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Monday, December 22, 2003

Happy Christmas and 2004... and Send A Cow
I am off for my Christmas break so, while I'm away, will leave you with the following entry on the fantastic Send A Cow charity.

My thanks to everyone who has helped to steer me through the ups and downs of my PhD (Mum, Dad, Geraldine, Pip, Graham, George, Oliver, Erica, Paul J, Justin M, Roo, WildCRU) and to Rebecca B, Jacci G, Jez, Roger H + Alex K, who have inspired + encouraged me to keep on producing Earth Info.

Wishing you all a Happy Christmas + 2004! Matt

P.S. It's great to hear that Mark H, a friend from Leicester Uni days, has just been released. Christmas is already off to a flying start!

If you would like to buy a present that really transforms someone's life this Christmas, Earth-Info.Net would like to recommend a visit to the Send A Cow website.

This charity was set up in 1988 when UK farmers sent greatly needed cows to Uganda at the end of a long and brutal civil war...

Now all cows are locally sourced and it is possible for you to help communities very directly by sponsoring the purchase of a cow, goats, pigs, poultry, bees or fruit-tree saplings.

If you don't have much money it is also possible to contribute a smaller amount towards a share in one of these sources of food, independence + income or at the other end of the scale... to go the whole hog and provide a whole farm yard!

As part of the deal recipient farmers have to give the first female offspring of their gift to another impoverished family and preference is generally given to helping women (who are often amongst the poorest in society), the disabled or those suffering from AIDS or orphaned by it.

For those of you in the US, Send A Cow's partner organisation in the US is called Heifer International.

As a means of enabling individuals + families to help themselves and one another Earth-Info.Net struggles to think of a better cause to support...

Friday, December 19, 2003

River Water Quality, Downstream Extraction, Bill
The Today programme is having a bit of fun looking for ideas from the public which it could try to have turned into law...

I've had a think + submitted the following to their Listener's Law site:

"I would like to suggest that those responsible for polluting rivers should be made responsible for paying their fair share of the cost of cleaning up the environment.

This could be done by only allowing polluting industries to extract river water from sites that are downstream of their own outlet pipes.

This simple measure would mean that businesses could not pollute river water in ways which effect others, but not themselves, and that businesses would have a personal/commercial interest in making sure that the water they release into the environment is as clean as, or cleaner than, when first extracted.

This elegant step for internalising the cost of environmental damage was first suggested by Prof. Sir Richard Southwood in a 1988 paper written for NATO on how to reduce the levels of pollution in the river Danube, which currently increase, as it passes through Europe.

Surprise at UK export credit agency's pipeline claims
Human rights + environment groups (including Corner House, Platform, Friends of the Earth + the Kurdish Human Rights Project) that have been investigating BP's highly controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline have called the decision by the UK Government to provide $150 million in support for the project politically motivated. The project would see a 1,750 km oil pipeline being built through Turkey, Georgia + Azerbaijan.

The groups expressed surprise at the benefits the UK Government's Export Credits Guarantee Department claimed would come from the Baku project, given that many of the claims are contradicted by readily available evidence.

It includes claims that the pipeline "will serve to promote regional stability", despite the fact that in the past two months, there has been a revolution in one of the pipeline's host countries, Georgia; elections in Azerbaijan that have been called "fraudulent" by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe; and major bomb attacks Turkey.

Similarly the Government touts "the establishment of high quality operations to international standards", when a recent report from the Baku-Ceyhan Campaign identified no fewer than 173 violations of mandatory World Bank standards.

The UK Government's Export Credits Guarantee Department's claim that "significant temporary employment will be created" comes in the same week that workers building the pipeline in Georgia went on strike in protest at reportedly receivingless than 50 US cents a day.

Hannah Griffiths of Friends of the Earth said:

The UK Government shouldn't be using taxpayers' money to support projects that will further fuel climate change. We're bitterly disappointed that despite its so-called commitments to the environment, ECGD is still supporting unsustainable projects.

