Representatives approve bill declaring that controversial oil pipeline from Canada does not need president's permission
Grassroots Tories this week were compared to an aquatic bird famed for its clumsiness – but was that fair on the bird?
Until this week, the loon has lived a life of relative anonymity (except in Minnesota, where it is a state emblem). But reports that someone close to David Cameron had likened his party faithful to the bird that dives like a bullet but whose efforts to walk on land are invariably comical – it takes its name from an old Nordic word for clumsy – have propelled it into the spotlight. And what a bird it is, in all its yellow-, red- and black-throated varieties. Folded across its back, its wing feathers lie in patterns of jewel-like intricacy. It swims faster than a fish and it has a call of haunting spookiness which echoes round the lakes of North America at dusk, something that Tory party activists might well adopt if they really wanted to put the frighteners on the party leadership. Oh, and the male is prepared to fight to the death over his patch of water, then grab his victim's widow. Definitely time for more natural history at No 10.
Crook, County Durham: I was tempted to relieve it of its burden with a fine brush. But perhaps that would have been a mistake
Bumblebees still foraged on the blackcurrant blossom, even though the afterglow of sunset was beginning to fade. One, a queen Bombus pratorum, fell from a truss of flowers and landed almost at my feet, brushing her legs over her furry back as if to rid herself of some irritation.
When I knelt to look closely I could see the source of her apparent torment – dense clusters of pink mites, clinging to her fur in crevices that were beyond the reach of grooming. I've often seen bees infested with mites like this, but rarely one so heavily laden. It is impossible not to feel sorrow at the sight of such industrious, valued insects afflicted in this way and there was a time when I might have contemplated catching them to try to relieve them of their burden with a fine paintbrush.
But perhaps that would be a mistake. Unlike Varroa mites that devastate honeybee colonies, there's little evidence that these bumblebee mites transmit disease or inflict significant direct harm; they may be little more than hitchhikers that are minor irritations for their host. They are commensals in bumblebee nests, and studies in Switzerland have revealed that they feed on the sticky coatings of pollen rather than on the bees to which they often cling.
They may, in a mutually advantageous evolutionary pact, even be of some benefit to the colony by eating detritus and moulds that might harm the brood. Hitching a ride on their hosts is their method of dispersing throughout the bee population, detaching themselves to crawl into a flower during a pollination visit then boarding the next bee for a ride to its nest.
I watched the queen climb on to a leaf, buzz to warm up her flight muscles and then disappear over the hedge, carrying her passengers to her nest. Perhaps she had just been weary at the end of another day of dawn-to-dusk foraging.
Decision by two countries to join scheme exposing corruption in mining and oil industries represents significant breakthrough
Britain and France have both announced they are to join a groundbreaking initiative to expose systematic corruption, mainly in Africa, requiring mining and oil companies to reveal the taxes paid to national governments and the value of the minerals being extracted.
Nearly 40 countries have already signed but the news that France and the UK have joined the initiative represents a breakthrough.
The decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative was announced by the French president, François Hollande, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, ahead of a working dinner in Paris.
The UK helped create the EITI in 2002 and has subsequently funded it, but since the UK was not defined as a "resource-rich" country by the International Monetary Fund, the UK did not feel it necessary to join, even after Barack Obama said the US would join in 2011.
Under the initiative, annual reports publish what tax was paid by oil and mineral companies in a country, and the national government publishes what it received. The report is prepared to an international standard overseen by an independent body. The two sums are then reconciled and any gap can be often be attributed to corruption. The move also strengthens the powers of the legislature of countries since they have clearer information on what their executives have received.
The current chair of the EITI is Clare Short, the former international development secretary. In a weekend interview she said: "This is billions and billions and it far outweighs anything that goes across the world in aid. If these monies were properly managed and properly invested and used, hundreds of millions, literally, of people could see a better life. At the moment there's great riches but they're not lifting up the people in poor countries that have become the target of mining and oil investment in this commodity boom in the way that they should."
