Dune: what the climate of Arrakis can tell us about the hunt for habitable exoplanets

Frank Herbert’s Dune is epic sci-fi storytelling with an environmental message at its heart. The novels and movies are set on the desert planet of Arrakis, which various characters dream of transforming into a greener world – much like some envision for Mars today.

We investigated Arrakis using a climate model, a computer program similar to those used to give weather forecasts. We found the world that Herbert had created, well before climate models even existed, was remarkably accurate – and would be habitable, if not hospitable.

However, Arrakis wasn’t always a desert. In Dune lore, 91% of the planet was once covered by oceans, until some ancient catastrophe led to its desertification. What water remained was further removed by sand trout, an invasive species brought to Arrakis. These proliferated and carried liquid into cavities deep underground, leading to the planet becoming more and more arid.

To see what a large ocean would mean for the planet’s climate and habitability, we have now used the same climate model – putting in an ocean while changing no other factors.

When most of Arrakis is flooded, we calculate that the global average temperature would be reduced by 4°C. This is mostly because oceans add moisture to the atmosphere, which leads to more snow and certain types of cloud, both of which reflect the sun’s energy back into space. But it’s also because oceans on Earth and (we assume) on Arrakis emit “halogens” that cool the planet by depleting ozone, a potent greenhouse gas which Arrakis would have significantly more of than Earth.

Map of Arrakis
The authors gathered information from the books and the Dune Encyclopedia to build their original model. Then they added an ocean with 1,000 metres average depth.
Farnsworth et al, CC BY-SA

Unsurprisingly, the ocean world is a whopping 86 times wetter, as so much water evaporates from the oceans. This means plants can grow as water is no longer a finite resource, as it is on desert Arrakis.

A wetter world would be more stable

Oceans also reduce temperature extremes, as water heats and cools more slowly than land. (This is one reason Britain, surrounded by oceans, has relatively mild winters and summers, while places far inland tend to be hotter in summer and very cold in winter). The climate of an ocean planet is therefore more stable than a desert world.

In desert Arrakis, temperatures would reach 70°C or more, while in its ocean state, we put the highest recorded temperatures at about 45°C. That means the ocean Arrakis would be liveable even in summer. Forests and arable crops could grow outside of the (still cold and snowy) poles.

There is one downside, however. Tropical regions would be buffeted by large cyclones since the huge, warm oceans would contain lots of the energy and moisture required to drive hurricanes.

The search for habitable planets

All this isn’t an entirely abstract exercise, as scientists searching for habitable “exoplanets” in distant galaxies are looking for these sorts of things too. At the moment, we can only detect such planets using huge telescopes in space to search for those that are similar to Earth in size, temperature, available energy, ability to host water, and other factors.

Scatter chart of planets comparing habitability and similarity to Earth.
Both desert and ocean Arrakis are considerably more habitable than any other planet we have discovered.
Farnsworth et al, CC BY-SA

We know that desert worlds are probably more common than Earth-like planets in the universe. Planets with potentially life-sustaining oceans will usually be found in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”: far enough from the Sun to avoid being too hot (so further away than boiling hot Venus), but close enough to avoid everything being frozen (so nearer than Jupiter’s icy moon Ganymede).

Research has found this habitable zone is particularly small for planets with large oceans. Their water is at risk of either completely freezing, therefore making the planet even colder, or of evaporating as part of a runaway greenhouse effect in which a layer of water vapour prevents heat from escaping and the planet gets hotter and hotter.

The habitable zone is therefore much larger for desert planets, since at the outer edge they will have less snow and ice cover and will absorb more of their sun’s heat, while at the inner edge there is less water vapour and so less risk of a runaway greenhouse effect.

It’s also important to note that, though distance from their local star can give a general average temperature for a planet, such an average can be misleading. For instance, both desert and ocean Arrakis have a habitable average temperature, but the day-to-day temperature extremes on the ocean planet are much more hospitable.

Currently, even the most powerful telescopes cannot sense temperatures at this detail. They also cannot see in detail how the continents are arranged on distant planets. This again could mean the averages are misleading. For instance, while the ocean Arrakis we modelled would be very habitable, most of the land is in the polar regions which are under snow year-round – so the actual amount of inhabitable land is much less.

Such considerations could be important in our own far-future, when the Earth is projected to form a supercontinent centred on the equator. That continent would make the planet far too hot for mammals and other life to survive, potentially leading to mass extinction.

If the most likely liveable planets in the universe are deserts, they may well be very extreme environments that require significant technological solutions and resources to enable life – desert worlds will probably not have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, for instance.

But that won’t stop humans from trying. For instance, Elon Musk and SpaceX have grand ambitions to create a colony on our closest desert world, Mars. But the many challenges they will face only emphasises how important our own Earth is as the cradle of civilisation – especially as ocean-rich worlds may not be as plentiful as we’d hope. If humans eventually colonise other worlds, they’re likely to have to deal with many of the same problems as the characters in Dune.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr Alex Farnsworth, Senior Research Associate in Meteorology, and Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol; and Michael Farnsworth, Research Lead Future Electrical Machines Manufacturing Hub, University of Sheffield. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

White men dominate the environment sector – here’s how to encourage more diverse voices

Bringing a diversity of people to the table and giving plenty of opportunities for everyone to have their say is key to ensuring real inclusivity. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

In early 2021, I observed a meeting of 25 people working on climate change policy in Bristol as part of my research into creating a just and fair climate transition. I was struck by how the conversation was dominated by one group: white men. From that moment, inequality in decision-making became a major part of my climate justice research.

I drew a table in my notebook with four headings: white men, white women, minoritised men and minoritised women. Every time someone spoke, I put a tick in the relevant column. By the end of that meeting, white men had three times as many ticks as the rest combined. I took a picture of the table and sent it to my research partner, Alice Venn.

“Should I keep recording this data?” I asked. Venn approved of this approach, so data on gender and race became central to our study.

We observed various meetings including steering groups, member consultations and board meetings for nine hours over the course of six months. During that time, white men spoke for 64% of the time and represented 40% of participants. A slightly higher percentage (41%) of white women were present in the meetings we observed, but they spoke for just 33% of the time.

By comparison, minoritised women made up 14% of participants in meetings and spoke 2% of the time. Minoritised men made up 5% of participants in meetings and spoke only 1% of the time.

This is no great surprise. The environment sector is notoriously one of the least diverse, with only 3.5% of people working in environmental jobs identifying as being from an ethnic minority. In the environmental charity sector, that figure is 6%. This compares quite starkly with an average across the UK workforce of 15% of employees from racial or ethnic minorities.

Diverse voices and critical discussions are key to making robust, inclusive and future-proof decisions. If a group of people who come from similar backgrounds (whether because of race, class or gender) assess a decision they are making for flaws, they are unlikely to find them because they are likely to agree with one another.

There may then be unexpected pushback against policies such as 15-minute neighbourhoods (where residents can reach all the facilities they need within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or journey on public transport), because groups who do not benefit from those schemes have not been consulted and their dissent has not been anticipated.

In Bristol, our observations of meetings found that participants showed very little critical engagement with existing policies, such as cycling route safety planning that centred around men commuting, or expansion plans for Bristol airport. Often, there was no space or time in meetings to be critical of existing ideas and narratives, or to challenge existing policy processes and systemic problems.

Climate justice was only mentioned in one of the nine meetings we observed. Climate vulnerability was not mentioned at all. Meetings felt very busy, filled with packed agendas, with little opportunity to make radical suggestions for change.

Changing the dynamic

Even with a mix of women and men or representative examples of minoritised people in the room, these people won’t necessarily speak up. Women are less likely to have influence in board meetings and struggle to be heard in online meetings.