Anders Lustgarten of the Baku-Ceyhan Campaign said:

"It's clear the UK Government has decided to back the Baku project for the same reason everybody else has: massive political pressure from the US."

Greg Muttitt of Platform, one of the groups involved in the campaign, added:

We presented the Export Credits Guarantee Department with extensive research showing how the pipeline violates their own standards on numerous counts. It seems the standards don't count for much.

Kerim Yildiz, of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, another group in the campaign, said:

The ECGD maintains that the project complies with international human rights and environmental standards. This is clearly not the reality. The Kurdish Human Rights Project is in the process of submitting cases to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of a large number of villagers, who state that their human rights have already been violated.

Nick Hildyard of the Corner House said:

The Government has recognised the project is not yet satisfactory and has set conditions before cover is made available. No money should be provided until the public has been able to comment on the conditions and on BP's fulfilment of them. Taxpayers must be satisfied that BP has addressed longstanding concerns over compensation and new allegations - admitted by BP - of faulty welding.

North Sea cod are still under pressure, despite expert advice to close fishery
Although independent marine scientists recently produced a report which recommended the complete closure of the North Sea's cod fishery in order to prevent its collapse, the UK's fisheries minister, Ben Bradshaw, today claimed satisfaction that, after late-night negotiations cod quota levels will be allowed to stay at the same as they were last year.

At present the cod fishery contains about 53,000 tonnes of cod, rather than the 150,000 tonnes considered necessary in order to support a sustainable fishing industry, and these low levels are unlikely to recover without stocks being allowed to recover, undisturbed for several years...

The latest round of political horse trading indicate that these initial measures to reduce fishing pressure may be inadequate, taken too late or undermined by the problem of mixed fishery issues (where cod are accidentally caught + killed, as a by-catch, along side less endangered fish, such as haddock)...

If you want to help, it might be a good idea to avoid eating cod.

Matt visits the BBC's Today Programme
On Wednesday, I spent the day at BBC Radio 4's Today programme, as a guest of the show's environment correspondent Roger Harrabin.

I had a very interesting day seeing how this 3 hour-long morning news programme is structured, presented, editted + planned and was extremely impressed by all that I saw + experienced - even if my attempt to interview American economist Joel Waldfogel for this piece on the inefficiency of Christmas gift-giving proved much more difficult than I expected... though hopefully you can't tell if you listen to the finished product!

Thanks for a hugely memorable + fun day Roger!

Monday, December 15, 2003

A recent report by the Overseas Development Insititute estimates that 150 million people - 1 in 8 of the world's poor - depend on wildlife for both protein + income.

In the Congo basin alone, the harvest of "bushmeat" now amounts to 5,000,000 tonnes per annum and concern is growing that these unsustainable + unregulated levels of trade will soon threaten the survival of several endangered species, including elephants + great apes.

According to this BBC report, the environment minister of Cameroon, Chief Clarkson Oben Tanyi-Mbianyor, is currently in London to attend a conference organised by the Bushmeat Campaign, and asking the UK to assist his country by funding the recruitment + training of eco-guards, and the development of alternative sources of income which will keep local people out of the forest.

Many of England's special sites (SSSIs) need improvement
The first definitive survey of the condition of England's legally protected wildlife + geological sites has been completed after six years by English Nature, the Government's independent wildlife advisers, and results published in a report entitled England’s best wildlife and geological sites: the condition of sites of special scientific interest in England in 2003.

The survey involved the detailed assessment of 4,112 English sites of special scientifici interest (SSSIs), covering 1,050,708 ha (2,596,000 acres), about 7% of England, and is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Of the sites inspected, 58% of SSSIs by area were found to be in good condition, but 42% needed improvement, while 16% were classified as being in "unfavourable + declining" condition.

The government has made a commitment to ensure 95% of all SSSIs are in favourable condition by 2010. However, the head of English Nature Dr. Andy Brown, has said that this will require investment, alongside changes to legislation and the reform of environmentally-damaging policies.

