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Thursday, January 15, 2004

Down-to-earth spending priorities?
There's some interesting juxtaposing of issues going on over at the BBC News Online website.

In a pro-human space exploration piece, their science editor, Dr. David Whitehouse, strongly praises "inspirational" US plans to spend (only!) $86 billion on NASA over the next 5 years...

While the more down-to-earth environment correspondent, Alex Kirby, reports on the World Economic Forum's Global Governance Initiative, which has concluded that the world's governments are failing to do nearly enough to fight global poverty - in terms of their own Millennium Developments Goals.

These, goals aim to halve the number of people living in poverty by 2015, and were signed up to by leaders from 189 countries, just over three years ago.

Unfortunately, governments are currrently spending only 1/3 of what is necessary in order to achieve these goals, and progress - as measured against a range of key indicators - has been depressingly meagre + patchy. This is especially the case given the scale of the task at hand, and the amount of time that has already elapsed...

Monday, January 12, 2004

Prevention is better than cure
Last year's Australian of the Year was Professor Fiona Stanley, the epidemiologist who discovered that giving a folate supplement to mothers could prevent their children from being born with spina bifida.

In a speech given to the National Press Club in Canberra, Prof. Stanley makes a rock solid case for tackling the underlying causes of problems, rather than overwhelmingly concentrating, as we usually do, on fighting their symptoms.

She illustrates her case by discussing the lost potential associated with not having health sevices geared to tackling high infant mortality in Aboriginal children and youth suicides in middle-income families...

One particularly striking quote from this talk is that "90% of the health dollar is spent on people who will be dead in 12 months".

This distribution of effort is understandable to an extent, but also suggests that many other health problems do not receive the resources that they need or deserve.

UN works to end obstetric fistula
Every year some 50,000-100,000 women sustain an obstetric fistula while giving birth.

Unless offered surgery, this internal tearing results in the mother leaking urine + faeces uncontrollably, which often leads to them being ostracised by those around them...

However, for as little as $60 this ailment can be treated, and the lives of sufferers transformed for the better...

Follow these links to find out what the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is doing to end fistula and make motherhood safer for women.

Margarine + cosmetics ingredient threatens the future of the Orangutans
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, our close primate relatives, the Orang-utans may go extinct in the wild within the next 20 years...

The loss of the Orangutans' rainforest habitat, which is often converted into oil palm plantations, is one of the greatest threats to the survival of this species, and is ironically being encouraged by consumers in Europe and the US...

This is because in the developed world, palm oil is used as an ingredient in cooking oil, soap, cosmetics + margarine and future demand for this oil is expected to grow considerably, with Indonesian government policies tending to support expansion of this cash-crop into areas of high conservation value. These areas are cleared by large-scale, difficult to control fires and generally result in monocultures with significantly reduced biodiversity.

The hunting of these long-lived, slow reproducing animals for the pet + bushmeat trades also means that the 20,000 - 30,000 individuals left in the wild are dying out in Borneo + Sumatra faster than they can be protected or replaced...

You can listen to a talk by Dr. Ashley Leiman of the Orangutan Foundation at the Oxford Earth Summit here

Key quotes from Ashley's April 2002 talk include:

"In 1900 there were approximately 315,000 orangutan, today it is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 survive in the wild."

"Indonesia occupies 1.3% of the world's land area yet it possesses 10% of the world's flowering plants, 12% of all mammal species, 17% of all reptiles and amphibian species and 17% of all bird species."

"Indonesia has some of the best legislation, it is all there, it's just not enforced."

Sunday, January 11, 2004

To infinity + beyond.... or closer to home?
Earth-Info.Net admits that it is interesting to see what the surface of Mars looks like, but seriously questions the values of any country (or planet!) that ranks the acquisition of this sort of knowledge above tackling fundamental problems of critical urgency + great practical use to its own safety + survival.

At the moment millions of people die of preventable diseases (either because they drink dirty water or lack access to a decent toilet), while overseas aid is dropping (despite commitments to the contrary), a great deal of biodiversity is being lost without ever being named or studied, many children don't have even a primary school education and other crucial work relies on charity in order to get done...

Are we seriously saying that investigating + protecting our farmlands, oceans or rainforests cannot be made as exciting as panaromic pictures of Mars?