A good chair will be aware of these dynamics and take steps to ensure inclusivity, perhaps by setting up small group tasks to build confidence or monitoring who is speaking and calling on quieter people directly.

Another technique, known as the “2-2 method”, involves asking “what are two reasons someone would agree, and two someone would disagree?” before opening the floor for critique. An open workplace culture where people feel they can trust leadership even if they are critical is also important, and will make more open and inclusive meetings easier to conduct.

From observations in our study, women tend to take longer to answer a question, which gives space for men to jump in or interrupt. One of the female participants told us: “I notice men tend to talk over me and interrupt me, a lot.”

Minoritised individuals may be more reticent to speak if they feel they won’t be listened to. Previous research shows that some board members worry they will be tokenised by being asked to represent huge groups – this puts undue pressure on them to be the spokesperson for their race or ethnicity, and does not treat them as an individual with worthy opinions. Being aware of these dynamics and getting it right as an employer or community leader is key to making change and ensuring everyone feels able to speak up.

A diversity redesign

As a follow-up from our study, we are training members of the environment sector in Bristol. We have been working with the UK-wide, equalities-led social enterprise The Diversity Trust and video production company Beeston Media to provide a series of workshops and videos about making more inclusive decisions, creating an open workplace culture, and recruiting and retaining diverse staff.

So far we’ve held three workshops, each attended by more than 25 people from a wide range of sectors and organisations. Three more workshops are planned for spring and summer 2024.

As a result, the Bristol Advisory Committee on Climate Change has already changed its recruitment policies. The committee has widened its definition of an expert, moving away from a research-based definition and explicitly noting that lived experience and community knowledge can be accepted as expertise.

Meeting space policies have also been redesigned at several organisations – for example, by implementing the 2-2 method and ensuring that chairs avoid tokenism and use micro-affirmations to build confidence.

We are monitoring the impact of these changes with one-to-one support calls, surveys and peer-to-peer support groups. One testimony stated that “the training you have been running has been so valuable in helping environmental organisations to develop better equality, diversity and inclusion practice”.

Improvements to embrace a more diverse and inclusive environmental sector are critical to ensuring a greener, fairer and more sustainable future for all. But this transition needs to be designed with people, rather than imposed on them. The shift can begin in a boardroom, steering group, or committee meeting. Any institution that pays attention to how it makes decisions, and who is consulted, will help to ensure the green transition is as inclusive as possible.

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This blog is written by Dr Alix Dietzel, Senior Lecturer in Climate Justice, and Associate Director of Impact at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dr Alix Dietzel
Dr Alix Dietzel

Vaccinating livestock against common diseases is a form of direct climate action

PERO studio/Shutterstock

Animal diseases have a devastating impact on livestock production. In 2022, for example, 131 million domestic poultry died or were culled as a result of avian influenza (also called “bird flu”).

Yet the cost of livestock disease goes beyond a shortage of turkeys for the holiday season. Every animal that is lost to a preventable disease is also associated with greenhouse gas emissions that the planet cannot afford.

Animal diseases reduce the productivity of a farm. This is because livestock grow at a slower pace, are unable to reach target weights or fail to reproduce. Diseases may also drastically increase the rate at which livestock die.

Diseases with high mortality levels, such as classical swine fever or avian influenza, mean farmers need to use more resources and raise additional animals to maintain food production. This will cause the generation of more greenhouse gas emissions.

However, controlling common animal diseases effectively through tools like vaccination proves to be a sustainable way of tackling climate change. According to new research that was carried out by one of us (Jude Capper), controlling “high pathogenicity” avian influenza – a virus that can cause severe disease and death in infected poultry – with vaccines would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 16% per kilogram of meat without having to resort to culling.

A vet removing the carcasses of chickens on a farm that have died from bird flu.
Bird flu caused the death of 131 million domestic poultry in 2022.
Pordee_Aomboon/Shutterstock

Reducing emissions

Using vaccines to prevent disease also supports better food security and livelihoods. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome is endemic in countries including the US, China and Vietnam. The virus does not always kill infected pigs, but it limits output from swine farms as it affects reproduction and growth. In affected herds, up to 19% of sows fail to produce piglets and 75% of young pigs die before weaning.

Every 100,000 sows spared from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome would prevent more than 420,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This is equivalent to removing more than 230,000 cars from the road, and means greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of pork would fall by 22.5%.

Similarly, eliminating foot and mouth disease where it is endemic (many low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia) would cut emissions by more than 10% per kilogram of product. Foot and mouth disease is highly contagious and led to a crisis for UK agriculture when it hit in 2001. The disease is a major cause of reduced production around the globe, despite not always killing livestock.

Traffic on a motorway surrounded by heavy smog.
Vaccinating 100,000 sows against porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome could reduce emissions by an amount comparable to that produced by 230,000 cars.
testing/Shutterstock

Controlling outbreaks

More than 80% of farms in low-income countries are smallholder or backyard operations. This type of farm generates more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat, milk and eggs than commercial farms because of lower productivity.

Farms in these countries are reservoirs of disease. This means the threat of a global outbreak – and the associated implications for greenhouse gas emissions – is never zero. These reservoirs occur because of a lack of disease surveillance, infrastructure, trained personnel and available medicines to detect, record and control livestock diseases.

Nevertheless, controlling endemic livestock diseases through vaccination reduces the risk of outbreaks across species and regional borders. By controlling avian bronchitis (a highly contagious respiratory disease mainly in chickens) where it is endemic among backyard poultry, we can reduce emissions by more than 11% while also limiting the risk of an outbreak.

Outbreaks can undermine global trade, production and food security. Economic analysis of an African swine fever outbreak in China found that low pork supply would increase global pork prices by between 17% and 85%. The findings also suggest that unmet demand would have significant consequences for the affordability of other meats.

Vaccination also helps to address the threat of antimicrobial resistance, which poses a major threat to human health around the world. Research estimates that antimicrobial resistance was associated with around 5 million deaths globally in 2019.

Free range chicken on a poultry farm.
Most farms in low-income countries are smallholder or backyard operations.
goodbishop/Shutterstock

Moving towards sustainability

Our food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Improving animal health would thus make a significant contribution to meeting the IPCC’s challenge of halving emissions by 2030.

At the same time, it would minimise the broader environmental impact of farming through efficiency gains. This is particularly crucial in low-income countries where the inability to control or treat livestock diseases has greater consequences for malnutrition, poverty and human health.

Sustainable food production balances three components: environmental responsibility, economic viability and social acceptability. Using vaccines to reduce livestock disease around the globe is one of the few innovations that improves all three – benefiting animals, people and the planet.

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This blog is written by David Barrett, Professor of Bovine Medicine, Production and Reproduction, University of Bristol and Jude Capper, Professor of Sustainable Beef and Sheep Production, Harper Adams University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Foul and loathsome’ or jewels of the natural world? The complicated history of human-frog relations

Shutterstock

When was the last time you saw a frog? Perhaps you came across one in your garden and wondered at its little hands, glossy skin and what looked very much like a contented smile.

Maybe you regularly see them on Instagram or TikTok, where “frog accounts” have proliferated in recent years. People share adorable cartoon frogs, coo over crocheted frogs or go gaga for frogs dressed in cute hats.

In fact, our fascination with frogs isn’t new. As our research has found, the history of human-frog relations is long and complicated – and not all of it is nice.

Why we love frogs

There is a rich history of people really loving frogs.

This is interesting, because many people much prefer mammals and birds over reptiles and amphibians.

But the frog is an exception – for a lot of reasons. People tend to be attracted to baby-like faces. Many species of frog have the large eyes characteristic of young animals, humans included.