The biggest threats to special sites are overgrazing, inappropriate moorland burning and coastal management, and problems with freshwater quality + quantity - in particular pollution from diffuse (hard to identify or multiple) sources.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

HRW report on preventable civilian deaths in Iraq
A major report by Humans Right Watch called Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq criticises the US, the UK + the former Iraqi government for their conduct during the recent war.

The report:

* Criticizes U.S. air strikes on electrical + media facilities

* Says the U.S. and British forces did not secure large caches of weapons + ammunition abandoned by Iraqi forces, and the ready availability of these explosives also led to dozens of civilian casualties.

* Estimates that the use of cluster munitions in populated areas caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the coalition´s conduct of major military operations in March and April.

* Says U.S. and British forces used almost 13,000 cluster munitions, containing nearly 2,000,000 submunitions, that killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians.

* That “decapitation” strikes (which used satellite phone intercepts to try to eliminate prominent members of the Iraqi elite located within 100m of a signal) failed to kill a single Iraqi leader, in 50 attempts, but did kill dozens of civilians.

* Iraqi forces, are also criticised for their use of human shields, abuse of the Red Cross + Red Crescent emblems, use of antipersonnel landmines, and placement of military objects in mosques + hospitals.

* The Iraqi military´s practice of wearing civilian clothes also eroded the distinction between combatants + civilians

Renewable energy + planning rules in the UK
The Yes 2 Wind weblog deserves a visit.

It documents the planning saga experienced by a farmer trying to put 5, Vestas 850, wind turbines on his farmland in Oxfordshire - against opposition from some locals + the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Due to the difficulties this farmer + others in the renewable energy sector are encountering during the local planning process the UK's deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, is now consulting on a document called planning policy statement 22 (PPS22) which firmly tells regional planning bodies + local councils in England that they are expected to encourage rather than restrict the development of renewable energy projects.

In particular, it instructs them to adopt "positive" policies on renewables, which must not be "undermined" by other policy issues (i.e. on the grounds of subjective visual impact policies), and warns that if they do not toe the line, the Government will intervene in order to permit the UK to meet national + international targets for the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases, including the goal to cut the UK's carbon dioxide emissions by some 60% by 2050, with real progress by 2020.

If you live in the UK, and would like to encourage the development of wind power, you can sign up with Juice, a collaboration between Greenpeace and electricity supplier nPower, and help to use electricity generated by a new wind farm located off the North Wales coast.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Intelligent Energy: Combined Heat and Power + Stirling engines
Last week Earth-Info.Net attended a presentation given by a company called Microgen who produce domestic combined heat and power (CHP or co-generation) units.

Their wall mounted units use natural gas to produce hot water, heating + electricity within individual households.

Micro CHP units are very efficient, as they allow hot water to be produced on demand, heating to be generated without energy disappearing up power station chimnies, and electricity to be produced without the losses associated with dissipation over long-distance transmission lines (see the illustration on page 4 of their brochure).

These units combine a modern boiler (that produces low carbon dioxide emissions) with a sterling engine, that can be used to generate electricty...

A sterling engine is a highly efficient (up to 50% of the theoretical maximum), four phase external combustion engine invented, in 1816, by a Scottish clergyman, Rev. Robert Sterling, who was shocked at the danger exploding steam engines then posed to his parishioners.

There are now two main types of sterling engine, both of which rely on a external heat source causing gas within a cylinder to expand, while cooler air contracts in another part of the engine, resulting a flow of air that can, when carefully timed, be used to drive pistons.

Normally, this is done via either two strokes (one hot + one cold) within a single cylinder or single strokes within two cylinders (this will probably only make sense if you look at the animations these two links offer!).

Combined heat and power was first brought to Earth-Info.Net, as an emerging trend, by one of the alternate scenario reports produced by Shell, called Energy Needs, Choices + Possibilities.

