Monday, 8 December 2008

Decline of the real man is no joke

Sunday, 7 December 2008

According to our report of the threat to the more testosterone-charged of the species, some of us may live to see the last of the real men. What a good idea, one thinks. Toothpaste tube caps always screwed back on. Garages used for cars, rather than snooker tables. No more women being embarrassed by their partners showing off on the beach. No more men of a certain age sucking in their stomachs at the swimming pool when a pretty new lifeguard wanders by. No more comb-overs. No more dirty socks on the floor. It will be goodbye to road rage, hello consideration.
Hang on, though. Do we really want a world where everyone is from Venus and no one is from Mars? Where Frenchmen no longer have any différence to vivre? A land where the man of the house is more Mrs Doubtfire than Mr Atlas? Where pubs no longer echo to loud-mouthed arguing over the merits of back fours and deep-lying strikers, but where, instead, hair-netted old men clack their knitting needles over glasses of lukewarm sherry? Boating accidents where the cry goes up: "Hermaphrodites and children first!" Editions of Top Gear fronted by Jemima Clarkson?
Still, at least there will be no more leading articles on the foibles of the sexes written by men. And most of these difficulties were foreseen and solved by the visionaries of the radical feminist movement in the 1970s. But how are we going to spend our way out of recession if every customer realises they are expected to pay only after they have packed their carrier bags, and only then starts to rummage for a purse? And can you imagine the queue for the toilets?
We may be joking, but this is also serious. As Geoffrey Lean, our environment editor, reports today, a host of common chemicals is feminising the males of every class of vertebrate animals, including humans. For some time scientists have been concerned about the "gender-bending" effects of some artificial chemicals, especially phthalates, used to soften plastics. The latest research, however, suggests that the scale of the problem is greater than anyone had realised.
The new report is a reminder that the challenge of environmental sustainability goes much wider than climate change, which is understandably front and centre of green concerns. The pressures on natural ecosystems of human industrial activity go far beyond the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air – which, as we reported last week, will not reverse naturally for hundreds of thousands of years. Wildlife programmes on television, once the representations of an innocent world free of humans, have become an unremitting campaign against human overpopulation. But these documentaries tend to focus on the threats to the viability of individual species. Gender-bending chemicals pose a threat to the very mechanism – sexual reproduction – that sustains almost all multi-cellular life forms.
As we report today, and have reported before, the British Government has a record of obstructing the more stringent controls proposed at EU level. This week, our representatives will lead opposition in Brussels to proposed new European controls on pesticides. Many of these chemicals have been found to have gender-bending effects, and it would make sense, on the precautionary principle, to restrict them where possible.
Britain is leading a small group of countries (the others are Ireland and Romania) trying to block a regulation that would phase out their use. Ministers say this would harm British agriculture, but the regulation would specifically allow British farmers to opt out if they had no practical alternative.
The Independent on Sunday does not want to fall into the trap that caught several Conservative MPs saying that a recession is a good thing. But the pause in the relentless growth of global industrial activity provides an opportunity to reconsider our priorities. And the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States next month provides some optimism that the most powerful nation in the world will be working to help the environmental cause.
The declining fertility of males is a phenomenon that produces a nervous reaction, especially among men. But the Government's refusal to adopt a precautionary approach to potentially gender-bending chemicals is no joke.

The hidden cost of our growing taste for meat

As the west's appetite for meat increases, so too does the demand for soya - used as animal feed by farmers. But the planting of huge tracts of land is causing deforestation and destroying eco-systems in developing countries. Juliette Jowit and Oliver Balch in Minga Pora, Paraguay, report
Juliette Jowit and Oliver Balch
The Observer, Sunday December 7 2008

