COP28: 7 food and agriculture innovations needed to protect the climate and feed a rapidly growing world

For the first time ever, food and agriculture took center stage at the annual United Nations climate conference in 2023.

More than 130 countries signed a declaration on Dec. 1, committing to make their food systems – everything from production to consumption – a focal point in national strategies to address climate change.

The declaration is thin on concrete actions to adapt to climate change and reduce emissions, but it draws attention to a crucial issue.

The global food supply is increasingly facing disruptions from extreme heat and storms. It is also a major contributor to climate change, responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. This tension is why agriculture innovation is increasingly being elevated in international climate discussions.

Farmers work in a field during monsoon rains in Madhya Pradesh, India.
Rajarshi Mitra via Flickr, CC BY-ND

At present, agriculture provides enough food for the world’s 8 billion people, although many do not have adequate access. But to feed a global population of 10 billion in 2050, croplands would need to expand by 660,000 to 1.2 million square miles (171 million to 301 million hectare) relative to 2010. That would lead to more deforestation, which contributes to climate change. Further, some practices widely relied on to produce sufficient food, such as using synthetic fertilizers, also contribute to climate change.

Simply eliminating deforestation and these practices without alternative solutions would decrease the world’s food supply and farmers’ incomes. Fortunately, innovations are emerging that can help.

In a new report, the Innovation Commission for Climate Change, Food Security and Agriculture, founded by Nobel-winning economist Michael Kremer, identifies seven priority areas for innovation that can help ensure sufficient food production, minimize greenhouse gas emissions and be scaled up to reach hundreds of millions of people.

I’m an agriculture economist and executive director for the commission. Three innovations in particular stand out for their ability to scale up quickly and pay off economically.

Accurate, accessible weather forecasts

With extreme weather leaving crops increasingly vulnerable and farmers struggling to adapt, accurate weather forecasts are crucial. Farmers need to know what to expect, both in the days ahead and farther out, to make strategic decisions about planting, irrigating, fertilizing and harvesting.

Yet access to accurate, detailed forecasts is rare for farmers in many low- and middle-income countries.

Our assessment shows that investing in technology to collect data and make forecasts widely available – such as by radio, text message or WhatsApp – can pay off many times over for economies.

Forecasts by text message can help farmers prepare for extreme weather and time their planting and harvesting.
Wikus de Wet/AFP via Getty Images

For example, accurate state-level forecasts of seasonal monsoon rainfall totals would help Indian farmers optimize sowing and planting times, providing an estimated US$3 billion in benefits over five years – at a cost of around $5 million.

If farmers in Benin received accurate forecasts by text message, we estimate that they could save each farmer $110 to $356 per year, a large amount in that country.

More sharing of information among neighboring countries, using platforms like the World Meteorological Organization’s Climate Services Information System, could also improve forecasts.

Microbial fertilizers

Another innovation priority involves expanding the use of microbial fertilizers.

Nitrogen fertilizer is widely used to increase crop yields, but it is typically made from natural gas and is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Microbial fertilizers use bacteria to help plants and soil absorb the nutrients they need, thereby reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed.

Studies have found that microbial fertilizers could increase legume yields by 10% to 30% in healthy soil and generate billions of dollars in benefits. Other microbial fertilizers work with corn, and scientists are working on more advancements.

Soybean farmers in Brazil have been using a rhizobia-based microbial fertilizer for decades to improve their yields and cut synthetic fertilizer costs. But this technique is not as widely known elsewhere. Scaling it up will require funding to expand testing to more countries, but it has great potential payoff for farmers, soil health and the climate.

Reducing methane from livestock

A third innovation priority is livestock, the source of roughly two-thirds of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. With demand for beef projected to rise 80% by 2050 as low- and middle-income countries grow wealthier, reducing those emissions is essential.

Several innovative methods for reducing livestock methane emissions target enteric fermentation, which leads to methane belches.

Food additives such as algae can reduce a cow’s methane production.
Scott Bauer/USDA

Adding algae, seaweed, lipids, tannins or certain synthetic compounds to cattle feed can change the chemical reactions that generate methane during digestion. Studies have found some techniques have the potential to reduce methane emissions by a quarter to nearly 100 percent. When cattle produce less methane, they also waste less energy, which can go into growth and milk production, providing a boost for farmers.

The method is still expensive, but further development and private investment could help scale it up and lower the cost.

Gene editing, either of livestock or the microorganisms in their stomachs, could also someday hold potential.

Scaling up agriculture innovation

The Innovation Commission also identified four other priorities for innovation:

Helping farmers and communities implement better rainwater harvesting.
Lowering the cost of digital agriculture that can help farmers use irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides most efficiently.
Encouraging production of alternative proteins to reduce demand for livestock.
Providing insurance and other social protections to help farmers recover from extreme weather events.

