Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2008 14:48 UK

Wildlife conservation: Congress diary

Conservation congress banner (Image: BBC)

More than 8,000 conservationists and policy makers are in Barcelona, Spain, for the IUCN World Conservation Congress.

Held once every four years, the gathering is viewed as a landmark event where future conservation strategies are developed.

In his daily diary, environment correspondent Richard Black reports on the topics beings discussed in the conference halls, and visits some of the fringe events.

Angel shark (Image: Simon Rogerson)
Resolutions to increase protection for marine species fared well at the gathering

What price purity of spirit these days, when dealing with environmental salvation?

To put it another way: how close can an organisation bent on saving the planet get to corporations involved in mining it, polluting it or otherwise trashing it?

I must confess that when I first moved into environmental journalism - more than a decade after I had held environmental placards and marched round the streets demanding environmental action - I was surprised and, yes, dismayed to find how close to the corporate sector some NGOs had come.

Of course there are good reasons for engagement. It gives your organisation the chance to change behaviour, or at least mindsets; it gives you a closer look at the issues facing businesses, and so perhaps a better idea of how to frame campaigns.

Children's banners were hung outside the Congress venue (Image: BBC)
Children's banners carried messages from future generations of delegates

But there can be bad reasons too.

Some of these came combatively into focus today during the last session of the World Conservation Congress, as members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) debated a motion to terminate the organisation's multi-faceted agreement with energy multinational Shell.

Some of the reasons were procedural; but not all.

Plaintiffs argued that Shell continues to flare and burn gas from its Nigerian oil wells despite rulings that it must stop, lobbies against plans to reduce carbon emissions in Europe, invests in Canadian tar sands, and plans to begin oil exploration in the Arctic as the ice melts.

Opponents argued that whatever a company does, engaging with them can change their behaviour; lack of engagement stands no chance.

One conservation group said it wasn't right that IUCN engage so closely with a company "involved in criminal activities". Another described Shell as an organisation "with one of the worst environmental and human rights records on Earth".

But another NGO speaker recalled how talking to the company about environmental issues had produced changes of heart. A planned drilling project in a Pakistan national park had been abandoned; the route of a controversial pipeline in eastern Russia had been changed.

No-one seemed to be in any doubt that green groups needed to sup with the devil. The accusation against the IUCN bosses was they were sleeping with him too.

The vote, when it came, was the most eagerly anticipated of the congress. Acceptance of the motion to terminate could, it was said, carry financial penalties that were "unforeseeable" if Shell then chose to sue.

No wonder IUCN employees were on the edge of their seats.

Votes were eventually cast in perhaps the most predictable of manners. Environmental organisations voted in favour of termination, governments against; and as IUCN motions pass only by having a majority in both "chambers", this one fell.

The wider issue, though, won't go away.

But I would suggest it effectively solves itself. Within the wider ecology of the environment movement - campaign groups, researchers, lobbyists - there is room for all sorts of organisation.

While Climate Camp activists attempt to storm the cooling towers of coal-fired power stations, Climate Change Capital tries to woo the pillars of our overheated city into funding green energy.

You may disagree with the ethics and methods of one or the other approach, but both potentially have a role to play in bringing business practices into line with our need for ecological health.

The greater cause can only benefit, it seems to me, when the different organisations respect and understand each other's motivations and rationale.

Motions passed

So what has been achieved here, during 10 days of discussions, workshops, seminars, roundtables, receptions, breakfast meetings, and resolutions?

Packed case
Case are being packed, as delegates head back home from Barcelona

Few people outside the conservation community know what IUCN is; but they should.

Formed in 1948, it functions as an apolitical forum for ideas and for bringing change where it can. Many of the world's environmental treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity began life as IUCN initiatives.

Most of the world's governments and hundreds of non-governmental organisations are members, from giants such as The Nature Conservancy, WWF and Conservation International down to minnows like the Foundation for Preservation of the Assyrian Forest Shrew (I think I made that one up, but don't bet on it).

So what you see as a cutting-edge issue at one four-yearly congress may be ripe for inclusion in an international treaty or national legislation by the time the next one comes along.