Or that the US spending $15 billion on NASA in 2003, while the UK spent £4 million on the study of global biodiversity, correctly reflects the relative importance of scientific discoveries + knowledge about our own planet versus what it would be nice to know about outer space, if time + money were limitless?

Personally, Earth-Info.Net thinks that we should spend the $14-30 billion per annum needed to provide over 1 billion people with clean water before we spend $1,000,000,000,000 putting people on the Moon and then Mars... especially as the public became bored of travel to the Moon by the time Apollo 12 came along, and the novelty of the first landing had worn off!

UK chief scientist warns climate change is world's "biggest threat"
In an article for the journal Science, Prof. David King the UK government's chief scientific adviser has warned that climate change is the biggest threat to international security.

Threats associated with climate change include increased flooding, drought, hunger + the spread of debilitating diseases.

Prof. King also says that we cannot explain climate change over the last 100 years without invoking human-induced effects and that in less than 200 years we have seen a 50% increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases relative to pre-industrial levels.

This has resulted in carbon dioxide levels that are higher than they have been at any time in the past 420,000 years, and a measurable increase in the risk to our way of life in the UK, and worldwide.

Prof. King concludes that in order to cut greenhouse emissions by as much as will be necessary to stabilise the world's climate (approx. 60% by 2050) it is essential that US (which produces approx. 20% of the world's emissions) stands shoulder to shoulder with other countries and begins to engage in finding solutions to this international problem that are not voluntary or dependent on market mechanisms... as "if we do not begin now, more substantial, more disruptive, and more expensive change will be needed later on."

Shell's oil + gas reserves not as big as was thought
Oil company Shell has announced that it is cutting the size of its proven oil + gas reserves by 20%.

This reassessment has lead to a 7% drop in the company's share price and highlighted the fact that only 70 to 90% of extracted oil and gas reserves are being replaced by new discoveries.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

State of the World 2004: Worldwatch Institute annual report
In its annual report, State of the World 2004, the Worldwatch Institute says that the world is consuming goods + services at an unsustainable pace, with serious consequences for the well-being of people and the planet.

Around 1.7 billion people worldwide-more than a quarter of humanity-have entered the "consumer class," adopting the diets, transportation systems, and lifestyles that were limited to the rich nations of Europe, North America, and Japan during most of the last century. In China alone, 240 million people have joined the ranks of consumers-a number that will soon surpass that in the United States.

On the bright side, State of the World 2004 points to a range of opportunities that are already available to governments, businesses, and consumers to curb + redirect consumption. These include:

ECOLOGICAL TAX REFORM. By shifting taxes so that manufacturers have to pay for the harm they do to the environment, and by introducing production standards and other regulatory tools, governments can help minimize negative impacts on natural resources.

TAKE-BACK LAWS. Now being adopted by a growing number of governments around the world, these laws require companies to "take back" products at the end of their useful lives, and typically ban the landfilling + incineration of products.

DURABILITY. Industries can take shared responsibility for their ecological impacts by finding ways to reduce the amount of raw material needed to create products and by making goods more durable and easy to repair + upgrade.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Changes in consumption practices will also require millions of individual decisions that start at the grassroots-about everything from our use of energy + water to our consumption of food.

View the full report: State of the World 2004 here.

The need for new campaigning strategies
OneWorld.Net's Environmental Activism page has posted a link to an interesting article written for Society Guardian, by former UK environment minister John Gummer MP, on the recent loss of influence experienced by international NGOs...

Ironically, Mr. Gummer suggests that this loss of influence has happened just as many NGOs have succeeded in securing unparallelled access to governments + international summits.

In particular, the article highlights the problems campaigners face, in a world where shock tactics no longer work as they once did and the public is increasingly jaded + cynical.

At the same time, environmental + development NGOs have so far demonstrated wildly differing abilities to adapt to working from inside the corridors of power and of developing credible yet radical agendas capable of enhancing our debate of the options available to society.

Give a charity an old phone
A poll for Body Shop estimates that in the UK approx. 750,000 mobile phones have been thrown away since Christmas.

Incredibly, only 4% of people, who got new phones for Christmas, said that they would recycle their old one...

This is a real shame as there are now a number of companies that will recycle mobile phones intact or break them up their valuable components + materials...

One raw material, coltan, is extremely valuable and has played a large part in fuelling a war in the Democratic Rublic of the Congo which has claimed 3,000,000 lives.

