Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Climate N Test

Photos: Courtesy Oceana 2011 (c)

News from  Moscow and St.Petersburg has it that the launch of the first Russian floating nuclear reactor in the Arctic is now approaching. 

Announcements have also now been made in Canada and China that these two countries also want to build and operate floating nuclear reactors, 

And now we know that the main reason to invest in this is to supply the energy needed to drill for oil and other minerals in the Arctic and other deep oceanic regions.

It would be good to know what the conventional nuclear industry thinks of this. We have all seen in the last two decades the nuclear industry putting itself forward as solution to climate change (notwithstanding unresolved issues of nuclear safety, radioactive waste management, non-proliferation, liability and other costs). But of course, using nuclear technology to extract oil from the deep ocean, including the Arctic, fatally undermines all nukes claims of climate-friendly credentials.

So, I think it'd be interesting to ask nuclear power plant operators like Electricité de France, Areva, Tepco (Japan, of Fukushima fame/shame), Electrabel,  Iberdrola, Endesa, or E.On (to only name a few), and nuclear technology suppliers like Siemens, Toshiba, MitsubishiSuez, or Bouygues (to only name a few, again) what they think of that floating reactors business; and to challenge them to say all with one voice: "we don't like that oil drilling and seabed mining business; the global climate system cannot afford Arctic oil drilling; it's a recipe for disaster; the risks are too high; we won't put our fingers in it; we ask our colleagues from the nuclear sector in Russia, Canada and China to drop it".

Paris, the centre of climate policy this year (and also to a large extent the nerve centre of the nuclear industry worldwide -- 80% of the electricity consumed in France comes from nuclear reactors) could be a good place to launch this Climate N Test.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The big deal

  Night-long BBNJ negotiation  last week-end - (C)  IISD/ENB Dan Birchall

I was in New York last week at the meeting of the UN Working Group on Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, known to Ocean policy nerds (such as me) as the "BBNJ", and which was open to all UN Member States. This group has been meeting for nearly a decade, since 2006, to discuss whether a supplementary agreement (known as an "implementing agreement" in legal jargon) to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be adopted to protect the high seas. The high seas, or areas beyond national jurisdiction, are the portion of the global ocean that lies beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of coastal States (generally beyond 200 nautical miles).  This may sound boring or complicated to laypersons, but you'll realize it's a very big deal when you know that the high seas represent 64% of the global ocean, less than 45% of our entire planet!

Humankind has been interacting with the high seas for a long time, but our impact has increased in recent times.

We've been sailing and shipping stuff across the high seas since time immemorial, but with the contemporary trends in economic globalization, ocean-based international trade has now grown at a scale that was unpredictable not long ago. Now, more than 90% of all the goods we purchase are moved about the planet by ships.

We've also used the high seas as a waste dumping ground until this practice was banned permanently in the early 1990s. However, pollutants from land-based activities have not abated, quite the reverse, which dramatically affect the high seas. While floating plastics are the most visible ones and the most in the public eye, micro-plastics (small particles of plastic) are the most pervasive, and have been found in every corner and crevice of the ocean, If that was not enough, there are also high concentrations in the ocean of pesticides and other organochlorine compounds, radioactive substances, and heavy metals.

We've been laying underwater cables since the middle of the 19th Century, first to send telegrams, then to make telephone calls and now to send data through the Internet. Those of you who are not at this time in mainland Europe (where I am as I type) are reading this blog after it swam under the ocean. 

We've also fished the high seas for some time. Until the 1950s most fish stocks were still in reasonably good shape (putting the commercial whaling episode aside -- whales are not fish). Things started to go wrong soon after with the decrease of fish resources in coastal waters, within EEZs, triggered by increased demand which lead to overfishing to meet that demand. Fishing fleets supported by rich government subsidies acquired the capacity to catch, package and freeze their prey in the high seas. That was the beginning of what some called the "cold rush" for fish in the high seas.  Environmentalists often quote a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which estimated that 80% of fish stocks had been fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or were recovering from depletion. Others dispute this figure, but the truth is that it would already be alarming even if it was the case for only 50% of fish stocks.

The most recent and still emerging chapters of human exploitation of the high seas concern mineral and genetic resources.

Mineral resources found on and under the seabed have been for the mining industry in the last decades a sort of Holy Grail which is now apparently starting to become technically feasible, but it's unclear whether seabed mining is another bubble. Both economic and environmental aspects remain untested with the potential damage and equity issues causing concern. According to UNCLOS, mineral seabed resources found on and under the seabed of the high seas are part of the common heritage of humankind, and their exploration and exploitation are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica. In recent years, ISA has granted exploration licenses to a number of consortia, and - should exploitation begin - ISA is meant to equitably distribute any arising benefits. But equity concerns are not limited to the distribution of benefits; they also include the impact of mining on legitimate uses of the sea such as fishing or genuine scientific research.