She said: "You can't force countries, but if a country won't reform and in the worst case that you talk about where you've got a kleptocracy that really is running away with the money, no one can make them change unless they want to.
"But the EITI does leverage change in improvement in some of the countries with really serious problems."
In Washington last week, David Cameron the current chair of the G8 leading economies, called for more openness among energy companies, claiming a veil of secrecy obscures the conduct of the extractive industries.
He announced an urgent review into Britain's failure to join the regime, saying: "We cannot call on other countries to live up to these high standards if we are not prepared to do so ourselves."
The US Securities and Exchange Commission ruled last year that oil and natural gas companies must disclose payments to foreign governments.
At present there are 39 countries involved with the initiative and 23 that are fully compliant.
- Fossil fuels
- Corruption index
- David Cameron
- François Hollande
The decimation of the UK's prickly population hasn't been recognised as the tragedy it is. They need some champions
Hedgehogs are disappearing as fast as the tiger. And if the latter was roaming our countryside it might have more of a fighting chance: I wouldn't find two dead tigers squashed on the road within a mile of each other like the little prickly carcasses I saw last weekend.
Tigers are also getting plenty of international help – charismatic "megafauna" always does – but for all the "ahhs" induced by Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, the hedgehog was not even counted scientifically in Britain until recently.
A new State of Nature report by 25 conservation groups including the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the Mammal Society is predictably depressing: most British species are struggling and one in three have halved in number in the past half century. Hedgehogs have disappeared even more dramatically. Even if the 30 million population estimate from the 1950s is a massive over-exaggeration, hedgehogs have declined by more than 90%. Numbers have fallen by more than a third since 2003 and fewer than a million roam our countryside today.
The quiet disappearance of this much-loved mammal – currently performing strongly in a BBC Wildlife Magazine poll to find a national species for Britain – may rarely make the headlines but it is a tragedy, and another small way in which we are all becoming more estranged from the natural world.
Hugh Warwick, ecologist and author of A Prickly Affair, puts it brilliantly. Exotic endangered animals like tigers and pandas are the Hollywood celebrities of our day. "All the big conservation groups rely on charismatic megafauna to sell a love of the natural world, which is a bit like reading Heat magazine to learn about love," he says. "Hedgehogs are the animal equivalent of the girl next door – the hedgehog allows us to have a connection with something truly wild in a suburban context."
You don't need to take your children on safari to see a hedgehog. And unlike elusive native mammals such as otters or badgers, you can also get really close to a hedgehog because they don't run away. But despite this accessibility, as Warwick points out, when you look into a hedgehog's beady eye you realise you are communing with a truly wild animal.
Despair and helplessness come too quickly when faced with the inexorable decline of our wildlife. It seems as easy to dismantle capitalism as it is to put the larks back into the sky. But we can't simply blame climate change and industrial agriculture for the loss of hedgehogs. (Nor can we accuse the burgeoning badger population: while scientific studies show hedgehogs literally run a mile if they sniff out badger poo and a high density of badgers will wipe out local hedgehogs, ecologists believe this only happens when food is scarce. In a healthy ecosystem, both species coexist quite happily, as they have in Britain for millennia.)
A major cause of recent hedgehog declines is us, or at least anyone with a garden. We are to blame and we can do something about it.
Hedgehogs were once a wood-edge species and suffered when country hedges were ripped out. Suburban gardens were a perfect substitute, until we started paving them, decking them and building on them.
As well as smashing up our patios, resisting the urge to poison slugs with toxic pellets and allowing for grass and wild corners where hedgehogs can find invertebrate prey and shelter, the best thing we can do is punch some holes in our fences. A hedgehog may roam an area the size of an 18-hole golf course in one night in search of food; modern, well-fenced or walled gardens prevent this. They only need five-inch square holes – hedgehog gates, if you like – to pass through.
As the British Hedgehog Preservation Society's campaign, Hedgehog Street, urges, we need to act together: your garden may be a perfect hedgehog sanctuary but it's useless if your neighbour's isn't. Hedgehog Street already has 26,000 hedgehog champions. It could do with some more.