Ranchers, soybean farmers and loggers burned and cut down a near-record area of the Amazon rainforest last year. Photograph: Dado Galdier / AP
To the European eye, accustomed to square hedgerows and neatly tilled arable land, the countryside of eastern Paraguay is unexceptional, almost pretty. The rolling hills spread out to the far distance. The sky is vast, the horizon broken only by the occasional homestead, leafy copse or bulky metal silo.
But to 47-year-old Melitón Ramírez, this is no paradise. It's a wasteland. Juddering down a farm track in a muddy Jeep, he points to a wide field by the road. It has been sown with soya and the green-leafed plants are sprouting. It looks like a huge bed of wild clover.
'Thirty years ago, almost all of this was woodland,' says Ramírez, who's been a farmer in Alto Paraná state all his life. He grew up surrounded by the Interior Atlantic Forest, listening to the sound of bare-throated bellbirds and saffron toucanets. Before the advent of commercial farming, 85 per cent of eastern Paraguay was forest. Now, with roughly 12 per cent of it still standing, silence fills the air.
'There used to be 2,000 families living here. Now there are only 30, if that,' he continues.
The story of Ramírez's home village of Minga Porá is familiar in South America. It is a story that starts on the dinner tables of the UK and other rich nations, where a hunger for meat and dairy products fuels an ever-rising demand for the industrial farming of animals using high-protein feed. At the bottom of this food chain is the soya plant. Millions of hectares of intensively cultivated soya are gnawing at tropical forests and savannah - displacing farmers and communities, leading to poverty, ill-health and even violence, ruining habitats and exacerbating global warming.
A report by campaign group Friends of the Earth is to be published on Tuesday to focus the attention of UK consumers and the government on the scale of this destruction. It will detail for the first time the cutting, burning and spraying that occurs as a consequence. The report, What's Feeding our Food?, will start a campaign urging the government to take action, ending subsidies and other policies that encourage intensive farming and making sure public money spent on food is not propping up damaging practices.
Across the main soya-producing countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, an area the size of California has been cleared for this one crop, which is exported around the world, mainly to the European Union and China. As the third biggest customer in the European Union, the UK required nearly 1.2m hectares - an area the size of Devon and Cornwall - to generate the 1.7m tonnes of soya beans and 652,000 tonnes of crushed soya meal imported in the most recent year for which figures are available, 2006-7. That was most of the soya used by UK farmers producing 850 million broiler chickens, 10 billion eggs, 10 million turkeys, 4.9 million pigs and 10 million cattle for dairy and beef. Some of this food is exported, but imports, mostly from the EU, are also reared using soya feed, says the report.
'Even though bacon, burgers, milk and cheese may be produced in the UK, most will have come from animals fed on crops grown on the other side of the world,' it says. Nor is the pace of change slackening: this year official estimates judge that soya production will increase in all three major producers. Although demand for meat is largely flat in the UK, it is growing in developing countries.
Attracted by generous offers from Brazilian-born soya growers, Ramírez's neighbours began selling their plots. Soon herbicides began to contaminate the land and water supplies. His own crops began to fail. Worried the chemicals would harm his family, six years ago Ramírez decided to leave.
The destruction wreaked by soya has forced about 90,000 families in the neighbouring state of Caaguazú to leave their homes since the mid-Nineties, according to Javiera Rulli, a biologist for Asunción-based research group BASE, and the editor of a book on soya's expansion in South America. 'The expansion of GM soya is leading to social conflict and mass migration,' she says.
Some problems are easy to measure, particularly the damage to the Amazon and Atlantic forests and the Cerrado savannah. Only two per cent of Paraguay's tropical and subtropical Atlantic forest is left, according to the report - the same proportion of 16th-century woodland remaining in the UK.
Others problems are anecdotal, but the report cites dozens of incidents and statistics to build up a picture of the complex chain of social problems that can be traced back to the growth of the soya farms. Then there are the health impacts of spraying fertilisers and pesticides.
In Paraguay, in the tiny rural hamlet of San Isidro, resident Cipriano Vega says there has been a surge in diseases that were almost unknown in the community previously. Diarrhoea, rashes, headaches, allergies, chest infections and epilepsy are all commonplace now, he alleges.
The community has asked the local government to test the water supply, but to no avail. Without such data, Vega admits that it is difficult to prove a link to the herbicides. But he is in little doubt. 'The year before last, two kids were born without the ability to move their arms or legs, and two people recently died of brain haemorrhages,' he says.
Although it is hard to prove any one person or village has been poisoned by the farming chemicals, the World Health Organisation estimates that, excluding suicide, 355,000 people a year are poisoned by chemicals, and agrochemicals are a major contributor, particularly pesticides. 'Acute exposure can lead to death or serious illness,' particularly when people live close to where chemicals are used, adds the WHO briefing on toxic hazards.
Not everybody accepts, however, that the problems of soya production are as widespread as campaigners claim.
Robert Newbery, the National Farmers Union's chief poultry adviser, said soya products for animals were only part of a global industry that also produced soya oil for processed food, and most crops were planted on existing agricultural land. Newbery said the NFU would support action to tackle wrongdoing by soya farmers, but said they were confident 'the majority is grown ethically'.
Bunge, which with Cargill is one of the biggest soya production companies in the region, also said it had been working for many years, especially in Brazil, to make the industry more sustainable, backing a moratorium on buying soya from newly deforested parts of the Amazon, and working with the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment on promoting best practices among producers. 'A lot has been done, but there is always more to do,' said a spokesman.
Melitón Ramírez now lives in the optimistically named El Triunfo (The Triumph), a rural settlement off the trunk road heading west from Ciudad del Este. He and his fellow subsistence farmers hope to prevent soya's continual encroachment by joining the ownership of their lands together so the soya farmers can't pick them off one by one.
Back in the UK, FoE is calling for the government to axe subsidies that encourage intensive livestock production, lobby the EU to change trade policies and international aid that bolster the industry, and ensure that the £2.2bn a year spent on food by public bodies such as schools and hospitals does not buy products from intensive soya-fed animals.
'Most people don't realise that there's a hidden chain of events linking the meat and dairy they buy to factory farming and to climate change, deforestation and loss of livelihoods in developing countries,' said Clare Oxborrow, FoE's senior food campaigner. 'The government must revolutionise the way that meat and dairy is produced in this country to urgently tackle these impacts while supporting sustainable UK livestock farming.'
A versatile crop
• Cultivated for thousands of years in China, soya was considered one of five holy crops, along with rice, wheat, barley and millet.
• The beans can be eaten as sprouts, milk, tofu, tempeh, sauce or miso.
• Shoyu is the dark brown liquid produced by fermenting soya beans.
• According to a report in the journal Biology of Reproduction in 2004, soya may delay baldness and help to prevent prostate cancer.
• A two-year study by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition and Copenhagen University Hospital found that soy milk reduces bone loss in post-menopausal women.
• Candles made from soya burn for longer than ones made from pure wax.
• Compounds in soya known as phyto-oestrogens or plant oestrogens mimic the female hormone oestrogen, so a woman drinking two glasses of soya milk a day will alter the timing of her menstrual cycle.

