Friday, 19 December 2008

Natural Capital Initiative: Linking Environment and Policy

The BES is a major partner and sponsor in a new project, the 'Natural Capital Initiative', which has launched its website today.

The BES, the Institute of Biology, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Science Council are co-operating as a partnership (the NCI) to deliver a three-day symposium in April 2009, aiming to bring together ecologists, scientists from other disciplines, policy-makers and others (including architects, land managers, planners, representatives from business and from across Government departments) to discuss gaps in research and implementation of the ecosystem approach - and how to solve them.

The three-day event, from 29 April - 1 May 2009, consists of a high-profile first day with keynote speeches and discussion, followed by two days of case -studies. Groups will get together to discuss the ecosystem approach in the context of rural land-use, urban planning and the marine environment.

Confirmed speakers for day one include: the Government Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington; Professor Gretchen Daily, Stanford University; Lord May of Oxford, Committee on Climate Change; Baroness Young, Care Quality Commission and Graham Wynne, CEO RSPB. We will also be joined by figures to discuss the importance of an ecosystem approach to business: Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs at Tesco and Richard Brown, CEO Eurostar, are amongst our high-profile speakers.

You can find more information about the symposium at Registration will open in January.

Lord Smith Outlines Vision for Environment Agency

At a recent meeting in the House of Commons, Chairman of the Environment Agency (EA) Lord Chris Smith, outlined plans to improve the EA's delivery functions throughout his tenancy as Chair.

Lord Smith described the EA as an "unusual body" and a "diverse beast," insofar as it is "part deliverer, part regulator and part adviser."

The EA is said to be fairly bureaucratic at the moment, and Lord Smith is optimistic bureaucracy can be reduced, with more resources allocated to delivering EA objectives.

There has reportedly been some opposition from EA Officers towards moves to incorporate micro-hydro-electric generators in river systems. As Lord Smith pointed out, the need to combat climate change through reducing emissions must be balanced with other concerns. Some researchers believe that sensitive use of small hydro-electric installations would have a limited impact on the ecology of the river system, and this initiative will doubtlessly be explored further.

Lord Smith mentioned the need to improve communications with local communities. Local knowledge holds immense value in terms of setting planning and conservation objectives, and must be considered critically alongside scientific recommendations.

Touching on the subject of the third runway evidenced Lord Smith's genuine commitment to social, ecological and environmental concerns. Aside from the issue of increased greenhouse gas emissions, Nitrogen pollution from emissions already presents a very real and serious health hazard to residents proximal to Heathrow. A third runway would massively increase the output of harmful noxious gases such as Nitrogen dioxide and breach European Environmental safe emissions limits.

In terms of Climate Change, the EA's primary responsibility is to help those unable to cope with the consequences. Lord Smith backed the use of Carbon & Capture and Storage technology in new coal-fired power stations, although he recognised the existing shortcomings in available technology.

Speaking of successes, Lord Smith announced success in reducing input of pollutants to the environment, highlighting a 59% and 48% reduction of Mercury and Cadmium respectively, to our freshwater systems over the last year.

In terms of regulating polluters, Lord Smith expressed the need to pursue the "bad guys", i.e. the worst polluters, with more frequent visits from EA officers, whilst reducing inspections to companies and individuals showing marked improvements.

When asked on how to bridge the gap between EA 'field agents' and policy-makers, Lord Smith said that The Environment Agency will be a statutory consultee of the Planning Act. This will hopefully streamline communication

The talk was broad in scope, President-elect Barack Obama even got a look-in (i.e. alluding to Obama's policy plans to Ministers can be an effective persuasive tool!). Overall the outlook for the EA looks set to be very positive whilst Lord Chris Smith remains as Chair.

Check out the EA's website here for further news and updates.

Seasons Greetings from the BES Science Policy Team to readers of the Blog!

The River Evenlode, Oxfordshire: Image courtesy of the author, Charlie Butt

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Tristan Albatross Faces Imminent Extinction

Tristan Albatross chicks are raised exclusively on Gough Island, a UK Overseas Territory. Sadly they are being predated by 'killer mice' at such an unprecedented rate the species faces imminent extinction unless urgent action is taken.

Government funding to tackle the introduced mouse epidemic on Gough Island is severely lacking, despite strong recommendations from two Select Committees calling for the problem to be urgently tackled: "biodiversity found in the UK Overseas Territories is equally valuable and at a greater risk of loss [than the UK]." Simply eradicating mice from the island would resolve the problem: albatross chicks face the horrific death of being eaten alive by mice whilst still on the nest.

