How glacier algae are challenging the way we think about evolution

Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

People often underestimate tiny beings. But microscopic algal cells not only evolved to thrive in one of the most extreme habitats on Earth – glaciers – but are also shaping them.

With a team of scientists from the UK and Canada, we traced the evolution of purple algae back hundreds of millions of years and our findings challenge a key idea about how evolution works. Though small, these algae are having a dramatic effect on the glaciers they live on.

Glaciers are among the planet’s fastest changing ecosystems. During the summer melt season as liquid water forms on glaciers, blooms of purple algae darken the surface of the ice, accelerating the rate of melt. This fascinating adaptation to glaciers requires microscopic algae to control their growth and photosynthesis. This must be balanced with tolerance of extreme ice melt, temperature and light exposure.

Our study, published in New Phytologist, reveals how and when their adaptations to live in these extreme environments first evolved. We sequenced and analysed genome data of the glacier algae Ancylonema nordenskiöldii. Our results show that the purple colour of glacier algae, which acts like a sunscreen, was generated by new genes involved in pigment production.

This pigment, purpurogallin, protects algal cells from damage of ultraviolet (UV) and visible light. It is also linked with tolerance of low temperatures and desiccation, characteristic features of glacial environments. Our genetic analysis suggests that the evolution of this purple pigment was probably vital for several adaptations in glacier algae.

We also identified new genes that helped increase the algae’s tolerance to UV and visible light, important adaptations for living in a bright, exposed environment. Interestingly these were linked to increased light perception as well as improved mechanisms of repair to sun damage. This work reveals how algae are adapted to live on glaciers in the present day.

Next, we wanted to understand when this adaptation evolved in Earth’s deep history.

The evolution of glacier algae

Earth has experienced many fluctuations of colder and warmer climates. Across thousands and sometimes millions of years, global climates have changed slowly between glacial (cold) to interglacial (warm) periods.

One of the most dramatic cold periods was the Cryogenian, dating back to 720-635 million years ago, when Earth was almost entirely covered in snow and ice. So widespread were these glaciations, they are sometimes referred to by scientists as “Snowball Earth”.

Scientists think that these conditions would have been similar to the glaciers and ice sheets we see on Earth today. So we wondered could this period be the force driving the evolution of glacier algae?

After analysing genetic data and fossilised algae, we estimated that glacier algae evolved around 520-455 million years ago. This suggests that the evolution of glacier algae was not linked to the Snowball Earth environments of the Cryogenian.

As the origin of glacier algae is later than the Cryogenian, a more recent glacial period must have been the driver of glacial adaptations in algae. Scientists think there has continuously been glacial environments on Earth up to 60 million years ago.

We did, however, identify that the common ancestor of glacier algae and land plants evolved around the Cryogenian.

In February 2024, our previous analysis demonstrated that this ancient algae was multicellular. The group containing glacier algae lost the ability to create complex multicellular forms, possibly in response to the extreme environmental pressures of the Cryogenian.

Rather than becoming more complex, we have demonstrated that these algae became simple and persevered to the present day. This is an example of evolution by reducing complexity. It also contradicts the well-established “march of progress” hypothesis, the idea that organisms evolve into increasingly complex versions of their ancestors.

Our work showed that this loss of multicellularity was accompanied by a huge loss of genetic diversity. These lost genes were mainly linked to multicellular development. This is a signature of the evolution of their simple morphology from a more complex ancestor.

Over the last 700 million years, these algae have survived by being tiny, insulated from cold and protected from the Sun. These adaptations prepared them for life on glaciers in the present day.

So specialised is this adaptation, that only a handful of algae have evolved to live on glaciers. This is in contrast to the hundreds of algal species living on snow. Despite this, glacier algae have dramatic effects across vast ice fields when liquid water forms on glacier surfaces. In 2016, on the Greenland ice sheet, algal growth led to an additional 4,400–6,000 million tonnes of runoff.

Understanding these algae helps us appreciate their role in shaping fragile ecosystems.

Our study gives insight into the evolutionary journey of glacier algae from the deep past to the present. As we face a changing climate, understanding these microscopic organisms is key to predicting the future of Earth’s icy environments.The Conversation

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This blog is written by Dr Alexander Bowles, Postdoctoral research associate, University of Bristol

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

Alexander Bowles
Alexander Bowles

The last ozone-layer damaging chemicals to be phased out are finally falling in the atmosphere

The high-altitude AGAGE Jungfraujoch station in Switzerland is used to take measurements of Earth’s atmosphere.
Jungfrau.ch

Since the discovery of the ozone layer, countries have agreed and amended treaties to aid its recovery. The most notable of these is the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, which is widely regarded as the most successful environmental agreement ever devised.

