Tuesday, 13 October 2009

I miss the Great Auk

I think it was Jeremy Clarkson (funny and clever, but an ass) who wrote a piece a while back asking if anyone missed extinct species, and why should we care. Well, I do. I miss them badly. Not the ones which died out a million years ago, but the ones I just slightly missed, whose time on earth almost overlapped with mine but not quite. The Great Auk is a classic example.

Once found throughout the North Atlantic, including Britain, the Great Auk was the original penguin. The latin for the Great Auk was Pinguinus, and the very word Penguin may derive from the Welsh Pen-Gwyn, or white head. When sailors from Europe sailed to the south seas and encountered flightless birds, they named them after what they already knew. That the thing we now call penguins are seen as exotic, while the creature they were named after is extinct is as good an example of baseline shift as I can think.

Biologically, the Great Auk was basically a fat razorbill that had lost the power of flight, and their similarity to what we now know as penguins is a wonderful example of convergent evolution - a process by  which animals evolve similar forms to fill the same ecological niche in a different part of the world. Like hedgehogs and porcupines or tenrecs.  

Sadly the Great Auks were hunted to extinction, with the last two killed on Iceland in the 1800s. 
The thing is I love penguins, but think of them as something far away and exotic. It saddens me to think that we had our own unique version just a few lifetimes ago, but I missed it.  I saw one stuffed in the Natural History Museum, and it made me feel sad. 

So anyway. I do care if animals go extinct. I can and do give scientific explanations for this in my work all the time, but I don't think I need to. The death of any species diminishes all of us.

Updated in April 2014

Trafigura and Carter-Ruck back down...

Trafigura and Carter-Ruck back down... it was all over the internet by lunchtime and they relented. Woohoo. 

Guardian stifled over polluting oil company?

So it seems that the Guardian have been prevented from reporting a parliamentary question published in the proceedings of parliament and due to be answered later this week. They can't tell us what about but it concerns the law firm Carter-Ruck and I suspect also the company Trafigura, which is said to have dumped a load of waste in Ivory Coast, killing and injuring many people, and then tried to hide it by saying that they gave it to a licensed disposal outfit, and that they didn't think it would do any harm(alledgedly).

This is a disgrace. A company, suspected of a flagrant breach of environmental law, and a newspaper not allowed to published a parliamentary question. It shows how the growing threat of libel is being used to stifle genuine issues of democratic and criminal debate.. while we all get distracted by stupid stories about MPs getting an extra £300 for gardening. It is also pretty daft as everyone who is interested will now know all about Trafigura and Carter-Ruck.

Here is a link to some info on Trafigura.

The Minton report about Trafiguras actions on wiki leaks - is this what they are worried about?é2009.pdf

Thursday, 8 October 2009

EON giving up, or changing tactics?

Okay, EON have announced that they are shelving a decision on a new coal power station at Kingsnorth for two or three years. Woohoo! This is a victory for the environmental movement and some credit must go to Milliband and the DECC for saying that any new coal power station must have carbon capture and storage installed. EONs unwilligness to do this indicates that this technology is not yet available to them, and was never really part of the plan (we knew that anyway, but hey).

However we need to be careful. This could simply be the company trying to blackmail the government into supporting them with fears of brownouts, or looking to the conservatives to give them the go ahead (see below).

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Tories cave in to coal?

So, the Tories have said that if elected they would immedeatly approve 5 GW of new coal power, fitted with carbon capture and storage. Really? Have the companies agreed to fit this straight away, when it does not yet exist? Or have the companies decided that they will fit it in 2020 or 2025 as they currently say they will, once it is cheap and the research has ben paid for by the tax payer. In the meantime we get 15 years of the most polluting form of energy and throw away any chance of securing a progressive climate deal. And what if the CCS doesn't work? Will the plants be shut down?

A bad, bad idea, and a step back from Milliband's already shaky progress on this (he said that only plants with CCS demonstration units would be allowed to be built. Not much, but better than this).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Monbiot is wrong, population does matter

I have tremendous respect for George Monbiot, but on one thing at least I think he is mistaken. In a recent blog on the Guardian he asserts that it is not rampant population growth which is the main problem for the environment, but excessive consumption by the rich. Surely the problem is both?

To begin with the populations of the ‘developing’ countries are now so high that they actually emit more carbon than the developed countries, despite their lower per capita emissions (53% of emissions in 2007 came from developing countries). We must also not forget the fact that these per capita emissions can rise very quickly – China for example now has higher per capita emissions than Sweden and around 60% those of the UK. Thank goodness its population is not growing, but imagine how much easier it would be if it had stabilised at 1 billion instead of 1.33 billion? Similarly, one can imagine that it would be much easier for India to provide for its increasingly aspirant population had their demographic growth stabilised at 500 million, its 1970s level, instead of its current 1 billion plus. This is not really the issue I want to discuss, however. There is another problem I would like to think about.

Let us for a moment assume that we wave a magic wand and introduce an international carbon allowance for every person on the planet. This would be equal for everyone currently alive – the fairest way to do things. For argument’s sake we can set this at 2 tonnes per person. A dramatic reduction for developed countries (especially the US, UAE, Canada, Australia) but a nearly 50% increase for the poorest. Let us also assume that this system is working, with minimal corruption or trade.

In countries with largely stable populations, these credits would be effectively handed down through the generations, and new lifestyles and technology would enable the maximisation of wealth within these emission boundaries. For poor countries there would initially be a bonanza as they are enabled to nearly double emissions (up from 1.3 tonnes per person for countries like Bangladesh or India). However, within 25 years, thanks to population growth the number of people in these countries would have doubled. What happens then? Each person is back to 1 tonne each, less than they currently emit. Obviously the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide will not have increased, so these countries will either need more credits from the population-stable countries, or halve the allowance for each individual every twenty five years. Some credits may be available, but not indefinitely. In the meantime the stable population countries will be able to maintain their standards of living, and as new technology is introduced to cater for the ever shrinking allowances of the high-growth countries, they will be able to capitalise on this too – staying rich, while the high growth countries halve their allowances every 25 years. Essentially, an ever growing population perpetuates poverty.

Okay, obviously this is a simplified case, which does not and will never exist. It seems likely that increased wealth in these countries would reduce population anyway. The point is that excess consumption is the problem, whether by a few hundred thousand rich people, billions of poor people, or the billion in the middle. We need to tackle both. We must do away with the concept of the ‘right to pollute’ and look at ways of developing technology which allows zero-carbon growth. And let’s not forget that growing populations, wherever they are, place extra strain on the environment in other ways, through their need for land, water, fish and food. Tackling this, will make dealing with all these problems, while alleviating poverty far simpler.