Or it may not. Some ideas turn out to be rubbish, and some good ones never make it for political reasons; that is the way of the world.

Meanwhile, an IUCN motion backing your organisation's particular cause - whether it's an end to poverty or just salvation of the Assyrian forest shrew - is touted as proof that the world's conservation parliament is on your side.

So the five species that I highlighted on Saturday - the dugong, vaquita, Iberian lynx, leatherback turtle and Mediterranean monk seal - all now have resolutions backing their cases.

In the case of the dugong, realpolitik meant the resolution was weakened in the hope of securing Japanese and US government backing.

Even so, the backing did not materialise; the resolution will probably have little impact.

Realpolitik also weakened a motion calling for a global moratorium on new biofuel planting so much that it ended up with marginally less power than a Trabant.

Marine issues fared particularly well, with Spain backing calls for suspension of the Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery, and three successful motions on sharks - one calling for a ban on landing shark fins unless they're still attached to the body, which conservation groups see as key to reducing catches.

Numerous resolutions on the relationships between indigenous peoples, human rights and nature protection passed, giving campaign groups another tool with which to seek a betterment of indigenous peoples' lives and the natural systems they live with.

It's been an exhausting yet compelling 10 days. I couldn't do it again next week; but I doubt I'll experience such a concentration of fine minds and fascinating ideas for a long time.


What exactly is meant by "conservation" these days? And what do you need to do to achieve it?

Is it just a question of preserving species and ecosystems, or do you need a more encompassing feel for the human world too, for our drive to develop and nature's need for us to do it sustainably?

These questions formed part of the subtext to elections for various posts with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the results of which emerged this morning.

Ashok Khosla
Many at this conference, and beyond it, will be wishing Ashok Khosla well
For four years, the organisation has been led by Valli Moosa, a former South African minister who held both the environment and constitution portfolios - the latter during the period under Nelson Mandela when the rainbow nation was drawing up a constitution that could turn the former apartheid state into a fully functional democratic entity.

What fascinating times. And what big footsteps in which to follow.

Filling them will be Ashok Khosla, the Indian sustainable development specialist who spent most of the day wreathed in smiles when he wasn't wreathed in the congratulatory arms of his fellows.

What's interesting about his appointment is that someone whose working life is rooted in human development is now figurehead for an organisation primarily concerned with conservation of the natural world.

His pitch for the job set out what he believes to be IUCN's core purpose - "to influence decision-makers around the world to seriously tackle the big issues of today; regenerating nature's productive capacity while eradicating poverty and developing their economies".

This, in short, is the challenge; three billion more mouths coming which will need feeding and watering and employing, societies that want to grow economically, and a natural world that is already creaking under the human load.

Leading IUCN involves a political balancing act because of the way the organisation's tendrils penetrates the corridors of both power-brokers and tree-huggers.

The top players have to be politically astute as well as setting the right agenda.

There seems to be enthusiasm for Dr Khosla's abilities in this area (his doctorate is in experimental physics, by the way).

But a really successful outcome from his term of office would be a world that is changing its development path so this generation makes the most of its resources while handing them on broadly intact to its children.

The valuation and protection of nature would be an implicit part of such a world.

Delegates to this congress won't be the only ones wishing Ashok Khosla well.

Cardboard chair (BBC)
A chair made out of cardboard

When I looked out of my hotel window this morning, my first thought was that I must have had too much sangria last night.

Which was odd, because I didn't have any sangria last night, despite being in a city built for the stuff.

But the evidence was there. Someone had covered the conference centre roof with water; it was like a pool down there.

A dozen explanations ran through my head. Could it actually be a rooftop pool? No, far too big and looks shallow too. Could it be rainwater? Unlikely, because the surrounding streets are dry.

Eventually I twigged; it must be a bit of green architecture. And it is, a quick web search revealing that the reason for having a rooftop knee deep in water is temperature regulation.

In hot weather, the sun warms the water, and takes ages about it. Meanwhile, everyone inside stays cool without vast amounts of air conditioning.