Unlike mineral resources, the living resources found in the high seas' water column are not considered part of the common heritage of humankind under UNCLOS. Fishing in some high seas areas is regulated internationally by Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) but they distribute quotas, not benefits to third parties. The ownership of marine genetic resources found in the deep ocean is subject to debate. Genes from the deepsea, especially the precious few that have been looked at so far,  are known to have important value for the medical and biotechnology sectors (hence for future human health). However, their exploitation (and even their existence) had not been envisaged when UNCLOS was drafted and negotiated in the 1970s and 80s. Developing countries (the so-called Group of 77 plus China) vehemently consider that marine genetic resources are part of the common heritage and they warn against what they consider biopiracy in the high seas. Hence it was agreed in 2011 that the sharing of the benefits resulting from the exploitation of deepsea genetic resources would be addressed, as part of a package of issues that would be taken into consideration if/when negotiation of a high seas legal instrument would take place.

The Nagoya Protocol, a recent supplementary agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is meant to guard against biopiracy, but it does not apply to high seas resources. The principle of access and benefit sharing enshrined in UNCLOS (for mineral resources) and in the CBD (for genetic resources within national jurisdiction) is what's behind the US pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporate lobby's aggressive campaign  which to date has prevented the US Congress from ratifying both treaties. By the same token, it's the explanation of  the US' long standing opposition, until early hours of Saturday morning (24th January), to the proposed High Seas Implementing Agreement.

After dragging their feet for nearly a decade, UN member States reached consensus at the eleventh hour and negotiations will begin in earnest next year. Other elements of the 2011 package include rules to designate and manage marine protected areas in the high seas [to date, only 1% of the world's ocean is fully protected], a mechanism to conduct environmental impact assessments in the high seas like on the rest of the planet, and provisions for capacity building and information exchange, A study commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission last year has shown that life in the high seas is providing irreplaceable "ecosystem services", including mitigating human-induced climate change by taking up 500 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon per year. That alone makes high seas protection a big deal.

The high seas are often described as the Far Wild Wet or a lawless zone. Frankly, it's a bit of an exaggeration, because certain activities in the high seas are regulated internationally, such as shipping by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) or fishing by RFMOs in certain areas of the high seas (but enforcement of fisheries regulations remains weak, particularly in the high seas). The problem with high seas governance, outlined in the recent report of the Global Ocean Commission, is a mixture of gaps and fragmentation (both geographic and sector-wise). This is what the Implementing Agreement is meant to address and resolve.

UNCLOS is often described as the Constitution of the Ocean, and there is no doubt that it represents a milestone in international governance. But it was adopted in 1982 after a decade-long negotiation, and it entered into force in 1994. The political, social and economic contexts and the environmental landscape have changed immensely since that time, and in ways that no one could have predicted. Concepts like biodiversity, sustainable development, the ecosystem approach were in their infancy, let alone our understanding of climate change. The upcoming negotiation of the High Seas Implementing Agreement is the opportunity to bring UNCLOS into the 21st Century. A big deal!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Arrgh! As I was preparing a new post (soon to come), and I was disrupted by a domestic affair, and inadvertently wiped out my "Good Mourning" piece about Charlie from earlier this month. Merde!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Seal pup on the sand

When I decided to spend a few days this month in Samos, the Greek island in the Agean Sea closest to the coast of Turkey, I knew that it was one of the very last Mediterranean monk seal breeding grounds, but I was not expecting to see any.

I knew a few basic things about the Mediterranean monk seal: it is one of the most threatened marine and European mammals; there are only about 50 of them left in the Agean Sea (and there are very few left in the rest of the Mediterranean); and they stay away from humans, spend their days in underwater caves and go out for fish only at sunset. So, to expect a seal sighting in Samos was like planning a holiday in the Pyrenees and expect to encounter a bear, or to go to a fiesta in Andalucia and hope to run into a lynx. The odds were so slim, it was not even within my plans.

I had been marginally associated in the late 1970s in advocacy to protect the Mediterranean monk seals, but to say the truth, nearly fourty years later when we arrived in Samos by boat a week ago, I was not even quite sure whether decades of conservation efforts had borne fruit and whether there were any seals left in Samos.

So, when a local gave me a tip and told me that a seal pup had been sighted and reported as staying for several months not far from where I was staying, my mind was blown away. Although the explanation was vague, I decided to try and check it out for myself.

