Friday, December 31, 2010

Escaping the ivory tower

Interesting article by Nancy Baron in the journal Nature which makes a passionate case for why scientists should engage with journalists.

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

The disposable academic

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.”

[Read more...]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Santa school is coming to town

My husband Bruce has just made a short film about an English Santa School which can be found on the BBC News website. Amusing.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


SpaceX has just launched its Dragon capsule into orbit. We have blogged about this on the Economist's Sci/Tech blog Babbage.

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.

Singing the blues

The annual bluefin tuna bust up closes in Paris.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Climbing Mount Publishable

TWENTY years ago North America, Europe and Japan produced almost all of the world’s science. They were the aristocrats of technical knowledge, presiding over a centuries-old regime. They spent the most, published the most and patented the most. And what they produced fed back into their industrial, military and medical complexes to push forward innovation, productivity, power, health and prosperity.

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.

What's up pussycat?

Just posted an Economist blog about why tiger farming is the way to save the tiger.

* Image: Malene Thyssen

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Take me to your leader

Sometimes Economist readers spot the punchline I missed.

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


In Britain the relatively new government is struggling to overcome a mountain of debt. Lots of radical plans for cutting the budget have been proposed. What is most fascinating is the reaction of all sorts of vested interests to budget cuts. Every day there is a new story about how disastrous it is all going to be, leading to riots, terrorism or a cultural black hole.

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

Lord of the dance

A fun story about what makes a man's dance moves attractive to women...

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

Testing times for genetics

In America, the backlash against consumer genetics has begun. If you have ever been interested in what secrets your genes might hold, take note. In the near future, your right to spit into a tube, and have someone tell you what this means might be constrained. In short, governments of all sorts have begun to wonder whether you should be trusted with your own DNA.

Our healthcare correspondent wrote a piece in the Business Section on the issue of August 14th. I wrote a leader (op-ed), and followed it up with a blog post on our technology blog Babbage. This post is the latest installment in a sequence about consumer genomics.

I felt from the start of this story that the GAO report was strangely flawed. By that I mean it seemed determined to inflict the maximum damage on the industry using incorrect and flawed information.

I'm now fascinated to read that the genetics blogger Daniel MacArthur, is now seeking full access to the full transcripts and data used by the GAO. Presumably through FOI legislation.

Behind the scenes there is speculation that the FDA put the GAO up to this report in order to ask for money to regulate the industry.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fruit research institute squashed in Moscow court

Read my latest Economist post about the Pavlovsk genebank and fears over its imminent demise.

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

Incredible diversity in the ocean discovered...

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.

Image: NOAA

Seeds of change

An alarming situation is unfolding in Russia, where a valuable repository for plant genetic diversity, which contains valuable varieties of berry, could be bulldozed in order to build luxury housing. Read about it on Eastern Approaches, The Economist's blog.

* Image: David Monniaux

Sorry, Stephen

Scientist Stephen Schneider died recently.

In 2002, The Economist wrote about him. It was after he got involved in the debate about a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist (which The Economist thought was rather good).

“The fuss over Mr Lomborg highlights an attitude among some media-conscious scientists that militates not just against good policy but against the truth. Stephen Schneider, one of Scientific American's anti-Lomborgians, spoke we suspect not just for himself when he told Discover in 1989: “[We] are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place...To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have...Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” In other words, save science for other scientists, in peer-reviewed journals and other sanctified places. In public, strike a balance between telling the truth and telling necessary lies.

Science needs no defending from Mr Lomborg. It may very well need defending from champions like Mr Schneider.”

A few months later I was in a lecture given by Stephen Schneider where he was talking to scientists about why they should reach out to the public about their research findings. He was explaining the risks and benefits of advocacy. One of the risks, he explained, was that your words would be distorted in order to attack you. Then he showed The Economist editorial and how his words had been selectively quoted back in 1989 and really read like this:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but - which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Let us be clear about what Schneider said he stood for: He never approved of lying in order to win public approval. He never approved of the ends justifying the means. What he wanted was for scientists to come out of their ivory towers and speak up on behalf of their science.