Ratified by every UN member state and first adopted in 1987, the Montreal protocol aimed to reduce the release of ozone-depleting substances into the atmosphere. The most well known of these are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Starting in 1989, the protocol phased out the global production of CFCs by 2010 and prohibited their use in equipment like refrigerators, air-conditioners and insulating foam. This gradual phase-out allowed countries with less established economies time to transition to alternatives and provided funding to help them comply with the protocol’s regulations.

Today, refrigerators and aerosol cans contain gases like propane which, although flammable, does not deplete ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere when released. However, ozone-friendly alternatives to CFCs in some products, such as certain foams used to insulate fridges, buildings and air-conditioning units, took longer to find. Another set of gases, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), was used as a temporary replacement.

A collection of used refrigerators.
HCFCs can leak to the atmosphere from discarded fridges.
RichardJohnson/Shutterstock

Unfortunately, HCFCs still destroy ozone. The good news is that levels of HCFCs in the atmosphere are now falling and indeed have been since 2021 according to research I led with colleagues. This marks a major milestone in the recovery of Earth’s ozone layer – and offers a rare success story in humanity’s efforts to tackle climate-warming gases too.

HCFCs v CFCs

HCFCs and CFCs have much in common. These similarities are what made the former suitable alternatives.

HCFCs contain chlorine, the chemical element in CFCs that causes these compounds to destroy the ozone layer. HCFCs deplete ozone to a much smaller extent than the CFCs they have replaced – you would have to release around ten times as much HCFC to have a comparable impact on the ozone layer.

But both CFCs and HCFCs are potent greenhouse gases. The most commonly used HCFC, HCFC-22, has a global warming potential of 1,910 times that of carbon dioxide, but only lasts for around 12 years in the atmosphere compared with several centuries for CO₂.

As non-ozone depleting alternatives to HCFCs became available it was decided that amendments to the Montreal protocol were needed to phase HCFCs out. These were agreed in Copenhagen and Beijing in 1992 and 1999 respectively.

This phase-out is still underway. A global target to end most production of HCFCs is set for 2030, with only very minor amounts allowed until 2040.

Turning the corner on a bumpy road

Our findings show that levels of HCFCs in the atmosphere have been falling since 2021 – the first decline since scientists started taking measurements in the late 1970s. This milestone shows the enormous success of the Montreal protocol in not only tackling the original problem of CFCs but also its lesser known and less destructive successor.

Two graphs side by side showing a the climate warming and ozone-destroying influence of HCFCs declining from 2021.
The influence of HCFCs on the atmosphere is set to fall steadily.
Western et al. (2024)/Nature

This is very good news for the ozone layer’s continuing recovery. The most recent scientific prediction, made in 2022, anticipated that HCFC levels would not start falling until 2026.

Despite HCFC levels in the atmosphere going in the right direction, not everything has been smooth sailing in the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances. In 2019 a team of scientists, including myself, provided evidence that CFC-11, a common constituent of foam insulation, was still being used in parts of China despite the global ban on production.

The United Nations Environment Programme also reported that HCFCs were illegally produced in 2020 contrary to the phase-down schedule.

In 2023, I and others showed that levels of five more CFCs were increasing in the atmosphere. Rather than illegal production, this increase was more likely the result of a different process: a loophole in the Montreal protocol which allowed CFCs to be produced if they are used to make other substances, such as plastics or non-ozone depleting alternatives to CFCs and HCFCs.

Some HCFCs at very low levels in the atmosphere have also been shown to be increasing or not falling fast enough, despite few or no known uses.

Most of the CFCs and HCFCs still increasing in the atmosphere are released in the production of fluoropolymers – perhaps best known for their application in non-stick frying pans – or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

HFCs are the ozone-friendly alternative that was developed and commercialised in the early 1990s to replace HCFCs, but their role as a potent greenhouse gas means that they are subject to international climate emission reduction treaties such as the Paris agreement and the Kigali amendment to the Montreal protocol.

The next best alternative to climate-warming HFCs is a matter of ongoing discussion. In many applications, it was thought that HFCs would be replaced by hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), but these have created their own environmental problems in the formation of trifluoroacetic acid which does not break down in the environment and, like other poly- and per-fluorinated substances (PFAS), may pose a risk to human health.