While promising agricultural innovations exist, commercial incentives to develop and scale them up have fallen short, leading to underinvestment, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

Providing farmers with information and technology that can increase their resource efficiency are common themes in agriculture innovation.
Patrick Meinhardt/AFP via Getty Images

However, innovation funding has a track record of generating very high social rates of return. This creates an opportunity for public and philanthropic investment in developing and deploying innovations at a scale to reach hundreds of millions of people. Of course, to be effective, any potential innovation must be consistent with – and driven by – national strategies and planned in conjunction with the government, the private sector and civil society.

Two decades ago, global leaders, frustrated that lifesaving vaccines were not reaching hundreds of millions of people who needed them, created Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. They invested billions of dollars to scale up these innovations, helped to immunize over 1 billion children and halved child mortality in 78 lower-income countries.

This year, officials at COP28 are aiming for a similar global response to climate change, food security and agriculture. Läs mer…

A Senate inquiry is calling for a new ’behaviour curriculum’ to try and tackle classroom disruptions

A Senate inquiry has found Australian students need specific lessons in how to behave.

The inquiry, which has been looking at “increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms,” said education authorities should introduce a “behaviour curriculum”.

What else did the inquiry find? And what did it miss?

What is this inquiry?

The inquiry is being conducted by a Senate education committee, chaired by Liberal senator Matt O’Sullivan. It was set up in November 2022, following concerns about the levels of disruptive behaviour in Australian school classrooms. This has included evidence about both primary and secondary schools and government and non-government schools.

Australia has been slipping in the OECD’s “disciplinary climate index”. Australian classrooms currently among the world’s most disorderly. On top of this, the percentage of surveyed Australian teachers feeling unsafe at work has increased from 18.9% in 2019 to 24.5% in 2022.

There is obvious concern disruptive behaviour in schools is disadvantaging students and contributing to declining literacy and numeracy results in some international tests.

On Friday the committee released an interim report with nine main recommendations. A final report is due when federal parliament returns in February 2024.

Read more:
Australian classrooms are among the ’least favourable’ for discipline in the OECD. Here’s how to improve student behaviour

What is disruptive behaviour?

The committee noted there is no “clear definition” of disruptive behaviour, but generally it varies from low-level disruptions to more challenging behaviours. Low-level disruptions (which are more common) can include:

talking unnecessarily and calling out without permission
being slow to start work or follow instructions
showing a lack of respect for staff and other students
not bringing the right equipment
using mobile phones when they are not allowed.

More challenging behaviours include destruction of property, verbal abuse or threats, physical assaults, leaving school grounds without permission, tantrums and substance abuse.

As one teacher told the committee:

[…] Staff have been hit. Staff have had furniture thrown at them; staff have had the windows next to their heads punched in. Staff are harassed. They have had their cars keyed. They have had their wallets stolen […].

Why are we seeing this increase?

While the committee notes the need for better data collection on this issue, Australian teachers are reporting an increase in disruptive student behaviour. They say this is making their jobs unreasonably stressful and prompting some to consider leaving the profession.

As one group representing the education support sector said:

People don’t want to keep working when they are always being hurt or are mentally exhausted, particularly when stress and mental health issues impacted other areas of their lives.

There committee heard there is likely to be a range of causes for these issues with disruptive behaviour student disability, socioeconomic factors and bullying or family trauma.

Teachers are most concerned about low-level but frequent disruption, such as work avoidance. Although these behaviours are not dangerous, they occur so often they prevent teachers from teaching. Teachers report they don’t have the skills and training to tackle this behaviour. Meanwhile students are at risk of falling behind because their classes are constantly disrupted.

How are school’s coping?

So-called “exclusionary disciplinary strategies” (such as suspensions and expulsions) are still commonly used in response to disruptive student behaviour.

This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, students who are not at school are not learning. Secondly, students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to come from a disadvantaged background.

As the South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People told the committee:

Exclusionary practices disproportionately impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, children in out-of-[home] care, children living with disability and children experiencing poverty or homelessness.

What did the report recommend?

The report made nine recommendations, including:

introducing a specific “behaviour curriculum” for schools – this would explicitly teach behaviour to help students understand their school’s behavioural expectations and values
providing more practical behaviour management training in teaching degrees
moving away from open plan classrooms (which can be noisy) to classroom designs that minimise distractions
clearer pathways for students to access medical, psychological, social or behavioural services if they need it.

What did the report get right?

The report recognises the relationship between students’ behaviour and their academic achievement.

There is solid evidence that academic skills and behaviour are linked. This means students with low academic skills are more likely to exhibit disruptive behaviour and students who display disruptive behaviour may be more likely to fall behind academically.

This connection has been shown to be strongest in literacy. This is because students with low literacy skills are continuously asked to use skills they do not have.

So, any measures to handle and protect against disruptive behaviour are welcome.

This can also help shift responses from reactive, punitive approaches to more educative ones, that hopefully keep students in classrooms and learning, rather than being sent home.

This can also also help address the widening gap in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Read more:
Open-plan classrooms are trendy but there is little evidence to show they help students learn

What did the report miss?

The recommendations largely focus on improving training and professional development for teachers and on national actions related to school reform.