It therefore makes sense to recycle old phones in order to protect people + the environment!

In the US you can recycle your mobile phone, pager or PDA at any Staples store or via the Collective Good website and donate funds to your chosen charity.

In the UK you can donate your phone to development charity Oxfam or, via any Body Shop, donate you phone to aid Refuge, a charity that works to protect women + children from domestic violence.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Thinking the unthinkable
Scientists at a conference hosted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, in Cambridge UK, plan to spend the next two days attempting to think the unthinkable in order to establish what macro-engineering options may offer realistic alternatives to the Kyoto Protocol if the mechanisms, for cutting concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, proposed under the 10-year old protocol fail to achieve the support needed in order to enter into force.

Alternatives under discussions will include:

* "sequestering" (storing) carbon dioxide, for example in the oceans, by removing it from the air for storage, or by improved ways of locking it up in forests

* "insolation management" - modifying the albedo (reflectivity) of clouds and other surfaces to affect the amount of the Sun's energy reaching the Earth

* climate design, for example by long-term management of carbon for photosynthesis, or by glaciation control

* impacts reduction, which includes stabilising ocean currents by river deviation, and providing large-scale migration corridors for wildlife.

Each alternative will be considered against a range of criteria including cost, feasibility, effectiveness, environmental impacts, safety + equity.

The hope is that this debate will help to focus minds on identifying + initiating effective mitigation measures while limiting further, potentially catastrophic delay, and encouraging governments to get to grips with tackling the threat posed by climate change.

Farmers urged to take advantage of subsidy reform
In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference the UK's Food + Farming Minister Lord Whitty has called on farmers to "take advantage of 'revolutionary' agricultural reforms which pave the way to a profitable + sustainable future for the countryside."

He suggests that they do this by responding to the needs of the market rather than continuing to farm in ways that have traditionally attracted subsidy support under the Common Agricultural Policy.

The process of weaning farmers away from areas supported by subsidies - that have historically been allocated on the basis of the quantity of produce a farm produces and not the needs of the market - is called decoupling.

Unfortunately, powerful lobbies have repeatedly diluted or resisted meaningful reform and the level of decoupling achieved, as a proportion of overall CAP spending, is much less complete or assured than is really necessary or usually suggested by ministers (who are understandably keen to emphasize their effectiveness within the EU).

There are also difficulties associated with calculating how much money farmers should be given if the amount they receive is not decided on the basis of the quantity of food they produce...

At the moment, the preferred option is to give farmers a one-off historic payment based on the average amount of support they have received over the past three years...

Such a funding regime penalises farmers who have not claimed in each of the past three years (or ever) as well as farmers in agricultural sectors that have never received generous subsidies, such as horticulture. It is also feared by Birdlife International that one-off payments will not lead to reversals in the recent intensification of agriculture, and that improvements in desirable "public goods", such as better nature conservation, will not assured under such a scheme... even if modest decoupling is a step in the right direction.

Note: The CAP will amount to approx. €50 billion in 2004... or put another way, the equivalent of 45% of the EU budget. Of this sum the amount decoupled or to be allocated according to economically or environmentally sustainable priorities is still depressingly small.

See The Guardian's KickAAS weblog and Wyn Grant's Common Agriculture Policy page for regular updates on developments in the world of agicultural subsidies.

First prison sentence ever for selling bushmeat in the UK
An investigation by Dr Yunes Teinaz, a senior Haringey environmental health officer has lead to a north London shopkeeper, Paulina Owusu Pepra, being jailed for three months, after being convicted by Haringey Magistrates' Court of selling meat unfit for human consumption.

In the UK this is the first ever prison sentence to be given for selling bushmeat (a general term used to include wild animals killed for food such as gorillas, chimpanzees, forest antelopes + giant rats).

The conviction has been greatly welcomed by the
Bushmeat Campaign who are lobbying the UK's Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to provide more resources + support to local authorities so more illegal bushmeat traders may be convicted without relying solely on the determination of individual inspectors to secure prosecutions.

Many plant + animal species unlikely to survive climate change
A report, Extinction Risk From Climate Change, summarised in a paper for Nature, has calculated that the survival of millions of species is threatened by levels of climate change likely to occur by the year 2050.

This analyses of six biodiversity-rich regions, including Europe, Brazil + Costa Rica, suggests that 15–37% of a sample of 1,103 land plants + animals from will eventually become extinct as a result of climate changes expected by 2050.