Dreaming of a green Christmas?

Consumer thirst for clearer eco-labelling must not translate into greenwashing at the checkout

Adam Corner, Sunday December 7 2008 16.00 GMT

Christmas is a time for giving – but in order to give, we must first consume. Even in the middle of the most profound economic downturn since the 1930s, UK consumers will spend (according to new figures from Deloitte) somewhere in the region of £655 each this Christmas. The tiny, indecipherable plastic blobs that will fall from crackers across the country on Christmas day speak volumes about the nature of this annual spike in retail figures: Christmas consumption need not be rooted in necessity. In fact, according to Alistair Darling, the only thing necessary this Christmas is that the country keeps on consuming, as cash-strapped shoppers are encouraged to do their bit for the bankers' dwindling bonuses.
But is our beloved festival of Christian-inspired secular celebration really that shallow? Increasingly, consumers are asking where their products come from, how they got here, and what their carbon footprint is. And in response to this greening of consumer choice, the process of Christmas consumption has been rebranded. From energy-efficient fairy lights to recycled wrapping paper, Christmas need no longer be simply an orgy of single-use decorations and gaudy over-packaging. Green consumers can have their Christmas cake and eat it – or can they?
There is a bewildering array of own-brand eco-labelling awaiting unwary consumers in the shops this Christmas. From Kenco's Rainforest Alliance partnership, to the Waitrose local food stamp, everyone wants a piece of the green pound. Wading into this crowded marketplace, the government's Carbon Trust has developed a Carbon Reduction Label. By conducting a lifecycle analysis, individualised carbon footprints are calculated and consumers can, in theory, opt for the most environmentally friendly product.
However, a forthcoming report by the Future Foundation and the Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability and Society (Brass) at Cardiff University suggests that consumer awareness and understanding of the Carbon Reduction label is low.
It may be only a matter of time before the public begin to learn and trust the Carbon Reduction label. Or it may be that the unsettling number of own-brand eco-labels has created a knowledge vortex, where consumer choices are sucked in, whirled around impressively, and escorted gently through the checkout – greener and shinier than before.
To understand why there might be a certain amount of public distrust of eco-labelling schemes, consider what the environmental marketing company TerraChoice describe as the "six sins of greenwashing", one of which is the sin of irrelevance. Surveying the US market for aerosol products in 2007, they found a large number of companies offering aerosols and deodorants that were "CFC-free". Commendable as this may be, the commercial use of CFCs was banned after the Montreal Protocol in 1987 – so it is hardly surprising to find them absent from aerosols some 20 years later.
Trickery on behalf of the advertising industry is hardly big news. But recent research by psychologists at Princeton University shows that people naturally infer much more information than is contained in the literal content of a message. So, for example, a Christmas cake that has "60% rich fruit" written on the side, is interpreted by consumers as meaning that the product contains more rich fruit than the average Christmas cake. If it didn't, the trusting consumer reasons, why would the label mention it in the first place?
Well, why indeed. The lesson for the government is that eco-labelling needs to be tightly controlled and strictly regulated, in the same way that information about nutritional content has been standardised and rolled out across every food and drink product in the country. If it is not, and the public start to feel as if they are being greenwashed at the checkout, then the risk of a trust rebellion looms large. But with companies scrabbling to position their products as the greenest on the market, what hope for the ethical consumer looking to make an informed choice this Christmas?
The problem is that combating climate change by changing the way we consume doesn't just mean consuming differently – it also means consuming less, or sometimes not at all. As any advertising executive worth their marketing diploma will tell you, they don't sell products – they sell ideas. But even these masters of manipulation struggle with the teasingly oxymoronic topic of sustainable consumption. Because for the ad agencies, selling the idea of "not buying" would be (as Gerald Kaufman memorably described Labour's 1983 manifesto) the longest suicide note in history. Christmas may have been rebranded, but for the guardians of consumption, selling nothing just isn't an option.

