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News archive: October 2006

Climate change is our central challenge

Climate change has been made the world’s biggest priority, with the publication of a stark report showing that the planet faces catastrophe unless urgent measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Future generations may come to regard the apocalyptic report by Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, as the turning point in combating global warming, or as the missed opportunity.

As well as producing a catastrophic vision of hundreds of millions fleeing flooding and drought, Sir Nicholas suggests that the cost of inaction could be a permanent loss of 20 per cent of global output.

That equates to a figure of £3.68 trillion – while to act quickly would cost the equivalent of £184bn annually, 1 per cent of world GDP.

Across the world, environmental groups hailed the report as the beginning of a new era on climate change, but the White House maintained an ominous silence. However, the report laid down a challenge to the US, and other major emerging economies including China and India, that British ministers said cannot be ignored.

Its recommendations are based on stabilising carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere at between 450 and 550 parts per million – which would still require a cut of at least 25 per cent in global emissions, rising to 60 per cent for the wealthy nations.

It accepts that even with a very strong expansion of renewable energy sources, fossil fuels could still account for more than half of global energy supplies by 2050.

Presenting the findings in London, Tony Blair said the 700-page document was the “most important report on the future” published by his Government. Green campaigners said that at last the world had woken up to the dangers they had been warning about for years.

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and likely next Prime Minister, assumed the task of leading the world in persuading the sceptics in the US, China and India to accept the need for global co-operation to avert the threat of a global catastrophe. He has enlisted Al Gore, the former presidential candidate turned green evangelist, to sell the message in the United States, with Sir Nicholas.

While the Bush administration refused to be drawn on the report, US environmental groups seized on it to demand a major change in policy. “The President needs to stop hiding behind his opposition to the Kyoto protocol and lay a new position on the table,” said the National Environmental Trust, in Washington. The Washington Post said in an editorial that it was “hard to imagine” that the “intransigence” of the administration would long survive its tenure. “Will [Mr Bush] take a hand in developing America’s response to this global problem,” it asked, “Or will he go down as the President who fiddled while Greenland melted?”

Sir Nicholas’s report contained little that was scientifically new. But British ministers are hoping his hard-headed economic analysis will be enough to persuade the doubters in the White House to curb America’s profligate use of carbon energy.

In the Commons, Environment Secretary, David Miliband, confirmed that ministers were drawing up a Climate Change Bill, which would enshrine in law the Government’s long-term target of reducing carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. But he declined to go into any detail.

Mr Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were “literally disastrous”.

“This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime,” he said. “We can’t wait the five years it took to negotiate Kyoto – we simply don’t have the time. We accept we have to go further [than Kyoto].”

Sir Nicholas told BBC radio: “Unless it’s international, we will not make the reductions on the scale which will be required.”

Pia Hansen, of the European Commission, said the report “clearly makes a case for action”.

“Climate change is not a problem Europe can afford to put into the ‘too difficult’ pile,” she said. “It is not an option to wait and see, and we must act now.”

Charlie Kronick, of Greenpeace, said the report was “the final piece in the jigsaw” in the case for action to reduce emissions. “There are no more excuses left, no more smokescreens to hide behind, now everybody has to back action to slash emissions, regardless of party or ideology,” he said.

The CBI director general Richard Lambert said a global system of emissions trading was now urgently needed as a “nucleus” for effective action. “Provided we act with sufficient speed, we will not have to make a choice between averting climate change and promoting growth and investment.”

By Colin Brown and Rupert Cornwell in Washington, for The Independent

Junk food ad ban becoming a sham

Loopholes on brand advertising and sponsorship could scupper a UK junk food advertising ban, warn charities Sustain and the National Heart Forum.

In anticipation of the imminent announcement of new rules on junk food advertising from Ofcom, the National Heart Forum and Sustain (the alliance for better food and farming) cautioned MPs today that proposals could be fatally flawed if they do not deal with brand as well as product advertising.

In a briefing note to all MPs highlighting the health and social benefits that would flow from a restriction on TV junk food advertising before 9pm, the two charities also drew attention to the possibility that apparently robust restrictions on junk food ads may not remove commercial pressures on children if Ofcom opts to permit brand advertising and sponsorship. These are adverts where no product appears, or could be simply a logo appearing on a TV programme.

“Ofcom’s draft proposals do not apply to brand advertising. Unless they do, it will leave the door wide open for junk food and drink companies to shift their marketing spend into programme and channel sponsorship, and into the sort of high-impact brand image advertisements we saw on billboards from tobacco companies in the 1990s,? said Jane Landon, deputy chief executive of the National Heart Forum.