Some of these species will no longer have anywhere suitable to live while others will be unable to reach places where the climate is suitable.

If extrapolated to include other areas of the world the number of species that could be lost may be in the millions...

See here for a summary of some of the species at risk in different regions of the world.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Michael Buerk returns to Ethiopia + Tony Vaux's "Concern for the person in need" ethos
Twenty years ago a news report by the BBC's Michael Buerk shocked the world's public + politicians into action by showing the devastating effects of a war + drought-induced famine on Ethiopians, who were then dying in their thousands in refugee camps, or unnoticed on their own land...

Following this news report, Bob Geldof organised a Christmas single and two Live Aid concerts, which pricked the world's conscience, and Sport Aid encouraged a further 20 million people to run for charity...

With another disasterous famine in the Horn of Africa on the horizon, Michael is about to return to Ethiopia in order to assess just how effective the action taken in 1984 was, and what long-term investment + reform is needed if the 6,000,000 Ethiopians currently reliant on overseas food aid are to have a more self-sufficient future.

Unfortunately, this goal may be just as illusive as it has ever been, with the population doubling since 1984, while farm incomes have dropped, crop yields per head have halved (due in part to a deterioration in the quality of soils) + increasingly marginal areas having been converted into deforested farmland.

The problems + solutions are complex but Earth Info recommends that anyone interested in what went wrong last time around, and some of the structural problems in the way the international community goes about responding to such emergencies, should read the The Selfish Altruist by Tony Vaux (who was Oxfam's emergency relief co-ordinator during the 1984 famine).

Tony's seven principles for humanitarian work are simple, but profound, and based on a pre-eminent concern for the person in need, rather than the self interest of the organisation endeavouring to offer assistance.

Unfortunately, good intentions can all too often be compromised due to the cultural baggage of donors + aid workers and the competitive, publicity-seeking, government-sponsored + bullying pressures of modern humanitarian aid work.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Earthquake in Iranian city of Bam: what you can do
The human death toll from the recent earthquake in the Iranian town of Bam has now reached at least 28,000, and it is possible that up to 50,000+, of the town's former population of 80,000, are now dead.

A calamity on this scale is hard to comprehend, but the need for food, shelter + medicines is obviously considerable.

Unfortunately, even basic support on this sort of scale is expensive, and I thought it might be useful to highlight what some of the relevant agencies are doing and what you can do to help support them...

The people of Iran and the Iranian Red Crescent Society have done a great job of rescuing people from the rubble + providing food, but more remains to be done... if you would like to donate directly to the local Red Crescent society you can do so by clicking here.

Alternatively, if you would prefer, you can donate via the International Committee of the Red Cross, the British Red Cross or the American Red Cross.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is leading efforts to provide survivors of the earthquake with safe drinking water + sanitation, to re-establish schooling and to ensure that child survivors are protected from harm and where possible reunited with their parents. You can donate to this work by clicking on this link.

Oxfam (UK) is working with the Red Cross/Red Crescent and have already flown in some aid. You can donate to Oxfam's work here...

Last but not least, Islamic Relief, a UK-based charity, is also working with partner organisations in Iran and you can donate to them here.

The Reuters Alertnet news service has produced a comprehensive list of all the international NGOs known to be operating in Bam, and this site is well worth consulting if you would like any more information.

Thames 21's Adopt a River scheme
Over the Christmas break Giles Coren, a columnist on The (London) Times, donated his £12,450 winnings from a special edition of The Weakest Link tv show to a charity called Thames 21, which works to clean up the River Thames.

Activities of Thames 21 include running an innovative Adopt a River scheme where groups of volunteers help to clean up a stretch of river, research into which bits of the river are in the greatest need of cleaning, and co-funding the work of the Port of London Authority's Debris Clearance Operation which involves two mobile vessels sweeping the surface of the water and removing cars + shopping trolleys from the intertidal foreshore. This clearance operation removes up to 1,000 tonnes of waste, and costs about £500,000, per annum.

With assistance from representatives of each of their partner organisations, Thames 21 also helps to ensure enforcement of the complex laws governing the deposit + storage of waste in and around rivers and canals by channeling information they collect about waste management offences to the appropriate authorities.

Well done to Giles, and keep up the good work Thames 21!