In fact, this area - the Forum - was designed with something of a green pen.

There's a massive bank of solar panels on the seafront which, if I deduce the explanatory blurb correctly, heats a shoreside swimming pool.

My favourite bit, though, is under your feet.

There's a plaza opposite the hotel covered in paving slabs - but not, it appears at first sight, very well laid.

As you walk, the slabs tilt and rattle in their moorings, and such skateboarders as manage to elude the security guards make a right old racket as they speed across.

Solar panel roof (BBC)
This is one corner of Barcelona that is doing its bit

In fact, it's all about water. It bounces off the coverings of conventional city streets. But here it'll seep happily between the tiles.

Last time I was in Sydney, the city was wrestling with a choice: do we make an effort to collect the 90% or so of rainwater that we lose into the sea, or do we build a desalination plant, with all it brings in terms of cost, energy and carbon emissions?

Water-absorbing rather than water-reflecting surfaces are now a core part of designs for eco-friendly cities.

In a city that dried so much it was importing water by tanker in the summer, it's good to know there is one little corner where little goes down the drain.

Waste not

Organisers of the World Conservation Congress have tried to follow suit and minimise their own footprint.

So waste is separately collected in bins of many colours, coffee is served in recycled paper cups (or was, until the caterers ran out) and there are even cardboard chairs to sit on.

The people running the water sessions quickly decided the chairs didn't make for sustainable sitting, and fobbed them off on the forest folk.

Paper (BBC)
The paperless society - not

Plans to make it a paperless congress do not appear to have worked, however, with reports and booklets adorning most corners of most rooms.

Whoever predicted the end of printing as computers took over the world was so wrong. Now we read on screen and print out; reports come in downloadable and printable pdfs as well as bound hard-copies.

The aim was to have at least every European arriving by train rather than air, and discounts were secured from the Spanish railway operator Renfe.

IUCN staff and key delegates have their carbon offset for them, and advice on offsetting is dispensed for anyone else who wants it; and a few people managed to sail their way here (see the diary entry for Sunday 05 October).

Given the size of the fare differential I found between train and plane, I suspect there will still be a queue of taxis taking delegates to Barcelona airport come Tuesday night, though I would love to be wrong.

Jurgen Freund
There are concerns in Japan for the future of the dugong (sea cow)

It has not been a day for seeing the sun.

All day, delegates here, mainly IUCN members from governments or non-governmental organisations, have been debating and discussing the 125 motions that, in theory, shape the organisation's work for the next four years.

Many of them do not directly deal with species conservation. But some do; and I thought I'd share with you five of the species that are concerning members in various parts of the world, and that they hope could be helped by IUCN resolutions.

Japanese conservationists are concerned about the dugong, the sea cow - in particular, around Okinawa, where the Japanese authorities and those in charge of the island's big US military base are planning a new facility for US marines.

The conservation groups are asking IUCN members to approve a motion asking Japan and the US to conduct an environmental impact assessment for the development which allows for the option of not building it.

The dugong isn't about to go extinct. But many argue that the vaquita is; some believe it could happen within five years.

This extraordinary-looking porpoise is the world's smallest cetacean, and probably the one that exists in the smallest numbers. About 150 remain.

Conservation International Mexico
The vaquita's elusive nature has not saved it from being caught in nets

Mexico's environment ministry has developed a plan to eliminate the fishing that is driving the porpoise's demise through entanglement in nets. But, say conservation groups, the fisheries ministry isn't buying into the scheme, and there is no effort to stop illegal fishing.

They want all parts of the Mexican government to pull behind vaquita conservation - and they want the US, as the state that imports most of the shrimps from the fishery that's causing the problems, to help out.

Numbers of the Iberian lynx are only marginally higher than those of the vaquita.

The problem is the one that threatens more species than any other; habitat loss, as wild animals give ground to man.

In this case, the plaintiffs are simply asking Spain and Portugal to give greater priority to the lynx's preservation - which presumably means restricting the intensification of agriculture, urban development and road building.

If you ask me, there are few more special creatures on the planet than the leatherback turtle, a two-metre soft-shelled beast that always seems to go at its own pace and no faster.