Botched biofuel legislation stalls climate change initiative

Terry Macalister
The Guardian, Monday December 8 2008

The government has blown a hole in its climate change plans by misdrafting a key piece of legislation covering the introduction of "green" fuel for motorists. The Department for Transport admitted last night that there was an "error" in the law governing the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) and it was going to have to put it right.
The RTFO was introduced this year as a way of ensuring that up to 2.5% of all petrol and a similar amount of diesel poured into cars and trucks came from low-carbon fuels. It was linked to the Hydrocarbon Oil Duty Act which missed out a vital reference to bioblends, which are part fossil fuel and part biofuel.
The error means that oil companies and supermarkets will be able to get away with meeting half these combined targets this year, which could have an impact on 2009, according to the Renewable Fuels Agency, responsible for overseeing the sector.
Biofuels manufacturers said they feared a "catastrophe" if forecourt suppliers cut back on their commitments and clean-fuel refiners are left with worthless output.
A spokeswoman at the Department for Transport said the order was being re-drafted for implementation from April 2009 and she was confident no long-term damage had been done .
Biofuels manufacturers said they were unwilling to be seen to be criticising the government and would only speak on the basis of anonymity.
But one leading company described the situation as "potentially disastrous", especially as the government had been given legal advice that it could be "ultra vires" to change the RTFO retrospectively.
Biofuels have already been criticised by the UN for reducing food supplies.

Ancient skills 'could reverse global warming'

Trials begin of a technique used by Amazon Indians that takes CO2 and locks it safely into soil
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment EditorSunday, 7 December 2008

Ancient techniques pioneered by pre-Columbian Amazonian Indians are about to be pressed into service in Britain and Central America in the most serious commercial attempt yet to reverse global warming.
Trials are to be started in Sussex and Belize early in the new year, backed with venture capital from Silicon Valley, on techniques to take carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, where it should act as a powerful fertiliser.
The plan is to scale up rapidly into a worldwide enterprise to reverse the build-up of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, in the atmosphere and eventually bring it back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.
The ambitious enterprise – which on Friday received its first multimillion-pound investment from California – is the brainchild of two of Britain's most successful environmental entrepreneurs: Craig Sams, one of the founders of the best-selling Green & Black's organic chocolate, and Dan Morrell, who co-founded Future Forests, the first carbon offsetting company.
They aim to grow trees and plants to absorb CO2 and then trap the carbon by turning the resulting biomass into "biochar", a fine-grained form of charcoal that can be buried in the soil, keeping it safely locked up for thousands of years.
The pre-Columbian Indians used biochar to make the poor soils of the rainforest – which otherwise quickly become exhausted – productive for harvest after harvest. It is still there today, many hundreds of years later, forming islands of black fertile earth in the otherwise unpromising ground.
But it is now being widely cited as a possible solution to global warming by scientists shocked at how climate change is taking place much faster than predicted and convinced that the world must now start not just rapidly to reduce CO2 emissions, but to get the greenhouse gas out of the air.
Among them is Professor James Hansen, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute of Space Studies and probably the world's most respected climate scientist, who believes CO2 concentrations must urgently be reduced from its present 385 parts per million to 350 if global warming is not to run out of control. International negotiations – continuing this weekend in Poznan, Poland – are aimed at stabilising them at the higher level of 450ppm.
Trees and plants soak up carbon dioxide as they grow, but release it again as they are burned or left to rot. But burning them largely in the absence of oxygen, through pyrolysis, reduces the amount of the gas emitted by 90 per cent, and stores the carbon in the charcoal instead. It also gives off energy that can be used as an efficient biofuel.
If the resulting biochar is then buried in the ground it will stay there for some 5,000 years, keeping the carbon out of the atmosphere, and nourishing the soil while it is there. It also cuts down on the use of fertilisers; reduces the emission of methane and nitrous oxides, which are also greenhouse gases, from the ground; filters out pollutants; and retains water, thus combating flooding.
The new enterprise will start with wood grown in Suffolk and with prunings from the Belize cacao trees that supply Green & Black's chocolate. But its founders hope that it will rapidly become a worldwide industry.
Mr Sams calculates that if just two and a half per cent of the world's productive land were used to produce biochar, carbon dioxide could be returned to pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2050.
He said: "Biomass from trees and plants, which captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is a treasure to be buried in the earth."
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Targets to cut carbon emissions 'not enough to stop climate change'

Rich countries will have to help poorer nations develop alternatives to fossil fuels as well as cutting their own emissions if the world is to tackle climate change, according to a new report.