A column of air-conditioning units attached to the exterior of a building.
HFOs enable air-conditioners to use less electricity than competing alternatives.
AndriiKoval/Shutterstock

HFOs are at least more energy-efficient refrigerants than older alternatives like propane, however.

Hope for the future

In discovering this fall in atmospheric levels of HCFCs, I feel like we may be turning the final corner in the global effort to repair the ozone layer. There is still a long way to go before it is back to its original state, but there are now good reasons to be optimistic.

Climate and optimism are two words rarely seen together. But we now know that a small group of potent greenhouse gases called HCFCs have been contributing less and less to climate change since 2021 – and look to set to continue this trend for the foreseeable future.

With policies already in place to phase down HFCs, there is hope that environmental agreements and international cooperation can work in combating climate change.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Luke Western, Research Associate in Atmospheric Science, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Luke Western
Luke Western

Wisdom of Generations: Learning from the Hills and Valleys of the Northeast India

A tea garden in Dibrugarh, Assam
A tea garden in Dibrugarh, Assam. Image credit: Nborkakoty at English Wikipedia.

Northeast (NE) India is more than just a region on the map; it is a treasure trove of beautiful
natural landscapes and ecological wealth that plays an essential role in our planet’s health. As
we celebrate World Environment Day 2024 with the theme of restoration, let us highlight the
ecological richness of Assam and the other Northeastern states of India. From the slopes of
Arunachal Pradesh to the lowlands of Assam, the NE region is a biodiversity hotspot, home to
unique species found nowhere else on Earth. The more we explore this ecological richness,
the more we discover the wonders and mysteries it holds, sparking our curiosity and interest.

The scenic landscapes of the NE region exemplify a dynamic and harmonious relationship
between humans and nature. Indigenous communities here have cultivated a profound
repository of traditional ecological knowledge passed down through generations. The Bodos,
Mishings, Karbis, Nyishis, Angamis, Khasis, and many others have developed a deep-rooted
understanding of their natural surroundings through intimate interactions with forests, rivers,
and mountains.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this traditional wisdom is the extensive knowledge of
local plants and their uses. These communities have identified and utilized numerous plant
species for food, medicine, shelter, and rituals, demonstrating a profound understanding of
the ecological roles of each species. For instance, the Bodos have long made use of medicinal
plants like Bhut Jolokia (ghost chili) for their therapeutic properties, contributing to the
preservation of traditional healing practices. This knowledge not only highlights the ecological
and cultural diversity of the region but also supports sustainable development and
conservation efforts.

Beyond plant knowledge, these communities have developed sophisticated ecosystem
management practices. Indigenous forest management practices in NE India have
significantly contributed to maintaining biodiversity hotspots and preserving wildlife habitats.
Traditional agroforestry systems, such as jhum cultivation practiced by the Karbi and Khasi
tribes, have shown resilience to climate variability while supporting local livelihoods. According
to a recent United Nations report, indigenous peoples’ territories encompass about 80% of the
world’s remaining biodiversity, underscoring the importance of their stewardship in
conservation efforts.

The wisdom of the hills and valleys also embodies resilience—a capacity to adapt and thrive
amidst changing circumstances. Indigenous communities have overcome challenges like
floods, droughts, and shifting climates by drawing on their deep ecological knowledge.

Panimur Waterfalls, Dima Hasao

According to the Indian State Forest Report 2021, Assam’s forest cover is around 35% of its
geographical area, highlighting its critical role in biodiversity conservation and carbon
sequestration. However, this forest cover is declining, and the region faces environmental and
climate challenges, including deforestation, riverbank erosion, and climate change impacts.

Preserving and promoting traditional ecological knowledge is crucial in the face of the global
climate crisis. According to UNESCO, indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge
significantly contributes to the sustainable management of natural resources, benefiting both
local communities and global biodiversity. Recognizing, valuing, and supporting these
practices are essential for environmental conservation, cultural identity, and community
resilience.

Celebrating the wisdom of Assam and Northeast India’s hills and valleys on World
Environment Day reminds us of the transformative power of indigenous knowledge.
Integrating their insights into broader restoration efforts can contribute to building a sustainable
future for all. By embracing the wisdom passed down through generations and augmenting it
with contemporary research and statistics, we, the #GenerationRestoration, can pave the way
toward ecological harmony and resilience in the years to come.