Its trek to extinction isn't so leisurely, though. It's estimated that the Pacific has lost 95% of its population to overfishing and by-catch, and could vanish within five to 30 years.

Pic by Antonio Rojas
The Iberian lynx is endangered by habitat loss

So a bit more protection in this region, please, is what is asked for here. That would mean closing fisheries along the leatherback's migration route, and the mandatory use of turtle-friendly fishing gear.

Finally in my list of five is the Mediterranean monk seal, said to be one of the 10 most endangered animals in the world.

About 1,000 remain, in two geographically-isolated populations.

They used to live near Barcelona, and of course the conservation groups moving this motion are smart enough to mention it - as though we can gaze over the harbour at the Mediterranean blue and imagine the seals' heads bobbing above the wavelets.

What can be done? Coastal development of many types seems to compromise the seal.

And as coastal development along Europe's favourite holiday coastlines is hardly likely to stop, more marine protected areas are the favoured outcome.

IUCN motions don't make governments do things. But the organisation talks regularly and directly to governments, and carries more weight in governments than NGOs.

If these motions go through, it will put a little more momentum into schemes to keep these species in existence.

Indigenous leaders in Barcelona
Indigenous leaders in Barcelona. Environmentalism is a rich ecosystem
What do you need to know if you want to save the world?

The question sprang to mind last week during my beaked whale research trip when one of the marine biologists I met told me that she'd have been much better off studying maths or statistics or computing rather than marine biology.

So this week, among so many of the world's leading lights in conservation, I've been keeping an eye open for what the well-developed environmentalist is mainlining.

Once all this was the preserve of naturalists who roamed the planet describing species. Charles Darwin spent years on a definitive study of barnacles.

Then, ecologists worked out the dynamics of natural systems, the links between the various species and the various environmental factors, and what keeps what alive.

Now, the spores of conservation have settled everywhere.

Saving the planet now needs lawyers, economists, engineers, chemists, politicians, as well as those steeped in the traditional disciplines.

In the main conference hall, candidates for the various important voluntary posts within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - head of the regional groups, head of the various commissions (on species survival, environmental law, and the like), president - have been giving their election speeches.

I checked out a few of the biographies.

So Mahfuz Ullah, a Bangladeshi standing for the post of South and East Asian head, has a background in physics and mass communication and journalism, while Hiroharo Koika is a Japanese diplomat who served in nine embassies around the world.

Spencer Thomas was director of finance for Grenada.

Perhaps Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, one of the three presidential candidates, caught the point most effectively, describing himself as "lawyer by formation, politician by decision, conservationist by heart".

The great fields of the green world now contain lawyers, to draft environmental treaties and laws and make sure people obey them. Economists calculate the financial costs of nature loss and the benefits of sustainable businesses.

Engineers work out how to re-invigorate dying watercourses. Communications chiefs look for new ways of getting the word out. Hunters run sustainable trophy-hunting schemes that raise money for conservation.

Gender specialists engage women in conservation in societies where they may not have a lot of power. Entrepreneurs leverage funds - a term you would never hear from an ecologist - for green technologies.

It's a rich ecosystem.

And it's virtually an open door. Just make sure you have a skill to bring, plus the commitment to work long hours for far less money than you could earn elsewhere, and the environmental family will find a home for you somewhere.

But if all you can do is wave your bangle-bedecked arms around and complain about how bad everything is, there's little room now at the top table. Saving the world is a job for professionals.

Waves (Image: EyeWire)
The topic of "ocean seeding" has been making waves among delegates
Could "polluting" the marine environment restrain rising temperatures and rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere?

According to Margaret Leinen, chief scientist of the company Climos, it could; and the magic pollutant is iron filings.

Placed in the oceans, the theory goes that they will stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, tiny marine plants, which will then photosynthesise more CO2 out of the atmosphere and down into the water column.

The idea has been around for a long time and studies date back at least a decade, without having given us a definitive answer to whether it will work.