"Staying out of the fray is not taking the high road, its just passing the buck", he said.

But in his many talks to scientists about advocacy, he had to warn them to be careful about the line they must walk as human beings and as scientists. And so his warning was that as human beings they would want to argue passionately for what they believe in and ignore caveats. But that as scientists they had to work entirely differently.

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 always clear that he personally strove to be effective and honest. That was his point. He hoped for others that would mean doing both.

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.

Updated: I forgot to link to our excellent Obituary about Schneider, which I did not write.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How big is the palm oil problem in Indonesia?

One of the letters I received about my recent palm oil piece questioned whether palm oil was a really a significant component of deforestation in Indonesia.

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

Oiling the wheels of change

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.

Why the Science Media Centre's Fiona Fox is wrong (this time)...

So Roy Greenslade at The Guardian reblogged my earlier post about Jonathan Leake at The Sunday Times.

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.

In a 1,400 word article on her blog today, Fiona argues thoughtfully around every corner of the issue about why Jonathan Leake was wrong to write about a story he must have known was embargoed. Buried in the penultimate paragraph are the 14 most important words:

"Perhaps there are lessons learned about how information and abstracts from a conference are distributed"


Irrespective of Jonathan's alleged track record, irrespective of how much he gets up everyone's noses, irrespective of whether one personally likes or dislikes Jonathan..... you cannot embargo public information.

I'm not trying to portray Jonathan as the ideal of jobbing journalism by not playing by the rule book of how scientific information is distributed. I'm not even saying that this is a debate about the future of embargoes. What I'm trying to say, quite clearly, is that public information officers don't get to blame journalists for their own mistakes. Nor do they then have the right to email the media the equivalent of a press release, blaming their mistake on someone else. I don't for a moment imagine that The Sunday Times would take this to court, but lets be serious here, ESHRE's email to the press is actionable.

Jonathan is basically an easy target for the ESHRE to draw attention from the fact that they published their own embargoed material in advance of the embargo. Please lets not get diverted down a rabbit hole about why embargoes are important or navel gazing about how the embargo system is good for public health.

For the love of all that is rational: If any embargo was broken it was ESHRE that broke the embargo not Leake.

The fastest way to bringing the embargo system into disrepute is to embargo public information and expect journalists, like sheep, to stick to this.

A note to readers. This blog has been updated at Fiona's request. She says the email she sent out earlier (and subsequently forwarded to myself and a number of other journalists) was private.

A note to commenters. You are welcome to offer comments for publication on this blog, positive or negative. However, I reserve the right to summarily reject spiteful, irrelevant or anonymous comments. In particular comments that comprise all three. Sock puppetry is not endorsed on this blog. And, guess what, I know who you are anyway.

Monday, June 28, 2010

In praise of Jonathan Leake

One of the dirty little secrets of journalism is that many writers agree to be bound by something called an embargo. A press notice is put out that specifies the time and date at which the information in the notice can be published.

Journalists agree to this system when they benefit. One of the reasons they benefit is that they don’t miss out on stories, they know what is coming up. What is more, if the subject matter is complicated, such as science, it benefits the journalist if they have a day or two to verify the information in the release.

The people who issue press releases find this system generally guarantees better coverage of a news story both in terms of quality and quantity. If one newspaper runs a story ahead of the others, the rest will be reluctant to follow it up and thus acknowledge the scoop. An embargo means everyone crosses the finish line at the same time.

The trouble is that this finishing line tends to suit the daily journalists more than the weeklies or the monthlies. So some journalists choose to work outside of the system. Rather than relying on hand-outs from press offices, they hunt down their own stories. They are far closer to a model of journalism that we all might admire.

