With Beijing and Shanghai people (where I am), this comes from The Guardian…
When Justin Bieber collapsed last week at the O2 arena in London and was taken to a private clinic feeling “short of breath” and needing oxygen, the rumours started flying that he had had an asthma attack. They were denied by his management, but it would have been understandable if he had. Most of last week, London’s air was heavily polluted, with many of the capital’s pollution monitors recording “high” nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as an acute photochemical smog of fumes and microscopic particles (PM) of acids, chemicals, metals and dust drifted in from the continent, mixed with London diesel exhaust and then became trapped in the still, dry air.
Only a mile or so from the O2, Rosalind Dalton had also been feeling short of breath and needed her Symbicort 200 steroid inhaler. She, too, is a singer, who has been in operatic societies since she was 15, but she says she can’t hold the long phrases these days. She lives near the Woolwich flyover, where a grey, 3ft-high air pollution monitoring box on a slip road to a busy road regularly shows pollution regularly well over the legal limit. Recently she was diagnosed with a long-term lung condition, even though neither she nor her family have ever smoked. “The air pollution has been bad in the last few weeks. On one occasion I set off to walk to Sainsbury’s and turned back because I was having symptoms,” she says.
Meanwhile, Malachi Chadwick found himself wheezing just months after he moved in 2009 from York to London to work with climate change group 10:10. He bikes around 40 miles a week in the city and his doctor has diagnosed asthma – almost certainly aggravated by air pollution. “The air quality of the two cities is noticeably different. When you bike you get [air pollution] full in the face,” she said.
The last few weeks have been stressful for many of the 5.4 million people, including 1.1 million children, who are receiving treatment for asthma and for the tens of thousands of others with respiratory diseases. Since Christmas, there have been four major air pollution episodes, stretching from London to Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Dundee and Glasgow. A pollution monitor in Downpatrick in Northern Ireland registered 10, the highest possible level of NO2. On 3 March, the department of the environment advised people to reduce or avoid strenuous activity and Matthew Pencharz, the mayor of London’s environment adviser, said it would be “sensible” for children to be kept away from playgrounds during smog episodes.
Dr Ian Mudway, a lecturer in respiratory toxicology with the environmental research group at King’s College London university, has spent several years walking the routes that children take to school in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, measuring the pollutants in the air they breathe and determining their impacts on their respiratory health. He is shocked at the levels of pollutants these children are exposed to on a daily basis and fears for the permanent damage being done by to their lungs by the ultra-fine particles and gases emitted by diesel engines.
East London has long been heavily polluted by industry but Tower Hamlets has some of the busiest roads in Britain passing close to large high-density housing estates. Nowhere in the borough is further than 500 metres from a busy road and new housing developments targeted at young families are popping up right by main roads.
Air pollution, especially from diesel engines, is a “neglected, hidden killer” and children and old people are especially at risk, says Mudway. “There’s strong evidence that if you live near main roads you will have smaller lungs,” he says. “They will not reach capacity and will be stunted. When, or if, people move to a cleaner environment they still do not recover the function they lost. We have good evidence that every child born in Tower Hamlets will have a reduction in the volume of their lungs by the age of eight. The point is, people die of lung disease later on. You store up a problem that will affect you later,” he says.
He lists some of the effects of polluted air. In the short term, it leads to irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, nausea, bronchitis and pneumonia. Over a longer period it can result in heart attacks and lung diseases, cancers, even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, and kidneys.
“The [people who die] are only the very end of a spectrum of health effects,” he told a group of Tower Hamlet residents at a public meeting organised last month by Friends of the Earth on the extra air pollution which would be caused by a proposed new four-lane road tunnel below the Thames.
“For everyone who dies there are many more who are hospitalised or who have impaired health. Prolonged exposure to elevated [particulate pollution levels] is associated with significant life-shortening and poor respiratory health. Acute episodes can precipitate death in sensitive subjects.”
The more researchers like Mudway look at the health effects of air pollution, the worse it seems to get. The latest figures suggest 29,000 people die prematurely from it every year in Britain, twice as many as from road traffic, obesity and alcohol combined, and that air pollution is now second only to smoking as a cause of death.
Its seriousness is confirmed by Asthma UK polls: “Two thirds of people with asthma have told us that traffic fumes make it worse and one third say a reduction in air pollution would make the most difference to their lives,” says a spokeswoman.