At a seminar here on ocean geoengineering, as the approach is known, Ms Leinen told us of her company's plans to seed trial sites of ocean hundreds of kilometres across, and - under the auspices of independent scientists - conduct studies that would satisfy academics, regulators and investors.

Scientifically, the issue is not whether the mechanism works - it does - but what else happens afterwards.

How deep will the carbon be carried, through physical or biological paths? How long will it stay stored? Will the plants' decay produce methane or nitrous oxide, more potent greenhouse gases than CO2?

Investors will want to know simply whether it can turn a profit - which hangs on whether it is shown to work, and so whether it qualifies for carbon credits.

Green Room logo (Image: BBC)

Greenpeace scientist David Santillo expressed the concerns of many.

When money is involved, how can we guarantee independent science? Won't this be a distraction for investors who might otherwise fund renewable energy projects? Will there be any negative impacts on ocean life?

These are important concerns. But the reality is that we are already producing huge changes in the oceans.

We are warming them, diminishing the water's natural alkalinity, fishing huge swathes of biological life out of them, creating lifeless zones with agricultural runoff, changing the dynamics of ice cover and freshwater input.

Frankly, I would like to know whether iron seeding works, and I would like to know quite soon, please.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year suggested carbon emissions ought to be constrained within a decade and a half, and there is little sign in the real world that it is happening.

If Ms Leiden and other entrepreneurs can get hold of investors' money, if the science is rigorous and the regulators satisfied, then I would vote for finding out whether it works once and for all.

Forward motions

There is a distinct change of pace now at the congress as we move from what's known as the forum into the council sessions.

The forum has been about ideas and networking and discussions and projects. But many delegates are complaining it's been too intense, with so many events held that even four days of frantically rushing from seminar to roundtable to reception have not been enough to catch a fraction of the action.

The focus now switches to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) itself; what it should do for the four years until the next congress, what it thinks is good and bad in the world, how it should work.

This year sees 125 motions under debate. Most are uncontroversial, such as asking IUCN to make young people aware of environmental issues or to write to member governments urging greater action on climate change.

But there are several juicier morsels to savour. Should there be a global moratorium on biofuel development and on financial incentives to develop them? Is there any science behind the argument that culling whales could rebuild fish stocks? Is the organisation compromising its integrity through a close relationship with the Shell oil company?

These motions are not binding on anyone but IUCN itself, so in that sense they are toothless. But that does not mean they are without influence.

Much of the world's now intricate web of environmental regulations began life within IUCN.

As a global organisation which numbers most governments as members, its resolutions indicate to the watching world, including UN institutions, the balance of thought across the breadth of the environmental community, from governments to campaign groups to scientific researchers to business groups.

So a call for a biofuels moratorium, for example, would be widely cited as proof that the business is running too far too fast for the world's ecological health.

Not surprisingly, governments and interest groups liable to receive an IUCN slap in the face are lobbying hard to water down the wording.

We shall see by next Tuesday who emerges with a red weal, and who with a sunshine smile.

Dam near Andalucia, Spain (Image: IUCN)
Can building more dams help protect water supplies in the future?

These days, you can barely find a single campaign group that doesn't espouse the concept of climate adaptation.

Precisely what it means, though, is, like the concept of jazz, open to interpretation.

Mark Smith had few doubts. "Climate change adaptation is water adaptation," he said during a workshop on the links between climate change and water - and as head of IUCN's water programme, he should probably know.

The more I think about it, the more I conclude he is right.

There is barely a region in the world that will not see its supply of water change, if climate projections prove even partially correct.

The models suggest that broadly speaking, the much-quoted Biblical saying "To him that hath shall be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away" could have been dealing with water availability under climate change.

So, regions that are already wet such as Scotland are likely to become even wetter; arid areas including much of sub-Saharan Africa will more likely become even drier.

Two boys fishing (Image: IUCN)
Fish make up a key part of many communities' diets

It holds temporally too, with inundations forecast to become - well, more Biblical, to give one more spin to an already overused journalistic cliché - with longer dry spells in between.

Then there's sea level rise, which even if it stays obediently at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's lower estimate of 28cm over the century - and no-one in the field seriously believes it will - would cause serious problems in many regions.