It was pretty surprising, then, to receive this email from the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), regarding a broken embargo from their meeting in Rome this week. It read:

Jonathan Leake at the Sunday Times (again!) has broken the embargo and run the story today. The Sunday Times is already barred from all our media database and from the ESHRE website, so there is little further action that we can take against Jonathan Leake and his paper. We will, however, be informing Eurekalert and Alphagalileo of his actions.”

The story the Sunday Times published was about how a simple test will allow the prediction of the age of menopause. It was a good story. And ESHRE’s email sounds damning. But the problem is that Mr Leake did not actually break the embargo because, as the same email explained, he is “already barred” from ESHRE’s media database so didn’t receive a press release in the first place.

As Mr Leake confirms he picked up the story by having the downright audacity to read the abstracts on the ESHRE’s website. I asked him what happened, and with no shame, he describes his heinous crimes:

“I read through all the abstracts and picked ones that I thought would make interesting stories. None of them appeared to have any embargo notices and all were, in any case, completely available for anyone to read”.

Indeed, Mr Leake also pointed out that he had previously run another story from these same abstracts, with no complaints.

It has since become clear that a “technical error” was the reason why the abstracts were available for all to see. But Ms Mason is unrepentant, and continues to blame Mr Leake. In her latest statement she says that their policy is clearly stated on the ESHRE website and this is that embargoes lift “at the time of presentation to the meeting, unless otherwise stated”.

I’m not sure what planet Ms Mason lives on but on planet Earth I don’t believe that anyone can be criticised for breaking a promise they never made. Nor, for that matter, for not abiding by a policy that a “technical error” rendered irrelevant. Ms Mason tells me, reassuringly, that “he knew what he was doing”. It is a pity, then, that the same cannot be said for ESHRE.

Ultimately all this squirming is just nonsense. Either the information was public or it wasn’t. If it was public, then it can be reported—no matter what notice you put on the website. If it was private, it needed to be behind a password-protected area which would have excluded Mr Leake. This is all so obvious that it is astonishing it needs stating.

Moreover, what is also surprising is that this email criticising Mr Leake was sent without calling him to check the facts. This is all sadly starting to be a familiar refrain. We heard it last year with Paul Sutherland (Life on Mars). I’ve heard it again and again in my years as a journalist. Embargoes are broken and some journalist who was not part of the system is maligned for doing his job.

When people who have worked hard on press releases find their work ruined by the actions of a lone journalist outside their network, the instinct is to assign blame on the journalist. I’m afraid this does not wash. Embargoes are meaningless if the information is already available. I can slap an embargo on the results of the previous general election, that doesn't make it mean anything.

And the embargo system cannot be enforced through the bullying of journalists who choose not to work with this system. The ESHRE ought to apologise to Mr Leake, and do so quickly.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Its only a phone

I had a reservation for a new Iphone from Apple today. Little did I realise that this would entitle me to arrive on the first day of launch and queue like a moron for up to 10 hours. So I went home empty handed. But I blogged about it on Economist's Babbage. Oh, and I posted the blog using the wifi at the Apple store in Regent's Street. Hehehe heh heh.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How did we get here?

Only two years ago The Stern Review concluded that preventing deforestation was a vital step towards curbing climate change. In his summary report he wrote: "At a national level, defining property rights to forestland, and determining the rights and responsibilities of landowners, communities and loggers, is key to effective forest management. This should involve local communities, respect informal rights and social structures, work with development goals and reinforce the process of protecting the forests."

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.


Reader Lucas Winston sends link with further background to new law.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

In deep water

I've been working on the oil spill. Over the weekend my piece picked up significant traffic on the website. In the office, it has been all hands on deck for a special report. And I've just posted a blog about the Deepwater Response website.

Friday, April 30, 2010


In the last few weeks The Economist has started up a new technology blog called Babbage. I've been posting a few items on this. I suspect that it is an attempt by my employer to mop up every last creative word that I have inside of me, and the attempt seems to be working. Since Babbage launched I've not posted a thing.