“Ofcom clearly recognises the risks of leaving brand advertising unregulated, but it is likely to be under huge pressure from the junk food companies and advertisers to throw them a lifeline. We now hear that Ofcom will permit entire commercial channels to be sponsored.”

“Sponsorship is like any other bit of marketing – it promotes a product to a target audience. If Cadbury’s sponsorship of Coronation Street does not ultimately sell chocolate, then what does it do?? said Richard
Watts, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign at Sustain.

Only this week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown MP said he supported a restriction on junk food advertising up to 9pm as part of a comprehensive range of measure to improve children’s health and well-being.

Taking vitamins helps women get pregnant

Women who take a daily multivitamin tablet can boost their chances of getting pregnant.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health who followed 18,000 women over eight years found those who took a multivitamin on at least six days a week had a 40 per cent lower risk of suffering ovulatory problems leading to infertility.

About 150,000 women in the UK have ovulation problems – almost one in 10 of all women affected by infertility. It is the second leading cause of female infertility after problems with blocked fallopian tubes.

Jorge Chavarro, the research fellow at Harvard who led the study, said it was the largest so far conducted. The women had all successfully become pregnant or had tried and failed to do so, and were selected from a separate research project which has followed the health of 100,000 nurses over 15 years.

“Multivitamins are packed with a large amount of nutrients, so we looked at which were crucial. As best as we could tell it looked as if folic acid was the nutrient that played the biggest role,” Dr Chavarro said.

A lack of folic acid, which is found in leafy green vegetables and liver, is linked with spina bifida. Pregnant women and those trying to conceive are advised to take supplements.

by Jeremy Laurance for The Independent

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Eco TV series

Leonardo DiCaprio is set to produce a new environmental reality TV series entitled “E-topia.”

Along with Madison Road Entertainment and Pilgrim Films, DiCaprio’s Hollywood company Appian Way will head the production which will transform a desolate U.S. town into an eco-friendly community, Daily Variety reported.

“Survivor” alum Craig Piligian, head of Pilgrim Films, said that while the town has yet to be selected and the series is still seeking a television channel, the project is “incredibly ambitious.”

“Take an American town that has been destroyed and bring it back to its former glory and then some,” he said of the series concept. “This time it’ll be stronger, better, cleaner. This town will be reborn as the prototype for the future.”

DiCaprio, who has history with TV environmental specials, will expand on his role as co-creator on the series by taking on executive producer duties as well.

We say, you’re welcome to give a British town an eco-makeover any time, Leo. Come to Skegness!

Eco-chic yet to hit Buckingham Palace

Buckingham palace was criticised by Greenpeace yesterday after The Daily Telegraph revealed that the building will be illuminated each and every night from tonight until the end of the Queen’s reign.

A Greenpeace spokesman said: ‘We need leadership from our Head of State’. We say, it’s time for the Soil Association’s Patron, Prince Charles, to be crowned King…

Glasgow’s November Food Festivals

The historic city of Glasgow will host two major celebrations of food in November.

First up is The Organic Food Festival, to be held in the Old Fruitmarket on November 4 and 5. It’s the first food festival to be thrown in Scotland by the Soil Association. The festival will feature goods from 60 organic producers.

The second event is a festival hosted by the Glasgow arm of Slow Food UK, on November 4.

Alex Kinnear of Soil Association Scotland said: ‘There is an amazing range of producers and lots of examples of great enterprise in Glasgow, and we want to focus more on them. Our priority is to counteract the city’s negative image. We see the festival as an opportunity to start an ongoing dialogue with the city.’

Britons hasten global warming

British people waste more energy than the inhabitants of any other major Western European nation, hastening climate change and adding £2.5bn to annual fuel bills, according to research by the Energy Saving Trust. A poll of 5,000 Europeans found the average Briton admitted to 32 bad habits such as leaving lights on in empty rooms, leaving appliances on standby, boiling more water than needed in a kettle, using the car for short journeys, washing clothes at too high a temperature and leaving the central heating on.

In interviews last month released for the start of Energy Efficiency Week today, Germans admitted to having 14 energy wasting habits, the Spanish 16, the French 19 and the Italians 25. By contrast, the UK was revealed to be a nation of “standby junkies”, with 71 per cent rarely if ever switching off televisions, DVD players, computers and other electrical appliances.

Two-thirds of people boiled surplus water in kettles, and 65 per cent left mobile phone and other chargers needlessly plugged in to the mains. Two-thirds left lights on in empty rooms.

Householders could save £11bn in fuel bills by 2010 by eliminating the waste as well as prevent the release into the atmosphere of 43 million ton of carbon dioxide, estimated the EST. It calculated the unnecessary carbon dioxide was equivalent to the annual emissions of 7 million homes.