After getting lost a bit on the road, I made it and ran into the seal pup. Under the protection of Paulos Teka, a volunteer from Finland who works for the Archipielago Institute of Marine Conservation, a Greek NGO that works for biodiversity and ocean protection in the Greek islands, the orphan female seal pup has been spending most of her days on the same small beach since the month of March. Her behaviour is almost unheard of. What's most likely to have happened, Paulos explained, is that the calf's mother got caught as by-catch in a fishnet, and maybe it's a miracle the seal pup survived. So far.
With Paulos Teka (seal pup on the bottom right)

The future of the seal pup is uncertain. At first sight, one can see that she may be developing a skin desease (sunburns?). An Israeli vet has been able to examin her hearing functions, Paulos told me. But little can be done because the priority is to prevent interference from humans. So, during the summer months Paulos and his colleagues have fenced part of the beach area and, under a beach umbrella, their job is to maintain tourists at a distance.

Paulos confirms that normally Monk seals stay away and hide from humans. But now the Archipielago Institute is concerned that the pup is becoming used to the presence of humans. She even seems to look for it, and that can be a problem when (if) she grows up. Tourists brought by cruise liners take the sun and swim, most of them not knowing that it is a unique nature wonder they have alongside. "It's better this way", says Paulos, "we don't want the seal to become a sightseeing spot". Of course, and that's why I'm not giving details on where the pup is to be found.

Click here to support and donate to the Archipielgo Institute of marine Science.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

One ocean

Today is June 8 - World Oceans Day on the United Nations calendar. A perfect day to revive my blog which I've kept sleeping for eight months.

My message to the UN on this day is "change the name". Today should be called World Ocean Day, not oceans. The ocean supplies the oxygen in every second breath we take; billions of us rely on it for food, fresh water, energy, medicine, transport and trade; it covers 70% of the Earth's surface and supports all life on Earth. If we want people to protect it and use it wisely, we've got to stop managing the ocean on a sectoral basis and modernize ocean governance to meet contemporary and emerging challenges. And this won't happen if we do not look at the ocean as one single interconnected system.

The main reason why I've been very lazy with my blog in the last eighteen months, and completely silent for eight months has been my current responsibility as Deputy Executive Secretary of the Global Ocean Commission. In that capacity, I had to write extensively with incredibly tight deadlines, first taking the lead to prepare the Commission's Policy Options Papers and other documents, and since the month of March preparing the Commission report which will be made public in New York on 24 June. So much to do, I completely ran out of steam for the blog. On Friday we were able to put the report to rest, which goes tomorrow to the printer and translators.

The adjective "global" in Global Ocean Commission does not only refer to the widespread geographical representation of the commissioners. A key message we're trying to convey is that there's only one "global ocean".

If you think that talking of  "one ocean" will cost you a bit at the beginning, a very practical thing you can do is update your spell check programme, so that it automatically removes the s in the ocean.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Together with Peter Willcox who is known for having been for the captain of the Rainbow Warrior when we were victims of the French Secret Services bomb attack in Auckland New Zealand in 1985, Dima Litvinov is the other "Greenpeace Arctic 30" that I know personally. The Arctic 30 are the Greenpeace crew currently jailed in Northern Russia for staging a peaceful protest against a Gazprom oil drilling platform in international waters near Russian waters in the Arctic Ocean.

I worked with Dima in Russia two decades ago. First in the late 1980s during the Perestroika when the country was still called the USSR, and we continued in the early 1990s after the country imploded and had become the Russian Federation. Together we uncovered the illegal dumping of radioactive wastes in the Kara Sea and the Sea of Japan. It took us several years of John Le Carre-style campaigning to collect all the evidence, which I distilled each year with official submissions at the meetings of the London Convention, the international treaty that regulates the dumping of wastes at sea, at the Headquarters of the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO). All the delegates of the countries members of the London Convention were stunned each time we brought more evidence from Russia. The Soviet/Russian delegation maintaned for several years that we were fabricating the data, but after sometime President Boris Yeltsin ordered an official investigation that concluded we were right. All the data we’d collected were validated by the Kremlin!

At the time, there was a worldwide moratorium on the dumping of radioactive wastes at sea. I’d worked intensely for a whole decade first to get that moratorium adopted, and then to turn it into a permanent ban, and the evidence we collected with Dima was very important to bring the radioactive waste dumping issue on top of the international agenda. In November 1993, exactly 20 years ago now, our campaign bore fruits and the Parties to the London Convention agreed to ban permanently the dumping of all radioactive wastes at sea worldwide. This permanent prohibition is legally-binding on all the Parties to the London Convention, as well as all the Parties to the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). In other words, the ban applies to all countries in the world, even to the Russia Federation who lifted its initial formal objection in 2005.

