Week in Review: June 5

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

Two steps on the road to Copenhagen, protecting older women against cervical cancer, another university comes out for open access, and the possibility of a European origin for great apes.

Illustration: Tyler Lang

On the Road to Copenhagen (Part I)

The world is on its way to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. The 192 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will be there, but when it comes to getting anything done, some parties will matter far more than others. One such party, the European Union, published a report via its European Environment Agency May 29 detailing the EU’s greenhouse gas inventory for 2007, and indicates—especially vis-à-vis the United States—that the EU holds a strong position when it comes to discussing what needs to be, and what can be done about global warming.

The inventory shows that emissions fell by 1.55 percent for the EU-15 (that is, the member countries as of 1995) and by 1.17 percent for the EU-27 (the member countries as of the end of 2007) in 2007, marking the third consecutive year that emissions fell for both groups. On the whole, the EU-15’s emissions are down by 4.3 percent since 1990, and the EU-27’s are down by 9.3 percent, and there are many good stories to be found in the new numbers. Not only is the EU releasing less greenhouse gases, but the group’s economy is decarbonizing at a healthy clip; emissions of greenhouse gases per unit of GDP has fallen by some 44 percent since 1990.

The two big questions facing the EU are whether the group is on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol obligations in 2012 and its goal of a 20 percent reduction from 1990’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. In that context, the numbers look bleaker. In short, emissions need to have fallen an average of .4 percent each year from the baseline year to reach the Kyoto goal (which applies only to the EU-15), and .7 percent each year from 1990 to 2020 for the EU-27 to reach its 2020 goal. They have not fallen that quickly. Essentially, for both groups to meet their goals, the rates of reduction in emissions presently must be accelerating. Unhappily, there is no mathematical justification for assuming that they are.

The EEA report asserts that the necessary acceleration can be accomplished given domestic anti-greenhouse gas measures (including such things as economic restructuring and improved power generation), the use of carbon sinks, and the use of the Kyoto Protocol’s three reduction mechanisms: emissions trading, the clean-development mechanism (which gives a rich country emissions “credit” for helping poorer countries develop without the use of carbon-based energy), and the joint-implementation mechanism (which gives one country emissions credit for participating in a carbon-reduction program implemented in another country). Whether those will do the trick seems debatable. For example, although the decline in emissions from 1990 to 2007 can be attributed to fundamental shifts in the EU economy (especially the modernization of the formerly filthy economies of the old Eastern Bloc and major changes in both the UK and Germany), by far the bulk of the drop in emissions from 2006 to 2007 were from reduced demand for home heating thanks to a warm winter (although it’s nice to think, if unknown, that concern about climate change caused people to use less energy at home). It will take more than one warm winter—and likely more than last year’s oil-price shock or the present recession, neither of which are included in the EU analysis—to produce the kind of long-term changes in carbon-emission patterns necessary to get the EU to its goal.

That said, at least Europe both has a goal and seems to be moving toward it; the United States emitted 17 percent more greenhouse gases in 2007 than it did in 1990 (although its emissions per unit GDP fell 30 percent in the same time).

Never Too Old for an HPV Vaccine

A paper published online this week in the Lancetby Nubia Muñoz and her colleagues at the National Institute of Cancer in Bogotá found that the vaccine developed for the human papilloma virus is effective in protecting women age 24 to 45 from six strains of HPV, a virus that, among other things, causes cervical cancer. Expect the religious right to begin arguing that this finding will give older women or their mates license to carry on extramarital affairs, much as they have argued that giving HPV immunizations to teenage girls encourages premarital sex. And expect some guest on Oprah’s show—that great enabler of snake-oil salesmen—to tell women they don’t need it. Don’t listen to either.

On the Road to Copenhagen (Part II)

It was with some glee this past week that the United Nations Environment Program’s Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative and an organization called New Energy Finance released their report on investment in sustainable energy for 2008. Despite the crash in oil prices in the last half of last year and the freezing of the credit markets last autumn, investment in renewable energy sources was up 5 percent to $155 billion for 2008, although it did fall off markedly once oil prices fell and the availability of credit dried up.