By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent Last Updated: 4:03PM GMT 07 Dec 2008

More than 190 countries have gathered in Poznan Poland for the UN Climate Change Conference this week to decide a way forward on global warming.
The meeting will draw up the format for a replacement of the Kyoto Protocol to be decided in Copenhagen next year.
One of the most controversial issues are whether to commit to numeric targets to cut carbon emissions.
At the moment the EU is proposing to cut emissons by 30 per cent by 2020.
A new report however, from the Global Climate Network said rich countries will also have to help poorer nations develop low carbon technology so that they are pumping out less carbon from coal or oil.
Andrew Pendleton, senior research fellow at Institute for Public Policy Research that took part in the research, said: "Industrialised countries' current proposals clearly fall well short of the mark.
"But there's genuine concern in most about what levels of emissions reduction are physically possible by 2020 and what this effort will cost.
"Ministers meeting in Poland... should focus on how to achieve a rapid acceleration in the development of low carbon technologies and finance to ensure that these technologies are deployed as soon as possible."
Ministers are expected to decide on wheter to include targets in any agreement by the end of this week.
They will also decide on how to pay poorer countries to halt deforestation and whether to set up an adaptation fund to help developing countries cope with climate change.

People power vital to climate deal - minister

Miliband calls for global movement to pressure governments into action• Audio: Ed Miliband talks to the Guardian
David Adam and Juliette Jowit
The Guardian, Monday December 8 2008

A global campaign in the style of Make Poverty History is needed to pressure political leaders into sealing a treaty on tackling climate change, Ed Miliband, the environment secretary, has said.
Miliband told the Guardian a "popular mobilisation" was needed to help politicians push through an agreement to limit carbon emissions in the face of concerns about the economy. "There will be some people saying 'we can't go ahead with an agreement on climate change, it's not the biggest priority'. And, therefore, what you need is countervailing forces. Some of those countervailing forces come from popular mobilisation."
He added: "I think back to Make Poverty History ... and that was a mass movement that was necessary to get the agreement. In terms of climate change, it's even more difficult. There are people who have legitimate concerns, whether it's businesses in Europe who are concerned about competitiveness, or people who [ask] is it really necessary to do this now."
His view comes as environment ministers prepare to attend UN talks in Poznan, Poland, on the likely shape of a global deal to succeed the Kyoto protocol. The talks aim to secure an agreement at a meeting in Copenhagen this time next year.
"When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation," said Miliband. "Maybe it's an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there's a real opportunity and a need here."
He denied trying to pass the responsibility for tackling global warming from politicians to the public. "Political change comes from leadership and popular mobilisation. And you need both of them."
Make Poverty History made history itself when a coalition of British charities and celebrities such as Bono and Richard Curtis rallied hundreds of organisations from around the world, and millions of individuals wearing white wristbands, to press the G8 group of leading industrial countries to commit in 2005 to spend $50bn (£34bn) to tackle global poverty.
Environment and development groups said campaigns will grow in the run-up to Copenhagen, but warned they would include protests against UK plans to expand aviation and new coal plants. "He [Miliband] is going to get his wish, but he must be quite clear what he wishes for because it's going to be very hardnosed," said Benedict Southworth, director of the World Development Movement.
Ashok Sinha, director of Stop Climate Chaos, a UK-based umbrella group of organisations with 4 million members, said cutting domestic emissions was the best way the UK could get global action. There is also concern about the government's motivation, given there are several organisations trying to get mass support. And there were warnings that the climate would be hard to win public support for: first, because it has had less time to build up - Make Poverty History was a decade in the making; second, unlike action on poverty, individuals would have to make personal sacrifices, such as flying less.
"It would be helpful if there was a Make Poverty History mobilisation around climate change, but that shouldn't preclude political leadership now ... we need urgent action," said Mike Childs, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth in the UK.
Elsewhere talks are continuing in Brussels on measures to cut EU carbon emissions by 20-30% by 2020. Last night it emerged that the French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, had agreed to push for the cuts.