This report and the others in the series are of general interest because they give well argued hints as to the social, economic and resources issues that what will be driving decision making within big business, government + society over the next 20-50 years.

Many of the scenarios are quite alarming, especially if you are poor, have low skills or need to import energy... they also suggest that the companies and countries which are slow to learn about, prepare for, and adapt to, new types and sources of global change, including energy supply, will be left in increasingly vulnerable positions.

Private sector fallibility + food security
The BBC's Alex Kirby is producing a series of reports from Ethiopia which touch on many profound issues + merit wider consideration...

Alex's first report includes an interview with Ethiopia's equivalent of an environment minsiter, Dr. Teowolde Egziabher, a hero of last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development who prevented the WTO being given supremacy over international environment agreements, and now complains of the rich world's obsession with finding private sector solutions to development problems and the difficulties this causes in Ethiopia, where the private sector is not well developed, people are poor + profit margins low.

Interestingly, Dr. Teowolde says that he does not exclude the use of genetically modified crops in solving Ethiopia's food security problems, but he is not happy that the use of this technology is driven by vested interests, that the private sector is treated as a god when it is in fact fallible + that he would feel happier if the results of GM research were in public hands.

In another article, Alex interviews poor farmers who have benefitted from a micro-credit scheme being piloted by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) + the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture which enables them to invest in an infrastructure that would not otherwise be possible.

To date, these new funds have helped to buy two water pumps (which ensure fields produce good crops on a more reliable basis) + to establish a dairy business which generates a small income and should eventually permit the village to buy a small tractor.

See also, Alex's recent report on the outbreak of rabies which threatens the already critically endangered Ethiopian Wolf.

Friday, December 12, 2003

COP9 in Milan + changes in CO2 emissions since 1990
The 9th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 9) is finishing in Milan after two weeks of talks designed to monitor developments in the science of climate change and permit countries to formally ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which outlines a legal frame work for regulating cuts in greenhouse gases.

The science of climate change is now relatively robust + widely accepted, although it continues to be refined, and the research by the re-insurer Munich Re has calculated that natural disasters, most of them caused by extreme weather, cost the world more than US$60 billion in 2003.

Unfortunately, a Republican US senator is still busily suggesting that climate change is a hoax (on what scientific basis this statement is made is unclear, although it obviously makes good copy) and the Russians are wobbling over whether they will help to trigger agreed international cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, or not.

Despite this meeting failing to live up to its promise, as a result of humanity blinking yet again, this event does offer a good opportunity to recap what the existing situation is, with regard to CO2 emissions by some of major nations...

China has cut its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 17% while its economy has grown by 33%.

The US accounts for 36% of global CO2 emissions, and has increased its CO2 emissions by 16% above 1990 levels despite initially agreeing to cut emissions by 6%.

The 15 nations of the EU have had varying degrees of success in reducing their CO2 emissions, but overall increased their emissions by 1% in 2001.

India's CO2 emissions have increased, from an relatively low level, by 52% since 1990... as a developing country, with a low level of economic development and per capita emissions, India has been offered a period of grace before it will also need to make cuts.

In 2002, Russia said that it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol but it has since vacillated on when exactly and under what circumstances it will actually do so. Due to the collapse in the Russian economy CO2 emissions have dropped by 40% below 2002 levels. Having made these cuts Russia is keen to support emissions trading, but will also want to sell natural gas without being penalised.

In the absence of the US signing up, the participation of Russia is essential if 55 countries responsible for emitting 55% of CO2 are to ratify, and thus activate the Kyoto Protocol.

To date countries accounting for 44% of emissions have ratified, and it is thought Russia may be holding out for a deal which will pay for improved energy efficiency within its aging industrial base.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Improving aid effectiveness + efficiency
Earth-Info.Net has noticed a growing trend for international development aid to be endlessly fiddled with, cut or otherwise manipulated in order to fulfill short-term political goals.