From the Italian Alps to the Grand Canyon, no terrain is too grueling or too treacherous for these intrepid runners, as shown in these stunning photographs by David Clifford
A marine research expedition has led to the discovery of perhaps the world's largest methane cold seep. The seep lies deep in the western North Atlantic Ocean, far from the life-sustaining energy of the sun. Mussels blanketing the the seep rely on bacteria that use the methane to make energy. The process, known as chemosynthesis, forms the basis for life in the harsh environment and could help scientists better understand how organisms can survive under these types of extreme conditions.
The writer-director uses Cannes press conference to say that the US has lost its way since the second world war, and that rampant development must be controlled
Robert Redford today accused the US of losing its way in the years since the second world war. Speaking at the press conference for his new film All Is Lost at the Cannes film festival.
"Certain things have got lost," said Redford. "Our belief system had holes punched in it by scandals that occurred, whether it was Watergate, the quiz show scandal, or Iran-Contra; it's still going on…Beneath all the propaganda is a big grey area, another America that doesn't get any attention; I decided to make that the subject of my films."
Redford, now 76, also had critical words for the US's never-ending drive for economic and technological development, which he considers has been a damaging force.
"We are in a dire situation; the planet is speaking with a very loud voice. In the US we call it Manifest Destiny, where we keep pushing and developing, never mind what you destroy in your wake, whether its Native American culture or the natural environment.
"I've also seen the relentless pace of technological increase. It's getting faster and faster; and it fascinates me to ask: how long will it go on before it burns out."
Redford suggested this All Is Lost, which concentrates on a single man's struggle to survive at sea after his boat is damaged and loses all power, could be seen as a counterweight. "This film is about having none of that: all you have is a man, a boat and the weather, nothing but the elements. That's it."
Redford also said that he enjoyed working purely as an actor, "give myself over completely to another director." Redford's work for JC Chandor was his first lead role for anther film-maker since 2005's An Unfinished Life. His decision to step back from day-to-day involvement in the Sundance film festival would appear to have given him more scope for acting.
The pair met when Chandor's debut film, Margin Call, was selected for the Sundance in 2011. Chandor had already completed the script for his follow-up, and shortly after the festival offered the role to Redford.
Redford joked that none of his Sundance directors had ever approached him as an actor – "Gee, it was nice!" – but was fulsome in his praise of the younger man. "He was relentless in his vision, but also very respectful, and it encouraged me to give it more and more."
Nation's first trading scheme in the southern city of Shenzhen will cover 638 companies when it begins next month
China has unveiled details of its first pilot carbon-trading programme, which will begin next month in the southern city of Shenzhen.
The trading scheme will cover 638 companies responsible for 38% of the city's total emissions, the Shenzhen branch of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced on Wednesday. The scheme will eventually expand to include transportation, manufacturing and construction companies.
Shenzhen is one of seven designated areas in which the central government plans to roll out experimental carbon trading programmes before 2014.
Li Yan, Greenpeace east Asia's climate and energy campaign manager, said that the pilot programmes will inform the central government on how to motivate local authorities to adopt low-carbon policies.
The push to reduce carbon emissions coincides with the newly installed leadership's effort to tackle the country's dire air pollution problem, which has emerged as a source of widespread anger and frustration in recent months. "Having a mid-term strategy, and trying to prepare years ahead, is actually in line with China's interests and its political and social priorities," she said.
On Monday, the Chinese newspaper 21st Century Business Herald reported that the NDRC has discussed implementing a national system to control the intensity and volume of carbon emissions by 2020. The agency expects China to reach its carbon emissions peak by 2025, five years earlier than many recent estimates, according to unnamed sources quoted in the article.
At a recent climate change meeting, the agency "announced that it's currently researching and calculating a timetable for the greenhouse gas emissions peak, and will vigorously strive to implement a total emissions control scheme during the '13th five-year plan' period (from 2016-2020)," the paper quoted a NDRC official, also unnamed, as saying.
