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The Guardian: Climate of fear: “Shell was taken to the courts for continuing gas-flaring on the Niger delta.”: Wednesday December 21, 2005


It has been a monumental year for the environment. John Vidal looks back at the most significant events


The beginning of the year was dominated by the tsunami, one of the biggest natural disasters ever known, and the end with Europe's largest single fire for 50 years. In between, the politics and science of climate change was high up on national and international agendas; nuclear power became a serious contender in the Beautiful Energy 2006 contest; the ecological havoc accompanying China's breakneck development was seen in the gross chemical pollution of the Songhua river; and British councils began to get to grips with waste.

Climate change


2005 was one of the four hottest years recorded since 1861, and data for December to be released in January could prove it the hottest. The year was marked by searing heatwaves and droughts across southern Europe, Australia, China, southern Africa and Brazil, and the greatest number of hurricanes and tropical storms were recorded. A drought in south-east England continued until Christmas


Tony Blair took a world lead in climate change politics, inviting leading scientists to Britain and making it one of his G8 presidency priorities. With the Kyoto protocol coming into force in February, consensus grew that climate change was accelerating and was significantly caused by humankind's actions. Agreement was reached in Montreal to extend the Kyoto treaty beyond 2012 and to get developing countries to join rich countries in cutting emissions. The US was humiliated for not joining the party.


Many local authorities around the world went far further than governments and introduced their own ambitious initiatives. Some raised building standards and demanded that new developments start generating their own electricity, and others invested in energy saving. Hundreds of cities across the world, and many states in America, joined a Canadian initiative to reduce emissions.


Scientific research suggested a deteriorating global situation. The Gulf Stream current, which warms Europe in winter, was found to have seriously weakened in just 30 years, the tundra of northern Russia was found to be melting fast, and Himalayan and most other glaciers continued to retreat. Climate change was found to be hitting the poorest countries hardest. Cutting emissions was not easy, however. Britain failed to contain its transport emissions and was only just on course to meet its legally binding target of a 12% cut by 2012. Hope of meeting the 20% self-imposed target was forgotten.




UK industry was centre stage in the environment debate but was also widely accused of trying to water down proposed laws and to avoid commitments.


New European Union chemical legislation was bitterly contested and many environment groups felt disappointed that the principle to substitute hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives whenever possible was rejected. The new European carbon emissions trading scheme was started and the price of a tonne of carbon stabilised higher than expected at about €22. Because the price of gas rose, it became cheaper to buy carbon credits and continue to burn coal.


Water companies continued to clean up their operations, and more than three in four British beaches reached the highest European standard. Almost a third of the books published in Britain are now printed on FSC/recycled paper. Oil companies competed between themselves to be seen as the greenest. BP promised to build the biggest alternative power business in the world. Shell was taken to the courts for continuing gas-flaring on the Niger delta.


GM crops


The industry, dominated by a handful of companies, claimed to have more than 80m ha of crops planted around the world, but 2005 saw it concentrating on just four crops, mostly engineered for just two traits. Opponents said there was growing contamination of seeds, feed and the environment across the world. Opposition quietened in Europe despite the import of hundreds of tonnes of illegal seeds, but rose in developing countries. The Swiss, in a referendum, rejected GM farming for five years and French farm leader José Bové promised major demonstrations if the crops were further introduced.


Under pressure from the World Trade Organisation and the GM industry, the European Commission promoted GM foods throughout 2005 and sanctioned some new crop releases, despite not getting enough support from EU member states. The way was cleared for legal GM cultivation in Brazil. Britain's Department for International Development backed the technology politically and financially and prepared the way for companies to expand in Africa.




The redirection of some UK farming subsidies to conservation in 2005 promised to restore wetlands, heather moorland and hedgerows, but the full effects have yet to be seen. The government committed itself to a future marine bill to protect sites at sea, and the right to roam was fully rolled out across most of Britain's upland areas. Conservation groups tried to work on a bigger scale. Debate grew about the reintroduction of species in Britain and letting some areas return to the wild.


On a global level, tiger numbers are suspected to have declined significantly following the discovery of large-scale poaching operations in India to supply Chinese markets. The conversion of rainforests to soya and palm oil monocultural plantations speeded up in Latin America and the east. Burma's forests continued to be stripped for the Chinese economy. Elephant conservation in some southern African countries proved possibly too successful, with numbers and ecological damage spiralling in some areas. The Alliance for Zero Extinction identified 794 species on the brink of oblivion, only a third of which have legal protection. By the end of the year, it looked as if the government was preparing for a massive badger cull to appease farmers, and anglers were complaining that there are too many swans. The EU budget left wildlife protection uncertain. The only conservation programme had no money allocated to it, and rural development funding was cut by 25%.




Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, and the tsunami, which battered 12 Indian Ocean countries, were both believed to have done more damage because of continuing manmade destruction of the swamplands, mangroves, barrier islands and reefs that once protected coastal areas. Weather-related insurance claims soared to £117bn. Some research suggested that the record numbers of hurricanes and storms experienced in the US and central America in 2005 were due to higher water temperatures, caused by global warming, in the Gulf of Mexico.




South-east England had a narrow escape when a conservatively estimated 30m litres of vehicle and aviation fuel caught fire at the Buncefield oil depot near Hemel Hempstead in December. Most of the pollution was trapped in the upper atmosphere and then dispersed and drifted south without dropping on land. EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas estimated air pollution in the community would cost economies up to £400bn a year by 2020.


An industry backlash has already watered down one proposed air quality directive but new legislation could weaken existing protection. An environmental noise directive should have become law but did not. Fears surfaced that Heathrow airport would abandon its alternating runway policy, which would add to noise and air pollution. Communities protested at the proposed expansion of airports and the increase in night flights.




British local authorities, scared by government threats to fine them for not meeting exacting recycling targets, rose to meet the waste challenge. The British recycled 23% of all household waste by weight in 2005 - more than in 2004 - but companies were found to be legally exporting much of Britain's paper, glass and plastic bottles to China and the east, and large quantities of illegal waste was found in Europe en route to developing countries. Community waste collection schemes flourished in Britain and Europe moved ahead with legislation to encourage battery recycling. To the despair of many communities, incinerators became the first choice of many British local authorities. The Department of Trade and Industry failed again to implement the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which is intended to make producers recycle most household goods. St Edmundsbury, in Suffolk, achieved 50% recycling - a national record.




Oil prices soared as refineries were unable to keep pace with soaring worldwide demand, especially from China and other developing countries, and oil analysts warned that "oil peak" was approaching. The nuclear industry, backed by the chief scientist, Downing Street and some environmentalists, pitched strongly for a new generation of power stations. A second energy review in three years was commissioned and is expected to back nuclear as part of the energy mix post 2012.


Wind power continued to divide rural communities in Britain but polls suggested growing public support. Nineteen new wind farms totalling 500 megawatts were commissioned in 2005, including the largest offshore wind farm. Microgeneration of power from homes was strongly backed by many organisations. However, wave and tidal power languished. The government temporarily halted startup money for solar and other renewable energy developments. 


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