The Copenhagen conference is weighing heavily on the minds of the renewable energy business community. Many players in the field are looking for stimulus, either directly through government outlays, or more metaphorically, through an agreement to reduce emissions at Copenhagen this December. Indeed, both are probably necessary to continue what might be the most heartening trend highlighted in the report: So-called third party investments (which includes money coming from venture capital, participants in stock exchanges, private equity funds, and more) made up more than 76 percent of money invested in renewable energy in 2008, up from just some 30 percent in 2002.

Capitalists, then, whether motivated by greed or concern about climate change or both, see an opportunity in large-scale support for renewable energy. And a good thing, too, for it seems almost a physical imperative that existing energy companies will not pony up the same kind of money that more adventurous capitalists currently are. After all, their managers are trying to protect existing company market values. As a result, they will try to protect subsidies in fossil fuels (which totaled some $200 billion last year), and to fight the sort of agreements that might undermine their market share. So expect them to fight before and after Copenhagen. Expect agreements made there to suffer as the Waxman-Markey bill has, now laden with a proposal to give 80 percent of emissions credits away for free. And expect more elected representatives to back down from the challenge of fighting companies, especially those with operations in the representatives’ districts.

The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world come from energy production. That we can change, especially if governments don’t insist on forcing start-ups to play on a field that privileges existing companies. But before too long, the energy economy—and whatever emissions result—will not be centered on today’s developed world. Soon enough the vast majority of energy production will come from the heretofore developing world, and the signal coming from those countries seems to be that each will pursue economic development regardless of the amount of carbon development produces; the science-related ministers in the new government of recently reelected Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, for example, have stated categorically that they will not agree to binding emissions reductions. The developed world must reduce their own emissions, but it also must take a lead in developing the technologies that will enable developing economies to grow while decarbonizing. Their growth will come. Without an agreement at Copenhagen, that growth seems likely to bring a lot of carbon with it.

How Open Access Could Change Scientific Literature

University College London announced June 3 that beginning this autumn, all research undertaken at the university will be placed in a university-sponsored open-access repository, assuming that the publishers of any particular article agree. As Nature News—produced by closed-access publisher Nature—notes in its report, this is unlikely to make a material difference in the amount of UCL research available to the public, as publicly funded research in the UK is already required to be placed in such a repository six months after publication. But it is indicative of a growing trend among researchers and universities—including those at the very top, such as Harvard University and MIT—that scientific research is more useful, the more readily available it is. Some analysts, according to Nature News, also see it as essentially an advertising campaign on the part of universities, an opportunity to showcase the work of their faculties.

Ironically, such policies could end up making it more expensive for researchers to undertake research; open-access business models rely on the authors of a paper paying for its publication. More papers published will mean greater costs for laboratories. Look, then, for universities to try to bring the incremental academic publishing that goes on in journals back to university presses; if scientists are going to need to be granted an extra $10,000 or $100,000 per year to publish their work, undoubtedly the universities will want to be able to keep some of the windfall. And that could have even stranger knock-on effects, as universities—or in the case of public universities, the legislatures that fund them—encourage their own faculty to publish at home; such protectionism could fracture interscholastic cooperation. Maybe that’s unlikely, but it’s worth considering that the upshot of what everyone assumes is a good thing needn’t be.

On the Origins of Apes

Given all the fuss a few weeks ago over the fossil “Ida,” casual readers can be forgiven for thinking that all great mysteries about human evolution have been solved. But the discovery of a hominoid fossil in Spain demonstrates just how much about the evolution of humans and our close relatives remains unknown. Salvador Moyà-Solà, a paleontologist at the Catalan Research Institute in Barcelona, and his colleagues have unearthed a partial fossil—little more than a jaw—of a probably male ape of a previously unknown species that they named Anoiapithecus brevirostris. They argue that the find indicates that the hominin line—the group that includes gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans—probably arose in Eurasia, before migrating to Africa, while their relatives, the pongin line that gave rise to orangutans, stayed put in Eurasia. Alternatively, the researchers argue, the fossil could mean that orangutans and homins are more distantly related than had been previously believed, and that many of the similarities between them might be examples of convergent evolution, rather than of the retention of inherited traits. Either way, there’s still plenty of work for a paleontologist to do.

Moyà-Solà and colleagues at the least expect to find more fossils where they found Anoiapithecus brevirostris. Despite a complete lack of hooplah surrounding the publication of their present paper, such finds ought to attract more attention to the paleontology of apes, a field usually ignored by the wider world. And maybe, someday, someone will make a television show about it.

Originally published June 5, 2009

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