The Great Debate UK

How cities can help protect citizens from air pollution

–Julian Hunt is former Director-General at the Met Office and Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology. Amy Stidworthy is Principal Consultant at Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants. The opinions expressed are their own.–

The Saharan dust in London last week affected the atmosphere, and caused irritation to the many people who suffer from breathing difficulties. Just as in the smog of the 1950s and of Dickens’s day, which was caused by soot from coal burning, the cloud of dust particles was dense enough that less sunlight made it through to ground level.

When this happens, polluting gases and particles of all kinds are not dispersed upwards, and are concentrated in layers below the tops of the tallest buildings. When finally the sun broke through last week, the dust was dispersed and for those suffering from the effect of the dust there was some relief.

But London is fortunate because such meteorological events are very unlikely to occur in the height of summer when it may coincide with a heat wave. Other countries, in southern Europe for example, may not be so fortunate. In large Asian cities, huge sandstorms, dust from coal combustion and industrial sources, and emissions from motor vehicles can lead to health effects so severe that an 8-year old girl living near a crossroads was reported to have died from particle-related lung cancer.

Changing weather patterns mean meteorology is more important than ever

–Julian Hunt is former Director-General of the UK Met Office, and a Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology. The opinions expressed are his own.–

Since the 1990s, the United Kingdom has celebrated National Science and Engineering Week every year to coincide with World Meteorological Day (which this year is Sunday 23 March). This is fitting, given that meteorologists, whose original interest was more in the effects of outer space (especially meteors and lightning) than weather, work with scientists and engineers ever more closely, both in the use of modern measurement techniques and in making conceptual advances in mathematics and physics.

Europe’s carbon trading system needs radical reform, not stop-gap measures

–Laurens de Vries is an assistant professor, Joern Richstein is a doctoral candidate, Emile Chappin is an assistant professor, and Gerard Dijkema is an associate professor at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. The opinions expressed are their own.–

The European Parliament voted on December 10 to delay sales of around 900 million carbon permits for the EU greenhouse-gas Emission Trading System (EU-ETS). The deferral (or so-called back-loading) may help correct the substantial oversupply of permits which have caused the carbon price to fall below 5 euros, a sixth of the price in 2008.

from The Great Debate:

Why “sustainability” should be more than a meaningless buzzword

The term “sustainability” crept into the business lexicon slowly, by way of the environmental movement. It no longer means covering operating costs with profits, the definition I learned at Harvard Business School six years ago. Instead, it’s morphed into a blurry term that fits into whatever suitcase you want it to -- a catchall for everything “socially good,” whatever that means.

The term has been used by various groups -- with various meanings -- for three decades. The Sierra Club first introduced it in the 1970s, during the dawn of the environmental movement. At the time, activists were speaking out against mining, water pollution, and other environmental threats. They defined “sustainability” as an approach to preserving natural resources by creating national parks and enacting legislation that would penalize polluters. In the 1980s, companies like The Body Shop used sustainability to describe their commitment to environmental and human rights, and a corporate focus that expanded beyond profits. For the next 20 years, the term was used by a small group of companies, like Ben and Jerry’s and Eileen Fisher, whose founders tried to incorporate their social values into their business models.

from The Great Debate:

Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary: What would Rachel Carson say now?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, the pesticide DDT was very much on my mind. My assistantship in 1953 involved research on the evolution of DDT-resistance in fruit flies. It quickly became clear to all of us in this research group that the broadcast use of pesticides was a losing and dangerous game. When I attempted to raise butterflies in New Jersey in the 1940s, bringing food plants in from nature usually resulted in the caterpillars dying. In those days, widespread spraying of DDT to control mosquitoes coated much of the countryside with poison. In the lab it was easy to use selection to make flies impervious to DDT in some 10 generations, or, in contrast, so susceptible that they would drop dead at a whisper of that “miracle” chemical’s name. Evolution of resistance tended to make continuous use of any pesticide inefficient. The usual response of the chemical industry was to recommend increasing the dose or to substitute more toxic compounds, making pest control even more expensive and dangerous.

That was well understood by evolutionists early on, but it took a marine biologist and talented writer, Rachel Carson, to bring the pesticide problem to public attention and, incidentally, to launch the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring, published in September, 1962, was a brilliant book, but also one that appeared when the time clearly was ripe. The public seemingly had been primed by publicity about radioactive fallout, fears of pesticide residues on cranberries and the thalidomide scandal, the latter enhanced by pictures of infants born with distorted limbs. Carson suffered from the drawbacks of being a female scientist before science’s gender gap began to dissolve, and from lacking a PhD and a professorial position. Despite those “handicaps,” she had the science about as right as it could be at the time.

from The Great Debate:

Yes, there are things the Rio summit can accomplish

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was marked by optimism and hope, but much of the buzz about the upcoming Rio+20 meeting is skeptical and cynical. Critics say the Rio process has been unduly bureaucratic and hasn’t lived up to its goals. They are branding Rio+20 as a failure before it has even begun. President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron are sitting it out. Some even say that in the radically decentralized Internet Age, the days when government leaders or U.N. bodies can set global agendas by fiat are long gone.

True, the Rio process itself has sensibly evolved away from government decree and turned toward the private sector to build a green economy that can implement sustainability on a global scale. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important things governments can do to make Rio’s goals a reality.

from The Great Debate:

Mystery of the disappearing bees: Solved!

If it were a novel, people would criticize the plot for being too far-fetched – thriving colonies disappear overnight without leaving a trace, the bodies of the victims are never found. Only in this case, it’s not fiction: It's what's happening to fully a third of commercial beehives, over a million colonies every year. Seemingly healthy communities fly off never to return. The queen bee and mother of the hive is abandoned to starve and die.

Thousands of scientific sleuths have been on this case for the last 15 years trying to determine why our honey bees are disappearing in such alarming numbers. "This is the biggest general threat to our food supply," according to Kevin Hackett, the national program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's bee and pollination program.

Pakistan floods show Asia’s vulnerability to climate change

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By Lord Julian Hunt and Professor J. Srinivasan. The opinions expressed are their own.

It is more than a year since the devastating July and August 2010 floods in Pakistan that affected about 20 million people and killed an estimated 2,000. Many believe that the disaster was partially fuelled by global warming, and that there is a real danger that Pakistan, and the Indian subcontinent in general, could become the focus of much more regular catastrophic flooding.

The safest form of power: Everything in moderation

By Morven McCulloch

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in north-eastern Japan, seriously damaged by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami, has led to anti-nuclear protests in several countries and forced governments to rethink their energy policies.

The UK currently has 10 nuclear power stations, representing 18 percent of the country’s energy supply according to Energy UK. Should British Prime Minister David Cameron, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reverse his position on the safety of nuclear power?

Big business still not tackling carbon emissions

– Sam Gill is Operational Director  at the Environmental Investment Organisation. The opinions expressed are his own. —

DENMARK/Today’s launch of the Environmental Tracking (ET) UK 100 Carbon Rankings show just how far we have to go in tackling corporate emissions. If the first step is getting trusted, accurate data into the public domain, then 65 percent of the UK’s biggest companies are keeping us in the dark.

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