However, effective behaviour management in schools requires a supportive school system. This means there is enough funding, time and resources for planning, support teams, collaboration with parents and other professionals, and teacher coaching and mentoring.

So far, the committee is largely silent on this issue. But teachers cannot be expected to simply manage this on their own.

There are also concerns about the framing of this inquiry. In a dissenting report, the Greens argue:

This inquiry should have started with the question ‘why are these students coming into school today feeling distracted, unheard or frustrated?’.

If we are going to genuinely improve behaviour and distuptions at school, we do need to move from “fixing the blame” toward “fixing the problem”. This means not fixating on just teachers or students, but looking at the broad context of schools and their communities. Läs mer…

Förordning (2023:727) om statligt stöd till färjetrafik till och från Gotland

sfs 2023:2023:727 
/Träder i kraft I:2023-12-15/
1 § I denna förordning finns bestämmelser om statligt stöd
till företag som bedriver reguljär färjetrafik mellan Gotland
och det svenska fastlandet.

Syftet med stödet är att mildra de effekter på frakt- och
biljettpriser som är en 2023-11-30

Läs mer…

Förordning (2008:1002) med instruktion för Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap

sfs 2008:2008:1002 
t.o.m. SFS 2023:582  


1 § Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap har ansvar för
frågor om skydd mot olyckor, krisberedskap och civilt försvar,
i den utsträckning inte någon annan myndighet har ansvaret.
Ansvaret avser åtgärder före, under och efter en 2008-11-20

Läs mer…

Electric arc furnaces: the technology poised to make British steelmaking more sustainable

In a move to embrace sustainable steelmaking, British Steel has unveiled a £1.25 billion plan to replace two blast furnaces at its Scunthorpe plant with electric arc furnaces. This follows the UK government’s commitment in September to invest up to £500 million towards an electric arc furnace at Tata Steel’s Port Talbot plant in south Wales.

This method of steelmaking can use up to 100% scrap steel as its raw material, resulting in a significant reduction in carbon emissions. It is the future of steelmaking.

Steel is an incredible material and for good reason. It’s the world’s most commonly used metal because it’s strong, durable and recyclable, making it the perfect material for everything from skyscrapers to electric vehicles and solar panels. More than 1.8 billion tonnes of crude steel were produced globally last year. That number is only expected to grow as the world transitions to a more sustainable future.

The UK uses around 12 million tonnes of steel each year. And in 2022, it produced just under 6 million tonnes, contributing to around 2.4% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Electric arc furnaces

There are two main steel production methods. Currently, Port Talbot and Scunthorpe use the blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace method. The purpose of the blast furnace is to separate iron ore extracted from the ground into its component parts: iron and oxygen.

A form of carbon, normally coal, combines with the oxygen in the iron ore. The outputs of this process are iron and carbon dioxide. The basic oxygen furnace is then used to convert the iron into steel.

As a global average, this method of steelmaking emits around 2.32 tonnes of CO₂ per tonne of steel produced.

An electric arc furnace works by generating a high-temperature arc between graphite electrodes, using electricity as the energy source. This arc is then used to melt metal inside a chamber.

Using this method, up to 100% scrap steel can be used as the raw material, while the blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace method can only use a maximum of 30% scrap. A switch to the electric arc furnace method could reduce emissions to 0.67 tonnes of CO₂ per tonne of steel produced when using 100% scrap steel.

In the future, it is also possible the electricity needed for electric arc furnace processes could come from 100% renewable sources, whereas a form of carbon will always be needed to reduce iron ore when using the blast furnace method.

Recycled steel

Steel is the most recycled material in the world, and so scrap steel is quickly becoming a crucial raw material. In 2021, the global steel industry recycled around 680 million tonnes of scrap steel. This equates to savings of almost 1 billion tonnes of CO₂ emissions, compared to using virgin steel production.

In 2021, more than 8.2 million tonnes of steel scrap was exported from the UK. If collected and sorted more carefully, using this material domestically could provide both environmental and economic value, by helping to meet growing national demand for steel.

The Tata Steel plant in Port Talbot, south Wales.
Christopher Willans/Shutterstock

We know that steel produced with an electric arc furnace can have different properties to blast furnace produced material. A large factor in this is the quality of scrap steel used in the electric arc furnace – if the scrap steel quality is low, then so will the quality of the output.

With that in mind, there is a need for research, innovation and skills development to ensure this transition to lower-carbon steelmaking methods is successful.

Finding and sorting the right types of scrap material, confirming material properties and increasing supply chain understanding of electric arc furnace steelmaking are all necessary for a wide range of steel products to continue to be made in the UK.

Sustainable steelmaking

There is a race across Europe to secure investment for sustainable steelmaking technologies. Hybrit is a fossil-free steel project in Sweden between several major steel producers and is already underway.

This follows plans to invest almost €40 billion (almost £35 billion) in low-emission steelmaking technologies over the next 20 years. Also in Sweden, the company H2 Green Steel has secured €3.5 billion (£3 billion) to build a hydrogen-powered steel plant.