Let us change gears to the tea communities of the NE region. Assam also plays a vital role in
India’s tea production, boasting over 312 210 hectares of tea cultivation. These tea plantations
not only fuel the state’s economy but also hold significant cultural and ecological value. Assam
is among the world’s largest tea-producing regions, with an annual production of 500-700
million kilograms (Mkgs) of tea leaves. The tea industry employs a vast workforce and
supports livelihoods throughout the region, contributing significantly to India’s overall tea
production. The tea plantations in Assam are not only unique but also serve as a prime
example of the harmonious blend of agriculture and biodiversity conservation. The lush green
tea bushes are seamlessly intertwined with shade trees, providing a habitat for various birds
and insects. Assam’s tea is globally renowned for its robust flavor and represents a heritage
deeply rooted in the land and its ecosystems. However, climate and environmental changes
threaten these lush industries, impacting the ecological and socio-economic balance in the
region.

View to Guwahati city
View to Guwahati city

The government has launched several key initiatives to promote development, ecological
conservation, and socio-economic growth across the state. Notable initiatives include the
Assam Budget for Sustainable Development, Assam Tea Tribes Welfare Board, Jal Jeevan
Mission (Har Ghar Jal), Assam Arunodoi Scheme, Assam Green Mission, Assam Skill
Development Mission, and Assam Startup. Effective implementation of these programs aims
to address climate change, promote environmental conservation, and improve the overall
quality of life for the people of Assam. However, the success of these programs depends on
thorough execution at the grassroots level.

What unfolds in the remote corners of Assam reverberates across continents. The lessons
gleaned from this region—on biodiversity conservation, traditional knowledge integration, and
community-led resilience—are universal. They inform global discussions on sustainable
development, emphasizing the need for inclusive approaches that prioritize both people and
the planet.

This World Environment Day, let us heed the call of Northeast India—a call to action for
environmental engagement and climate action involving youth, communities, government
agencies, and non-profit organizations. The region’s youth must understand the challenges
facing their environment and take action to safeguard their communities and natural
surroundings amidst infrastructural growth and development for their own and future
generations. Climate mitigation and adaptation strategies tailored to the region’s unique
context are critical, including afforestation, sustainable agriculture, and flood management
solutions. Youth can lead the way in developing context-specific climate adaptation and
environment restoration strategies that respect local cultures and ecosystems. By immersing
themselves in environmental education, research, and activism, young students can amplify
their voices and influence decision-makers at all levels.

Assam and its neighboring states in India stand out as a distinctive and valuable addition to
the mosaic of Earth’s landscapes. They serve as a beacon of hope and possibility in our
collective journey toward planetary stewardship. The region’s unique natural heritage,
combined with its rich cultural and ethnic diversity, makes it an important site for scientific
research and cultural exchange. As we strive to better understand and protect our planet,
regions like Northeast India offer invaluable insights and opportunities for collaboration.

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This blog is written by Dr Jagannath Biswakarma, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK. jagannath.biswakarma@bristol.ac.uk.

Jagannath Biswakarma
Jagannath Biswakarma

Haiku has captured the essence of seasons for centuries – new poems contain a trace of climate change

A successful haiku could be described as a half-finished poem. Originating in Japan in the 17th century, the haiku uses a combination of sensory language, seasonal references, a sense of contrast and a focus on the present tense to share an experience between writer and reader.

It relies on the reader to “finish” the poem by employing their recollections of sensations and emotions to connect to the moment described as vividly as they do their own experiences.

Haiku often depict moments in a particular season by describing the behaviour of animals, the weather and the appearance of plants. With a new generation of haiku poets, there’s a whole new collection of work that reflects how seasons are changing as a result of rising global temperatures.

Could haiku poetry written more recently contain a trace of the changes wrought by our warming climate? That’s something one of us (Jasmin) set out to investigate by analysing haiku published in English over the last 30 years.

First, let’s learn how to read haiku.


Do the seasons feel increasingly weird to you? You’re not alone. Climate change is distorting nature’s calendar, causing plants to flower early and animals to emerge at the wrong time.

This article is part of a series, Wild Seasons, on how the seasons are changing – and what they may eventually look like.


What enables this brief poetic form to achieve its resonance is its use of negative space. A haiku is a poem in two parts – a fragment (one line) and a phrase (two lines), divided by a pause (signified by a line break or punctuation).