Having no teeth and no sharp claws, they also do not seem to be immediately threatening, while many of them have beautiful skin colouring and some are improbably tiny.

Frogs are truly among the jewels of the natural world, unlike toads which – with their more mundane colours and “warty skins” – do not usually inspire the same sense of enchantment.

Their beauty connects us to the wider riches of a vibrant nature hidden from most people’s sight in the dense rainforests of the tropical regions.

And they also connect us to nature in our own backyards. At certain times of the year, they spontaneously appear in our gardens and ponds. They can feel like special visitors from the natural world.

Dissecting human feelings for frogs

Yet relationships between people and frogs haven’t always been so positive. In fact, frogs occupy complicated places across cultures all over the world.

In the Western tradition, the legacy of biblical and classical sources was both negative and longstanding.

References to frogs in the Bible rendered them the instrument of divine anger as a swarming plague.

An etching from the late 1700s shows a plague of frogs.
An etching from the late 1700s shows a plague of frogs.
Wellcome Collection

Frogs challenged early modern zoological taxonomies, moving between classification as serpent, insect or reptile.

Perhaps their resistance to easy placement by humans explains the strong emotional language about them used by Swedish naturalist (and “father of modern taxonomy”) Carl Linnaeus.

When he considered the Amphibia in his 1758 Systema Naturae, he noted:

These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale colour, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom.

In modern science, they sit in a branch of zoology, herpetology, that brings frogs together as “creeping animals” with snakes and lizards.

Frogs have also (or perhaps consequently) suffered in the service of science since at least the eighteenth century because it seemed to be possible to easily replicate experiments across multiple frog specimens.

Frogs were particularly crucial to the study of muscles and nerves. This led to ever more violent encounters between experimenters and frog bodies. Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, for example, did experiments in the late 18th century on legs of frogs to investigate what he thought of as “animal electricity”.

Legs of dissected frogs, and various metallic apparatus used to measure what was thought to be electricity flowing in animals
Scientist Luigi Galvani’s 18th-century diagrams of dissected frog legs and various metallic apparatus he used to measure what was thought to be electricity flowing in animals.
Library of Congress

In this sense, frogs were valued as significant scientific objects, their value lying in their flesh, their nervous systems, rather than in their status as living, feeling beings in the world.

In time, experiments with frogs moved beyond the laboratory into the classroom. In the 1930s, schoolchildren were expected to find frogs and bring them to school for dissection in biology classes.

This practice was, however, somewhat controversial, with opponents expressing sentimental attachment to frogs and concerns that such animal cruelty would lead to barbarism.

Recognising the fragility of frogs

So, our relationship with frogs is complicated. From the frogs of Aesop’s Fables to the meme Pepe the Frog, we have projected our own feelings and frustrations onto frogs, and exploited them for science and education.

Frogs have also borne the brunt of our failures as environmental stewards.

By 1990, the world was seeing a global pattern of decline in frog populations due to destruction and degradation of habitat for agriculture and logging, as well as a global amphibian pandemic caused by the chytrid fungus.

Climate change is also making life hard for many species. In 2022, over 40% of amphibian species (of which frogs and toads are by far the largest group) were threatened with extinction. Their vulnerability has seen the frog – especially the red-eyed tree frog – become a symbol for the environment more generally.

So we should delight in frogs and marvel at how beautiful and special they are while we still can, and consider how we might help save them.

Something to reflect on next time you are lucky enough to spot a frog.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Susan Broomhall, Director, Gender and Women’s History Research Centre, Australian Catholic University; Andrea Gaynor, Professor of History, The University of Western Australia, and Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr Andy Flack, Senior Lecturer in Modern and Environmental History, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labour scaling back its £28 billion green pledge will impact UK housing – and public health

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The UK Labour party has announced its intention to reduce its £28 billion green investment pledge to less than £15 billion if elected this year. The political fallout has been been largely focused on the party’s fiscal credibility and leader of the opposition Keir Starmer’s seeming proclivity for U-turns.

A crucial question so far overlooked is what impact the cut would have on public health. The initial pledge included a key home-insulation plan to upgrade 72% – 19m homes – of the UK’s housing stock.

The revised plan, however, replaces that ambitious target with the more ambiguous statement that “millions of homes” will be refurbished. Research has long shown that uninsulated homes have consequences for health, especially for those living in poverty and in poor quality housing. This in turn places an extra burden on an already over-stretched health service.

A constructionn site.
Labour plans to build 1.5 million homes.
Shutterstock

Existing government failure

The wider societal cost of poor-quality housing in the UK is estimated at £18.6 billion a year. Such costs, however, are often ignored when housing policy is being developed and implemented.

Labour promises to deliver 1.5 million homes by “blitzing” the planning system, but it has so far ignored the potential consequences for public health.

Of course, the failure to factor in health is by no means unique to Labour policy. It is already embedded in the government’s approach. A recent academic review of government housing and transport policy found that health is notably absent, despite well-established evidence that urban spaces are making us ill. This shows that on the occasions where health is included, it is lower in a hierarchy of priorities compared to other agendas such as growing the economy.

For many years, government housing policy has been shaped by the numeric gap between supply and demand, rather than the type or quality of the housing stock. The mechanisms for delivering have been based on land release and planning reform. Successive housing policies have mentioned involving communities and supporting their health, social, and cultural wellbeing. But there have been no clear targets for ensuring house retrofit and house building positively impact public health.

In his 2010 independent review on how to reduce health inequalities in England, epidemiologist Michael Marmot showed that prioritising health in urban policies, like housing and transport, can have significant health benefits for local populations.

Our research project has shown that health should be made a central factor in all national policy and guidance that shapes urban spaces. The World Health Organization recommends explicitly including health in housing policy – and tracking its impact with recognised metrics. UK politicians have largely failed to respond.

Promising developments

In addition to positive developments in government, such as the Build Back Beautiful Commission, the opposition also has some promising ambitions. Labour is pledging to deliver a “prevention-first revolution”, in which it envisions a pro-active role for government in ensuring that everybody has the building blocks for a healthy life.

In its mission document for health policy, Labour says that retrofitting of millions of homes will “keep families warm rather than living in damp, mouldy conditions that give their children asthma”. The fact that the party is making explicit this link between housing and health signal is a potentially very positive step forward.

However, in all the furore about Labour scrapping its £28 billion pledge, this crucial link to public health has been entirely forgotten. Indeed, while Labour’s environmental policy has been carefully updated to revise and remove various targets, the preventative health agenda retains the now defunct promise to “oversee retrofitting of 19 million homes”. This is perhaps indicative of the extent to which policymakers just don’t think about health when they think about housing.

While the Conservative pledges for the next parliament remain unclear, analysis of their existing policies in government has found a failure to think about or measure the way housing and urban development policis impact health. Instead, it is merely assumed that housing policies will have positive health outcomes. Rather than making such assumptions, policymakers should be putting public health considerations at the centre of all their decision making.

To ensure that the impact any given policy has on public health is measured and acted upon, health needs to be an explicit urban planning policy outcome. It needs to be clearly defined, measurable, and built into policy implementation and political discourse.

It is also important that different government ministries and relevant stakeholders focused on public health, planning and the environment work together more effectively. Unhealthy homes should be a priority for both the housing minister and the health minister.

Healthier people are more economically productive. They have a smaller financial footprint on the NHS. In the long term, better preventative health is a key part of solving some of the UK’s biggest economic challenges, from labour shortages and sluggish productivity growth to stretched public finances.

Too often government policy is not often designed with the long-term in mind. Instead, short-term economic outcomes and political gains are prioritised – to the detriment of public health.