RSPB scientist Richard Cuthbert has researched the mice problem on Gough Island since 2000. Speaking about the latest results he said:

“We’ve known for a long time that the mice were killing albatross chicks in huge numbers. However, we now know that the albatrosses have suffered their worst year on record.

"The mice do not affect the adult albatrosses, but we know from our work that these are being killed by long line fishing vessels at sea. So, unsustainable numbers of this bird are being killed on land and at sea. Without conservation efforts, the Tristan albatross is doomed."

The Gough bunting - endemic to the island - faces the same threat and is equally at risk. A recent survey showed that of 1764 incubated Albatross eggs on the island, only 246 chicks survived to fledgling, an astonishingly low 14%.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Halting Biodiversity Loss, published a statement recently backing calls by the RSPB saying:

"One of the most important contributions that the Government could make to halting biodiversity loss would be to provide more support for the UK Overseas Territories, where it is the eleventh hour for many species. Although England has a number of internationally important species and habitats, the biodiversity found in the UK Overseas Territories is equally valuable and at a greater risk of loss. The Government must act now to protect these areas."

This view was backed up by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee for the UK Overseas Territories who stated in June: "The environmental funding currently being provided by the UK to the Overseas Territories appears grossly inadequate and we recommend that it should be increased."

The British Ecological Society is a member of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum and fully supports the position of the Select Committees in calling for urgent funds to be allocated for efforts to eradicate mice from Gough Island.

Oil Production Will "Plateau" in Eleven Years

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Faith Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, revealed oil production will plateau by 2020, peaking within 20 years.

It is anticipated that the extraction of tar sands will have to increase in order to fill the deficit left by faltering oil supplies. Tar sand extraction is known to be immensely environmentally damaging, and although an increase in tar sand production would contribute to global energy needs by 2% within this time frame, although the nearly 2 million barrels of oil produced would inevitably inhibit greenhouse gas emissions targets.

This revelation comes weeks after the Government released their Building a Low Carbon Economy report, setting out plans to 'de-carbonise' the economy. If commitments are met, and a rapid frameshift in the public mindset ensues, it might be possible to wean ourselves off of oil as well as avoid a climate change 'tipping point'. Such a 'tipping point' would result in climatic positive feedback, whereby increased temperatures result in further temperature rises causing a breakdown in natural systems that we depend on, with a chaotic outcome for life on earth.

The media and entertainment services have a responsibility to change attitudes and encourage greener lifestyles. Road transport makes up most of the UK's transport emissions, making for a key target in transport emissions reductions. The immensely popular BBC TV series 'Top Gear' is thought to have played a part in dampening enthusiasm for 'green' cars. However, encouragingly they recently praised Honda's new hydrogen-fuelled FCX Clarity, which performs like an ordinary car and emits only water. Although hydrogen fuel celled-cars are still in their infancy in terms of mass production and feasibility, broad media support for alternative fuels such as hybrid technology and electric vehicles can only help meet emissions targets and help combat climate change.

As the recent global financial meltdown has illustrated, individual economies are now so tightly interconnected that, much like in natural systems, problems and perturbations in one part of the system create shockwaves through the wider system, much like the entire global financial system. The concept of safe, independent economies is clearly no longer relevant and we must now take a systems-based approach to solving complex problems. Britain has taken the lead in moving towards a low-carbon economy, but it is essential the rest of the world gets on board too. This will certainly require developed countries to provide financial assistance as well as technological expertise to developing countries.

The world depends on energy, but cannot continue on the current path of unsustainable growth and pollution. Climate change is not an insurmountable problem but the clock is ticking and so the moves towards sustainable development and clean technology must accelerate.

Check developments of the 14th Climate Change Conference of the Parties here:

Read the Government's Building a Low Carbon Economy Report here:

Friday, 12 December 2008

Young Scientist Parliamentary Poster Competition

A major scientific competition and exhibition is to be held in Parliament. 'SET for BRITAIN' will be held in the House of Commons on Monday 9 March 2009 between noon and 9 pm. It will form a part of National Science and Engineering Week 2009.