In July 2023, the German government announced €2 billion (£1.7 billion) of support for Thyssenkrupp, the steel multinational. And that was on top of the €3 billion (£2.6 billion) it had previously announced to support the country’s industrial green transition. A

ArcelorMittal, the second largest steel producer in the world, has also announced green investment in their plants in Belgium and Spain, totalling more than €1.2 billion (£1.5 billion).

While the UK government has no published industrial strategy, other organisations have produced roadmaps for decarbonised steelmaking in the UK.

A report by the Energy Transitions Commission, a global coalition of energy leaders committed to net-zero emissions, outlined plans for investing in low-emission steelmaking in early 2023. With the right level of government and private sector investment, the UK could become a world leader in green steelmaking – but only it acts now.

As global temperatures continue to rise and the climate emergency deepens, the need for a decarbonised steel industry is greater than ever. Lower carbon methods of steel production are the future of the industry both in the UK and around the world. Läs mer…

Turmoil at OpenAI shows we must address whether AI developers can regulate themselves

OpenAI, developer of ChatGPT and a leading innovator in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), was recently thrown into turmoil when its chief-executive and figurehead, Sam Altman, was fired. As it was revealed that he would be joining Microsoft’s advanced AI research team, more than 730 OpenAI employees threatened to quit. Finally, it was announced that most of the board who had terminated Altman’s employment were being replaced, and that he would be returning to the company.

In the background, there have been reports of vigorous debates within OpenAI regarding AI safety. This not only highlights the complexities of managing a cutting-edge tech company, but also serves as a microcosm for broader debates surrounding the regulation and safe development of AI technologies.

Large language models (LLMs) are at the heart of these discussions. LLMs, the technology behind AI chatbots such as ChatGPT, are exposed to vast sets of data that help them improve what they do – a process called training. However, the double-edged nature of this training process raises critical questions about fairness, privacy, and the potential misuse of AI.

Training data reflects both the richness and biases of the information available. The biases may reflect unjust social concepts and lead to serious discrimination, the marginalising of vulnerable groups, or the incitement of hatred or violence.

Training datasets can be influenced by historical biases. For example, in 2018 Amazon was reported to have scrapped a hiring algorithm that penalised women – seemingly because its training data was composed largely of male candidates.

LLMs also tend to exhibit different performance for different social groups and different languages. There is more training data available in English than in other languages, so LLMs are more fluent in English.

Can companies be trusted?

LLMs also pose a risk of privacy breaches since they are absorbing huge amounts of information and then reconstituting it. For example, if there is private data or sensitive information in the training data of LLMs, they may “remember” this data or make further inferences based on it, possibly leading to the leakage of trade secrets, the disclosure of health diagnoses, or the leakage of other types of private information.

LLMs might even enable attack by hackers or harmful software. Prompt injection attacks use carefully crafted instructions to make the AI system do something it wasn’t supposed to, potentially leading to unauthorised access to a machine, or to the leaking of private data. Understanding these risks necessitates a deeper look into how these models are trained, the inherent biases in their training data, and the societal factors that shape this data.

OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT took the world by storm when it was released in 2022.
rafapress / Shutterstock

The drama at OpenAI has raised concerns about the company’s future and sparked discussions about the regulation of AI. For example, can companies where senior staff hold very different approaches to AI development be trusted to regulate themselves?

The rapid pace at which AI research makes it into real-world applications highlights the need for more robust and wide-ranging frameworks for governing AI development, and ensuring the systems comply with ethical standards.

When is an AI system ‘safe enough’?

But there are challenges whatever approach is taken to regulation. For LLM research, the transition time from research and development to the deployment of an application may be short. This makes it more difficult for third-party regulators to effectively predict and mitigate the risks. Additionally, the high technical skill threshold and computational costs required to train models or adapt them to specific tasks further complicates oversight.

Targeting early LLM research and training may be more effective in addressing some risks. It would help address some of the harms that originate in training data. But it’s important also to establish benchmarks: for instance, when is an AI system considered “safe enough”?

The “safe enough” performance standard may depend on which area it’s being used in, with stricter requirements in high-risk areas such as algorithms for the criminal justice system or hiring.

Read more:
AI will soon become impossible for humans to comprehend – the story of neural networks tells us why

As AI technologies, particularly LLMs, become increasingly integrated into different aspects of society, the imperative to address their potential risks and biases grows. This involves a multifaceted strategy that includes enhancing the diversity and fairness of training data, implementing effective protections for privacy, and ensuring the responsible and ethical use of the technology across different sectors of society.

The next steps in this journey will likely involve collaboration between AI developers, regulatory bodies, and a diverse sample of the general public to establish standards and frameworks.

The situation at OpenAI, while challenging and not entirely edifying for the industry as a whole, also presents an opportunity for the AI research industry to take a long, hard look at itself, and innovate in ways that prioritise human values and societal wellbeing. Läs mer…

Artificial wombs could someday be a reality – here’s how they may change our notions of parenthood

Our reproductive lives are considerably different from those of our ancestors, thanks in part to health innovations that have taken place over the past few decades. Practices such as IVF, donor eggs and sperm, womb transplants, surrogacy and egg freezing, mean that for many, there’s now more choice than ever before over whether, when and how to reproduce.