This may be inevitable, especially when most aid is allocated by democratic national governments that have to be elected by their own people on a regular basis, but a global NGO partnership called Interaction has produced a timely report called Foreign Assistance in Focus: Emerging Trends which outlines some of the problems that a narrow, selfish + short-term agenda can create, and suggests reforms which would greatly improve the effectiveness + efficiency of US aid...


The Administration is dispersing responsibilities and resources so widely that the delivery and impact of foreign aid may well fall far short of expectations, both in countries of strategic interest and on a global basis.

The creation of new entities alongside a diminished – but otherwise unreformed – U.S. Agency for International Development is leading to increased fragmentation of resources and responsibilities, confusion externally about who is in charge, and a loss of coherence in the field as multiple federal agencies pursue similar goals with little coordination. Recent changes in foreign aid structures have been implemented in an ad hoc manner, often with little transparency and consultation with stakeholders, or consideration of lessons learned from the United States’ long experience in foreign aid.

Just as importantly, the Administration’s failure to meet funding pledges and the escalating costs of “extraordinary” relief and reconstruction activities in Iraq and Afghanistan threaten to undercut new initiatives and reduce, rather than strengthen, support for on-going humanitarian and development programs around the world.


* A full-scale review of U.S. foreign assistance programs, organizational structures, implementing mechanisms, and interrelated policies on aid, trade and debt in the developing world, conducted with the support of the Administration, Congress and the development community.

* Interim steps to strengthen existing foreign aid structures, particularly USAID.

* Immediate steps to address the fragmentation of foreign assistance, with greater policy consistency and clarity and improved coordination both in Washington and the field.

* A balance in U.S. foreign aid programs between activities aimed at short- and long-term impact, recognizing the importance of long-term development to lasting and sustainable change.

* Fulfillment of the President’s pledges to substantially increase overall foreign assistance levels by maintaining and enhancing traditional humanitarian and development assistance levels in addition to funding new initiatives like the MCA.

At the domestic level, while living in Australia, Earth-Info.Net witnessed the diversion of funds that were raised from the privatisation of the national telecoms operator, Telstra, away from the study and conservation of critically endangered plants and animals towards community projects during the run up to federal elections so is aware that this sort of cynical, short-term behaviour isn't new.. although it remains disappointing.

While I'm on the topic of Australia... Since I returned to the UK the Great Barrier Reef has been granted some extra, much needed + delayed protection, while the ancient Styx forest in Tasmania remains under threat from woodchippers, who will use the forest's ancient trees to make cardboard...

Hacking attack downs sister websites
The server I use to host the www.earthsummit.info and Oxford Earth Summit webpages and Earth-Info.Net's bookshop has been hacked again, and will unfortunately be offline for a few days. Sorry about this. Matt

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Trained rats, elephant pepper + sport fishing
The World Bank is funding a development project which will use trained rats to detect tuberculosis in the saliva of people in Tanzania.

The powerful sense of smell + trainability of rats has already been used, by an NGO called Apopo, to detect landmines in Mozambique.

Teams of trained rats will enable doctors to screen large numbers of people for TB, with a high level of accuracy, and to identify patients at early stages in the disease when they will respond better to treatment.

Other funded projects include:

The Taimen Conservation Fund in Mongolia, which will use it's money to organise a sport fishing scheme designed to conserve both traditional human communities + threatened habitats.

In Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique the Elephant Pepper project will promote the cultivation of chili as lucrative cash crop + a deterrent for elephants and buffalo.

Follow this link to find out about all of the other projects given up to $250,000 by the World Bank's Development Market scheme.

"No technical solution problems", tick-tack-toe + morality
The prestigious scientific journal, Science has just completed a four-week series of special editions addressing different aspects of the State of the Planet.

These editions have addressed Population + Biodiversity, Fisheries, Soils, and Food Security, Freshwater Resources + the Energy Picture and Air Quality + Climate Change.

Next week a related special issue that will commemorate the 35th anniversary of the publication of the late Garrett Hardin's classic essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons."