The day will be divided into three sessions. Applications are invited from early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers and technologists who wish to exhibit posters in one of the following three areas:

  • Biological and Biomedical Science
  • Physical Sciences (Chemistry and Physics)
  • Engineering
Early-stage researchers include university research students, postgraduates, research assistants, postdocs, research fellows, newly-appointed lecturers, part-time and "mature" students, "returners", those people embarking on a second career, etc and their equivalents in national, public sector and industrial laboratories, etc, and appropriate final year undergraduate and MSc students, all of whom are engaged in scientific, engineering, technological or medical research and are achieving results.

This event is supported by, amongst others, the Institute of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry.

Prizes will be awarded for the best scientific posters presented in each discipline, including the Wharton Medal which will be awarded in memory of the late Dr Eric Wharton.

The closing date for entries is Friday 16 January 2009. There will be an initial selection by the judges and you will be informed by Monday 16 February whether or not your application to take part in the exhibition has been successful.

Full details of the competition and exhibition including the application form can be found on the SET FOR BRITAIN website at:

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Reformation of EU Emissions Trading System Required To Reduce Green House Gases

The House of Lords EU Committee have produced a report calling for an overhaul of the Emissions Trading System (ETS), in order to meet ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG)reduction targets, since it is the main tool of the EU to reduce carbon emissions.

Although the EU ETS underpins UK and EU climate change policy, its effectiveness in delivering its aim (to reduce GHGs) remains unproven. The Committee strongly urges that the System be reformed, despite reservations from various member states. For example Poland have expressed opposition to auctioning of carbon permits, largely due to their heavy dependence on coal burning for power generation.

However the Committee have called for all allowances to be auctioned by 2013, and if exceptions are made to member states it will be on the condition that clean coal technologies are developed and trialed during the transition phase.

Concern has also been expressed over 'carbon leakage' - that is industries producing excessive emissions relocate to countries with less stringent regulations - although these industries are in the minority. The Committee recommended these industries be identified by 2009, but no decision will be made to allocate them 'free emission permits' - that is the freedom to continue polluting - until after the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The Committee identified two risk areas regarding the ETS:

  • Industries will not comply with regulations
  • The ETS will not be joined up to global trading schemes and will therefore not fulfill their potential
Speaking about the report Lord Sewel, Chairman of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Environment and Agriculture, said:

"Linking the EU ETS to other emissions trading schemes will be essential in order to maximise its environmental performance and minimise its economic costs. Worryingly, the prospects for such links appear to be poor."

"Both the UK and the EU's climate change policy is riding on the success of the ETS, which as yet is far from guaranteed. A timid deal at the summit of EU leaders could produce the worst of all worlds."

The report will be available online shortly after publication at:

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Toxic Bioaccumation Ends Faroese Whale Consumption

Medical advisers on the Faroes Islands have announced that pilot whales should no longer be consumed because dangerous levels of toxins have been found amongst the islanders.

Traditionally thousands of pilot whales are killed each year for consumption by the Faroese, despite opposition from anti-whaling groups.

Toxins found in high levels in the islanders include DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury. Toxic levels of mercury are known to cause damage to fetal neural development and immunity in children, increased blood pressure and increased risk of parkinson's disease; all of these symptoms have been found in the islanders.

The Faroese are not known to have contributed to the pollution in whales; the source of the toxins is widespread. However they have acknowledged the effect it is having on them and responded accordingly.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Nominations Open for 2009 BA Annual Award Lectures

Nominations are now open for the 2009 BA Annual Award Lectures. The opportunity to deliver a lecture is awarded to an impressive communicator of science, engineering or technology who show outstanding skills in communicating to a non-specialist audience.

The Award Lectures are delivered each year at the BA Festival of Science, next year taking place in Guildford from 5 - 9 September. The lectures aim to promote open and informed discussion on issues involving science and actively encourage young scientists to explore the social aspects of their research, providing them with a reward and recognition for doing so.

Nominees should be professional scientists and engineers and must be aged 40 or under on 10 September 2009. They must be able to attend the 2009 Science Festival.

Further details on the Award Lectures and how to nominate an outstanding communicator of science are available from the BA website.

£250m to Train Scientists and Engineers of the Future

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced that £250m will be invested to create 44 training centres to train more than 2,000 PhD students in science and engineering. The aim is to create a 'new wave' of scientists and engineers who can tackle the most pressing problems faced by the UK, and globally.

The training centres will be multidisciplinary and 17 will be industrial; working closely with business. The doctoral centres include the STREAM (Skills, Technology. Research and Management) industrial centre for the UK Water Sector at Cranfield University and centres focusing on the development of wind energy, sustainable urban environments and the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology.