The best way for the government to protect public health is for every department to consider how their work impacts on it. If political and economic calculations about creating, scrapping and rescaling major projects continue to ignore health, however, politicians are likely to continue coming up with the wrong answers.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Dr Jack Newman, Research Fellow, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol and Dr Geoff Bates, Lecturer in Social Policy, Research Fellow, University of Bath.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UK peatlands are being destroyed to grow mushrooms, lettuce and houseplants – here’s how to stop it

Peat is a natural carbon sink but is often found in house plants and other retail products, particularly within the food and farming industry.
New Africa/Shutterstock

During the long, solitary days of lockdown, I found solace in raising houseplants. Suddenly stuck at home, I had more time to perfect the watering routine of a fussy Swiss cheese plant, and lovingly train our devil’s ivy to delicately frame the bookcases.

But I started noticing that these plants, sourced online, often arrived in the post with a passport. Most had travelled from all over Europe, with one common tagline: contains peat.

As a peatland scientist, these labels instantly filled me with horror. Hidden Peat, a new campaign launched by The Wildlife Trusts, is now highlighting the presence of peat in all sorts of consumer products, including house plants.

Peatlands, such as bogs and fens, store more carbon than all of the world’s forests combined. They trap this carbon in the ground for centuries, preventing it from being released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases that would further warm the climate.

Peatlands have multiple environmental benefits. They are havens for wildlife, providing habitat for wetland birds, insects and reptiles. They supply more than 70% of our drinking water and help protect our homes from flooding.

So why on earth is peat being ripped from these vital ecosystems and stuffed inside plant pots?

From sink to source

Despite their importance, peatlands have been systematically drained, farmed, dug up and sold over the last century. In the UK, only 1% of lowland peat remains in its natural state.

Instead of acting as a carbon sink, it has become one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK’s land use sector. When waterlogged peat soils are drained, microbes decompose the plant material within it and that results in the release of greenhouse gases such as methane into the air.

Most of the peat excavated, bagged up and sold in the UK is used as a growing medium for plants. Gardeners have become increasingly aware of this problem. Peat-free alternatives have been gaining popularity and major retailers have been phasing out peat-based bagged compost in recent years.

Indeed, the UK government announced they would ban sales of all peat-based compost by 2024. But this legislation has not yet been written and it seems unlikely it will be enacted before the end of the current parliament.

Even if brought in to law, this ban would only stop the sales of peat-based bagged compost of the type you might pick up in the garden centre. Legislation for commercial growers is not expected until 2030 at the earliest. So the continued decimation of the UK’s peatlands could remain hidden in supply chains long after we stop spreading peat on our gardens.

Hide and seek peat

For consumers, it’s almost impossible to identify products that contain peat or use peat in their production. All large-scale commercial mushroom farming involves peat and it is used for growing most leafy salads. It gives that characteristic peaty aroma to whisky, and, as I found out, is a popular growing medium for potted plants.

But you’d struggle to find a peat-free lettuce in the supermarket. The Hidden Peat campaign asks consumers to call for clear labelling that would enable shoppers to more easily identify peat-containing products. Shoppers are also encouraged to demand transparency from retailers on their commitment to removing peat from their supply chains.

You can ask your local supermarket about how they plan to phase out peat from their produce. Some supermarkets are actively investing in new technologies for peat-free mushroom farming.

Make informed purchases by checking the labels on garden centre potted plants or source plants from peat-free nurseries. The Royal Horticultural Society lists more than 70 UK nurseries dedicated to peat-free growing.

You can write to your MP to support a ban on peat extraction and, crucially, the sale of peat and peat-containing products in the UK. That ensures that peat wouldn’t just get imported from other European countries.

Pilots and progress

The UK government recently announced £3.1m funding for pilot projects to rewet and preserve lowland peat, with peat restoration seen as a cornerstone of net zero ambitions. This campaign calls for further acceleration of peatland restoration across the UK.

As a research of the science behind peatland restoration, I see firsthand the enormous effort involved in this: the installation of dams to block old agricultural drainage ditches, the delicate management of water levels and painstaking monitoring of the peat wetness.

I spend a lot of time taking samples, monitoring the progress, feeding results back to the land managers. Like many other conservationists, I work hard to find ways to preserve these critical habitats.

But sometimes, there may be a digger in the adjacent field doing more damage in a day than we could undo in a lifetime. That’s the reality, and the insanity, of the UK’s current peatland policies.

We heavily invest in restoring peatlands, yet fail to ban its extraction – the one action that would have the most dramatic impact. By demanding that peat is not only eradicated from garden compost, but weeded out of our supply chains, we can keep peat in the ground, not in pots.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr Casey Bryce, Senior Lecturer, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Casey Bryce
Casey Bryce

Is the Loss and Damage Fund all that it promises to be?

Examining some of the Fund’s shortcomings and putting things into perspective after COP 28

Failed crop

 COP 28, the latest United Nations Climate Conference, came to an end in December 2023. It began with an agreement to launch the loss and damage fund, which was kick-started by the UAE’s $100 million pledge. A further 15 countries followed suit, making pledges of varying amounts, and by 2 December 2023, a cumulative total of $655.9 million had been pledged to the loss and damage fund.[1] The fund has been heralded by many as the biggest success of the entire conference and a historic agreement – being the first time that a substantive decision was adopted on the first day of the Conference. The delegates of nations present from around the world, rose in a standing ovation when the agreement was passed.  

However, although the loss and damage fund is an important and long overdue step towards getting vulnerable countries and communities funding they require, it may be too soon to be rejoicing, with many of the details regarding the fund’s set-up being highly controversial.  

A brief background to the loss and damage fund  

The loss and damage fund was first agreed to at COP 27 last year, after more than three decades of pressure from developing countries disproportionately affected by the irreversible and adverse consequences of climate change calling for funding to help them pay for the losses and damages suffered as a result of the escalating climate crisis. These impacts range from, and are caused by, increasingly frequent and more extreme weather events, as well as slow-onset events, including sea-level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreats, loss of biodiversity, land and forest degradation, salinisation and desertification. These endanger human security and health, destroy homes, disrupt agriculture and threaten water and food security in ways that are often unequally distributed. 

As one of the outcomes of COP 27, a Transitional Committee was established and, in the lead up to COP 28, they met several times to negotiate the operationalisation and the details of the new funding arrangements. In less than a year, the Transitional Committee were able to report back with its recommendations and its text was subsequently passed at COP 28, with no objection by the parties. After almost no momentum for thirty years, the progress made in less than a year is a remarkable feat.  

Examining some of the shortcomings  

While funding for climate disaster loss and damages is vital and certainly hard fought for, one should be hesitant before deeming it a substantive win for developing countries.  

 Inadequate and duplicate pledges 

Although $655.9 million may at first glance appear like a significant amount of money, it is in fact relatively insubstantial when one considers that it is estimated that more than $400 billion is suffered in losses by developing countries each year,[2] a figure which is expected to grow as the impacts of climate change grow worse. The current funding will therefore cover less than 0.2% of developing countries’ annual needs. It has therefore been recommended that $400 billion be used as a baseline and revised upwards over time to meet increasing needs.[3] Furthermore, how to actually implement the pledges that have been made poses its own issue. This is a problem that previous funds, such as the Green Climate Fund, have faced and it is an issue that will need to be tackled to ensure that the pledges made do not simply turn out to be more broken promises.  Moreover, approximately $115.3 million of the total amount pledged to date will go towards setting up the fund rather than directly to beneficiaries of the fund.[4] Future pledges to the fund may make this operational expense insignificant, but it is still uncertain how much money will go into the fund and where it will come from. In addition, campaigners pointed out that some countries, such as the United Kingdom, were simply re-pledging money that they had already committed to, rather than offering new or additional funding.[5] In this way, the United Kingdom are simply re-branding existing forms of climate finance or development aid so as to appear to be contributing.  

