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Newsletter 24th November 2006

- Nairobi: progress or failure? - The Big Ask: Friend or FOE? - Farming, pharming and fuel - Edible cottonseed: the end justifies the means - An apology

Nairobi: progress or failure?
Kenya’s capital was the venue for this year’s major international meeting on climate change, from 6th to 17th November. In the unique language of UN diplomacy, it was officially referred to as the Twelfth Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Second Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (or UNFCCC COP 12 and Kyoto Protocol COP/MOP 2). Unpicking the language could itself take a separate article, for which we have neither the space nor the inclination. In the meantime, we will resist the temptation to make cheap remarks about good COP/bad COP routines.
 
The joint meetings drew over 5,900 participants, including 2,300 government officials, over 2,800 representatives of UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental organisations, and 516 accredited members of the media. But what did it achieve? Very little of substance, it seems. Different spins are put on this, of course, with some commentators focussing on the fact that an agreement of sorts was reached, while others say that there has been no commitment to action which would have any real effects.
 
In particular, the key issue of an agreement post-2012, when the Kyoto protocol ends, was fudged. It has always been accepted by supporters of the protocol that meeting its requirements would make a minuscule difference to global temperatures (assuming the IPCC’s projections about the effect of atmospheric CO2 to be correct). Nevertheless, goes the argument, demonstrating that the industrialised countries have worked together to achieve reductions in carbon emissions would act as an example for the developing world to follow. Well, the industrialised world hasn’t set a good example, and developing countries clearly do not want to put their future economic growth at risk.
 
So, there is agreement to review the protocol, starting in 2008. But, there is no agreement that this will lead to new binding commitments, and no date for negotiations to be completed. Climate campaigners see this as a failure: too little, too late. Politicians are generally putting the best gloss on it and regard it as progress. For those who are sceptical of the IPCC’s agenda, the failure to take decisive action should probably be seen as good. By the time new commitments are negotiated, the science will have moved on: either the evidence for the role of carbon dioxide will be more convincing, or we will find the present views on climate change mitigation to have been misguided.
 
In the meantime, profits are taken where they can be. Belarus has managed to sign up to the Kyoto protocol in order to sell emission credits. Because of the collapse of its industrial base post-1990, it will effectively be receiving money for nothing, with no future effect on overall carbon dioxide emissions. Perfectly within the rules (and already exploited by Russia), but it makes a nonsense of the lofty aspirations of those who framed the protocol.
 
For those who want a fuller account of proceedings at Nairobi, a good source is the International Institute for Sustainable Development: http://www.iisd.ca/climate/cop12/.
 
The Big Ask: Friend or FOE?
The Big Ask debate on climate change has been kicked off this week on the Friends of the Earth website, with statements by Tony Blair and Tony Juniper (head of FOE UK), following the government’s announcement that it will introduce a climate change bill in this parliamentary session. The site has now been opened to public comments, and FOE are to be commended for posting a wide range of views (see http://www.foe.org.uk/campaigns/climate/news/blair_juniper/index.html). Further comments will be posted until Wednesday 29th November, at which stage the two Tonys will respond. They most likely have their responses already drafted, but we would still urge all readers to post their opinions on the site.
 
Farming, pharming and fuel
There has been quite a lot in the more specialised media in recent months about new developments in farming, particularly the expression of pharmaceuticals in plants (so-called “pharming”) and the growing of crops for non-food uses (particularly to produce bio-fuels). These offer some intriguing possibilities for the future of farming.
 
Ultimately, even the most sophisticated societies depend on farming. One or two disastrous global harvests could have a devastating effect. And yet, as countries get richer, agriculture becomes a less and less important part of their economy. In Europe, farming contributes just 2.6% to GDP, and an unwieldy and expensive system of subsidies, in the form of the Common Agricultural Policy, is necessary to keep the sector viable.
 
However, there is a possibility that, in the longer term, European farmers will play a bigger role and find it easier to make a living. For a start, the increase in global population from the present 6.5 billion to a projected 9 billion by mid-century, together with increased meat consumption in many developing countries, will mean we have to double or even triple our global food production. Given the limited stock of arable land, this is already a challenge, and means that the output of Europe’s farms could be in demand and be able to compete in world markets.
 
Imagine, then, if non-food uses for crops become more widespread. Admittedly, growing plants for pharmaceuticals is unlikely to take a major area of land, but the supply of significant quantities of bio-ethanol, bio-diesel or renewable feedstocks for the chemical industry certainly will. Arable land will become an increasingly precious resource, and its productivity will have to be further increased. In these circumstances, the tools of modern biotechnology are likely to find a much more ready acceptance than seems currently to be the case. And there simply will not be enough land to allow organic farming, with its intrinsically lower productivity. Forget where current trends seem to be leading us: farming in a generation’s time is likely to be both more intensive and more profitable.
 
Edible cottonseed: the end justifies the means
In similar vein, researchers in Texas have this week reported the development of a cotton variety yielding seeds suitable for human consumption. Cottonseed is generally toxic to humans, but the scientists used RNA interference to reduce the expression of gossypol – the toxic component – in seed to well below the level where it can cause harm. At the same time, gossypol continues to be expressed in the other parts of the plant, where it acts as a natural pesticide.
 
About 44 million tonnes of cottonseed was harvested last year: each plant produces 1.65 kg of seed for every kilo of cotton. This seed contains good quality protein sufficient to meet the daily protein needs of half a billion people, but at present can only be fed to ruminants. This certainly sounds like a very worthwhile development. Some may criticise it because genetic modification has been used, but this is surely a clear case of the end justifying the means.
 
An apology
Finally, we have to say sorry for a typo in the last newsletter. In the item on alternative power sources, we inadvertently wrote “In the meantime, nuclear fusion remains the only viable option for baseload generation…”. We should, of course, have referred to nuclear fission.