See full list of Postgraduate Training Centres

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Wales' Largest Wind Farm Approved

The Welsh Government yesterday granted assent for the development of Wales' largest wind farm - and the second largest in the world - off the North coast of the country. When complete, in 2014, and fully operational, the wind turbines will supply electricity for 700,000 homes.

The wind farm, at Gwent y Môr, will be built by NPower Renewables and will generate 750MW of 'clean' energy. The approval brings Wales a step closer to meeting its ambitious target, announced by Jane Davidson, Environment Minister, in February: to supply all of Wales' electricity from green, 'clean' sources by 2025. Electricity generation accounts for 30% of Wales' carbon emissions.

The UK is the world's leader in generating power from offshore wind farms, with a total offshore built capacity of 590MW at present. The proposed 'London Array' in the outer Thames Estuary, which would generate 1GW of power.

The announcement from Wales follows Tuesday's 'plugging in' of the largest wind farm in Europe into the Portuguese National Grid. The development, in the Upper Minho region of Portugal will provide 1% of the country's total energy and will supply electricity for over 1 million residents.

See original article in the Guardian, 4 December 2008: Go-ahead for wind farm puts Wales on track to meet clean energy targets

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Marine Bill Receives Royal Assent

At 11.20am today, the House of Lords witnessed the State Opening of Parliament marking the beginning of the parliamentary session.

Here, the Queen's Speech was delivered, outlining the Government's plans for the coming Parliamentary year.

Given the current global economic climate, it was no surprise that the Government's main priority is to ensure the stability of the economy during the global economic downturn. Many of the commitments and proposed legislation mentioned in the Queen's speech, understandably centred around helping people and families through hard economic times.

The main highlight for the British Ecological Society was the Marine Bill receiving Royal Assent. The science policy team are particularly pleased that many of the recommendations made to Government to strengthen the bill were taken into consideration. The Queen said:

"To protect the environment for future generations - a bill will be brought forward to manage marine resources and protect access to the coastline."

The speech also described the Government's intention to work closer with the devolved administrations - a requirement for the Marine Bill to be effective.

The science policy team would be delighted to receive comments from readers of the blog

Frog Decline Linked to Agri-Chemicals

The global decline in frog populations has been attributed to an increase in infectious diseases. However findings in Nature reveal a link between parasitic infection and local interaction between phosphate fertilisers and herbicides.

The study focused on leopard frogs from wetlands in Minnesota, USA, and these frogs were examined for trematode larvae - a type of parasitic flatworm. Trematodes are known to cause kidney damage and occasionally deformities in amphibians. The researchers also looked for indicative signs of water pollution, by measuring the level of melanomacrophage liver cells, which are involved in amphibian immune response.

Of the many possible factors contributing to these ailments in the frogs, the strongest predictor of larval infection was the herbicide atrazine combined with high phosphate levels. High levels of the atrazine herbicide were correlated with low levels of melanomacrophage cells, indicating the herbicide suppressed the frogs' immune response, increasing susceptibility to the trematodes.

A probable cause of the interaction was revealed, when the frogs were placed in tanks exposed to supposed environmental levels of these chemical in the U.S. Atrazine reduced phytoplankton growth, creating clearer water and higher levels of nutrients. This stimulated algal growth, which in turn encouraged gastropods. Gastropods play host to trematodes, acting as a vector to the amphibians.
Since wetland birds are the primary host of trematode eggs, as the authors suggest, these must be present along with the elevated phosphate levels and herbicide for the interactive effect to take place.

The findings highlight problems in the European and American systems for registering chemicals. Although the chemicals have no direct effect on mortality independently, the combined effect results in this pollution-disease pathway and would not be identified under existing pollutant control tests.

Many European countries banned its use even before EU legislation withdrew support for its use in 2004, because of concerns over concentrations in groundwater. Atrazine is used widely across the world for corn and sorghum production. There is still some limited support for its use in European countries, although the UK, Ireland, Spain and Portugal no longer have any support for it.

Amphibians are becoming increasingly threatened across the globe, with many species expected to become extinct by 2050.
Amphibian fungal infections, particularly Chytridiomycosis are on the rise across the globe, possibly exacerbated by climate change. Chytridiomycosis is thought to have originated in South Africa, although nobody is entirely certain where it began.