Moreover, the amount pledged by some countries has been criticised for being inadequate. In particular, the United States, the world’s largest historical emitter[6] and the largest producer and consumer of oil and gas in 2023,[7] pledged only $17.5 million, an amount that still needs to be approved by Congress and accordingly hinges on the political climate and the upcoming elections. When viewed against the billions of dollars of undelivered climate finance that the United States owes to developed countries as part of its share of the annual $100 billion climate finance goal committed to by developed countries in 2009, this amount of $17.5 million certainly appears limited.[8] Of the $43.51 billion the United States owes, as part of its fair share of the $100 billion goal, only $9.27 billion has been provided to date, being a measly 21% of its targets.[9] 

It is also very telling as to what the United States’ priorities are when the $17.5 million pledged by the United States to the loss and damage fund is compared to the estimated annual $20.5 billion in fossil fuel subsidies distributed by the United States government each year,[10] contributing to the cumulative amount of $7 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies in 2022.[11] 

Historical responsibility and voluntary contributions  

During the negotiations that the Transitional Committee had leading up to COP 28, the United States, Australia and Canada all insisted that the loss and damage fund be de-linked from liability or compensation. This is in keeping with previous stance adopted by developed countries, particularly with that of the United States, who insisted that this wording be included in the decision on the adoption of the Paris Agreement which noted that loss and damage was “not a basis for liability or compensation”.[12] As the historically greatest emitters, developed countries have long opposed the establishment of the loss and damage fund over concerns that it would open the door to legal liability and compensation. Due to this refusal to assume historical accountability, communities who are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change have been forced to shoulder the consequent costs of loss and damage suffered, even though many of them, such as the Pacific Small Island Developing States, have contributed very little to climate change. This goes to the issue of equity and responsibility for the climate crisis, a sensitive topic which makes developed countries defensive. Instead of framing loss and damage in terms of responsibility and liability, wording was included in the agreed text stating that the fund is based on cooperation and facilitation.  

The approved text also stops short of demanding any payments, with the United States having fought to ensure that the contributions should remain voluntary, and the text indicated that developed countries ought to “take the lead” on providing seed money. The text “urged” developed countries to contribute to the fund, while other developing countries are “encouraged” to provide support “on a voluntary basis”.[13] The United States, Australia and Canada further insisted that contributor countries include presently high-polluting nations such as China, India, Russia and Saudia Arabia, and that only the least developed countries be eligible to benefit from the fund. As a result, high polluter states are not obligated to make any payments into the fund and instead of framing the contributions in terms of countries’ responsibility for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, they are framed as donations made out of generosity and charity. 

The World Bank as the interim host of the Loss and Damage Fund, the set-up of the Fund’s governing board and the structure of funding 

Who would host and administer the new fund was a politically contentious sticking point in the discussions leading up to COP 28. Less than a month before COP 28, at a final and impromptu meeting called by the Transitional Committee, this matter was hastily decided. Developing countries wanted the loss and damage fund to operate as an independent United Nations body and were resistant to it being hosted by the World Bank, which many poorer countries see as an economic policy weapon wielded by the industrialised world.  

The World Bank was established by colonial powers and is known for having historically spread pro-Western ideologies and policies.[14] Moreover, it is housed in Washington DC, is headed by a US citizen, appointed by the government of the United States, as its major shareholder,[15] and has a history of operating as an Untied States policy tool. In addition, concerns were raised that the World Bank would be charging high hosting fees, has a weak climate change record and that having it host and administer the loss and damage fund would compromise the fund’s independence and give developed countries the influence over who receives the funds and who doesn’t. Developing countries eventually caved under the United States’ insistence that the fund be hosted and administered by the World Bank, and it was agreed that the World Bank would act as an interim host, provided that the World Bank would agree to certain conditions. This arrangement is to be reassessed in four years, which will result in either the fund being made fully independent or continuing as a permanent hosting situation under the World Bank.  

The United States has argued that there are practical reasons for placing the loss and damage fund under the auspices of the World Bank, and that the fiduciary experience the institution has, places it in the best position to deliver money to state beneficiaries. However, given the World Bank’s donor-recipient and loan-driven business model, reservations have been expressed as to whether developed donor countries would have a disproportionate influence, even though the Transitional Committee has recommended that the fund’s governing board have a majority of developing-country members. Although this sounds positive, the board’s composition is limited to national representatives, meaning that civil society representatives such as members of Indigenous groups, are automatically excluded. 

Another concern regarding the World Bank, is high overhead costs, with the administrative fees of the World Bank rising and likely to absorb a large portion of the funding meant for the fund’s beneficiaries. Further, developing countries have consistently called for funding to be in the form of grants, rather than debt and loan financing, which would only deepen the debt crisis and increase developing countries’ burden, which is the traditional model of financing employed by the World Bank. The agreed text stipulates that “the Fund will provide financing in the form of grants and highly concessional loans”.[16]

The ultimate success or failure of the loss and damage fund still hangs in the balance  

In order to retain any faith in the international climate policy process, there needs to be follow-through on both the pledges and commitments made. To date, climate finance has not had the best track record. Other funds, including the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, have been radically under-resourced from the get-go and climate finance has grown at an annual rate of only 7%, which is less than half of the cumulative annual growth of 21% which is required until 2030.[17] In order for the Loss and Damage Fund to be effective, the scale of the funding will need to be increased, as what has been pledged to date constitutes a mere 0.2% of what is actually needed. 

There are also still a lot of questions to address, which the new Board of the Loss and Damage Fund will start to work through at its first meeting on 31 January 2024. Popular Gentle, the development management expert to the prime minister of Nepal, pointed out that while the establishment of the loss and damage fund is a promising start, that applause should be reserved for the time being, saying “our concern is we are excited about the establishment of the loss and damage fund. We are still cautious that the same story will be repeated. We need easy, equitable, accessible loss and damage funds without any procedural difficulties”.[18]  

So far, there are already some concerning issues that have arisen out of what has been decided. The issues that still need to be determined will prove critical to whether the fund’s operation is a success or a failure. These issues include the fact that there are no specifics yet on the scale and scope of funding, the financial targets or how the loss and damage fund will be funded going forward – although the text provides that contributions will come from a “variety of sources”.[19] The current language included in the agreed text merely invites developed nations to “take the lead”[20] in providing finance and encourages other developing country parties to make commitments. There is also little clarity regarding the performance indicators and who will be eligible to receive funding or precisely what type of climate loss and damages will qualify. Another issue will be how the application procedure will work and how quickly countries who need it will be able to access the funds and whether they will encounter any procedural difficulties in doing so. Until these things are decided, it is simply too early to greet the loss and damage fund with anything other than a mixture of cautious optimism and healthy scepticism. 