Melting ice may slow global warming

Scientists discover that minerals found in collapsing ice sheets could feed plankton and cut C02 emissions
David Adam, environment correspondent
The Observer, Sunday December 7 2008

Collapsing antarctic ice sheets, which have become potent symbols of global warming, may actually turn out to help in the battle against climate change and soaring carbon emissions.
Professor Rob Raiswell, a geologist at the University of Leeds, says that as the sheets break off the ice covering the continent, floating icebergs are produced that gouge minerals from the bedrock as they make their way to the sea. Raiswell believes that the accumulated frozen mud could breathe life into the icy waters around Antarctica, triggering a large, natural removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
And as rising temperatures cause the ice sheets to break up faster, creating more icebergs, the amount of carbon dioxide removed will also rise. Raiswell says: ' It won't solve the problem, but it might buy us some time.'
As the icebergs drift northwards, they sprinkle the minerals through the ocean. Among these minerals, Raiswell's research shows, are iron compounds that can fertilise large-scale growth of photosynthetic plankton, which take in carbon dioxide from the air as they flourish.
According to his calculations, melting Antarctic icebergs already deposit up to 120,000 tonnes of this 'bioavailable' iron into the Southern Ocean each year, enough to grow sufficient plankton to remove some 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the annual carbon pollution of India and Japan. A 1 per cent increase in the number of icebergs in the Southern Ocean could remove an extra 26 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to the annual emissions of Croatia.
Raiswell, a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow, said: 'We see the rapid ice loss in Antarctica as one obvious sign of climate warming, but could it be the Earth's attempt to save us from global warming?' He added that the effect had not been discovered before because scientists assumed that the iron in the iceberg sediment was inert and could not be used by plankton.
In a paper published in the journal Geochemical Transactions, Raiswell and colleagues at the University of Bristol and the University of California describe how they chipped samples off four Antarctic icebergs blown ashore on Seymour island by a storm in the Weddell Sea.
They found that they contained grains of ferrihydrite and schwertmannite, two iron minerals that could boost plankton growth. 'These are the first measurements of potentially bioavailable iron on Antarctic ice-hosted sediments,' they write. 'Identifying icebergs as a significant source of bioavailable iron may shed new light on how the oceans respond to atmospheric warming.'
No rivers flow into the Southern Ocean and the only previously identified major source of iron for its anaemic waters is dust blown from South America. The team says that icebergs could deliver at least as much iron as the dust.
A key question is how much of the carbon soaked up by the growing plankton is returned to the atmosphere. 'We simply don't know the answer to that,' Raiswell said. Seeding the oceans with iron will only benefit the climate if the plankton sink to the bottom when they die, taking the carbon with them.
David Vaughan, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, said: 'It's a very interesting new line of research and one that should be looked at in more detail.'
He said the number of icebergs in the Antarctic was expected to rise by about 20 per cent by the end of the century, which could remove an extra 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, if they all seeded plankton growth.

Planet under pressure

This week, ministers and officials gather in Poznan at the start of a one-year countdown to the Copenhagen summit, at which experts say a deal must be reached if we are to have a chance of averting catastrophic warming. Today, in the first of a major series, we look at the crucial question: will China and the US sign up?
David Adam, Julian Borger, Jonathan Watts, Randeep Ramesh and Suzanne Goldenberg
The Guardian, Monday December 8 2008