Scientists believe climate change caused by greenhouse gases has been behind extreme weather in recent years, such as Hurricane Katrina last year.

Britain’s bad habits

71% leave appliances on standby

67% boil more water than needed in kettles

65% leave chargers plugged in

63% don’t turn off lights in empty rooms

48% use the car for short journeys

44% wash clothes at 60F

32% leave the engine running while the car is stationary

32% use the tumble dryer when the washing line could be used

28% have the central heating on in an empty house

22% turn up the thermostat instead of reaching for a jumper

Article by Martin Hickman for The Independent

A Decade To Save The World

Tony Blair gave fellow EU leaders a doomsday warning on climate change yesterday, on the eve of a summit meeting with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, to discuss Europe’s energy needs.

In a joint letter with the Dutch premier, Jan Peter Balkenende, Mr Blair said Europe had “only 10-15 years” to avoid “catastrophic tipping points”.

Mr Blair’s intervention coincided with the launch of a European Commission blueprint on curbing energy use. It called for reductions in consumption to 14 per cent below current levels by 2020.

David Miliband, the Secretary of State for the Environment, called meanwhile for plans to include airlines in a European emissions trading system to be speeded up so that air carriers are included by 2008.

Energy is at the top of the agenda for today’s summit and the presence of Mr Putin as an invited dinner guest is a reminder of Europe’s reliance on oil and gas producers. EU leaders will also confront Mr Putin over his row with Georgia and several human rights issues. These include the murder of the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

In his letter Mr Blair advocates more investment in renewables technology, encouraging China’s transition to a low carbon economy and accelerating clean coal technology.

Speaking in Berlin, Mr Miliband highlighted the importance of including aviation in the European emissions trading system “at the earliest opportunity”. He argued: “Our starting point is 2008, but if not in 2008 then well before the beginning of the third phase in 2013. We should consider how to apply similar principles to surface transport.”

The European Commission says switching off appliances that use standby modes and using low-energy models would save more than €100bn a year by 2020. It would also avoid releasing 780bn tonnes of CO2.

by Stephen Castle for The Independent

EU Gets Tough On GM Rice

The European Commission said yesterday that on Monday 23 October it will ask all European Union national food safety experts to require mandatory testing of all imports of US long-grain rice at EU ports after talks on an agreed testing regime broke down. The decision follows the detection of a herbicide resistant strain, illegal in the EU, in rice certified GM-free by the US. The mandatory testing will result in considerable extra costs to US rice exporters.

GM Plans Fundamentally Flawed

A new legal opinion was published yesterday, which said that the government’s proposals on how to prevent conventional and organic crops from contamination from GM crops are legally and ‘fundamentally flawed’. This legal opinion was prepared by two of the UK’s leading European law specialists for The Soil Association, Friends of the Earth and GM Freeze.

Public opposition to GM crops is being overridden by a government determined to back the industry, Michael Meacher, the former environment minister, has claimed.

His remarks came yesterday in response to the launch of a government consultation over whether GM crops can “co-exist” with non-GM crops in the British countryside. Those who want to take part must have their answers in by today.

Early GM experiments met huge opposition in the UK, with the result that no GM crops have been grown commercially in Britain. The same is true through most of Europe, and environmental groups claimed yesterday that what the government is now proposing could be illegal under EU law.

But the government’s view is that there is “no scientific case” for a total ban. Mr Meacher, and other campaigners, suspect that the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, is looking for a way to overcome public opposition.

“This consultation is the Government’s latest attempt to back the GM industry over the wishes of the British public,” Mr Meacher claimed. “Instead of paving the way for GM crops to be grown in England, David Miliband must take on board the thousands of responses rejecting the Government’s GM contamination plans and put in place policies that protect GM-free food and truly promise his vision of sustainable farming.”

The Soil Association, Friends of the Earth and GM Freeze yesterday published a legal opinion prepared by two of the UK’s leading European law specialists claiming that the government plans are “fundamentally flawed”.

The opinion said that Mr Miliband’s department is wrong to assume that it is permitted under EU law to seek to “minimise” rather than “avoid” the risk that other crops will be contaminated if there are GM crops growing nearby.

They also say that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was wrong to think that EU law does not require it to publish a register of sites where GM crops are grown, and to assume that gardeners and allotment holders do not have a right under EU law to know whether GM crops are being grown near their land. The legal opinion was prepared for Friends of the Earth, The Soil Association and GM Freeze.

Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said: “The Government’s proposals to deny organic and other farmers the choice of staying free of GM contamination break their repeated promises.”