The big one, for me, is glacier melt in mountain ranges.

Glaciers are basically huge reservoirs, storing snow as it falls and releasing water as the weather warms up.

Add up the number of people who get their drinking water from mountain glaciers - in the Himalayas, the Andes, the Rockies, the Alps - and I reckon you are on your way to two billion.

So what can be done? What does climate adaptation mean in a context like this? And who is going to pay?

Mark Smith agreed with Darren Saywell from the International Water Association that only a combination of the things that engineers habitually do, such as building dams, and things that they don't habitually do, such as protecting wetlands and forests, could do the trick.

If indeed anything can.

Estimates of how much it will cost to "climate-proof" the developing world run from $10bn to more than $50bn per year.

Currently we are seeing a trickle, rather than a torrent.

Exhaust pipe (Image: PA)
The conference hall is choked by confusing linguistic emissions
The World Conservation Congress can be a confusing place.

Some people are here with both their IUCN SSC and ASG hats on.

Others are seeking to mainstream stakeholder buy-in for cross-sectoral biodiversity financing.

In some rooms you can perch at the interface between ZERI and the WBCSD.

So it was refreshing - no, it was a paradigm-breaking uplift scenario - to see, on today's agenda, a session on how to break through the jargon barrier that keeps many of the issues discussed here sealed within the small circle of people who speak the same language.

The Red List is simple to communicate. I can do it in two words - "we're ¿.d" - in the modern spirit of interactivity, you can choose which word to use as the second.

But most sustainability-speak is far too jargon-laden to translate to the world outside these walls, however important the ideas themselves. I think everyone here knows it, but no-one quite knows what to do about it.

The session didn't quite live up to its title. Rather than clearing up the language, speakers chose to look at methods of getting things across.

Somewhat inevitably, once the first speaker had promised us an exciting new way of communicating biodiversity loss and reached for her computer mouse, technical gremlins came out from their hiding hole and it ground to a halt.

The Google Earth on screen looked to be in no better condition than the real one.

Forest flaws

Back in the UK, environmental groups have been busy pressurising the government to meet its various targets on cutting carbon emissions by - well, by cutting carbon emissions, rather than by buying measures from overseas that result in equivalent carbon savings.

I had a different take on the issue today from Russ Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, a major US-based environment group.

The core of its work is in developing country ecosystems such as rainforests, attempting to preserve places where nature can work.

Russ wasn't so sure that making all the changes at home was such a good idea.

When preserving forests is generally believed to be the cheapest way of curbing climate change, and when it has so many side benefits for the fresh water supply, for animals and plants, and for people who live off the forest, why not prioritise spending money on that?

"The danger is, you end up with nice clean energy systems at home, but you've lost the rainforest," he said.

In the dash to biofuels, campaigners forgot about biodiversity in their haste to find a climate-friendly transport solution.

There are good counter-arguments to Russ Mittermeier. But his point should surely remind us again of the dangers of separating the world's various environmental ills, and trying to solve them separately.

Caspian seal (Simon Goodman/Leeds University/Caspian International Seal Survey)
At least 25% of mammals, including the Caspian seal, are at risk

I am hearing voices in my head.

One is saying "we've heard it all before"; another is asking "so what?"

A third is contending "I don't believe it", while its less robust companion bewails "there's nothing we can do".

These voices are very familiar. They bug me every year when the Red List of Threatened Species comes out, and they were particularly prominent last year around the launch of the UN Environment Programme's Global Environmental Outlook (Geo-4).

They are all saying things that in their own way are quite sensible.

We have heard it before - the message of environmental doom is very familiar to anyone who reads further than Heat magazine and the immigrant-petrified middle tabloids.

The implications of biodiversity loss are nebulous next to a train crash, disaster seems hard to credit when our cat is well fed and the car works, and there probably is nothing that we can do.

Demise of the devils and other mammals under threat

So does that mean it is not worth hearing that 25% or 30% or 12% or 45% of one or other group of species is heading down the path to extinction?