References  

[1] Joe Thwaites ‘COP28 Climate Funds Pledge Tracker’ (NRDC, 9 December 2023), available at: https://www.nrdc.org/bio/joe-thwaites/cop-28-climate-fund-pledge-tracker

[2] Julie-Anne Richards, Rajib Ghosal, Brenda Mwale, Hyacinthe Niyitegeka and Moleen Nand ‘STANDING IN SOLIDARITY WITH THOSE ON THE FRONTLINES OF THE CLIMATE CRISIS: A LOSS AND DAMAGE PACKAGE FOR COP 28’(The Loss and Damage Collaboration, 20 November 2023), available at: https://assets-global.website-files.com/605869242b205050a0579e87/655b50e163c953059360564d_L%26DC_L%26D_Package_for_COP28_20112023_1227.pdf

[3] Julie-Anne Richards, Liane Schalatek, Leia Achampong, and Heidi White ‘THE LOSS AND DAMAGE FINANCE LANDSCAPE’ (The Loss and Damage Collaboration, 16 May 2023), available at: https://www.lossanddamagecollaboration.org/publication/the-loss-and-damage-finance-landscape

[4] ‘COP 28: Key outcomes agreed to at the UN Climate talks in Dubai’ (Carbon Brief, 13 December 2023), available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/cop28-key-outcomes-agreed-at-the-un-climate-talks-in-dubai/

[5] Tweet on X (CAN-UK 30 November 2023), available https://twitter.com/CAN_UK_/status/1730225613456204089?s=20

[6] ‘Cumulative carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from fossil fuel combustion worldwide from 1750 to 2022, by major country’ (Statistica, 12 December 2023), available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1007454/cumulative-co2-emissions-worldwide-by-country/#:~:text=Global%20cumulative%20CO%E2%82%82%20emissions%20from,combustion%201750%2D2022%2C%20by%20country&text=The%20United%20States%20was%20the,birth%20of%20the%20industrial%20revolution

[7] World Population Review, available at: https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/oil-producing-countries; https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/oil-consumption-by-country; https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/natural-gas-by-country

[8] At the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries committed to a collective goal of mobilising USD 100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation. The goal was formalised at COP16 in Cancun, and at COP21 in Paris, it was reiterated and extended to 2025; Laetitia Pettinotti, Yue Cao, Tony Mwenda Kamninga, Sarah Colenbrander ‘A fair share of climate finance? The Adaptation Edition’ (ODI, 13 September 2023), available at: https://odi.org/en/publications/a-fair-share-of-climate-finance-the-adaptation-edition/#:~:text=In%20a%20bid%20to%20strengthen,national%20income%2C%20and%20population%20size

[9] At the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) of the UNFCCC in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries committed to a collective goal of mobilising USD 100 billion per year by 2020 for climate action in developing countries, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation. The goal was formalised at COP16 in Cancun, and at COP21 in Paris, it was reiterated and extended to 2025; Laetitia Pettinotti, Yue Cao, Tony Mwenda Kamninga, Sarah Colenbrander ‘A fair share of climate finance? The Adaptation Edition’ (ODI, 13 September 2023), available at: https://odi.org/en/publications/a-fair-share-of-climate-finance-the-adaptation-edition/#:~:text=In%20a%20bid%20to%20strengthen,national%20income%2C%20and%20population%20size

[10] Janet Redman ‘DIRTY ENERGY DOMINANCE: DEPENDENT ON DENIAL – HOW THE U.S. FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY DEPENDS ON SUBSIDIES AND CLIMATE DENIAL’ (Oil Change International, October 2017), available at: https://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2017/10/OCI_US-Fossil-Fuel-Subs-2015-16_Final_Oct2017.pdf

[11] Simon Black, Ian Parry, Nate Vernon ‘Fossil Fuel Subsidies Surged to Record $7 Trillion’ (IMF Blog, 24 August 2023), available at: https://www.imf.org/en/Blogs/Articles/2023/08/24/fossil-fuel-subsidies-surged-to-record-7-trillion

[12] UNFCCC 2015, Decision 1/CP.21, Adoption of the Paris Agreement, UN Doc FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add, para. 51, available at: https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/10a01.pdf

[13] Para 12 of Annex I ‘Draft decision on the operationalization of the new funding arrangements, including the fund, for responding to loss and damage referred to in paragraphs 2–3 of decisions 2/CP.27 and 2/CMA.4’ to the Report by the Transitional Committee dated 28 November 2023, FCCC/CP/2023/9−FCCC/PA/CMA/2023/9, available at: https://unfccc.int/documents?f%5B0%5D=topic%3A1136&search2=&search3=&page=0%2C0%2C0

[14] E Feder, ‘Plundering the Poor: The Role of the World Bank in the Third World’ (1983) 13 International Journal of Health Services 649, available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.2190/6GE4-8EC6-JXD5-QJ2Q

[15] The Congressional Research Service Report prepared for Members and Committees of Congress, titled ‘Selecting the World Bank President’ and updated 10 May 2023, available at: https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/R42463.pdf

[16] Para 57 of Annex II to the Report by the Transitional Committee dated 28 November 2023, FCCC/CP/2023/9−FCCC/PA/CMA/2023/9, available at: https://unfccc.int/documents?f%5B0%5D=topic%3A1136&search2=&search3=&page=0%2C0%2C0

[17] Baysa Naran, Jake Connolly, Paul Rosane, Dharshan Wignarajah, Githungo Wakaba and Barbara Buchner ‘The Global Landscape on Climate Finance: A Decade of Data’ (Climate Policy Initiative, 27 October 2022), available at: https://www.climatepolicyinitiative.org/publication/global-landscape-of-climate-finance-a-decade-of-data/

[18] Lameez Omarjee ‘COP 28 I Pledges for Loss and Damage roll in, but billions is needed – SA chief negotiator’ (news24, 10 December 2023), available at: https://www.news24.com/fin24/climate_future/news/cop28-pledges-for-loss-and-damage-roll-in-but-billions-needed-sa-chief-negotiator-20231210

[19] Para 20 (i) of Annex I ‘Draft decision on the operationalization of the new funding arrangements, including the fund, for responding to loss and damage referred to in paragraphs 2–3 of decisions 2/CP.27 and 2/CMA.4’ to the Report by the Transitional Committee dated 28 November 2023, FCCC/CP/2023/9−FCCC/PA/CMA/2023/9, available at: https://unfccc.int/documents?f%5B0%5D=topic%3A1136&search2=&search3=&page=0%2C0%2C0

[20] Para 13 of Annex I ‘Draft decision on the operationalization of the new funding arrangements, including the fund, for responding to loss and damage referred to in paragraphs 2–3 of decisions 2/CP.27 and 2/CMA.4’ to the Report by the Transitional Committee dated 28 November 2023, FCCC/CP/2023/9−FCCC/PA/CMA/2023/9, available at: https://unfccc.int/documents?f%5B0%5D=topic%3A1136&search2=&search3=&page=0%2C0%2C0

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Alexia Kaplan.

Alexia Kaplan
Alexia Kaplan

Reflections on COP28’s Global Stocktake and emissions reductions

COP28 national flags at night in Dubai.

With carbon emission of around 25tCO2 per capita (global average around 4.5tCO2eq per capita) and energy demand of around 150MWh per capita (global average around 20MWh per capita), both among the 5 highest in the world, the UAE is on a per capita basis one of the largest contributor to climate change. And the host of COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties, the main decision-making body of the UNFCCC. This makes uncomfortable reading, especially given the lack of progress in tackling human-made climate change. Then again, it probably does not matter where COPs are held as it is the agreements which countries commit to, and their success in fulfilling these commitments, which ultimately count. The number of fossil fuel business representatives makes equally uncomfortable reading. But maybe the number of fossil fuel lobbyists is a sign that they are taking COPs more seriously and rightly recognize strong action on climate change as a challenge to business as usual. Their desire to have their voices heard is testament to their recognition of the importance the UNFCCC’s process and progress on climate policy more generally.

The event itself, meanwhile, was discombobulating. Dubai’s geography of nowhere which robs you of any sense of scale and place is replicated in its Expo2020 site where COP was held. Huge distances between everything and the closed doors behind which languished side events and pavilions, mainly of countries but also of non-governmental organisations, multinational development banks, even universities, were the polar opposite of a bazaar where exchange was facilitated at previous COPs and in the space of 100 meters you might come across the International Labour Organisation, the World Bank, Egypt, Japan, Zambia, and Portugal. Thus, COP28 was sapped of interaction where browsing is enabled, chance facilitated, and happenstance happened. Instead, it felt strangely disjointed, more like an in-person zoom conference in the desert.

