FEATURED PHOTOS AND STORIES

Wednesday: April 2, 2014 

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in pollution (4)

Monday
Jun242013

Blame game over haze in Southeast Asia (REPORT) 

(Video via TODAYdigital)

As Indonesia steps up efforts to extinguish forest fires that have choked the region in thick haze, criticism from neighboring countries is mounting. Environmental lawyers accuse Jakarta of breaching international law.

As images of the thick haze shrouding Singapore were beamed around the world last week, a diplomatic tussle got underway between the leaders of Singapore and Indonesia, where hundreds of illegal forest fires continue to rage.

(PHOTO: Singapore on June 18, 2013/Edward Su)Singapore demanded "definitive action" from Jakarta to put out the fires, only to be chided for its reaction to the haze. The Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono claimed the small island city-state had behaved "like a child" as it bore the brunt of the smog.

Economic impact

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) crossed the 400 mark on Friday (June 21, 2013) a record reading that is deemed "hazardous" to human health.

Apart from the health implications, Singapore's reputation as a major business hub and one of the world's largest offshore financial centers is at stake. If the haze continues, as expected over the next few weeks, it could put off international investors.

But the haze issue across Southeast Asia is nothing new. Since 1997, air quality in Singapore and Malaysia has regularly suffered, due to Indonesian plantation fires that occur during the June to September dry season. The problem was even addressed at the regional grouping ASEAN a decade ago.

Failed haze treaty

The 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was meant to ensure nations prevented, monitored and tried to combat deforestation activities. But observers say the way the pact was negotiated effectively "watered down" Indonesia's commitments. Despite being weakened, Jakarta has still not ratified the agreement.

"As the principal cause of the fires and smoke - the elephant in the room if you like - Indonesia's staying out completely undermines the agreement," said law professor Alan Khee-Jin Tan from the National University of Singapore. "Jakarta's refusal is linked to the view that if Indonesia were to accept it, it would constitute an admission of guilt for the fires," he stressed.

'Indonesia has little to fear'

(PHOTO: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; June 17, 2013/picture-alliance)Tan, who sits on the Executive Committee of the Asia Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, told DW that the agreement is largely technical, with few onerous demands on states. "It has nothing, for instance, that would make Indonesia liable to pay compensation to injured states," he added. "So in that sense, there is little for Indonesia to fear."

Other experts think Singapore and Malaysia could have done more to pull their weight in negotiations over the agreement, especially as they are the main victims of the haze.

Jakarta says that despite not ratifying the agreement, it is still meeting its obligations under the treaty, a claim one environmental group described as "highly superficial and lacking in regional accountability."

"Ratification would essentially mean that a country acknowledges the terms and conditions of the treaty, abides by them and is fully aware of the implications if it contravenes the terms of the treaty," said Jose Raymond, Executive Director of the Singapore Environment Council.

Firms face fines

While the Indonesian government may not face compensation claims, local agricultural companies might.

Ironically, some of the firms allegedly responsible for the illegal fires are either headquartered in Singapore or are owned by Singaporeans. On Sunday and Monday, the thick smog moved northwards towards the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur compelling a more assertive response from the Malaysian government.

That in turn led to accusations from Indonesia that eight Malaysian firms were contributing to the pollution. Both Singapore and Malaysia have promised to go after any local companies responsible for the fires where farmers use traditional "slash and burn" methods to prepare large areas of land for plantation.

Concerted efforts

(MAP: Satellite data show over 800 fires burning in Indonesia, many in former peat forests near Pekanbaru. Many hotspots are in concession areas of some of the world's largest palm oil & pulp & paper companies/GoogleEarth)"We're fully supportive of the government's intentions to name and shame the companies involved. In fact, it was us who made the call to name and shame. Moreover, guilty companies should be made to face severe financial penalties and redress the environmental damage caused,” Jose Raymond, the SEC's Executive Director told DW.

The NGO thinks that while intergovernmental efforts should continue, ministers and environmental groups should engage the businesses affected and those who own large plots of farmland in Indonesia. "The real impact will be made when we work with the landowners, farmers and even provincial governments. They are the people who will make the difference over the long term. But it will take time and investment," said Raymond.