After years of focusing on climate change, government and environment groups are only now slowly waking up to the public health crisis. In 2011, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee calculated that living in an air pollution hot spot could shave nine years off the lives of the most vulnerable people. It concluded that it cost Britain £6-19bn a year, or up to 17% of the total NHS budget, and that 15-20% more people died prematurely from it in cities with high levels of pollution than those in relatively cleaner ones.
London, with 4,300 deaths a year, is one of the worst in Europe and the pollution monitor on Marylebone Road shows the fourth highest levels of NO2 of over 2,000 monitoring stations in Europe. The city has 2,500 schools and 180,000 children within 150m of roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day.
“Fighting change are a few people in government who have either failed to understand that long-term exposure to air pollution is the biggest public health risk after smoking or they simply don’t care and want to cover-up the issue for as long as possible. It is much worse than most of us have realised. It is one of the biggest public health failings for decades,” says Simon Birkett, a former banker who set up the campaigning group Clean Air in London (CAL) in 2009. Joan Walley MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, despairs: “It’s a scandal that the same number of people are dying of air pollution in London now as back in the 1950s. The Government needs to step in.”
Faced with massive health costs, threatened with large fines for not complying with EU laws passed 13 years ago, and warned last week by the UN World Health Organisation that exposure to NO2 is harmful at far lower levels than the limits currently set by Europe, you might think the government would act. But Britain has spent nearly 15 years ignoring the problem, lobbying to extend timetables, working with other countries to weaken the rules and giving financial incentives for people to switch to the most polluting technologies.
Ministers admit they are breaking the laws but claim it is not possible to meet the EU limits. Mayor Boris Johnson has tried small-scale techno-fixes like living walls of plants and dust suppressants but these measures have been shown to be not nearly enough. Last week he proposed an “ultra low emission zone”, which would ban all but the very lowest emission vehicles from central London during working hours. But the measure would not come into force until 2020 and was widely dismissed as PR.
The result of official inaction is that air pollution has barely improved in 20 years and legal limits for NO2 are being regularly breached in most urban areas. Government does not expect EU targets to be met until 2025 in London and 2020 in the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Glasgow, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Kingston Upon Hull, Southampton and seven other conurbations. “It’s a disgrace the UK is failing so badly on air pollution – tens of thousands of people die every year. Action by the government to clean up our dirty air is too little too late – and road-building plans will simply make the situation worse,” said Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates.
One reason that it has been able to dodge the law is that modern air pollution is mostly invisible, colourless, odourless, and tasteless, or comes in particles so small they can pas through masks. Sixty years ago you could practically cut the coal smoke belching from chimneys. It turned buildings and clothes black, damaged crops and gave people lasting diseases. But when coal declined, the problem was assumed to have gone.
“We see the health impact today but it’s difficult to take seriously because you cannot see it. The solutions involve closing roads and reducing traffic, so it’s very hard for most political parties to even imagine acting,” said Jenny Jones, London Green party assembly member.
These days air pollution comes largely from diesel engines. It can be best seen when fumes get trapped and a dull orange-grey smog develops. Technically, it is produced by sunlight reacting with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the atmosphere. When sunlight hits these chemicals, they form airborne particles and the result is ground-level ozone or smog. Overall, diesel cars emit less hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and lead pollution than petrol cars, but produce more noxious gases and significantly more minute particles. A 2011 test by government to measure emissions from vehicles in everyday use concluded that, while petrol emissions had improved by 96%, “emissions of NOx [nitrogen oxide] from diesel cars and light goods vehicles have not decreased for the past 15-20 years.
“The pollution mix has changed over time as traffic has emerged as the predominate source. It’s not only the small, nanosize of the particles, but also their changed composition and their interaction with gaseous co-pollutants that give us cause for concern. The lower levels of these particles in today’s air in no way suggests they are any less harmful than the historic pollutant episodes.” says Ian Mudway.
Meanwhile, there are many more diesels than before. They have increased across Europe by 35% since 1990 and, says the Society of Motor Manufacturers, over 50% of all cars registered in Britain are now diesel, up from 23% in 2002. One reason is that cities and government have offered tax incentives for diesels.
“Air pollution remains one of the most under-addressed public health problems, comparable to obesity and alcohol, but some government policies such as encouraging diesel vehicles in cities, are making the problem even worse. It is crucial that perverse incentives that encourage polluting vehicles and technologies are removed,” says Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange.