But the food was good, if expensive, the streets eerily safe and clean, the organization well executed, the venue shiny and spotless, public transport clean and efficient, water plentiful, and the sun reliable. It is hard to imagine impoverished countries not choosing a similar development trajectory if they were provided the opportunity. According to some calculations, African countries are sat on $10trn worth of hydrocarbons capable of pursuing such a development trajectory while pushing global warming to 6-7 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But which alternative development trajectory are we supporting which keeps these hydrocarbons in the ground while improving living standards and increasing opportunities? Access to climate finance is essential, while debt relief is the elephant in the room (I wonder how this analogy will read if we tacitly enable their extinction through poverty?). Calculations suggest that sentencing debt costs the 58 countries that make up the Vulnerable Twenty (V20) over £100bn/a. This sum would go a long way towards greening development and keeping hydrocarbons in the ground.

Instead, the Global Stocktake, the COP28 agreement, ‘calls on parties’ to ‘tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030’. This is important as we need something to replace fossil fuels the Stocktake agrees to ‘transition away from’ and coal especially which it agrees to ‘phase-down’. While it will be virtually impossible to eliminate fossil fuels entirely from our economies, this language emphasizes the need to reduce their stranglehold on our energy systems. With emphasis placed on renewables and energy efficiency, this provides a plausible, just, and equitable transition pathway. While the statement that ‘abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage’ should be accelerated leaves a loophole for abated fossil fuel technologies, it emphasizes its use ‘in hard-to-abate’ sectors such as steel and cement. This loophole is to bring on board countries with very high fossil fuel dependence, not just for power generation but as the foundation of their entire economic prosperity.

Regarding transport, the document emphasizes the ‘reduction of emission from road transport on a range of pathways, including through development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero and low-emission vehicles’. This reference to infrastructure is highly relevant as it refers to mass transit systems which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are far more efficient than electric vehicles for example. Finally, ‘phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that do not address energy poverty or just transitions, as soon as possible’ should act as a financial driver of this transition. According to the International Monetary Fund, such subsidies amount to $7tn per year, or 7.1% of GDP. This implies that governments around the world effectively subsidise every tonne of CO2 emitted to the amount of $125. If we used this money to subsidise renewable energy and energy efficiency, as well as abatement in hard-to-treat sectors and eventually removals to account for historical emissions, 1.5 degrees is still alive, and African countries for example could be placed on a clean development trajectory towards prosperity and opportunity.

Despite tentative progress, however, parties failed to agree on the modalities of Article 6. Article 6 is the last building block of the Paris Agreement which has yet to be agreed on, with a rulebook in place that all parties agree on. Apparently, a bloc led by the US favours a light-touch approach akin to voluntary carbon markets. Unsurprisingly given their discreditation in recent months, a bloc involving the EU an African and Latin American states favours stronger checks and balances to avoid the creation of junk credits and discreditation of all market mechanism. A lot is at stake. Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the predecessor of Article 6, over £200bn was channelled into Chinese wind energy. For all its flaws, the CDM in this particular case supported the development of a renewable energy industry in a country which barely had a wind turbine installed when it came into force. Market mechanisms are powerful instruments which are difficult to guide but their potential to incentivize climate finance is evident.

To deliver the objectives of the Global Stocktake and the Paris Agreement, we need mechanisms to avoid free-riding which occurs when countries benefit from ambitious net zero emission mitigation activities in other countries without contributing to the cost. If market mechanisms are operationalised through climate clubs, this issue of free-riding can be overcome. This enables  ambition to be raised and collective action to be supported. Yet significant efforts are required to ensure that poor countries can benefit while excludable benefits are sufficient to ensure integrity and support higher ambition in climate change mitigation. The stakes are high and the Global Stocktake is a small but significant step in this direction. But a lot more climate diplomacy is necessary, alongside a collaborative spirit, to ensure that the transition away from fossil fuel is actions and that this transition is just.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr Colin Nolden, University of Bristol Law School.

Colin Nolden
Colin Nolden

 

How do you manage a dam when there’s a tropical cyclone in Mozambique?

Mozambique dam

I’d never given a huge amount of thought of what a dam manager did until I visited Pequenos Libombos dam in Mozambique in October 2023. Standing at the dam, in hot conditions, listening to the lived experience of people who work on the ground and explain what they do during a tropical cyclone leaves you with more understanding than any peer reviewed journal article. Context is everything. It’s why visiting the countries I’m researching is something I do given the chance.

That’s what members of Bristol projects REPRESA (co-led by Prof Elizabeth Kendon at University of Bristol & UK Met Office, Dr Luis Artur from Eduardo Mondlane University and Prof Francois Engelbrecht from University of the Witwatersrand) and SALIENT (led by Dr Rachel James, University of Bristol) did in October. The REPRESA project aims to understand compound tropical cyclone risks, impacts of tropical cyclones and improve early warning systems in Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar. Seeing the research alignment in projects, the SALIENT team also joined. The SALIENT project aims to improve the characterisation and communication of future climate information for national adaptation planning in southern Africa.

On the field trip day, we travelled to Pequenos Libombos dam and heard from a government official from the Vila De Boane Municipality. It was this day where I had my epiphany that if I ever left academia, dam management is not my calling. Providing water to the local population is the dams primary role and it provides 2 million people within Maputo Province with access to water. That is more than 4 times the population of Bristol.

The management of Pequenos Libombos dam is difficult as there are many other people and industries to consider and keep safe and happy when making decisions. From the businesses who want to use the dam’s water for industrial purposes to the farming communities that are reliant on the water for irrigation, and hydroelectricity companies that want to use the dam to create energy to the communities downstream that may be flooded if the dam releases water too quickly. The dam catchment is also shared with 2 of Mozambique’s neighbouring countries; eSwatini and South Africa, adding another element of complexity to the dams management.

Management must carefully balance both periods of water surplus and deficit and Maputo has experienced numerous extreme weather events in recent years.  The 2015-2016 southern African drought impacted Central and Southern Mozambique and more recently the remnants of tropical cyclones in 2019, 2011, 2022 and 2023. During February 2023, Tropical Cyclone (TC) Freddy passed over Madagascar and southern Mozambique before returning a couple of weeks later to central Mozambique. It is thought to be the longest lived and have the highest accumulated cyclone energy of any cyclone on record, awaiting formal investigation from the World Meteorological Organization. Although TC Freddy didn’t directly pass over Pequenos Limbombos, its associated rainfall resulted in 250 mm of rainfall at the dam in one day. For context, the Bristol experiences 265mm rainfall, on average, in October, November and December combined. To avoid a breach of the dam, discharge was released at the maximum rate, which is more than 500 time more than normal.

Globally there is evidence that TCs and their impacts are being impacted by climate change. The frequency, intensity and storm tracks of TCs may be changing meanwhile, rising sea levels may lead to higher storm surges. Yet we know a limited amount about how tropical cyclones may act in a future with increased global sea surface and air temperatures.  TCs in the Indian Ocean are particularly under researched, but recent and frequent events have highlighted the importance of understanding TCs in a changing climate.

After hearing about the vast amount of rain that fell in February 2023, we walk past the disused hydroelectric generator that was forced to cease operation during the drought as it was no longer economically viable. It really hammered home the complexities faced when trying to manage such a huge piece of infrastructure during extreme events. Similarly, it is clear why research projects like REPRESA and SALIENT are needed to understand how tropical cyclones may behave in the future and explore how early warning systems and climate change adaptation can be strengthened.