Facing corruption

While some experts say Indonesia's laws against burnings are effective and the threat of substantial penalties is in place, many think corruption is preventing firm action from being taken.

Observers say local politicians allow deforestation to continue at an increasing rate for their own gains. Environment lawyer Tan said he had no doubt that by not taking the necessary steps against illegal fires, Indonesia had breached international law.

He said "customary international law," not necessarily found in treaties, still obliged states to make commitments to one another about activities in each others' territories. "But the reality is that it cannot be compelled to appear before an international court or tribunal without its consent - such is the nature of international law," he said.

Singapore and Malaysia, he added, could go after their own companies; but without Indonesia going against all the other plantations, there would be little overall effect.

Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said the government had been dealing with the problem for years and claimed that "improvements have been made." Officials say they have been educating locals about alternatives to 'slash and burn' methods and that large companies subcontract a lot of the work out to small impoverished farmers.

Cloud seeding operations - to chemically induce rainfall - were postponed on Monday due to a lack of cloud cover in the affected areas. However, water bombing operations continued to quell several hotspots in Riau province.

- This article by Nik Martin originally appeared in Deutsche Welle

Thursday
May242012

Two Worlds, One Climate (PERSPECTIVE) 

 

(Video Modeling Climate/FrontierScientists)

By Peter Passell

Climate change, we are often told, is everyone's problem. And without a lot of help containing greenhouse gas emissions from rapidly growing emerging market countries (not to mention a host of wannabes), the prospects of avoiding disaster are small to nil. Now you tell us, retort policymakers in the have-less countries: How convenient of you to discover virtue only after two centuries of growth and unfettered carbon emissions. Since you were the ones to get us into this mess, it's your job to get us out. (The United States' what-me-worry posture on climate change does not, of course, make the West's efforts to co-opt the moral high ground any more convincing.)

This clash of wills is a bit more nuanced than that, but not much. Almost all the net growth in greenhouse gas emissions for the last two decades - and more than half the total emissions today - is coming from the developing world. What's more, most of the cheap opportunities for reducing emissions are to be found in the same countries. But as a matter of equity, it's hard to argue with "you've had your turn, now it's ours." And it's equally hard to see how the stalemate will be resolved before the world goes to hell in a plague of locusts (in some places, literally).

(PHOTO: Trucks carrying waste in China/FP)The carbon emissions stats by country are startling, and would be even more startling if we had comprehensive numbers for years since 2009.  Carbon emissions from OECD countries grew by 8% between 1990 and 2009, while emissions from the rest of the world grew by 73% (albeit from a smaller base). Breaking down the latter by country: China's emissions were up 207%, India's by 173%, Indonesia's by 165%, Vietnam's 563% (!!) and the Middle East's by 171%.

If you have any doubts about where the emissions containment opportunities lie, consider this:  In 2009, non-OECD countries generated four times as much carbon emissions per unit of GDP (at prevailing exchange rates) as OECD countries. Granted, these numbers don't look as bad if GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power rather than exchange rates. But this is one of the few instances in which GDP comparisons at international exchange rates probably make more sense, because they offer better insight into a future in which consumption patterns across countries are likely to converge; that not-so-distant day when Indians drive cars to work instead of riding bicycles, and virtually everyone who experiences winter in emerging-market countries takes the chill off with central heating.

But those focused on social justice rather than efficiency point to yet another set of numbers. While most developing countries waste fossil fuel because their heating, cooking, lighting and motorized transportation depend on older, fuel-guzzling technologies, they are still too poor to consume enough in total to leave much of a carbon footprint.  Indeed, emissions per person in non-OECD countries are just 30% that of OECD countries.

(GRAPH: Carbon cycle in the atmosphere/WikipediaBolivians, for example, emitted 1,300 kilos of CO2 per person in 2009, compared to 16,900 kilos per person in the United States. Resident of tropical Nigeria emitted a mere 266 kilos each, compared to 9,000 each in tropical Singapore. All told, those living in poor - and middle-income countries do emit more than half of all carbon emissions - but only because there are so many of them.

