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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

In five months’ time, negotiators hope that a global agreement on climate change mitigation will have been reached in Paris. Expectations are once again being raised, for example by bullish pronouncements from the EU’s lead negotiator (No plan B if Paris climate summit ends in failure, says EU climate chief). Following so many earlier failures to agree, governments are working to make agreement as certain as possible, and this week have had a series of ‘informal ministerial consultations’ in Paris. Expectations are also being raised based on the outcome of this two-...

The Dismal Science

17.07.2015
As the old joke goes, there are three kinds of economists; those who can count and those who can’t. This and worse give a picture of a profession that is not generally held in high esteem. Expert predictions made about economic growth, inflation or any number of other indicators vary considerably between teams, and who actually turns out to be right seems more a matter of luck than judgement. Many people assume that economics is described as ‘dismal’ because of its association with the quantification of human misery. The origin of the term is correctly ascribed to Thomas...
Any action, however well-intentioned, can have bad consequences, hence the saying about the road to Hell. A similar way of expressing the same idea is as the Law of Unintended Consequences. No matter how careful we are in planning and no matter how much good we want to achieve, sometimes our actions come back to bite us. There are no easy ways to avoid this, but the important thing is to learn from the experience and not make the same mistake twice. Releasing rabbits into the wild in Australia in the late 19th Century was initially done to provide hunting, and no-one at the time would...

Food for all

03.07.2015
Although not a household name, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed is credited with helping tens of millions of people in poor countries; for this, he has been awarded the 2015 World Food Prize (Anti-poverty pioneer wins 2015 World Food Prize). The organisation he founded as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee in the early 1970s has become BRAC, the largest development organisation in the world, operating in 11 countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. To quote from the organisation’s website, “BRAC… catalyses lasting change, creating an ecosystem in which the poor have...
Pope Francis has put his considerable authority behind the effort to negotiate a binding international agreement on emissions reduction in Paris in December (Making climate change a moral issue). We can soon expect to see more leaders weighing in, plus numerous attempts by campaigners to capture the headlines and put pressure on national governments in the lead up to the summit. For now, though, the ball is back with the politicians and civil servants. The recent conference in Bonn, intended to simplify and reduce the length of the negotiating text to increase the chances of agreement in...
As George Bernard Shaw said, it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. Shaw was talking about social class, but this is a far less divisive issue these days. Instead we are judged now more on what we say on a number of key issues rather than how we say it. This is certainly the case for climate change, a thorny and complex issue about which there is a wide spectrum of opinion but where any dissent from the official line leads to a label of ‘denier’ or worse. So, bear with me and read what I have to say with...
At some stage, human use of fossil fuels will peak and decline. The rate of decline may be quite rapid or relatively slow, depending on what becomes our main energy source, but at some stage – maybe before the end of this century – oil will be primarily used as a source of transport fuel and as a feedstock for the chemical industry. In the longer term, it will be displaced from these sectors as well. All this is inevitable. Whether it be nuclear fission (possibly with thorium as the primary fuel), efficient solar panels coupled to an as-yet-developed energy storage system, or...
Here’s how Ikea is fighting climate change reads the headline in Time. As reported by the BBC, the story is Ikea to spend €1bn to tackle climate change. The Telegraph puts this in a broader context: Ikea commits €1bn to sustainability and leads a roster of green companies trying to change the world. Companies do not spend sums like this for no good reason. They either expect to gain short-term competitive advantage or are adapting their business model to be successful in a changing market place. IKEA is still in private hands (owned through a number of not-for-profit...
In addition to the efforts of governments to increase the penetration of renewable energy sources via generous public subsidies, we are reminded from time to time that coal, oil and gas are also subsidised, which works against the policy of emissions reduction. Most recently, the Guardian has carried the story under the headline Fossil fuels subsidised by $10m a minute, says IMF. According to this, the £5.3trillion subsidy is more than all the world’s governments spend on healthcare. That’s a pretty eye-catching statement, and deserves some digging. The story is based on...

The carbon bubble

22.05.2015
As the year-end Paris climate change summit draws ever nearer, preparatory meetings continue apace and we see a stream of reports and stories arguing how vital it is to come to a binding international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions. One of the key arguments is that a large proportion of the proven coal, gas and oil reserves will have to remain in the ground if the world is to stand a fair chance of limiting the rise in average temperatures to 2°C, the level beyond which the effects of climate change are considered to become negative. The call to put a cap on consumption...