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the greenhouse NS 10 Mar 01
We have the technology to halt global climate change, so let's use it
POLITICIANS may have lost the plot on how to halt climate change. But technologists are forging ahead with a host of innovations that could halt the rise in greenhouse gas levels, says a UN panel of climate change experts in a report published this week.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that technical innovation has been faster than anticipated five years ago, when it made its last assessment. Wind turbines, hydrogen fuel cells, efficient car engines and the technology to bury carbon dioxide underground could become practical ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
But critics believe that the IPCC has failed to give governments firm advice on how to make the new technologies work. They fear that the report, called Climate Change 2001: Mitigation will contribute to the political inaction that has followed last November's failed Kyoto Protocol talks on curbing climate change.
This is the third major report from the IPCC in the past few weeks. Meeting in Accra, Ghana, the panel of experts from over 100 countries assessed technical and policy options for halting the droughts, floods and extreme weather predicted by the two previous reports.
In an upbeat assessment, they said that "known technological options" could, if widely adopted, stabilise C02 concentrations in the atmosphere in the range of 450 to 550 parts per million. This is between 60 and 100 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels. In the past, IPCC members have often suggested 750 ppm as a more achievable target.
'The potential for technology innovation leading to clean energy and other climatechange solutions is extraordinary," said Klaus Toepfer, director of the UN Environment Programme, a sponsor of the IPCC. "Governments need to unleash this potential.'
However, critics of the report, including senior scientists within the IPCC, say that its authors have been "vague and evasive' in their recommendations. They believe that the world should adopt a firm 'ceiling" for CO, levels in the air-say, 450 or 550 ppm. This would allow governments to cut their emissions to stay below the ceiling.
"It is increasingly obvious that a stable atmospheric concentration target must be set. This needs to be conveyed urgently to policy makers," they said last week in a letter to Bert Metz, who co-chaired the report's working group. The letter's chief author, Aubrey Meyer of the London-based Global Commons Institute, said the report noted that the cost of meeting a target of 450 or 550 ppm would be substantially greater than for a 750 ppm target. But it failed to assess the likely benefits of a tougher target, such as fewer floods and droughts.
Meyer also attacked the report for suggesting that more scientific informafion was needed about "climate change processes and impacts' before governments set long-term targets. This cautious language contrasts with the much tougher tone of the panel's two other previous reports, which both stress growing certainty about the causes, pace and impacts of climate change. Fred Pearce
A is for aardvark The first Who's who of the natural world
has been launched
NS 13 June 2001
ALL creatures great and small, from the mightiest whale to the humblest bacterium, will soon have an entry in the first complete Who's who of the natural world. When finished, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, or GBIF, will be available free on the Internet to anyone investigating the biology and ecology of the planet.
The initiative to set up the GBIF came from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. The deal was that once at least 10 nations had agreed to stump up $2 million between them, the facility would be a going concern. This week in Brussels, 12 founder nations announced GBIF's official launch. The dozen include rich and poor nations, ftom the US and Japan to Slovenia and Ecuador. Britain and France are notable absentees, though both are interested. 'rhe OECD is now accepting bids to host the GBIF secretariat. Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands have expressed an interest. The idea is to link all the world's public databases on biodiversity. "It always surprises people to know there's no catalogue of all the 1.8 million named species on Earth,' says Jim Edwards of the US National Science Foundation, who was the initiative's prime mover. Double counting often happens when scientists independently discover and name the same species, he says. The eastem spotted newt, for example, had two Latin names until recently, Notophthalmus viridescens now being accepted as the correct one. Not only will the compendium list all species, it will also assemble a directory of the 3 billion natural specimens collected and stored in museums and seed banks around the world. One major objective of the organisers is to persuade some of the world's greatest museums to computerise records which are still on paper or card. 'There are millions of specimens in museums such as the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Natural History Museum in London, but only a fraction are digitised," says Edwards. Paul Henderson of the Natural History Museum confirmed that only a tiny proportion of its 70 million specimens are recorded on computer. But the museum is a fervent supporter of the initiative. 'It's essential we provide full support for GBIF and become a full member," says Henderson. Edwards says national governments or agencies will have to pay for computerising the records. 'GBIF itself won't do the digitising," says Edwards. 'But we'll hopefully be the catalyst to get it going.' GBIF will also work out standard data formats so that all the databases can communicate. This process will improve poorer nations' access to these collections. 'We don't have the money to wire the world, but we hope to work with aid agencies to get the resources for poorer countries to interact with GBIF," says Edwards. Subscriptions to GBIF wfll reflect a countys wealth, and many poor countries will get free membership. Edwards was stumped when asked whether the list of species would include Homo sapiens. 'I'd never even thought about it," he says. Andy Coghlan
Pharmaceutical firms stand accused of raiding native lore to make fortunes from natural remedies, Antony Barnett NZ Herald/ Observer 2001
LONDON For thousands of years, African tribesmen have eaten the Hoodia cactus to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips. The Kung bushmen who live around the desert in southem Africa used to cut off a stem of the cactus about the size of a cucumber and munch on it over a couple of days. Now the Hoodia, which grows to 1.82m taller Urn the bushmen themselves is at the centre of a bio-piracy row. Campaigners say the cactus has attracted the interest of the Western drug industry, which exploits developing countries through the international patent system.