Adapted from the Science Environment Policy bulletin, Source:
Rohr, J.R., Schotthoefer, A.M., Raffel, T.R., et al. (2008). Agrochemicals increase trematode infections in a declining amphibian species. Nature. 455: 1235-1240.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Building a Low Carbon Economy - Government Report Released

Defra yesterday launched their report 'Building a Low Carbon Economy', which sets out plans to move away from our fossil-fuel based society.

Broadly, the Climate Change Bill will put into statute the UK’s targets to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60% by 2050 and 26% by 2020, against average 1990 emissions.

If a global deal isn't reached in Copenhagen next year, then the target will be as follows:

  • 2008-2012: 3018 million tonnes
  • 2013-2017: 2,819 million tonnes
  • 2018-2022: 2,570 million tonnes

If the international deal is reached in 2009, then the intended budget for greenhouse gas emission limits will be:

  • 208-2012: 3018 million tonnes
  • 2013-2017: 2,679 million tonnes
  • 2018-2022: 2,245 million tonnes

The government has set a target that 20% of all energy should come from renewable resources by 2020. A Renewable Energy Strategy is due to be published in Spring 2009 that will set clear guidelines on how this target will be achieved. The government also has questionable plans to invest more in nuclear energy in the run up to 2020.

The report includes plans to set clear reductions in carbon emissions from road transport. The King review found that average carbon emissions from cars could feasibly be cut to 100g/km by 2020. The Government is keen to push European legislation to follow suit on this front. This will inevitably have to mean either a reduction in demand from the most polluting vehicles, for example the Porsche Cayenne (358g C/km) and the Range Rover HSE Sport (374g C/km), or prohibitive taxation, failing a change in the wealthy motorists' mindset.

Ambitious plans have been laid down for the building industry. By 2016, all new housing must be carbon neutral, whilst public buildings must meet this target by 2018, and other non-domestic buildings by 2019.

To tackle issues of waste, the 'tax escalator' that has already begun will hopefully reduce emissions from landfill sources and increase recycling.

The government has set progressive targets to reduce the use of inefficient lightbulbs by 2011 in retail and manufacturing, aiming to phase out wasteful practices.

£20 million is being invested by the Department for Transport and the Technology Strategy
Board for a collaborative research programme, aimed at commercialising vehicle technologies that will reduce carbon emissions over the next five to seven years.

Enhancing innovation and building the necessary skills base is at the heart of the Government's plans to build a low carbon economy in the coming years.

An independent expert committee on climate change has been created, chaired by Lord Turner, which will advise the Government on how to meet its emulous targets.

Read the full document, including specific recommendations in response to the Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance (CEMEP) enquiry, at:

Monday, 1 December 2008

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznań, Poland

Today marks the beginning of the 14th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations on Climate Change.

The meeting has the following aims;

  • Agree on a plan of action and programmes of work for the final year of negotiations after a year of comprehensive and extensive discussions on crucial issues relating to future commitments, actions and cooperation
  • Make significant progress on a number of on-going issues required to enhance further the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, including capacity-building for developing countries, reducing emissions from deforestation (REDD), technology transfer and adaptation.
  • Advance understanding and commonality of views on "shared vision" for a new climate change regime
  • Strengthen commitment to the process and the agreed timeline
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas stated recently that: "Even if it is too early to expect major breakthroughs, the Poznan conference must shift gear from exploratory discussions to concrete negotiations."

Parties have less than a year to agree on strengthened action on mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology.

It is hoped that the climate talks will form the basis of global deal in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.

View the full schedule here.

Climate Change Committee Set Plans to De-Carbonise the Economy

The future of coal power is now in the hands of the climate change committee, as they are due to set out plans to 'de-carbonise' the economy. The committee plans to publish the findings of their report later today.

Environmentalists are keen that the committee sets stringent emission targets from 2020, ensuring that any new coal-fired power stations are fitted with carbon capture and storage technology.

It is expected the climate change committee will recommend interim targets up to 2022, considering the EU aims to reduce emissions by up to 30% by up to 2050.

The executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, Yvo de Boer said that the international talks on a climate change treaty in Poznan, Poland, could set plans on how rich countries can help the developing world cope with the impact of climate change. It is hoped the treaty will come into effect by 2012.

De Boer said: "I think it is important that countries in Copenhagen reach a political agreement that is a response to what scientists tell us need to be done."

Currently rainforest lost is reaching unprecedented levels. The talks may offer new direction to how polluting countries can pay tropical countries to conserve their forests, as a means of reducing CO2 emissions, since forest clearance is a huge contributor to climate change.