There's another element here that distinguishes developed from developing countries. If, as expected, climate change brings rising sea levels and more severe weather of every sort -  droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornados - the rich countries will muddle through with dykes, crops redesigned to survive drought, more air conditioning and the like. It will be expensive, but manageable, unless global warming triggers truly destabilizing changes, like the release of vast quantities of methane gas from now-frozen arctic tundra.

But the rich countries' travails may well be poor countries' damnation: the inundation of Pacific islands, catastrophic storm surges on the Bengal plain, the collapse of farm yields in semi-arid parts of Africa, and the spread of insect-vectored disease in the warmer, wetter parts. So, fair or not, poor countries have every reason to make emissions priority-one, right?

Maybe, and maybe not. The iconoclastic, Nobel Prize winning economist Tom Schelling has long argued that our interests diverge from theirs. What poor countries need most, he says, is to invest in economic growth, which will give them the income to mitigate the consequences of climate change. Roads must be paved to prevent the isolation of rural areas in heavy rains; sea walls must be built to protect coastal cities; canals must be dug to irrigate drought-prone land; emergency infrastructure must be created to minimize loss of life in weather-related disasters.

So poor countries would be foolish to divert scarce capital to emissions containment, which has only a "second-order" impact on their own welfare. Spending a dollar would, in effect, generate two cents' worth of benefits for themselves, and 98 cents' worth for the rest of the world.

(PHOTO: A climate demonstration in Oslo, Norway during 2010 global meeting/RNIf all this sounds like a recipe for righteous posturing and diplomatic delay, go to the head of the class. Environmental policymakers and pundits, who once expected to build on the foundation of the Kyoto Treaty to create a truly collective effort to contain emissions, are now thinking smaller. The European Union, for example, is going its own way, investing heavily in emissions reduction in hope that others will be shamed into following its lead.

The containment part is more or less working: European emissions declined by 12% between 1990 and 2009. But the shame part isn't. China is reducing emissions per unit of GDP, mostly as a consequence of adding productive capacity that is far more energy-efficient than "legacy" capacity. But it is nonetheless widening its lead as emitter number one because the GDP is growing so rapidly. And there is no sign that the other big emerging market economies are planning to mend their emitting ways.

Must we then just accept the reality that the developing half of the global economy won't lend a hand in climate change containment? The rich countries might bully where blandishments fail, by imposing tariffs, for example, on imports that are less than green. Might, but probably won't: The United States, in particular, is in no position (geopolitical or financial) to complicate its relationships with either China or India. Besides, it's far from clear that such tariffs would meet the standards of the World Trade Organization.

(PHOTO: Drought/GreenguideA more plausible option - one that appeals in terms of both economic efficiency and social justice - would be to buy their cooperation. Europe already has in place incentives for businesses to invest in emissions-sparing activities in developing countries: For example, paying landowners in Africa to sequester carbon by growing trees on scrubland. By the same token, one could imagine western governments paying their counterparts in the tropics to lock up forest land that would otherwise give way to logging and grazing.

But the scale of such initiatives is probably limited by the inherent accounting ambiguities. How would you know, for example, that the forest wouldn't be preserved, anyway? Even more to the point, how would one verify that a government, paid to build natural-gas-fired power plants rather than coal ones, would have gone that way without the incentive?

Arguably, the most promising approach to gaining the cooperation of emerging market countries lies in innovation. It wouldn't take much persuasion to get developing countries to adopt technologies that are climate-friendlier if they are also cheaper than emissions-as-usual.

(PHOTO: Floods in Dhaka, Bangladesh/B24One could certainly imagine government-subsidized R&D that cut the cost of solar panels by 90%, or transformed the hydrogen-producing artificial leaf into a viable source of fuel.

The idea of a global grand bargain in which emerging market countries would join the west in an ambitious, cost-minimizing containment program is dead. The best hope, at least for now, is a pragmatic search for common ground, one that appeals to the angels but relies on self-interest.

A decade late and a trillion dollars short, you say? To paraphrase a former secretary of defense, you go to war with the army you've got, not the one you'd like to have.