Yet, despite these advances, one aspect of reproduction has remained constant: the need to gestate (grow) foetuses in the womb. But what would happen to our notions of parenthood if technology made it possible to grow a foetus outside the human body?

Until recently, the idea of ectogenesis – growing a foetus outside the body – has been science fiction. But teams in the US, Australia and Japan have begun developing artificial wombs. It’s hoped that this technology will someday save the lives of very premature infants.

Should I have children? The pieces in this series will help you answer this tough question – exploring fertility, climate change, the cost of living and social pressure.

Trials have already been performed on animals – with researchers reporting success in gestating lamb foetuses.

Meanwhile, a team in the Netherlands is developing a similar system using simulation technology. This approach mimics the birth of extremely premature infants using a manikin equipped with advanced monitoring and computer modelling. This allows the researchers to understand how an infant may develop in an environment that simulates the womb’s conditions.

Although this may be many decades away, and is not the intended endpoint of current research, artificial womb technologies could eventually lead to “full ectogenesis” – growing a foetus from conception to “birth” wholly outside the human body.

One barrier to research into full ectogenesis is current legislation worldwide, which either bans embryo research altogether or forbids growing human embryos for research beyond 14 days.

Legislation would therefore need to change for this kind of research to happen. There’s an increasing appetite for this among the international scientific community, but whether such a change would have public support is not known.

Full ectogenesis also raises important ethical, legal and social questions, which would need to be answered before it can be used.

In the UK, the person who gives birth is the child’s legal mother – regardless of genetics or intention. Growing a foetus in an artificial womb could however sever this link between gestation and motherhood.

Surrogacy has, to some extent, already challenged our legal and social conceptions of motherhood. The surrogate is the child’s legal mother at birth, but parenthood can then be transferred to the intended parents via a parental order or adoption.

Surrogacy has already challenged notions of parenthood.
metamorworks/ Shutterstock

But artificial wombs could disrupt long-established norms in more profound ways, as there would no longer be a “birth mother” at all. The law would need to define who the legal mother is in such circumstances, and whether that definition applies to all mothers or only when artificial womb technologies are used.

The impact of artificial wombs on legal definitions of fatherhood may be less significant.

In the UK, the person who provides the sperm is normally the legal father of the child – unless the child is born using sperm donated in a licensed clinic. In that case, the donor is not the legal father of any resulting child.

But fatherhood (or parenthood for same-sex couples) can also legally be attributed to someone via the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. This allows someone not genetically related to the child to be recognised as their legal father or other parent. The provisions in this Act would apply to full ectogenesis because this will require IVF to create the embryo.

Full ectogenesis may result in more radical changes to the way we view legal parenthood. It may cause us not only to rethink our ideas of “mother” and “father”, but also the language used. Would it be more appropriate, for example, to always use the word “parent”, instead?

Personal decisions

Artificial womb technology would also influence the personal decisions that people make about reproduction. It could drastically change the way the decision to become a parent fits into many people’s lives.

Like egg freezing and IVF, artificial wombs would make it possible for women in particular to have children later in life. It could also allow people to gestate multiple foetuses at once – making it possible for them to complete their families within a far shorter time period than has previously been possible.

Artificial womb technology technology would make it easier for more people to have their own biological children – including single men, same sex couples and women unable to become pregnant for health reasons. It would also mean that women would no longer have to undergo the significant risks and burdens associated with pregnancy and childbirth in order to have children.

In science fiction, artificial wombs are often a symbol of dystopia – of technological incursion into natural processes and a means of government control (as in The Matrix or Brave New World). But artificial womb technology might instead add to the reproductive choices currently available – making it possible for more people to become parents if they want to.

Full ectogenesis is still a long way off, but it’s important to discuss it now so that we can have a more informed view of the issues it raises. As with many aspects of human reproduction, artificial womb technology may be divisive.

Some will see it as a way to increase reproductive autonomy and equity, others as dangerous – or even a threat to traditional family structures and values. More still will probably see its potential for both. Whatever your position, this technology could be on the horizon and its implications for society and our concept of parenthood merit careful consideration. Läs mer…

Destruction of Ukrainian heritage: why losing historical icons can leave a long shadow

Destruction of Ukrainian heritage is happening on a scale not seen there since World War II, a report published by the journal, Antiquity, has claimed.

The report lists damage to a number of historic sites, including the Unesco-listed Vasyl Tarnovsky Museum of Ukrainian Antiquities and the burial mound at Boldyni Hory – one of the largest eleventh-century Ukrainian necropolises. Since the war began, Unesco has verified damage to 329 sites, including to the historic centre of Chernihiv.

