bad news is that things are looking messy, which is not what everyone wanted at all. More soon on this. I'd be interested in anyone's thoughts on this.
To those of you who have written, and for whom I have failed to blog particular items or respond, my sincere apologies. I have a day job, and many other responsibilities, and time can be hard to find.
A film is being made about deforestation and climate change called Two Degrees, which features PNG.
Everyone has been waiting for the report from this committee, but it looks like it may never come. I understand that all the key documents have vanished.
It is time that the international donors, the Australians, the Norwegians, the British and the World Bank, read PNG the riot act: clean up, or we will move out. If the report never appears, and the previous head of the office of climate change is merely bumped on to a cosy job in some quiet corner somewhere, perhaps in the diplomatic service, then the donors need to be ready to walk away. The point about getting a good deal is that you have to be prepared to walk away if the other side isn't playing by the rules. If there is no credible threat of a deal failing, then there is no chance of a credible deal.