It had been a long, hot night in Bali, a few weeks before last Christmas, and talks on a new climate deal had dragged past the scheduled finish, through the small hours and well into the morning. The fate of the world remained in the balance. Faced with grim predictions from the world's scientists, environment ministers from 192 countries were trying to agree how to tackle global warming. The deadline to agree the so-called Bali roadmap had come and gone, and rumours were rife that saving the planet would have to be suspended to allow cleaners to ready the rooms for a pre-booked event later that day. Exhausted campaigners, officials and journalists waited for news like expectant fathers, while, with guilty looks and mumbled apologies, delegates began stumbling into taxis for flights home.
Then, inside the cavernous hotel auditorium hosting the negotiations, something extraordinary happened. Faced with angry accusations from the Chinese that he was allowing parallel discussions outside the room, Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official, broke down in tears and had to be helped from the platform. A ripple of supportive applause swelled to a standing ovation - a rare moment of unity that appeared to nudge the talks back on track. A few hours later, the world's politicians were able to agree and head home.
De Boer takes centre stage again this week as the UN climate talks resume in Poznan, Poland. The meeting is likely to provide fewer fireworks. The Bali talks launched negotiations on a new climate treaty, and aimed for them to be completed by this time next year, when the UN climate circus rolls into Copenhagen. Poznan, the halfway point of that process, will probably see countries tread water, with the real action likely to begin in the second half of next year.
"This is not an exciting meeting in the way Bali was," De Boer says. "But we really haven't got an awful lot of time left to agree what comes next. It is important that countries in Copenhagen reach a political agreement that is a response to what the science tells us needs to be done."
Big two
Some progress is still possible at Poznan - countries could agree on how to free hundreds of millions of pounds of funding to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change. There could also be movement on a scheme to pay tropical countries to protect forests.
The negotiation that will climax in Copenhagen is the first attempt to reach a meaningful international agreement on climate change since the Kyoto protocol in 1997, the first phase of which expires in 2012. Analysts say a new agreement is needed by the end of next year for it to enter into force in 2012, to give countries a couple of years to ratify the new treaty.
Anything other than a seamless succession from Kyoto could spell disaster for emerging carbon markets - seen as a crucial mechanism to cut future carbon emissions. The involvement of the US and China - the two biggest carbon emitters - is fundamental. As one European official put it: "The new climate agreement is a deal between the US and China. The rest of us are there for lubrication."
The American president-elect, Barack Obama, has said the US will "engage vigorously" in talks on a Copenhagen deal and "help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change".
The US signed Kyoto, but President Bill Clinton never submitted it for ratification to a hostile Senate, which made it clear it would oppose on economic grounds any deal that did not set binding targets for the developing world, code for China. President Bush distanced the US further from what he called a "flawed treaty".
But negotiators do not expect the Obama administration to signal its true intentions on climate change until spring at the earliest. Some Washington observers are more pessimistic, believing an Obama administration will be unlikely to focus on global climate change commitments before enacting domestic legislation. The incoming chairs of the Senate and House of Representatives, Barbara Boxer and Henry Waxman respectively, both have said they plan to introduce such legislation early in 2009, but it is unlikely to become law before Copenhagen.
John Kerry, the former presidential candidate who will lead the Senate delegation in Poznan, said last month that the US was now in a position to play a leading role in negotiations. But he also warned that the incoming administration would be constrained by the economic crisis in offering incentives to countries such as India and China to commit themselves to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
The rest of the world expects more than engagement from Obama, however vigorous, and British officials will expect the US to take on the kind of binding targets it rejected a decade ago. For that to happen, it seems certain that the US will demand mandatory emissions commitments from large developing countries, principally China, India and Brazil.
China's position has not fundamentally changed since Bali: it will resist internationally binding goals for emissions reductions. "I don't think it is realistic or feasible to set a specific emissions target at a national level," said a member of the Chinese negotiating team. "Politically, I don't think it is possible to set targets."
Before taking that step, the source said, China would seek assistance to build up a system to measure, report and verify emissions. This is a challenge in such a large country but negotiators argue it is pointless to set a target if there is no accurate way to gauge compliance.
China has set non-binding domestic goals on energy efficiency, renewable energy use and the reduction of pollutants, including several greenhouse gases. Foreign diplomats praise the targets, but say implementation is patchy.
In Chinese academia, there is a growing debate on the issue, with one prominent government adviser, Hu Angang, urging China to score diplomatic points by fixing binding targets. But this is a minority position. The Chinese government stresses that the main responsibility lies with developed countries. Before setting binding targets, China wants its economy to catch up more with the west. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao recently called on rich countries to abandon their "unsustainable lifestyle", saying the financial crisis was no excuse for inaction on climate change.
China has said developed countries should contribute at least 0.7% of their GDP to help poorer countries acquire clean technology and cope with the floods, droughts and storms created by rising temperatures. Few wealthy countries stump up this much cash for their entire aid budgets. In negotiations, China and other developing countries are likely to seek a lower but still substantial sum of several tens of billions of pounds.
Ed Miliband, the UK environment secretary, said Europe needed to agree its own carbon targets at a meeting in Brussels this week to smooth the negotiations. Italy and Poland have complained about the cost of the proposals, which must be agreed by European leaders on Friday. Miliband said: "When I think about Poznan, the backdrop at present is a positive one because of what President-elect Obama has said, but it will be much more positive if we get agreement in Europe, and much more negative if we don't."
Henry Derwent, who stepped down as UK chief negotiator on climate change this year and is now president of the International Emissions Trading Association, said it was "too extreme" to view the US and China as the only major players in the negotiations. He said: "Those two will have to be satisfied, but China does not simply own India and cannot deliver India, nor the rest of the G77 [group of developing countries]."
Shyam Saran, India's special envoy on climate change and lead negotiator at the UN talks, told the Guardian that India is not a "major emitter" of greenhouse gases and will not volunteer to take on responsibilities that would see it accept legally binding limits. He said capping emissions would threaten its growth and prevent it from alleviating "energy poverty" which saw 500 million people live in darkness.
"In India, I need to give electricity for light bulbs to half a billion. In the west you want to drive your Mercedes as fast as you want. We have 'survival' emissions, you have lifestyle emissions. You cannot put them on the same basis. I am trying to give a minimal commercial energy service, whereas you are not prepared to give up any part of your affluent lifestyle or give up consumption patterns," he said.
The diplomat, who was appointed earlier this year after successfully negotiating a key nuclear deal with Washington, said India also had concerns that the global financial crisis would see climate change fall off the political agenda and expressed surprise at the ease at which money had been found to cope with the slowdown.
"What we are saying is that if in a compelling crisis governments are able to find the resources amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, then what about climate change?"
The Indian government has repeatedly pointed out that developed countries promised under the United Nations framework convention on climate change, adopted in 1992, that poor countries would get cash and knowhow to deal with climate change. Yet little has arrived.
Derwent said the Chinese statement about rich countries paying 0.7% of GDP to poorer countries was "quite an optimistic sign compared to what India and others are saying". He said: "They are talking in negotiating language, even though their initial demand is outside the comfort zone of those on the other side of the table. It's a negotiating commonplace that once the other guy starts talking numbers or timetables, even if the numbers are ridiculous, you have passed a milestone."
In contrast, he said the early talk about mandatory reduction commitments for countries such as China from the Obama team were "absolutely miles away" from what developing countries might accept. Derwent said: "It's a hunch, but I think there is much, much more understanding that has to go on in the minds of the new presidential team that what they're asking for is simply not available."
He said the key issue in Copenhagen would be what countries were willing to sign up to in the short term, rather than ambitious pledges to act by 2050. "You've got to get people talking about a next commitment period, might be five years, eight years or 2020, against which that can be judged." One problem, Derwent said, was that countries would probably not put such numbers on the table until the last minute. "That's quite possible. And if you did get that then the chances [of an agreement] would be quite low." He added: "The problem with Copenhagen is that there is simply so much to do."
Bob Watson, chief scientist at the environment department, Defra, and a former White House adviser in the mid-1990s, said it could be possible to adjourn the Copenhagen meeting if agreement is not reached. "If there's major agreement but they can't get everyone to sign on the dotted line they might have to come back a few months later. I say let's really push for Copenhagen, but there may have to be what I call a Copenhagen plus one."