Related to the concept of ma in Japanese visual arts, which perceives empty space in an artwork as a positive entity, the negative space in haiku is a way in to the contemplative experience of the poem.

The following by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) is the most famous haiku ever composed:

old pond –

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

A frog in a pond surrounded by spawn.
Frogspawn is a harbinger of spring in the UK.
Lesley Andrew/Shutterstock

To write a different account of this same event, you could say something like a frog leapt into an old pond and made a sound. But the key distinction between the two is the negative space that follows Basho’s first line. It encourages the reader to pause, breathe and contemplate the old pond before they encounter the frog leaping and the sound of the water.

When our minds become still, and reflective, like the old pond, we witness the action of an animal living simply according to its nature. We perceive things just as they are. The result is an experience of interconnectedness: a realisation that we are not separate from the natural world, but a part of it.

In the following haiku by Basho we experience the season as both a physical setting and as a metaphor for emotional experience:

no-one walks

along this road but I

autumn evening

A tree-lined urban path in the evening.
Autumn’s arrival can be felt in falling leaves and earlier sunsets.
S_Oleg/Shutterstock

In a world of increasing anxiety and distraction, the negative space in a haiku affords us moments of reflection and invites us into a dialogue with the rest of the natural world.

It requires a sensitivity on the part of the reader, but its effect is to instil an appreciation for what surrounds us. Through a meaningful, felt awareness of the seasonal cycles, the reading and writing of haiku inspires a deeper connection to our environment.

How haiku is changing

I spent the summer of 2022 in my home office, consuming decades of haiku journals and anthologies, trying not to leave sweaty fingerprints on their ancient covers in the unnatural 40°C heat. As that year’s researcher-in-residence for the British Haiku Society, working on a project called Twisting Point, I was searching for tell-tale traces of climate change in the English-language haiku archives.

My goal was to contrast present-day haiku against older archival ones, using the differences between them to make readers sensitive to nature’s decline and to suggest how the English-language haiku form might be evolving due to climate change.

I was looking at 30 years’ worth of haiku. In the UK during this time flying insect populations have fallen by over 60%, 41% of wildlife species have decreased in abundance and the frequency of heatwaves, floods and other extreme weather have all increased. More than enough change has occurred in these three decades to manifest in the archives.

Yet, these changes emerge in a strange fashion. It’s hard to write about nature’s losses, and writers tend to do so unconsciously. Rather than tracking population declines in concrete terms, then, the language used around certain species has altered, becoming soaked in grief.

For example, over 25 years numbers of curlews, a wading bird, have halved in the UK. Earlier haiku described their powerful cry “lengthen[ing] the hill[s]”; a poem written in 2022 found them “calling across wintry mudflats, haunting the wind”. Similarly, since 2000, declining butterflies have moved from being a “cloud” common in the background of haiku to lone survivors “pushing against time”.

A wading bird in shallow water with a long, slender, curved beak.
Curlews use their crescent beaks to probe the soft intertidal mud for worms.
Emutan/Shutterstock

The archetypal seasonal words used in haiku are shifting too, disrupting centuries-long traditions of meaning and emotion. As winter has been squeezed into weeks, spring arrives earlier and frosts become tardier, snowdrops have become a symptom of the changing haiku form.

Here is a haiku published in the 1990s in the spring seasonal category (the traditional haiku date for spring’s beginning is February 4):

song of a greenfinch

a ray of sun on cold steps

and a few snowdrops

By 2022, snowdrops are emerging in December in this tanka (a slightly longer poem variety) by Ruth Parker:

Omicron triumphs

and sends Christmas packing – but in the garden

the delicate white hope

of snowdrops

Small white flowers.
Snowdrops are flowering earlier as the climate warms.
Daniel Chetroni/Shutterstock

I was struck by how few haiku seemed to address climate change. Twisting Point became my call to arms for haiku writers. Haiku are about intense moments of perception, in which “the vast is perceived in one thing”. But in addressing climate change so little, are English-language haiku really depicting “the vast”?

Since 2022 the issue has come to the fore, with The Guardian describing how Japanese haiku writers are “lost for words” in the face of climate change. Meanwhile, Twisting Point is to be republished in a journal of the New Zealand Poetry Society. The call to haiku arms is growing: the vast climate crisis is upon us, and we should write about it.The Conversation

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This blog was written by Jasmin Kirkbride, Lecturer in Publishing, University of East Anglia and Paul Chambers, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Bristol. 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

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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.

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