Last week, ClientEarth, an organisation of activist environmental lawyerstook the government to the highest court in the land over its failure to meet European laws on nitrogen pollution. The five supreme courtjudges, who only hear cases “of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population”, must decide whose responsibility it is to enforce European laws.
“The case raises a fundamental question about the rule of law. If the supreme court is unable to give an effective remedy to a clear and admitted breach of EU environmental law, there are grave constitutional consequences. There is now the distinct possibility that this will be referred to the European court of justice,” says ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews.
If it is ruled that Europe should have no say in whether its laws are implemented, then the government need do nothing more and pollution will go on unchecked. If ClientEarth win, it may take Europe years to act. Either way, Malachi Chadwick, Rosalind Dalton and 5.4 million people with asthma will have to wait for respite.
The wild Far North region is being targeted for development…and ‘wild’ will miss out
Melting ice caps, the influx of trawlers and tourists, and Shell’s £4bn investment to drill for fossil fuels in the Chukchi Sea all raise fears
It is home to a quarter of the planet’s oil and natural gas reserves, yet humans have hardly touched these resources in the far north. But in a few days that could change dramatically if Shell receives approval to drill for oil in the Arctic.
The company has invested $4bn to set up exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Straits. Once permission is given by the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, – possibly in a few weeks – exploration will begin using wells in Arctic waters.
That will bring trouble. Environment campaigners say that drilling could have terrible effects on the waters and wildlife of the Arctic. “It took a vast effort to clean up the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said John Sauven of Greenpeace. “There are no such resources to stop a spill in the Chukchi. The consequences could be devastating and very long lasting.”
But Shell rejects this claim. It has an oil spill response capability that includes barges, helicopters, booms, and other equipment should anything happen, said an official. Drilling will be safe.
Exploiting the Arctic’s vast oil reserves is just one cause of environmental unease, however. The far north is melting and far faster than predicted. Global temperatures have risen 0.7C since 1951. In Greenland, the average temperature has gone up by 1.5C. Its ice cap is losing an estimated 200bn tonnes a year as a result. And further rises are now deemed inevitable, causing the region’s ice to disappear long before the century’s end.
As a result, global powers are beginning to look to the region for its gas and oil, minerals, fish, sea routes and tourist potential. All were once hidden by ice. Now it is disappearing, raising lucrative prospects for Arctic nations, in particular Russia, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark, which controls Greenland. Large-scale investment could bring riches to areas of poverty, it is argued. However, development could destroy pristine ecosystems and the ways of life for people like the Inuit of Greenland and the Sami of Scandinavia.
One example is highlighted by Professor Callum Roberts, a York University marine biologist. An ice-free Arctic could be stripped of its rich fisheries in a matter of years, he told the Observer. “There are significant fish resources under the Arctic ice at present. But as that ice disappears, that protection will be removed and we can expect a rush from fishingfleets to exploit them. They have already stripped the North Atlantic of its cod, ling and other fish. Now they have their eyes on the Arctic.”
Currently only one fishing ground in the Arctic is protected: the area around the Bering Straits, where the US has imposed a moratorium. Elsewhere there is nothing to stop fleets moving in as ice disappears. “The north polar seas have provided fish like the cod with a last refuge. That may not last much longer.”
Other changes are less worrying. Two new sea routes have opened up as ice has retreated: the Northwest Passage across the northern edge of Canada and the Northern Sea Route across Russia. The latter is seen as the most promising. Instead of heading south, and through the Suez canal, to get to western Europe, ships from east Asia can sail through the Bering Straits and slip along the coast of Siberia, shaving a third off their journey. In 2010, four ships took this route. Last summer, this increased to 34, with many more expected this year.
Then there is tourism. Today, thanks to that disappearing ice, you can follow the route John Franklin took on his doomed 1845 expedition. Adventure Canada, a tour company, operates a cruise ship that can carry up to 200 people through the islands of northern Canada where Franklin and his men becoming trapped by ice and turned to cannibalism in a bid to survive. The voyage begins in Greenland and ends in Coppermine, in western Canada, at a price of $7,000-$17,000 a head. in western Canada. “We have had the market much to ourselves since we started in 2008, but this year we have found other companies have started sniffing around,” said Rebecca Burgum of Adventure Canada.