How the different countries stand on climate change

The Guardian, Monday December 8 2008

Views itself as the world leader and wants to limit climate change to 2C above pre-industrial levels. Has pledged to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, and to raise this to 30% if there is agreement at Copenhagen
The Bush administration regularly stalled on climate targets. Barack Obama's team has yet to make its position clear, but has promised "vigorous engagement" at Copenhagen. Will want greater effort from developing countries, China in particular
More aware of climate change than often given credit for. Likely to resist binding targets, but some pledge of future action will be needed to appease US. Has requested that rich countries pay 0.7% of GDP to poorer ones to help them adapt to the effects of global warming.
Has taken a hard line so far and voiced its opposition to legally binding targets. Has indicated it would be willing to work to keep its growing per capita emissions below those of industrialised countries
One of the great unknowns. Russia's crucial gas resources have made it more bullish at climate talks, and the Kremlin resents being ranked alongside countries such as Argentina, Mexico and South Africa in the negotiations.
• Source: Energy Information Administration

Has the Kyoto protocol worked?

David Adam, environment correspondent
The Guardian, Monday December 8 2008

Agreed in 1997, the Kyoto protocol aimed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases across the developed world by about 5% compared with 1990. It came into force in 2005, following ratification by Russia, which means the deadline for the legally binding cuts to be made is 2008-12. It was based on the "common but differentiated responsibility" approach to global warming, with countries most able to make cuts asked to do so. Many countries were allowed to increase pollution, including all those in the developing world. Most controversially, Kyoto introduced mechanisms such as carbon trading to help countries meet their targets in "flexible" ways - often in other countries - rather than by making cuts at home.
Figures released by the UN last month suggest the world is on track to meet its Kyoto targets for greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons. Emissions by the 40 industrialised nations that agreed binding cuts in pollution are down 5% on 1990 levels. But the drop has little to do with climate policies: the bulk of the decline is down to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic decline in eastern Europe in the 1990s. Without these so-called "economies in transition", greenhouse gas emissions have grown by almost 10% since 1990.
Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, said the figures showed emissions were rising once again in eastern Europe. "The biggest recent increase in emissions of industrialised countries has come from economies in transition, which have seen a rise of 7.4% in greenhouse gas emissions within the 2000 to 2006 time frame," he said.
Among industrialised nations, 16 are on target to meet their Kyoto obligations, including France, the UK, Greece and Hungary, the UN said. Some
20 countries are off-course, including Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand and Spain. Nations that miss their Kyoto target in 2012 will incur a penalty of an additional third added to whatever cut they agree under a new treaty in Copenhagen.
Has Kyoto worked? "In terms of emission reductions achieved, the answer would be no," De Boer said. "A 5% cut is a pretty small step on what will be a long and arduous journey. On the other hand, Kyoto has had great success in putting an architecture in place. Monitoring and verification systems, carbon markets, technology transfer and funds for adaptation have all been mobilised by Kyoto," he said. "I think this is a fabulous architecture that we can build on on the road to Copenhagen."