"The NDRC is looking for a national cap, but nobody knows exactly when that is going to happen," said Wu Changhua, greater China director of the Climate Group. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
The EU's carbon trading scheme, the world's largest, has suffered repeated setbacks in recent months. In April, MEPs voted against a proposed reform aimed to raise the price of carbon, which has been diluted by an overabundance of permits.
The hills have been grazed to destruction and it's time we begin to challenge the irrational aspects of the farming funding system
Even before you start reading the devastating State of Nature report, published today, you get an inkling of where the problem lies. It's illustrated in the opening pages with two dramatic photographs of upland Britain (p6). They are supposed to represent the natural glories we're losing. In neither of them (with the exception of some distant specks of scrub and leylandii in the second) is there a tree to be seen. The many square miles they cover contain nothing but grass and dead bracken. They could scarcely provide a better illustration of our uncanny ability to miss the big picture.
The majority of wildlife requires cover: places in which it can shelter from predators or ambush prey, places in which it can take refuge from extremes of heat and cold, or find the constant humidity that fragile roots and sensitive invertebrates require. Yet, in the very regions in which you might expect to find such cover (trees, scrub, other dense foliage) there is almost none. I'm talking about the infertile parts of Britain, in which farming is so unproductive that it survives only as a result of public money. Here, in the places commonly described as Britain's "wildernesses", almost nothing remains. And the "almost" has become radically smaller over the past 20 years.
Britain is poor in wildlife for a simple reason: we do not possess the wide reserves of unexploited land that remain in most other nations, even in the rest of Europe and North America. That's the big picture. Like almost everyone, I missed it – until I started researching Feral, my new book calling for a great rewilding.
On the Today programme on Wednesday, Sir David Attenborough named the rising human population as the first of the factors causing the loss of the UK's wildlife. Though in general he has done an excellent job in promoting the State of Nature report, on this issue he is wrong. That an increasing number of people makes a contribution is undeniable, as more land is used to build houses, and as other amplifications of our lives – cats, cars, mowers, garden chemicals – radiate from our dwellings.
Yet the places from which much of our wildlife has been disappearing fastest are almost uninhabited. Two friends of mine once walked for six days across the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales, and did not see another human being. Yet there is scarcely any wildlife either. Cross that bleak plateau and you will see plenty of moorgrass, some tormentil and moss, a few crows, perhaps the odd pipit and skylark, but almost nothing else, except sodding sheep. The hills have been grazed to destruction.
The Cambrians are worse than most places, but there's a similar story to be told in almost all the uplands of Britain: Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Black Mountains, the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia, the Shropshire Hills, the Peak District, the Pennines, the Forest of Bowland, the Dales, the North York moors, the Lake District, the Cheviots, the Southern Uplands and the Highlands. The desertification of our uplands, in common with most of our wildlife losses, has nothing to do with population pressure and everything to do with farming.
You could argue that an intensification of farming is a response to rising population pressure: the need to produce more food has caused greater damage to wildlife. But this is where the madness kicks in: much of the habitat destruction for which farm policies are responsible has little or nothing to do with producing food.
The uplands of Britain are astonishingly unproductive. For example, 76% of the land in Wales is devoted to livestock farming, mostly to produce meat. But, astonishingly, by value Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports. Six thousand years of nutrient stripping and erosion have left our hills so infertile that their productivity is miniscule. Even relatively small numbers of livestock can now keep the hills denuded.
Without subsidies, almost all hill-farming would cease. That's not something I'm calling for, but I do believe it's time we began to challenge the system and its outcomes. Among them is a policy that's almost comically irrational and destructive.
The major funding that farmers receive is called the single farm payment, which is money given by European taxpayers to people who own land. These people receive a certain amount (usually around £200 or £300), for every hectare they own. To receive it, they must keep the land in what is called "Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition" (GAEC). It's a term straight out of 1984.