However, it is the prospect of oil drilling that causes most unease. Apart from Shell, Norway’s Statoil, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Russia’s Rosneft have all revealed plans to drill in the Arctic. Given the huge amounts of hydrocarbons there, this enthusiasm is not surprising. But there are dangers in drilling in the far north that do not exist elsewhere, warns a recent report by the insurance market Lloyds, Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North. In particular, there is the problem of drilling through the permafrost, which could warm up and destabilise a well’s foundations, “potentially leading to a blowout”. In addition, icebreakers are in short supply along with Arctic-class mobile rigs that could drill relief wells in the event of a spill. In short, great caution will be needed before the Arctic oil industry moves from exploration to full production by the end of the decade.
Changes are certainly coming to the Arctic. Indeed, if some scientists are correct, it could be transformed at a far quicker rate than politicians or businessmen realise. Most follow current advice that it will take at least a couple of decades for the Arctic to lose its ice. However, Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, believes that it will take much less time. “I think it could be gone in summer in four years. It sounds unlikely but that is what the figures indicate,” he told the Observer from Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, in Norway’s northern Arctic archipelago.
Wadhams has just completed a study of ice thickness. Using robot submarines, he has made detailed measurements of the depths of ice sheets, while aircraft have surveyed the heights of these floes. “Our work indicates that Arctic ice has lost 70% of its volume in the past 30 years thanks to global warming. If you extrapolate, it means it could disappear completely for a month or two in summer by 2016. Certainly it is going to go sooner rather than later.”
The consequences for the planet will be grim. Without the white brilliance of the ice to reflect sunlight back into space, it will warm even more. Seabed temperatures will rise and methane deposits will melt, evaporate and bubble into the atmosphere. “We can already see plumes appearing in many areas,” said Wadhams. “Given that methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, that again will accelerate global warming.” Finally, the ice sheets of Greenland, no longer insulated by sea ice around its shores, will melt faster, raising sea levels. “In effect, we are at the mercy of events up here,” said Wadhams.
- The melting north (environmenteng.wordpress.com)
- Record Amount of Arctic Sea Ice Melted in June, Plus Amazing Video Of Greenland Ice Melt (thinkprogress.org)
- Here we go… Shell gets An embarrassing start to Arctic drilling. (veganmyway.tumblr.com)
- Arctic supply ships stuck in “brutal” Bering Sea ice (iceagenow.info)
- Shell-Led Arctic Push Finds U.S. Shy in Icebreakers: Energy (bloomberg.com)
- Arctic sea-ice melt at record low for June (guardian.co.uk)
- Record amount of Arctic Sea ice melted in June. (climatecentral.org)
- Drill Arctic (carefully): Obama administration (seattlepi.com)
- Record Amount of Arctic Sea Ice Melted in June (climatecentral.org)
- Canada’s Arctic push: Left out in the cold? (business.financialpost.com)
‘Nuclear reactors are clean, inexpensive and safe’. He obviously hasn’t been to Japan – I have and it wasn’t pretty!
Japanese landscape devastated by Tsunami, in the same region as the Nuclear station …. (Photograph by Henricus Peters)
Billionaire pushes for the technology in a letter to White House that says integral fast reactors are clean, inexpensive and safe
Sir Richard Branson is urging the US government to help commercialise a controversial class of nuclear reactor, according to a letter seen by the Guardian asking for a meeting with President Barack Obama and US energy secretary Steven Chu.
The White House declined the meeting to discuss integral fast reactors (IFRs), which proponents say offer a way of dealing with nuclear waste, although no working commercial reactors are in operation.
But the move brings the intriguing prospect of a race to develop nuclear technology between Branson and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose new company TerraPower is developing another type of next-generation nuclear technology known as the travelling wave reactor.
“Obviously we urgently need to come up with a clean effective way of supplying our energy since not only are the dirty ways like oil running out but we need to do so to help avoid the world heating up,” Branson told the Guardian.
That opinion echoes Branson’s letter to Obama, co-signed by two others including Eric Loewen, the chief engineer for GE-Hitachi’s Prism reactor, which along with fuel recycling facilities would constitute an IFR. Loewen signed the letter in his capacity as president of the American Nuclear Society, not as the Prism boss.
A new generation of nuclear reactors could consume Britain’s radioactive waste.
Prism and other IFRs could burn plutonium and uranium left over from other nuclear processes, as a useful way to dispose of the dangerous substance and to minimise the “proliferation” risk of making nuclear weapons from the material.
