The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

Archive for December, 2010

Can we do it? Yes, we Cancun!

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I think it’s fair to say that delegates’ expectations were not high in Cancun at the start of the 16th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  I was here in Stockholm working with Sweden as EU Presidency ahead of the Copenhagen conference last year and I know that the disappointment following Copenhagen ran very deep.  So the fact that the Cancun Agreement was adopted – to the visible delight and relief of delegates from over 190 countries – represents a major step forward.  We are back on track for a global deal to tackle climate change.

For those that don’t follow this closely the Cancun Agreement covers a wide range of measures. Decisions were reached on reducing deforestation, bringing details of both developed and developing countries’ actions to reduce emissions into the UN system and developing systems for measuring, reporting and verifying emission reductions and actions in line with countries’ commitments. The conference also agreed the establishment of a Green Climate Fund to support policies and activities in developing countries.

For the first time we have an international commitment to deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. This includes measures that will allow us to agree targets for peaking emissions as soon as possible and substantially reducing them by 2050.

But for me the single most important aspect of the Cancun Agreement is that it sends a very clear and positive message: the UN process is back on track, and with renewed momentum. This is hugely important.  It shows that the international community wants to tackle climate change.  But it also shows that we have the international processes to achieve this. Governments and business will be emboldened to take the action needed to prevent dangerous climate change threatening our global security and prosperity.  And the UK and Sweden will continue to be at the forefront of that movement – with ambitious goals to reduce our carbon footprint and to develop green industry and technology that helps others and brings growth and jobs to our economies.

There remains much to do in the run-up to the 2011 climate conference in Durban and beyond.  But Cancun represents a quiet but substantial triumph for international co-operation.  Hats off to Mexico!

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Happy Human Rights Day

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Have you read a piece of sharply-worded criticism directed at a politician in the paper lately? Did you worry that the journalist writing it was risking his/her life or freedom? If you live in Sweden, in the UK or in another democratic country I would guess that your answer to my first question is “Yes” and your answer to my second question is “No”.

Did you think that a specific article had gone too far? Or was your answer that it’s the role of the media to scrutinise society and those in power and speak up against any case of injustice or discrimination?  Where we live any paper on any day will contain vitriolic diatribe and thoughtful analysis.  Frankly, we get used to this and think of it as a right rather than a privilege.

10 December is International Human Rights Day.  This day commemorates the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The theme for this year’s Day is “human rights defenders who act to end discrimination”.  This includes journalists, but also organisations and individuals standing up for the right not to be discriminated against on grounds such as race, gender, sexual orientation and religion.

Sixty-two years later, the list of countries where standing up to these rights and other human rights still mean you risk your life or freedom is depressingly long. So while 10 December is a day to remind ourselves about the importance of these rights that we often take for granted, it is also a day to think about what we do help those people who are denied these rights. Happy Human Rights Day.

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The invisible hammock

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

To be honest, it’s bone-numbingly cold in Stockholm just now.  So it was quite a relief to step (well, in fact, skate, and in a very nearly equally bone-numbing fashion) into the chocka-packed great hall of the Stockholm University this morning to listen to the 2010 Nobel Physics lecture.

The 2010 Laureates are two men – Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov – born in Russia but working in Manchester.  Andre is in his early 50s and Kostya in his 30s and, standing together dressed in immaculate slate grey suits and white shirts, they had something of the look of the Blues Brothers.  And what they had to say to a wide-eyed audience was every bit as cool as the iconic 80s foot-tapper.

I admit to being a bit of a part-time physics wonk, in a strictly amateurish kind of way.  But who couldn’t be astonished by the story of graphene, the foundation of Andre’s and Kostya’s award?  Graphene is the two-dimensional cousin of graphite, the carbon stuff of lead pencils.  The 2010 Physics story is in part an unfolding drama of how two men worked to isolate and then re-produce this extraordinary material.  And it is in part a science-fiction glimpse of a future in which graphene, one atom thick but astonishingly flexible and strong, becomes part of a new generation of materials with applications in medicine, biotechnology and optics.  Andre talked about how he had made the crucial breakthrough in isolating graphene by picking up flakes of graphite from a pencil lead using sellotape.  Kostya talked about how the “discovery” of this first two-dimensional material would allow combinations of future two-dimensional variants of common atomic structures to create a whole new world of materials.

My favourite graphene idea involves a cat and a hammock.  Oh yes.  If you were to cut a piece of graphene 1m by 1 m square – and bear in mind it is one atom thick – and attach each end to a tree to create a graphene hammock it would support the weight of a sleeping cat.  But the cat would probably not be sleeping at this point since the hammock would in effect be invisible.  Quite a sight.

Hammocks will never be the same again.

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Nobel week in Stockholm

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

And so Nobel week comes around again.  For over a hundred years 10 December has been the day on which the world’s most prestigious prizes have been awarded by the Swedish King in the memory of Alfred Nobel.  It’s an event that has something of the feel of the Last Night of the Proms, a collective celebration that seems to symbolise something about the nation’s values. Without the flag-waving in Sweden’s case, of course…

As those of you that have followed this blog will know, this year’s Nobel prize ceremony is a particularly special one for Britain.  The eminent British Professor Bob Edwards will be awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the development of human in vitro fertilization (IVF) therapy. Professor Edwards was a visionary and a fighter of the ilk that the Nobel committee choose from time to time to recognise.  This accolade goes to Professor Edwards not just because he foresaw in the 1950s that an in vitro process might be a treatment for infertility but also for the hard work that he put into making it a reality and the resistance that he endured in the interim.  And with colleagues such as the late Dr Patrick Steptoe Professor Edwards’ efforts were finally crowned by success with the birth of the world’s first “test tube baby” in 1978. A remarkable four million babies have so far been born following IVF.

Alongside Professor Edwards´s wife Ruth – who will receive the award on his behalf – are Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of Manchester University who will receive the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their groundbreaking experiments with the two-dimensional material graphene. Graphene is a form of carbon. As a material it is completely new – not only the thinnest ever but also the strongest. Graphene looks set to change the boundaries of experimentation in quantum physics but it also has plenty of practical applications.  As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper. As a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials. It is almost completely transparent, yet so dense that not even helium, the smallest gas atom, can pass through it.

The London School of Economics is also celebrating the award of a third share in the Economics Prize to Professor Christopher Pissarides for his work on search theories, in particular helping us to understand the apparent mismatch between high unemployment and high labour market vacancies and how joblessness, job vacancies, and wages are affected by regulation and economic policy.

This year’s Nobel week is then an extraordinary expression of the strength of British science and a reflection not just of the individual brilliance of the prize winners but also of the quality of the research being undertaken at British academic institutions.  It is something that we can be proud of. In the UK, like Sweden, we know how much our research base contributes to economic growth and social well-being, which is why we have protected our national science budget despite the pressures on public funds at home. Sitting in Stockholm in Nobel Week it is not hard to understand why this kind of commitment to funding science is central to creating the next Geim/Novoselov or Watson/Crick partnership, and the benefits – for all of us – that come from the extraordinary things they do.

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