This essay should be well worth a look as Hardin's paper asks whether it is possible to achieve philosopher Jeremy Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number".

Hardin also discusses the need to consider the rules of any game before attempting to achieve a particular outcome, and to think about the changes in human behaviour, based on morality, required to solve problems which do not have technical/technological solutions.

Americans "behaving like teenagers" over climate change
This morning John Humphrys conducted an interesting interview with Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation and Sir Crispin Tickell, a former UK ambassador to the UN, about the future of the Kyoto agreement on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme.

Andrew Simms suggested that the EU should calculate the value of the free ride the US is taking as a result of refusing to sign up to the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions proposed under the Kyoto Protocol, and raise the costs of inaction by imposing economic sanctions.

Mr. Simms also said that assessments made by the insurance industry indicate the rising economic costs of global warming are threatening future economic growth, that "We are about half a century away from being ecologically + economically bankrupt because of global warming" and that "There is only a certain amount of time people can go around behaving like teenagers who don't have to care about anybody else..."

Sir Crispin, who originally suggested the use of environmental sanctions 20 years ago, was a little more diplomatic and said that many people were in denial about the threat posed by climate change, not just the Americans. He also pointed out that 12 US states and several major US companies are taking their own steps to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels, as required under the Kyoto Protocol.

On a related note it is interesting to learn about the backgrounds of some of the most vocal environmental skeptics over on www.rebeccablood.net

British Council relaunches the Daily Summit weblog
Earth-Info.Net is very pleased to see that the British Council-sponsored Daily Summit weblog (first launched to cover the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development) has been revived in order to produce incisive + up-to-date coverage of developments at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (5-8 December) and the World Summit on the Information Society (10-12 December).

Recent posts on the Daily Summit site include a discussion of how investment in radio, a low-cost technology already available to 80% of the world's population, as a development tool, has suffered as a result of heavy investment in the internet... which incidentally reaches far fewer people.

Also mentioned are the activities of a gay rights campaigner called Peter Tatchell who has criticised South Africa's "quiet diplomacy" in relation to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and said "What's the point of having these (human rights) laws if the Commonwealth and the rest of the international community refuses to use them?"...

Monday, December 01, 2003

World AIDS Day: "3 x 5" campaign launched
Today is World AIDS Day and to mark this occasion the UN's World Health Organization, UNAIDS and the Global Fund to fight Aids ,TB + Malaria have joined forces to unveil an action plan to reach the "3 by 5" target of providing antiretroviral treatment to 3,000,000 people living with AIDS by the end of 2005.

The WHO’s strategic framework for emergency scaling up of antiretroviral therapy contains 14 key strategic elements. These elements fall into five categories – the pillars of the 3 by 5 campaign:

* Global leadership, strong partnership and advocacy

* Urgent, sustained country support

* Simplified, standardized tools for delivering antiretroviral therapy

* Effective, reliable supply of medicines and diagnostics

* Rapidly identifying and reapplying new knowledge + successes

The build up to this initiative seems to have been particularly well co-ordinated and it is interesting to see different organisations from the UN system working together on a shared project.

Progress has also been made possible because drug companies, which have previously been more worried about protecting their intellectual property rights than saving millions of lives in the developing world, are increasingly prepared to permit their patented drugs to be made in cheap, generic forms by poor countries facing a medical emergency which threatens to undermine their society + future.

Another exciting development is that combinations of drugs (which can lose their effectiveness if used incorrectly) can now be delivered via single tablets or packets... a simple step which on its own should improve the success of traditionally rather complicated + difficult to manage multi-drug treatment programmes.

See here for a series of graphics, produced by the BBC, which illustrate the negative impacts of HIV in Africa in terms of reduced life expectancy, household incomes, food security, numbers of workers + the survival of parents...

Why not check out this letter that Christian Aid have suggested you send to the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, urging the UK to increase support for AIDS prevention + treatment, overseas aid + debt cancellation if you would like to do something constructive on this issue? It might just work...