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.

Recent articles

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.)

Endangered species
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

Error limits at CITES

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.

The story so far..

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...)

Eaten away
A ban on the trade in bluefin tuna is rejected, Mar 18th 2010

Fin times

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

Selling wildlife


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

Heading for Doha

The CITES meeting has just started in Doha and running until the 25th of March...

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

Green vs Green

A Bolivian rainforest conservation project Noel Kempff comes in for a bit of kicking in The Guardian's Greenwash column. This picks up on John Hari's piece in The Nation earlier this month. And Chris Lang also mentions it in a recent REDD-Monitor. The basic premise of The Guardian piece, and the parts of The Nation piece that mention Noel Kempff, is that the project is a scam because it promised to avoid lots of CO2 emissions but didn't.

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. Check Spelling
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

Update from the forests of Papua New Guinea

As some readers of this blog will recall, I have written quite a bit in the last year about Papua New Guinea—particularly this country’s flirtation with generating carbon credits from its abundant forestry resources. (The idea being that payments will be made from the rich carbon emitting countries to the poorer countries who choose not to cut down trees and thereby avoid emissions of carbon associated with deforestation.)

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

Welcome to the genetic revolution

San Diego

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

Libel reform

* Picture creditRobert Sharp / English PEN

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.
Indeed, Britain's libel laws are causing so much trouble overseas several US states have introduced laws to protect American citizens from enforcement of legal settlements in foreign jurisdictions such as Britain. A federal law is before US Congress.

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.

Who writes Science and Technology at the Economist?

  • 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

Science in the courtroom

San Diego

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

Forest footprint disclosure

Last Wednesday, the Forest Footprint Disclosure (FDD) project unwrapped its first report in London. This new organisation, funded in part by the British government, aims to highlight the amount of forest destruction involved in big business. A "forest footprint" indicates the extent to which corporations are relying on unsustainable practices, such as rainforest destruction, to do business.

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

One-third less hungry

It never ceases to amaze me that some pieces of research are necessary. In the latest report from the Annals of Unsurprising Research, comes a study that shows that preventing humans from fishing is good for the other fish-eating animals. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society says that breeding African penguins spent one-third less time looking for food within three months of closing a 20-km zone to purse-seine fisheries around a major colony, while birds in a comparable colony 50km away increased their foraging effort.

Quantifying this sort of thing is probably helpful, but is it really that surprising?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ready to melt in 45 minutes

The year has barely started and already life seems to be running along at a fast clip. Glaciers that refuse to melt, biodiversity and ecosystems demanding payment, and a hole under the water line of the deforestation agenda. More, too, on PNG.

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 Copenhagen, and any international action on climate change, that would be bad for any actions to tackle the problem.

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 Japan.

Practically every country in the world signed up in 1992. The US signed but never ratified. It now keeps company with Andorra and The Vatican as the non-signatories. The question on my mind is whether it would make any difference if the US did ratify? Most of the meeting will likely be taken up with reports documenting the decline of biodiversity around the world, how none of our targets for stemming this decline have been met, and a promise to do better next time. Then everyone will eat some sushi and fly home. Are these big meetings really the answer or should we be addressing the drivers of environmental damage, such as the systematic undervaluation of environmental goods and services?

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 Copenhagen got agreement on what a global deal on deforestation might look like, and some (but nowhere near enough) money.. it failed to get an agreement to cut emissions, which is what was needed to create demand for slowing the rate of deforestation in the first place.

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.

As for Papua New Guinea, I think it is time the government announced what it wants to do about its failed investigation into the Office of Climate Change. Last year, a scandal emerged involving forest carbon credits that appeared to have been endorsed by the government, on behalf of the United Nations, and issued to a private company. Besides reports by Ilya Gridneff and myself, there have been two television documentaries about the carbon cowboys.

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.