GE-Hitachi in 2011 proposed using Prism to burn the UK’s 100 tonnes of plutonium, a stockpile that subsequently grew when Britain last week took control of an additional four tonnes from Germany.
The letter’s other co-signer was Columbia University adjunct professor James Hansen, who is also the head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute and a renowned campaigner against man-made climate change.
“Unlike today’s nuclear reactor, the IFR can generate unlimited amounts of inexpensive clean power for hundreds of thousands of years,” the letter states. “It provides an excellent solution for what to do with our nuclear waste because it can use our existing nuclear waste for fuel and it is significantly more proliferation-resistant than other methods of dealing with nuclear waste.
“The IFR is also inherently safe. In an emergency, unlike today’s reactors, it shuts down without human intervention and without requiring electric power … Hundreds of nuclear scientists believe this technology has the ability to generate carbon-free power at a cost per kW less than coal.”
Not everyone agrees that IFRs and other “fast” reactors are safe. Japan’s Monju fast reactor suffered a leak and fire in 1995, and incurred another accident in 2010 when a fuel replacement device fell into the reactor. It is currently shut down.
Under physicist Charles Till’s direction, the US developed and operated a prototype integral fast reactor known as the Experimental Breeder Reactor II from 1964 until 1994. Congress withdrew funding in part for safety concerns and also because opponents argued that – because IFRs can be used to “breed” as well as burn plutonium – the reactor would actually increase the potential of weapons proliferation, rather than decrease it.
The Branson letter criticises the 1994 cut.
“Our point was to draw attention to the insanity of shutting off R&D,” co-signer Hansen told the Guardian.
Unlike today’s conventional reactors, IFRs do not slow down neutrons that split out during the fission process. The process can be difficult to control.
But it is these hot neutrons that provide the heat that drive turbines, making fast reactors potentially more efficient and less wasteful than conventional “moderated” reactors because they use more of the available neutrons.
The World Nuclear Association believes that China will rely heavily on fast reactors by 2050. China connected a small test reactor to the grid last summer, and Gates has discussed sharing his travelling wave technology with China National Nuclear Corp.
France and Russia are also developing fast reactors, as is San Diego-based General Atomics, which is planning a small “modular” reactor that could be used as a heat source for high temperature industrial processes as well as for generating electricity.
Fast reactors could compete against other emerging alternative technologies like thorium reactors, which run on thorium fuel instead of uranium.
Despite an assumption that Branson might invest in a fast reactor company, he told the Guardian in the email that he has no such plans.
“At present my principle interest is in pushing for the technology,” he said.
- Using Nuclear Waste in the Prism Fast Reactor Could Power the UK for 500 Years (junkscience.com)
- You Too Can Fly Into Space with Richard Branson (mashable.com)
- Government ‘set’ to resume nuclear projects (eco-business.com)
- Nuclear waste-burning reactor moves a step closer to reality (guardian.co.uk)
- The importance of facts in research: The IFR (decarbonisesa.com)
- Renewable Revolution or Nuclear Nightmare? (theecologist.org)
- U.S. partners with China on new nuclear (smartplanet.com)
- From Fukushima’s home country: Nuclear will double (smartplanet.com)
- Australia to adapt nuclear power by 2030 (theextinctionprotocol.wordpress.com)
National Insect Week (25 June – 1 July) is a great opportunity to explore the wonderful world of mini-beasts – as relevant and fascinating to explore in gardens, local parks or countryside as they are in more exotic environments.
The Guardian Teacher Network has pulled together a set of resources that should help your insect week go with a buzz. The wood ant activity pack is a series of well-thought-out, fun games and activities revolving around Wendy the wood ant. Access to a wood ants‘ nest is preferable, but not at all necessary.
Twelve insects have been singled out from the several thousand species in Britain as representatives of the main insect orders for Insect Week. You can find spotter’s guides and print information on the special 12, including the banded demoiselle, green shieldbug and the interestingly named cockchafer. Find the full list here.
The Woodland Trust has produced a set of engaging and useful resources for primary school-aged children. From a spotter sheet tick list of all the common creepy-crawlies to a printable set of ladybird dominoes to a mini-beast crossword. Find out how to tell a dragonfly from a damsel fly and unearth fascinating ladybird facts. Children can learn how to build their own butterfly feeders. Families, schools and groups can also enter The Woodland Trust’s mini-beast art competition – for more information, see www.naturedetectives.org.uk/art.