Among the compulsory standards in the GAEC rules is "avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land". What this means is that if farmers want their money they must stop wild plants from returning. They don't have to produce anything: to keep animals or to grow crops there. They merely have to prevent more than a handful of trees or shrubs from surviving, which they can do by towing cutting gear over the land.
If they want to expand the area eligible for this subsidy, and therefore make more money, they must get their tractors out and start clearing vegetation. From my kayak in Cardigan Bay I have often watched a sight that Neolithic fishermen would have witnessed: towers of smoke rising from the hills as the farmers burn tracts of gorse and trees in order to claim more public money. The single farm payment is a perfectly designed scheme for maximum ecological destruction.
A survey by the Grasslands Trust documents the destruction of rich and rare wildlife habitats all over Europe as a result of the GAEC rules: wooded meadows in Sweden, limestone pavements in Estonia, coastal scrublands in Corsica. In Germany, pastures are disqualified from subsidies by the presence of small areas of reeds. In Bulgaria, the existence of a single stem of dog rose has rendered land ineligible. In Scotland farmers have been told that yellow flag irises, which for centuries have gilded the fields of the west coast, could be classed as "encroaching vegetation", invalidating their subsidy claims.
The government of Northern Ireland has been fined £64m for (among other such offences) giving subsidy money to farms whose traditional hedgerows are too wide. The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitats. The system ensures that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides, and destroy them.
A farmer can graze his land to the roots, run his sheep in the woods, grub up the last lone trees, poison the rivers with sheep dip and still get his money. Some of the farms close to where I lived in mid-Wales do all of those things and never have their grants stopped. But one thing he is not allowed to do is what these rules call "land abandonment", and what I call rewilding. For no good reason, public money is used both to engineer the mass destruction of habitats through grazing and clearing, and to prevent any significant recovery.
There is a second tranche of subsidies, which pay farmers to undo some of the damage inflicted by the first tranche. It's a crazy use of public funds. First farmers are forced to destroy almost everything; then they can apply for a smaller amount of money to put some of it back.
But only a little. The "green" subsidies (known as Pillar 2 payments) reward farmers for making marginal changes, and only in certain places. The Welsh government, for example, assures farmers that these payments "will require at most minor modifications to farming systems." In fact it expressly forbids them to restore more than a few tiny corners of their land. For instance, the payment for allowing land "to revert to rough grassland or scrub" applies only to areas of one third of a hectare or less.
The results can be seen in the State of Nature report: in the uplands there is an even faster average rate of loss (65% of species are declining) than there is in the rest of the country. But more importantly, the destruction of habitats on infertile land ensures that there is nowhere left to hide. There are no refuges from the intensive farming and development which have erased most wildlife from the more productive lowlands.
I believe that the best means of restoring our native wildlife is to decide that some parts of the country - the least productive places - should be handed back to nature. If we must keep paying people for owning land (a policy which demands far more debate and examination than it has received so far), we should pay some of them to stop trashing it, and to start restoring our missing native wildlife, reintroducing trees, insects and the large mammals of which Britain is almost uniquely deprived. In other words, to reverse the heart-breaking figures exposed in the State of Nature report, and then to go much further.
This doesn't mean that I believe there should be no change to farming practices in the lowlands. Unlike some people I don't see rewilding as a substitute for the protection of farmland wildlife. While I would argue against a mass rewilding of high-grade farmland, because of the threat this could present to global food supplies, we lose little by allowing nature to persist in small fallow corners and unexploited pockets of fertile land. If farmland fails to produce enough food, it won't be because we've allowed a few wild species to live among our crops, as agro-chemical companies and their supporters often claim. It will be because fertile land which should be feeding people is instead used to produce biofuels and feed for rising numbers of livestock: issues on which the enthusiasts for intensification remain strangely silent.
In my column next week I will explain how a mass rewilding could take place. There is hope to be found among the ruins, hope of faster and wider transformations than most people would believe possible.
• George Monbiot's book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is published on 30 May by Allen Lane.