If I was about to be hit over the head with a large stick, I would prefer to know.

If a quarter of the world's mammals are heading for the mortuary drawer, again, I would like to know, even though I might not have a clue how to stop it.

In fact, working out how to stop it is probably the hardest task facing the human race. Nuclear disarmament looks like a doddle by comparison, because the root causes of biodiversity loss are simply what our successful species does to live, eat, develop and expand.

Presumably we are going to keep doing those things. So presumably other life-forms, less adaptable, will feel a tighter and tighter squeeze.

Until something gives.

Buying the argument

"Haven't you always wanted the chance to live a sustainable lifestyle?

"Well now you can, thanks to the government's Sustain-a-bill!"

Green Room logo (Image: BBC)

Unless I am mistaken, this is the future of advertising - at least, as foreseen by a panel of luminaries connected with the industry who held a post-tea break discussion at the congress.

"The advertising and marketing services industry has in part been responsible for encouraging overconsumption," Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the marketing services group WPP, admitted in a pre-recorded video message.

"But we've but come to a stage where overconsumption is not necessarily the best route to follow, so responsible consumption is becoming increasingly important."

He picked out events that he believed showed businesses were transforming their paradigms towards sustainability, such as Rupert Murdoch's espousal of carbon neutrality and Richard Branson's investment in low carbon energy.

Dean Sanders, a former Kraft executive who now runs the marketers GoodBrand and Co, argued that advertisers weren't responsible for advertising environmentally damaging products - it was the fault of the companies that made those products.

And Cheryl Hicks from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) suggested advertisers could help sell people on a sustainable, low carbon, environment friendly lifestyle, if governments would only engage them to do so.

So there we are. Advertising and marketing agencies, or at least this small sample, see themselves as part of the solution to the growth in consumption that lurks - together with population growth - behind every other environmental problem.

Buy a used Red List, anyone?

Boat moored in Barcelona (Image: BBC)
Plain sailing: delegates were invited to arrive by boat

Having delegates fly in to international conferences isn't very smart when the conference has a strong environmental theme and aviation is widely seen as Public Carbon Enemy number one.

Messages about saving the planet do not mix well with talk of air miles and upgrades - though the mix does happen.

OK, so most green groups offset these days - but that's not a flawless process.

Hence the decision by the World Conservation Congress organisers to invite delegates to sail.

Blown by the wind, navigating by the stars, perhaps doing a little sustainable fishing on the way - what better way to arrive ethically and climatically clean.

So the bright Catalonian morning saw perhaps 15 boats, maybe a few more, moored up in the dock before making the short hop to the conference centre itself, where they would "deliver their message".

The message appeared to be that more awareness of issues like climate change, biodiversity loss and marine pollution would be a good thing - which probably 99% of people in the conference centre would agree with anyway.

Stormy waters

There were some interesting vessels on display, ranging from the mighty research ship MarViva (which I mistook for a tug at first sight), complete with submersibles and an engine that racked up decibels with the abandon of Led Zeppelin, down to ordinary yachts.

One that caught my eye was the Tara, a futuristic metal-hulled research boat which has just spent 16 months drifting in the Arctic. Yes, drifting - allowing itself to become enmeshed in ice when the ice built up - although director Etienne Bourgois told me the ice turned out to be about half as thick as they were expecting.

Tara facts three and four: when ice converges on the boat it is lifted out of the water onto the floes, with no damage; and the crew spent 18 months seeing no-one but each other.

Then there was the Largyalo, a catamaran with giant canoes as the bits that go in the water (I believe they're still called hulls on a catamaran but don't quote me).

The inspiration was Polynesian, the boat's "constructor" Petra told me. It's sure to catch attention during its planned 1,000-day, 100-port trip raising awareness about climate change.

And that is really the point. The initiative was called Sailing to Barcelona, but delivering their message here will be as plain sailing as you can get - everyone wants to hear it.

The big world is a stormier place, where the worthiest messages get tossed around on angry seas, and sometimes wrecked before their time.

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Extinction risk 'underestimated'
03 Jul 08 |  Science & Environment

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