In April, when pharmaceutical giants were being accused of failing to provide affordable Aids drugs in Africa, Phytopharm, a small firm in Cambridgeshire, England, said it had discovered a potential cure for obesity derived from an African cactus. It emerged that the company had patented P57, the appetite-suppressing ingredient in the Hoodia, hoping it would become a slimming miracle. Phytopharm's scientists boasted it would have none of the side-effects of many treatments because it was derived from a natural product. The discovery was immediately hailed by the press as a "dieter's dream" and Phytopharm's share price rose as traders expected rich returns from a drug which would revolutionise the $US8.5 billion British market in slimming aids. Phytopharm acted quickly.
It sold the rights to license the drug for $US21 million to Pfizer, the United States pharmaceutical giant, which hopes to have the treatment ready in pM form within three years. But it appears that while the drug companies were busy seducing the media, their shareholders and financiers about the wonders of their new drug, they had forgot ten to tell the bushmen, whose knowledge they had used and patented. Phytopharyn's excuse appears to be that it believed the tribes which used the Hoodia cactus were extinct. Richard Dix @y, the firm's self-proclaimed Buddhist chief executive, told the Financial Times: "We're doing what we can to pay back, but it's a really fraught problem ... especially as the people who discovered the plant have disappeared." Yet last weekend leaders of the people Dixey believed had disappeared held their annual gathering at a farm 72km north of Cape Town. One of the top items 3n the agenda was to plan their strategy against Phytopharm and Pfizer. They are angry, saying their ancient knowledge has been stolen, and are about to launch a challenge and demand compensation. Roger Chennells is the lawyer for the tribal bushmen, who number 100,000 across South Africa, Botswana, Nainibia and Angola. He argued their case in 1999 when the bushmen won 40,000ha of white-owned farmland on the edge of the Kalahari.
Chennells said: "They are verj concerned. It feels like somebody has stolen their family silver and cashed it in for a huge profit. The bushmen do not object to anybody using their knowledge to produce a medicine, but they would have liked the drug companies to have spoken to them first and come to an agreement. "I believe there is grounds for a legal challenge, but there is certainly a strong moral case for the drug companies to pay proper compensation to those whose knowledge they have taken and now claim to own."
Alex Wijeratna, a campaigner for ActionAid, the international development charity, said: "This is a major case of bio-piracy. Corporations are scouring the globe looking to rip off traditional knowledge from some of poorest communities in the world. Consent or compensation is rarely given." "The patent system needs urgent reform to protect the knowledge nurtured over generations by groups like the African bushmen.11
Dixey claims that one of the reasons he set up Phytopharin was precisely to help tr-bal people profit from their ancient medicinal knowledge of plants. He said: "I honestly believed that these bushmen had died out and am sor,ry to hear they feel hard done by. I am delighted that they are still around and have a recognisable community. The ownership of medicinal plants is extremely complex, but I have always believed that this type of knowledge is the most valuable asset of indigenous tribes. Royalty payments from medicines could transform their prospects." Dixey, who insisted that he would now be happy to enter into talks with the bushmen community, said that Phytophartn was approached with the deal by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSER), which had been investigating the properties of the Hoodia cactus. He claims it was the CSIR that told him the bushmen tribes who used the cactus no longer existed and assured him that agreements were in place to help local communities. Dr Marthinus Horak, the man in charge of the CSIR project, defended the deal. He claimed there were ordy a few hundred bushmen left in South Africa itself, living in isolated areas, and were very hard to contact. He said: "We always intended to speak to the community at some stage, but we did not believe it would be appropriate to do so before the drug had passed on the clinical tests and been finally approved. We did not want to raise their expectations with promises that cowd not be met." Hor-ak said the CSIR was committed to sharing financial benefits and had a track record in de@g with local communities through a variety of benefit-sharing progm=es. Yet critics such as the South African campaigning group BioWatch believe that these agreements are nothing but a sham and mainly result in money being invested back into CSER itself which is half-funded by the South African Goveniment. The Kung bushmen have become expert botanists over thousands of years. They can read.Uy identify more than 300 different types of plant with different properties and campaigners believe that the tow is just the fint of many such battles to come. OBSERVER