Twinkl’s Minibeasts collection provides a super-speedy route to creating a gorgeously creepy summer-term classroom display. There are mini-beast display borders to print, cut and go, ready-made display posters and insect-themed banners for displays or role-play areas. Find combined mini-beast number and alphabet strips and page borders – perfect for children’s independent work. There are also creepy-crawly editable class table signs and editable drawer or peg labels.
The Wildlife Trusts have created a colourful set of spotting sheets to help you identify a wide variety of mini-beasts, from beetles to snails tocaterpillars. Learn how to catch the critters to get a closer look and how to make an express or deluxe insect hotel.
Marvellous mini-beasts by ARKive invites seven- to 11-year-old students to create and design a new species of mini-beast, and in doing so learn how different species are adapted to survive particular habitats. There are also teachers’ notes.
Guess Zoo is ARKive’s module for 11- to 14-year-olds researching the defining characteristics of insect orders.
Finally, see this resource from Access Art on making insects with wire.
The Guardian Teacher Network has more than 100,000 pages of lesson plans and interactive materials. To see and share for yourself, go to teachers.guardian.co.uk.
- Primrose celebrates National Insect Week (primroseblog.wordpress.com)
- Why you should get the insect bug | Urban wildlife (guardian.co.uk)
- Ancient birds wiped out huge insects (sciencenews.org)
- Download Insects in Flight ebook (breoppik.typepad.com)
John Vidal, Environment Editor of the Guardian who was in Rio for the ’92 Earth summit, looks back at that momentous event, and how the 2012 version compares
Helicopters thundered up and down the chic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Tanks guarded the bridges and tunnels. The favelas were in lockdown, schools closed and supermarkets stood empty. Unexpectedly, President George H W Bush, flush with success at the collapse of communism, had arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 Earth summit, the UN’s epic conference on environment and development.
The graffiti that I read on the streets of Rio read “Yanqui go home”, but the world had seen nothing like this before; after years of planning, 109 heads of state, 172 countries, 2,500 official delegates, and about 45,000 environmentalists, indigenous peoples, peasants and industrialists came together for the summit. The Dalai Lama meditated with Shirley Maclaine on the beach at dawn, Jane Fonda turned up, as did Pelé, Fidel Castro, great train robber Ronnie Biggs and an obscure US senator called Al Gore.
On a wave of concern about the state of the world, presidents, prime ministers and even two kings signed up to a legally binding convention on biodiversity, a climate change agreement that led to the Kyoto protocol, a 6,000-page blueprint for action, a six-page philosophical paper linking poverty to environmental degradation, initiatives on forests and new principles to guide world development.
The milestone summit set the global green agenda for 20 years and took only a few days for leaders to negotiate. Nowadays, when it takes 15 years to arrive at nowhere in climate negotiations, it seems extraordinary.
Twenty years later, Rio is bursting again and on maximum security alert for the follow-up conference, billed as the biggest UN event ever organised. This time, 15,000 soldiers and police are guarding about 130 heads of state and government, as well as ministers and diplomats from 180 countries and at least 50,000 others.
But Rio+20 is full of absences. Francois Hollande will be there for France, but Obama, Cameron, Merkel and most other G20 leaders are snubbing it. In 1992, Britain sent newly elected PM John Major, his environment secretary Michael Howard and two other ministers. This time its delegation includes businesses and is led by deputy PM Nick Clegg, with just one other minister. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) will be represented only by senior officials.
The excuse given is that the summit is overshadowed by the deepening global financial crisis. The real reason may be that the days of hope and idealism are over. Rich countries have little new to offer and China,Brazil, India and other rapidly emerging economies are now in the development driving seat.
Instead of the ambitious, legally binding conventions on offer in 1992, countries have only been asked to lay the foundations for the next 20 years. The UN wants Rio to endorse a UN “green economy roadmap” with environmental goals, targets and deadlines. Developing countries, led by Colombia, prefer new “sustainable development goals” to better protect the environment, guarantee food and power to the poorest, and alleviate poverty. But withnegotiations now effectively over, there is still no political consensus, the poor are mistrustful of the rich and groups like Oxfam fear that new goals could get mixed up with the existing millennium development goals.