Dima’s father Pavel has just written a beautiful piece in the Washington Post in which he explains that Dima is the third Litvinov generation to end up in a Russian jail for political reasons. Some of the most vivid memories I have from my time in Russia is the excitement and enjoyment of the young Dima for being able to return to his homeland from which he’d been expelled when he was 10 after his dissident father was freed from the Gulag, something he couldn’t have dreamt before Gorbachev started with his reforms. It was a time of optimism for the Russian diaspora to which Dima belonged; he reunited with relatives who’d staid in the USSR while he lived in exile in the US, and he was happy and proud to join Russia’s emerging civil society. Most people don’t know this, but Greenpeace was the very first international NGO to take the risk to settle in the USSR as soon as the Perestroika began. Dima moved to Moscow with his family for several years, and there he helped build Greenpeace Russia. Dima was a Russian/US hybrid, and it was amazing to watch him operate, and to watch how Soviet/Russian citizens were reacting to him.  [Dima’s family name added to the confusion: Dima’s great grand-father was Maksim Litvinov, a hero of the October Revolution and Foreign Affairs Minister in the early times of the USSR, who was replaced and sent in disgrace by Stalin before the USSR-Germany Pact of non-aggression of 1939].

It is sad to see how the wind of optimism that was blowing two decades ago in Russia and elsewhere vanished (remember everyone talking of the “dividends of Peace”?). The return to a Russian jail of a member of the Litvinov family summarizes it all.

Beyond the environmental aspects, behind the fate of the Arctic 30 there is a wider right-to-protest and freedom-of-speech issue. If you agree, you can sign up to the Hands Up for the Right to Peaceful Protest Facebook page. 

My thoughts of course also go to the beautiful Pussy Riot which to my mind is the most important music group/movement of the decade.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The mad man who thinks he owns the sun

Among many other memorabilia of the environmental movement, in the entrance to my office there is a poster in French called "Énergies Libres".  Dating back from around 1976 or 1977 and authored by Jean-Marc Reiser, one of Paris' leading underground artists of the time, the poster was made to promote one of the very first exhibitions displayed in the then brand new Pompidou Centre in the heart of Paris, dedicated to wind, solar and other alternative sources of energy -- pretty much a science fiction-like proposition at the time. Looking back nearly fourty years later, it was not only amazing that we, green pioneers, were already pointing to a future that has now become a reality, but also a daring sign that it was displayed in the museum named after President Pompidou, the very same who'd launched in 1973 (one year before his death) France's massive Tout Nucléaire programme. Of course, conventional wisdom at the time suggested that we were mad to believe that solar, wind and other alternative sources of energy would play a role in the future. But now, with France and the rest of the world desperately looking for the right energy transition path, we're paying a high price for the nuclear and fossil fuels addiction madness. Future generations will continue to pay forever for the decommissioning of nuclear installations, the storage of nuclear wastes, and the costs of climate change. As REN21, the global renewable energy multistakeholders platform points out in their Renewables Global Energy Futures report, "the future of renewables is a choice, not a foregone conclusion."

Looking at my old framed poster during a visit at my office this week, a Spanish University professor was interested to see that in the 1970s renewables were called "énergies libres"-- free energy. Free like in "good bye to the monthly invoice from your local electricity company", and also free like in "freedom, self-made, autonomy".  "That's why Rajoy has declared war against renewables!", he said, "he doesn't want people to be free!". The professor was referring to the latest of a series of measures taken or proposed by Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to dismantle Spain's renewable energy sector, once one of the most flourishing worldwide.

In a surprise move last week, Spain's Industry Ministry announced that people and businesses producing their own electricity with photovoltaic cells would have to pay a toll 27% higher than the tax consumers pay for conventional energy. In the country that attracts millions of tourists every year with the slogan "Everything under the Sun", the Spanish Government's attempt to privatize sun rays only benefits a handful of electricity corporations and castigates small entrepreneurs and individuals who have invested in good faith to boost clean energy. This is madness. It doesn't make any economic sense in a country where more than 80% of energy needs are covered by foreign imports (fossil fuels and uranium) despite a high tech domestic renewables sector that instead needs enhancing public policies. It doesn't make environmental sense either, in one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change according the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and with an increasingly obsolete and aging nuclear park. As Teresa Ribera, a former Secretary of State for Climate Change Policy puts it, "charging a toll for self production doesn't make sense; it's like charging for lightening firewood."

I don't know if it's because he's caught a sun burn, but it looks like Prime Minister Mariano Fossil Rajoy has gone mad this summer.