It adds that collections have been expropriated and transferred to Russia from museums in occupied regions, including Kherson (now back under Ukrainian control), Melitopol and Mariupol, while in other cases artefacts have been pillaged by Russian soldiers to keep or sell. Researchers are using satellite data as well as on-the-ground assessments to document the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

It was damage to heritage during World War II that prompted the United Nations to put together the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (also known as the 1954 Hague convention). This made it a war crime to destroy “cultural property” (the term used to describe tangible heritage) except in cases of military necessity.

The 1954 convention envisaged a scheme for the protection of heritage in war that would parallel schemes for the protection of people. Like the red cross emblem that effectively removes things such as ambulances and hospitals from the danger of attack, there was to be an emblem, a blue and white shield, that should create awareness (and protection) of important museums, monuments, archaeological sites, archives and libraries.

An additional protocol proposed that there be an organisation, The Blue Shield), to protect cultural heritage in emergency situations.

Although this got off to a relatively slow start. The UK ratified the convention in 2017 – the last major military power to do so. The convention mandates states to have “cultural protection units” as part of the regular armed forces – the UK set one up in 2019. The prompt for this activity was the widespread destruction of heritage in the Middle East, notably parts of Palmyra in Syria by ISIS and the destruction of the Mosul Museum in Iraq.

The west has its own sins to count here: during the invasion of Iraq, the Americans set up a large military base on the site of Ancient Babylon and did extensive damage including using thousands of tons of archaeological material to fill sandbags.

Despite all this, as the report on Ukraine makes clear, there are limits to what can be achieved. Part of the problem is that it is just difficult to persuade armies to be careful about buildings when they are shooting and/or being shot at. Despite signing up, states have not really put much effort into implementing the convention.

There are few sites marked with the blue and white shield in the world, and it is not obvious that it would help them much if they were marked with the shield. (I have one of the shields upstairs – a despairing member of The Blue Shield gave it to me as a keepsake). There are some commendable efforts to train regular soldiers in the heritage legislation, but they have a lot of other calls on their attention.

Mosul’s heavily damaged museum in Iraq, March 8 2017.

Although Ukrainians will survive this loss it is, nonetheless, a loss. Sometimes this is tangible; a ruined town bereft of history is unlikely to attract tourists and revenue. Sometimes it is less tangible. Links with the past are destroyed, there is a loss of opportunity to continue a way of life, to live in the place one’s parents and grandparents lived, to go to the same church or even the same cafe. When these things are gone we can never get them back.

Other countries have tried to replace what had been destroyed. The Poles, for example, reconstructed the historic centre of Warsaw, which had been levelled by the Nazis.

But what people want is history, not a copy of history. Also, by that stage, there might be other demands on scarce resources – as Lynn Meskell, professor of anthropology at Penn State University has argued, sometimes we need toilets first and temples second.

Why protect buildings?

It would be optimistic to think the Russians were worrying too much about the Hague convention (although they, like the Ukrainians, are signatories). However, if they were, the uncertainties at its heart would not help. For the past few years, Helen Frowe, director of the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, and I have been trying to clarify matters. Central to these issues are the “stones versus lives” debate: given limited resources, should we focus on preserving culture (stones) or people (lives)?

The standard reply to this is that concern for heritage and concern for people are inseparable. Thomas G. Weiss and Nina Connelly, cultural heritage experts based at the City University of New York, have gone as far as to set out how an expansion of the “responsibility to protect” legislation may justify the case that it is right to go to war to prevent heritage being destroyed.

Frowe and I take a different view. We do not think choices between heritage and people can generally be avoided.

Earlier I said that the Hague convention outlaws the destruction of cultural property except in cases of military necessity, where there’s “no feasible alternative available to obtain a similar military advantage” (Article 6). But is an alternative feasible if it saves the cultural property, but increases the risk to soldiers by 5%? What about 10%? Without some way of making such calculations, the convention is toothless.

Artefacts that have been around for a thousand years or more have been destroyed in Russia’s illegal war. However, facing up to the issues, which includes improving this international legal structure, might help prevent some destruction of cultural treasures in the future. Läs mer…

Sustainability schemes deployed by business most often ineffective, research reveals

If you ever wondered what the weather might look like should global average temperatures rise 2C degrees above pre-industrial levels – the critical warming threshold the Paris Agreement seeks to prevent us from reaching – take your mind’s eye back to Friday 17 November. That day, for the first time since records began, global surface air temperature briefly reached 2.07C above pre-industrial levels. While this does not mean that we have breached the global climate agreement’s target, the frequency at which the mercury jumps over that line raises serious concern.

As this year’s global annual climate talks, COP28, unfolds, one could hope that this would shock governments into strengthening their climate goals. But this point in time ought to be a moment of reckoning for companies, too. The data, however, indicates otherwise, as executives lie about their environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts and cut green spending further.

