Category Archives: Science and society

Renewable energy is finally coming into its own

The recent announcement by China that it will bring to the Paris summit this December a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 % by 2050 is a sign of how sentiment is finally shifting even at the highest levels, though of course it does have to be actually delivered.   But this is not an isolated straw in the wind.   In 2013, for the first time, more new renewable capacity was built than fossil fuel-burning capacity, and future projections show that this excess wind and solar capacity over oil, gas and coal will steadily grow.   Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency estimates based on current trends, renewables could supply half of the world’s electricity needs by 2050, with solar energy alone representing more than a quarter of that amount.
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Might AstraZeneca break the capitalist drug that money always wins?

Dare one say it, but the tide is slowly but perceptibly moving in AstraZeneca’s direction.  A week ago, despite Pfizer being untrustworthy with flimsy pledges on jobs and R&D which could be ‘adjusted’ if ‘circumstances significantly change’ and despite the deal being more about US tax arbitrage than the British national interest, it looked a near-racing certainty that the US predator would prevail.   Cameron, batting (as Thatcher would say) for the US and against Britain, had abandoned any stance of neutrality and was doing his best to egg on the deal at any cost, while the fund managers who control most of the AZ shares, were salivating at the prospect of  fat, short term gains.   They miscalculated.   Not only was the British science community understandably up in arms, but opinion in the UK has swung strongly behind AZ, matched by serious concerns in Sweden (from which the Astra part of AZ originated) and even more importantly outright hostility in the US Senate because of loss of US jobs if big American Pharma moved its HQ to Britain and opposition to US firms relocating to escape US taxes.   So might money this time actually lose out?
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Hope rises on action on climate change

There have been two major blocks hindering action to deal with looming climate upheaval.   One is political and the other is theoretical.   The political good news is that it is reported that the US and China, whose combined greenhouse gas emissions nearly match the rest of the world’s, are now engaged on talks at a new level of intensity on cutting CO2 emissions which observers say is the most promising development in nearly 20 years of climate change negotiations.   That is highly significant because the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding UN climate pact ever agreed, was gravely weakened because the US under Bush never ratified it and China as a ‘developing country’ was never bound by it.   The US-China economic rivalry also scuppered the key Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 which were meant to renew this protocol. Now however Xie Zhenhua, the leading Chinese negotiator, is declaring: “We should be confident that the Paris meeting (the world summit on climate change next year) will not be another Copenhagen”.   What is driving this is not a sudden conversion of the world’s two great economic powers, but rather hard-headed political realities.   Life in many Chinese cities is becoming unbearable for millions of their inhabitants because of persistent choking smog while the Obama administration, so long hamstrung by political paralysis over budget expenditure and the Healthcare Act, is now freer to pursue its commitment to climate action.
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Drugs policy at the crossroads between science and politics

The sacking of Prof. Nutt, the chair of the Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, raises stereotyped responses on both sides which need to be disentangled. The scientists who are up-in-arms about the Government’s refusal to accept their conclusion (that alcohol and tobacco cause more harm than LSD, ecstasy and cannabis) must recognise that Ministers are entitled to reject their advice when politics involves a wider agenda and broader values than the automatic application of scientific data. Equally, Ministers should not seek scientific advice unless they are genuinely and seriously prepared to consider accepting the conclusions, even if they reserve the right not to do so for clear and specific reasons. Where a Minister has already made up his/her mind in advance, it only produces cynicism and resentment to go through a process of scientific inquiry which then leads nowhere. But there is a second issue too, which is the one Alan Johnson has emphasised, namely that a line has to be drawn between advising the Government and campaigning against the Government. This too involves a sensitive balance.

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