Getting any agreement at all has proved hard. UN chiefs and the Brazilians are upbeat but sqaubbling governments have fought bitterly over the lead that the rich should give and the money the poor should receive to help them out of destitution. Just as in 1992, when Bush declared that “the American way of life is not negotiable” and reduced the aid package to developing countries to a paltry £6bn, so in 2012 US negotiators, backed by the EU and the G20, have told developing countries to accept the “new global reality” and have refused to give way.
But no one in Rio doubts that the talks are even more urgent than in 1992. UNEP director Achim Steiner has warned that pollution is killing millions of people a year, ecosystem decline is increasing, climate change is speeding, and soil and ocean degradation is worsening. “If current trends continue … then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation. Earth systems are being pushed towards their biophysical limits,” he said.
“This is urgent. As the people with the least struggle to survive, the consumption habits of the richest are stripping the earth of its resources. The situation is dire. We cannot go on living beyond the earth’s boundaries. The people suffering are the poorest. These are issues that will affect us all for ever,” said Dame Barbara Stocking, Oxfam director.
But in the absence of government action, any ambition and optimism is expected to come from the parallel “people’s summit”, the myriad non-governmental groups and the many business meetings which have already started.
According to Marina Sylva, former Brazilian environment minister and presidential candidate, Flamingo park in the centre of Rio, where thousands of peasants and social movements are now camping and meeting, should become “the Tahrir square” of NGOs, the disposessed, the indigenous communities, and human rights, ecological and other social justice activists, all wanting more radical change to the world’s economic system to protect the earth. For them, the world leaders in the Rio centro meeting halls only offer green capitalism, nature for sale and more of the same unequality.
She said: “They cannot lower expectations in the face of a crisis worsening every day. I hope that Rio+20 will become the Tahrir square of the global environmental crisis and that public opinion will be able to tell leaders that they cannot brush off the science.”
Excerpts of the speech given by George H W Bush at Rio 1992
“Let’s face it, there has been some criticism of the United States. But I must tell you, we come to Rio proud of what we have accomplished and committed to extending the record on American leadership on the environment. In the United States, we have the world’s tightest air quality standards on cars and factories, the most advanced laws for protecting lands and waters, and the most open processes for public participation.
“Now for a simple truth: America’s record on environmental protection is second to none. So I did not come here to apologise. We come to press on with deliberate purpose and forceful action. Such action will demonstrate our continuing commitment to leadership and to international co-operation on the environment.
“There are those who say that it takes state control to protect the environment. Well, let them go to eastern Europe, where the poisoned bodies of children now pay for the sins of fallen dictators, and only the new breeze of freedom is allowing for clean-up.
“Today we realise that growth is the engine of change and a friend of the environment. Today an unprecedented era of peace, freedom and stability makes concerted action on the environment possible as never before.”
Excerpts from Fidel Castro’s 1992 Rio speech
“An important biological species – humankind – is at risk of disappearing due to the rapid and progressive elimination of its natural habitat. We are becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it. It must be said that consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction.
“With only 20% of the world’s population, they consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.
“The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Billions of tons of fertile soil are washed every year into the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct. Population pressures and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature.
“Unequal trade, protectionism and the foreign debt assault the ecological balance and promote the destruction of the environment. If we want to save humanity from this self-destruction, wealth and available technologies must be distributed better throughout the planet. Less luxury and less waste in a few countries would mean less poverty and hunger in much of the world.”
- Rio + 20 : Montreal student Jessica Magonet heads to conference (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Rio 2012: it’s a make-or-break summit. Just like they told us at Rio 1992 | George Monbiot (guardian.co.uk)
- Rio+20: Canada shielding fossil fuel subsidies at Earth Summit (theprovince.com)
- Twenty years later, will world make good on Rio Earth Summit’s ‘broken promises’? – msnbc.com (worldnews.msnbc.msn.com)
- Kent says Canada still plans to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies (vancouversun.com)
- UN envoys close to deal on energy, sustainability goals (eco-business.com)
- ‘Seize moment’ call at Rio summit (bbc.co.uk)
- Greenpeace: “Polluters are in charge at Rio+20″ (rtcc.org)
- Rio+20 Day 5 Live: Coverage from the UN Summit on Sustainable Development (rtcc.org)
- At Rio+20 environmental summit, is ‘catastrophe’ inevitable? (csmonitor.com)