Friends of the Earth’s GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: “Government proposals for rules that allow GM crops to be grown alongside conventional and organic crops are a thinly veiled attempt to introduce GM crops through the back door. Allowing routine, unlabelled, GM contamination of conventional and organic crops is not only unacceptable to the public, it is legally flawed.”

GM Freeze director Pete Riley said: “The Government appears to be willing to rewrite EU law.”

by Andy McSmith for The Independent

Disney phasing out junk food

Disney has announced they will phase out unhealthy food from all their premises, cutting levels of fat, sugar and salt in all meals served over the next two years, and serving water, fruit juice and milk.

Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, was interviewed on the UK’s ITV lunchtime news yesterday. Peter said:

“Disney’s decision will definitely influence a lot of children and their families all over the world. We hope too that it will influence UK theme parks and tourist attractions like Madame Tussauds, Alton Towers, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Chessington World of Adventures to introduce healthy food and drink choices for children. In the UK, the Soil Association and Organix research showed that the healthy choices provided by The Tower of London and the Eden project are popular with children and their parents.?

Disney’s move is historical, as the two guys behind Disney and McDonald’s were good friends, paving the way for many cross-promotions between their two corporations over more than 50 years. We hope that this friendship will continue, but with McDonald’s able to provide great tasting and fun organic foods for Disney’s theme parks worldwide.

Ethical food sales growing

A new report by market analyst Mintel indicates that UK consumers are set to spend over £2bn this year on free range, fair trade and organic products. This ‘ethical revolution’ has seen sales rise by 62 per cent in the past four years.

While supermarkets once competed in price wars over bread and baked beans to attract customers, they are now expanding their “conscience-light” ranges to cope with increased demand.

Crucially, the Mintel research found one third of adults now believe it is worth paying more for food that is fair trade, organic and locally sourced.

One in three consumers say they buy fair trade products whenever they are available, compared with one in four in 2002. Four out of ten people always try to buy free-range food such as chicken and eggs, up from 33 per cent four years ago.

Julie Sloan, senior market analyst at Mintel, said: “Ethical food suppliers have traded on the fringes of the UK grocery market for many years but until recently only a few sectors, such as free-range eggs, had really established themselves.

“Now many more ethical products have entered the mainstream foods sector, with leading suppliers and retailers becoming increasingly involved. In the present climate, many companies may be hoping to improve their profile by projecting a more ethical stance.”

She added: “Whatever their reasonings for choosing the ethical route, this movement is certainly a step in the right direction towards a more ethically-minded society. With these products becoming rapidly more widely available, the market is set to see substantial future growth.”

Written by Maxine Frith, Social Affairs correspondent at The Independent

Pesticides linked to breast cancer risk

Teenage girls who live or work on farms may be putting themselves at risk of developing breast cancer in later life, researchers say. Pesticides or other toxic agents to which farm workers are exposed may be responsible for triggering changes in the developing breast, they said. A study of 1,100 women, half of whom had been diagnosed with breast cancer, found those with the disease were almost three times more likely to have been farm workers, many during adolescence. The researchers from the University of Stirling, who led the study conducted in Canada, said developing breast tissue was especially vulnerable to toxic exposures during adolescence.

Story by Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor of The Independent

Fish oil increases wellbeing in boys

Experts on omega-3 fatty acids said yesterday there was an urgent need for properly conducted scientific research on the impact of diet on the brain, amid claims that fish oils have dramatically improved the behaviour of boys with some of the UK’s most severe emotional and social problems.

The Cotswold community school in Wiltshire, a residential school for boys who cannot be handled in mainstream care homes and schools, has treated its children with fish oil supplements for 20 weeks and measured changes in their behaviour. A nutritionist, Jackie Stordy, analysed records of the boys’ behaviour, using school logs of the number of times the children had to be restrained.

The children’s scores for hyperactivity, impulsiveness and oppositional behaviour were also compared before and after.

After 20 weeks the number of times staff had to restrain the boys had dropped by 46%. The length of time they had to be restrained dropped by 42% and their scores for impulsiveness and hyperactivity improved by 20%, said Dr Stordy.

For nearly all the boys there was a small but significant improvement, except two who did not take the fish oil and showed no improvement. Three showed dramatic improvements. “Their scores moved into the normal range for the population, which is remarkable,” Dr Stordy said.

The claims being made for fish oil’s effect on children’s learning and behaviour have become controversial, with experts criticising supplement manufacturers for overstating the evidence from unscientific research.

But it was the Cotswold community school that approached manufacturers Efamol for supplies of its fish oil-based essential fatty acid supplement Efalex. Dr Stordy said the work made no claim to be a proper trial – only 19 boys were involved. There was no placebo.

Story written by Felicity Lawrence for Guardian Unlimited.

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