Mozambique dam

The human side of extreme weather

After the talk at Pequenos Libombos Dam, we visited the Municipality of Vila de Boane. Vila de Boane is located roughly 15 km downstream from the dam and the River Umbuluzi passes through the municipality. The municipality experienced large scale flooding after the dam was forced to increase to maximum discharge during the February 2023 rainfall.

Despite already hearing about TC’s Freddy’s impacts at the dam, they were not as focused on the human impact. The leader of the municipality compellingly described how 16,000 people were impacted overnight, 6000 people were displaced and 6 people sadly died. The community water pump was destroyed, leaving people without water for 3 months. The municipality leader said he had never seen that amount of water passing through the municipality at such high speed before. Meanwhile, money that had been budgeted for development initiatives, had to be redirected to repair and response. It was not clear if extra money had been sourced for the development initiatives.

It was also highlighted that the increased release of water from the dam occurred over night with little warning. The municipality had been told to expect “above normal” rainfall and to avoid being close to rivers and move farming machinery further inland. But as the municipality leader questioned, what does “above normal” actually mean? People will perceive this message differently, which will influence how they act upon it. As part of the SALIENT research project, I am researching how we best communicate future climate information to decision makers and this anecdote will stay with me. It’s clear that improved communications are needed in both weather and climate services, something REPRESA is also aiming to research further.

Reflections and collaboration

After hearing about the vast amount of impacts the flooding had on Villa de Boane, we waited for our transport back to Maputo under the shade as it was too hot to stand in the sun. It was clear everyone from the REPRESA and SALIENT teams, both physical scientists and social scientists, had taken a lot from the field day. There was discussion about what the research should consider as well as the different angles that could be taken. It also fostered collaboration, SALIENT team member, Alan-Kennedy Asser, is providing the REPRESA team with analysis of precipitation trends from a multiple ensembles of climate models to characterise the range in future projections over the region. Meanwhile I spoke with some REPRESA team members in more depth about future climate information and will be providing risk communication training session in the future.

My personal key take away is that understanding the context and hearing the lived experiences of people working and living with extreme weather events enriches me as a researcher. Similarly, collaborating with researchers and practitioners on different projects enhances your work by providing questions and inputs from different standpoints. And finally, I’m too indecisive a person to ever be a good dam manager.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member, Dr Ailish Craig, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol with contributions from Dr Alan Kennedy-Asser, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol and Dr Rachel James, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.

Ailish Craig
Dr Ailish Craig

Climate summits are too big and key voices are being crowded out – here’s a better solution

Conference room at COP28
Conference room at COP28

Every year, the official UN climate summits are getting bigger. In 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow there were around 40,000 participants, COP27 in 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh had 50,000.

But this year blew all previous records out of the water. More than 97,000 participants had badges to attend COP28 in Dubai in person. This raises questions about who is attending COPs and what they are doing there, who gets their voices heard and, on a more practical note, how this affects the negotiations.

For those not familiar with the COP setup, there are two “worlds” that exist side by side. One is the negotiations, which are run under the UN’s climate change body the UNFCCC, and the other is a very long list of talks and social events. These take place in pavilion exhibition spaces and are open to anyone attending, in contrast to the negotiations which are often closed to the media and sometimes closed to observers.

There is a stark difference between these worlds, with pavilion spaces featuring elaborate and inviting settings, particularly if they are well funded, while negotiations often happen in windowless rooms.

A growing sense exists among those invested in the “traditional” side of the COPs that many delegates have no intention of observing the climate talks themselves, and instead spend their time networking in the pavilions.

Indigenous people visiting COP28 from Brazilian Amazon.
Indigenous people visiting COP28 from Brazilian Amazon.

In terms of who attends, at COP28 there were around 25,000 “party” (country) delegates, 27,000 “party overflow” delegates (usually guests, sponsors, or advisors), 900 UNFCCC secretariat members (who run the COPs), 600 “UN overflow”, and 1,350 from “specialised agencies” such as the World Health Organization or World Bank and their overflows. That makes up just under 55,000 or half of the attendees.

The rest are intergovernmental organisations (2,000), UN Global Climate Action award winners (600), host country guests (5,000), temporary passes (500 – many issued to big private companies), NGOs (14,000 – including one of us, as part of a university delegation), and media (4,000). This is according to the UNFCCC, which places the number of attendees closer to 80,000.

The “party overflow” badges are particularly concerning. The number of delegates connected to the oil and gas industries has quadrupled from last year to around 2,400, many of whom were invited as part of country delegations. As another example, meat industry representatives became part of Brazil’s delegation, while dairy associations organised official COP side events. In the official programme, the Energy and Industry, Just Transition, and Indigenous Peoples Day featured more events by industrial giant Siemens than by indigenous people.

Practically speaking, huge numbers cause problems – this year for example there were delayed meetings, long queues, and several negotiation rooms were beyond capacity with observers and even party delegates asked to limit their numbers and leave.

Even with access to an observer badge, there is little one can contribute to negotiations. The negotiating positions are decided long before the COPs begin, and observers are rarely permitted to speak in negotiations. In addition, a lot of the negotiations are either conducted behind closed doors (called “informal-informals” with no access for the UN or observers) or even in the corridors, where negotiators meet informally to cement positions. The negotiations you can (silently) observe are usually a series of prepared statements, rather than a discussion.

So if COPs are too big and bloated, what is the alternative?

Smaller and more online

One alternative is being a virtual delegate, which one of us tried. This year’s COP trialled live streams and recordings of some of the negotiations, side events and press conferences on an official UNFCCC virtual platform for the first time. The option is a long overdue, but welcome addition. It reduces travel emissions and makes it more accessible, for instance for people with caring responsibilities and others who are unable to travel (or perhaps who refuse to fly).

Some technical teething problems are to be expected. Yet when we queried why the virtual platform didn’t livestream many of the sessions, the COP28 support team pointed us to the official COP28 app. Our employer, the University of Bristol, had advised us not to download the app because of security concerns, which again raises serious issues around transparency and accountability in UNFCCC spaces, as well as freedom of speech and assembly in COP host countries.

Not being there in person also has downsides. As a virtual observer, it’s harder to judge the atmosphere in a negotiation room, to stumble upon and observe spontaneous negotiations happening in corridors, or participate in or observe protests. While indigenous voices were rarely heard in the livestreamed negotiations and events, the Indigenous People’s Pavilion offered a chance to hear them – but only if you were in Dubai. The virtual alternative is a good option to observe negotiations, but it means missing out on some of the civil society lifeblood of COP.

Another option is to limit access to COPs – for example, limiting the in-person negotiations only to the most vital participants. Party tickets could be limited, with lobbyists from fossil fuel industries tightly controlled and priority given to climate victims, indigenous communities and underrepresented countries. Side events and pavilions could take place a few months before the COPs, increasing the chances of influencing negotiations, since positions are cemented early. There is no reason these only need to happen in one place once a year, there could be regional meetups in between, allowing for formal contact more often.

These issues of access, transparency and influence have serious implications on negotiation outcomes and climate action. After undergoing various draft iterations that offered options ranging from “no text” to “phasing out” or “down” fossil fuels, this year’s final agreement does not include a commitment to phasing out. This watered-down agreement reflects the inability of indigenous peoples and the most climate vulnerable countries to meaningfully participate in the negotiations – future COPs must trim down to make their voices heard.

 


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members, Drs Alix Dietzel, Senior Lecturer in Climate Justice, University of Bristol and Katharina Richter, Lecturer in Climate Change, Politics and Society, University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Katharina Richter
Dr Katharina Richter
Dr Alix Dietzel
Dr Alix Dietzel