20 sustainability schemes under the microscope

Thankfully, there are many ways in which companies can change course, starting at an internal level with sustainability schemes. For the stake of clarity, we define the latter as organised initiatives to provide sustainability guidance to companies through principles, frameworks, guidelines, and standards. My recent research with James Demastus assessed 20 of the most used environmental sustainability schemes for their effectiveness in advancing sustainability, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Global Reporting Initiative, and Certified B Corporations.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are among the most famous. By contrast to other schemes, SDGs are country-level initiatives to which businesses can choose to contribute to or not. Companies are free to identify any of the 17 SDG that are aligned with its goals, such as affordable and clean energy, climate action, or sustainable cities and communities, and carry out sustainable practices that will contribute to reaching the global SDG goal. Note that participating companies are not held up to any SDG requirements or accountability frameworks, instead enjoying the warm glow of taking part in a global movement for sustainability.

Sustainability reporting guidelines are another type of scheme. In the EU, annual sustainability reporting is required for all large companies. When a company writes a sustainability report to share its sustainability activities, such as its public commitment to help achieve the SDG, they often use a reporting template, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). The GRI template has been adopted by more than 10,000 companies worldwide and is the most widely used sustainability reporting framework. The GRI specifies what non-financial information that companies should disclose, such as energy usage, waste production, greenhouse gas emissions, impact on biodiversity, and environmental compliance. However, there are numerous other sustainability reporting templates and it is not mandatory to follow the GRI format.

As an example, Unilever and Audi] both use the GRI reporting guidelines. In its environmental sustainability disclosure, Unilever’s 2021 sustainability report states that it has achieved a 64% reduction in operational carbon emissions and is pursuing a target of zero operational carbon emissions by 2030.

Company sustainability certification standards are another type of scheme. Certified B Corporation (B Corp) guides companies to prioritise workers, community, and the environment alongside profit. The Body Shop and Tony’s Chocolonely are both Certified B Corps. B Lab, the organisation that oversees B Corp certification, reports that Tony’s Chocolonely does quite well in meeting the B Corp standards for environmental management, air and climate impacts, and land and biodiversity impacts, but has room for improvement in the area of water impacts.

It should be added that there is significant overlap in environmental sustainability scheme topics and the above schemes aren’t exclusive. In my career, I’ve seen companies use half a dozen or more schemes at a time.

Weak, incremental benefits

Our research concluded that all 20 of the commonly used schemes in our study aligned with various forms of weak sustainability that promote incremental sustainability progress and continue to advocate for a growth-oriented economy.

For example, most schemes only consider a company’s internal or operational carbon emissions and ignore the supply-chain emissions generated by a company’s choice of materials, suppliers, and transit options – which they can account for more than 90% of a company’s carbon emissions. Consider Unilever’s 2021 sustainability report, which shows the company’s internal operational emissions for the year were 710,740 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. However, the company’s supply-chain emissions for the year amounted to 61,007,131 tonnes, or 98.8% of the company’s total (operational plus supply chain) emissions.

Furthermore, many schemes are vague and offer no guidance on how to reduce operational carbon emissions. Coming back to the three schemes cited at the top of the article, SDG requires countries to “take urgent action” to address climate change, the GRI requires companies to simply calculate and report greenhouse gas emissions, and B Corp certification demands that companies to “take action in accordance with science”. In practice, companies are left to navigate the options available and decide on the best course of action.

As a result, companies often take the easy route of buying carbon offsets, which have come under great scrutiny as being worthless or even downright polluting, instead of companies tackling the hard work of reducing internal operational emissions. Aware of such trends, the EU has recently passed legislation that requires companies making climate-related claims to disclose if they are slashing internal operational emissions or relying on carbon offsets.

Forward-looking schemes

On a positive note, our research identified five schemes that performed better than others, including frameworks centred on concepts such as the circular economy, doughnut economics or planetary boundaries, and The Natural Step framework, and the certification standard scheme ISO 14001.

The circular economy seeks to minimise companies’ carbon footprint by reducing demand for new materials, slash waste and increase products’ durability overall. Among this school of thought’s notable followers is the EU with its Circular Economy Action Plan, which it expects will contribute 0.5% additional GDP growth and 700,000 new jobs by 2030.

Doughnut economics is a theoretical model that defines maximum ecological limits that we should not exceed and minimum basic social needs that we should meet; the goal is to stay between these two limits to maintain a flourishing and healthy planet and society. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Brussels, and Berlin are among its early adopters. Meanwhile, the model is proving a harder sell for businesses, who are just beginning to explore how it could help them (re)design business for sustainability.

Planetary boundaries is a framework that identifies nine processes that regulate earth systems, such as climate change and ocean acidification, and researchers quantified those processes to determine the boundaries within which humans can comfortably live. Governments and businesses have taken interest in how to stay within those boundaries and, more importantly, how to prepare for future impacts from breached boundaries. Hitachi has publicly committed to keeping its corporate activities within planetary boundaries with a focus on “growth within the limits”. Yara also reports that it is working to respect planetary boundaries within its agricultural supply chain, especially through the increased efficiency of nutrients.

The Natural Step (TNS) framework was started over 30 years ago in Sweden and was the first to develop a shared definition, vision, principles, framework, and process for companies to begin the sustainability journey. Nike was an early adopter of The Natural Step through its Reuse-a-Shoe program to take back worn shoes for recycling; the program continues today. Scandic Hotels also began its sustainability work under the advisement of The Natural Step and continues to follow TNS principles: do not degrade the earth, over-extract from the Earth’s surface, produce too much waste, or interfere with individuals’ capacity to meet their own needs.

Best certification standard schemes

One established certification scheme also stood out: ISO 14001, an environmental management system certification for companies to measure and improve environmental impact. Companies select metrics relevant to their operations, such as paper usage, electricity usage, and the weight of waste sent to the landfill.

Toyota Europe and Swebor are both ISO 14001 certified, meaning that they have procedures in place to measure and manage environmental impacts of company operations. Swebor states certification leads to less waste, increased use of renewable resources, and increased efficiency.

The other schemes not mentioned in the study, such as the European Commission’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), the United Nations’ Global Compact, and the Carbon Disclosure Project, were more oriented toward sustaining business rather than sustaining our human habitat. Läs mer…

Why are people still flying to climate conferences by private jet?

Rishi Sunak, David Cameron and King Charles are just three of the more than 70,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries at the latest UN climate summit in Dubai, COP28. But they are among hundreds who will have travelled there by private jet. In fact, the UK prime minister, foreign secretary and king even travelled in three separate planes.

At COP27 in Egypt last year, around 315 private jet journeys took place. This is an extraordinary statistic, especially as fewer world leaders attended that COP, as many were busy at a G20 summit in Bali.

That’s why we set up a team of academic experts to estimate the carbon footprint of travel to this year’s meeting, COP28 in Dubai, for different modes of transport including private jets. We ultimately want to empower attendees to make informed climate-conscious travel choices.

We also compared the carbon footprints for the past three COPs to help see where the conferences could be located in order to dissuade attendees from using private jets, unless absolutely essential for security. The use of private jets last year – and presumably this year too, though we don’t yet have full data – suggests this is becoming the new norm and has moved beyond just essential world leaders.

Carbon footprint of transport modes

Flying is already one of the most carbon-intensive forms of travel both due to emissions from burning jet fuel and because vapour trails help create high altitude clouds which trap more heat in the atmosphere. It’s also particularly hard to decarbonise – there aren’t electric planes we could simply use instead.

For emissions, private jets are the worst of the worst.
Dushlik / shutterstock

Private jet travel is the most polluting mode of all, consuming lots of fuel yet carrying few passengers. French economist Thomas Piketty argues they are an example of class inequality and must be tackled if we are to deal with climate change.

Their use by high-profile people clearly undermines the goal of a climate conference and symbolises a disconnect between environmental concerns and individual actions and a lack of commitment to sustainable practices. This in turn risks shaping and influencing public opinion. Previous research suggests members of the public take climate action less seriously if they feel that their leaders are not doing their bit.

We started by looking at the use of private jets for COP27 in Egypt (our results are available as a preprint ahead of formal peer-review). Most private flights were short-haul, often just an hour between the capital Cairo and the conference venue in Sharm El-Sheikh. Over shorter distances, planes are even less efficient as take off and landing burns more fuel compared to cruising.

So avoiding short flights and private jets is a must. With this in mind, we explored a range of travel options to get to COP28 in Dubai for participants from the UK, where we’re based.

For a journey from London to Dubai, private jet travel is 11 times more polluting than a commercial aircraft, 35 times more than train and 52 times more than coach travel (even after factoring in a flight from Istanbul, since you can’t go all the way to Dubai by train or coach). For those flying from the UK, the longer flight to Dubai compared to Egypt means emissions will be higher this year.

Carbon intensity (grams of CO₂equivalent) of transport from London to COP28:

Flight emissions are based on journeys from London to Dubai. Car, train and coach emissions are based on journeys from London to Istanbul and then a flight. Private jet emissions are based on a Cessna 680 Citation Sovereign (most common in COP27 data), commercial flight emissions are based on an Airbus A380-300 and car journeys are calculated for a Vauxhall Corsa.
Roberts et al (2023), CC BY-SA

Location of COP

Some of the blame for flight emissions must lie with the UN body which decides where COP meetings will be held, the UNFCCC. Dubai is surrounded by conflict zones, which block land routes from Europe, Asia and Africa and makes flying there essential.

While most delegates will want to travel sustainability, their actions will depend on the accessibility of alternative forms of travel such as safe land routes and for those coming from further away at least the option of direct flights to minimise their carbon emissions.

In this respect Dubai is a good choice as it is a major airline hub and so there are many direct flights and less need for second or internal flights.

Our analysis highlights the need to consider very carefully the carbon footprint implications of travel to COP meetings. Ultimately policymakers will need to identify host locations for climate change meetings which can help to minimise the carbon footprint of the participants.

Private jets are still not advisable, however. Their carbon footprint is substantially higher than other forms of transport, they exacerbates existing inequities at climate negotiations and send the wrong message to the world. Läs mer…