- This Commentary originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

Thursday
Mar082012

Dredging for Facts on the Barrier Reef (REPORT) 

By Andrew Thomas in Asia 

His tone was plaintive.

“We’re poisoning that harbour.  All the crap we’re stirring up; all the rubbish being spewed out. It’s just too much.”

Ordinarily, when someone uses "we" in that context, they only include themselves as passive (usually resistant) individuals, reluctantly part of a national "we" – against both their better judgement and will.

The man describing to me how Gladstone Harbour was being "destroyed", however, counted himself as an active part of that "we": a hands-on, knowing participant in the harbour’s destruction. 

It’d be instant dismissal if anyone heard him tell me these things, he said, so he wouldn’t speak on camera.  But as a bulldozer driver, helping to clear land for a Liquefied Natural Gas plant on adjacent Curtis Island, he realised he was contributing to what he saw as an environmental catastrophe. 

So why was he doing it? 

He spelt it out, literally: "M-o-n-e-y."

A standard five day week earned him $3,400.  Working weekends, he could nearly double that.  He may have sold out his principles, but at least he’d got a good price. 

Gladstone Harbour – almost exactly half way up Australia’s East Coast – represents, in microcosm, the great Australian dilemma. 

Abundant natural resources have kept the country – both as a nation and as a collection of individuals like that bulldozer driver – economically rich.  While the rest of the developed world struggles through financial crisis, Australia powers on.

But it’s all come at an environmental cost. 

As my TV report makes clear, in Gladstone – as elsewhere – competing claims are made about the extent to which development causes damage.

And it’s hard to know who to believe.

The commercial fisherman who was adamant that dredging was killing the fish - and with them his livelihood - had an interest in one causing the other: where there’s blame, there’s a big compensation claim.

Equally, the head of the port corporation could see the entire development of Gladstone Harbour – worth billions – put on hold if a link was ever proved.  So it’s in his interests to stress that "no evidence" of one has ever been found. 

In journalism, it’s common to build a report around a debate – one person says this for these reasons, another that, for those ones.  What is rare is to see a debate internalised within one bulldozer driver: a tortured environmentalist earning $250,000 a year to clear land, and bury his conscience. 

- Originally published by AlJazeera under Creative Commons License 

Tuesday
Nov222011

The Bad Host: Africa's Biggest Polluter Hosting Cop17 (PERSPECTIVE)

By Glen Ashton

(HN, November 22, 2011) - If we had to choose a country to host the COP17 international climate change negotiations and broker a consensus deal to manage the increasingly urgent matter of human induced climate change, we could not do much worse than choose South Africa.South African fur seals asleep in Cape Town harbour: annual, sanctioned hunts of this endangered species continue. CREDIT: M. Bociurkw

It is not that South Africa won’t be a gracious host. This is a nation renowned for its hospitality and its open, welcoming nature, across all cultures in this multifaceted society.

South Africans are certainly excellent negotiators as well. The country has vast experience reaching negotiated settlements between diametrically opposed sides. This is illustrated both in the recent history of the country as well as in the role it has played in the creation of the African Union and the resolution of numerous conflicts across the continent.

The reason South Africa is an abysmal choice is because of the hypocrisy inherent in having Africa’s biggest and most recalcitrant polluter oversee the world’s most important global climate change negotiations.

The only worse choice to chair COP17 would be the United States. Yet even that is moot. South Africa is so deeply compromised by its requirements to maintain positive perceptions for investment, to appease the Washington consensus and its neo-liberal economic policies, that we cannot realistically hope for this particular tail to wag the dog of international climate change negotiations.

South Africa proclaims its intent to shift to a lower carbon economy yet remains stubbornly committed to development of its coal and other non-renewable energy resources. Its view is so profoundly compromised it perceives natural gas as akin to renewable energy, as outlined in the recently release National Development Plan (NDP). 

If anything, the NDP reveals the absence of a properly considered, integrated energy policy. It emphasises the failures of South Africa’s recent energy white paper, inordinately influenced by major energy consumers and producers. 

South African economic development is founded on the market and corporate friendly lassiez-faire regulation of its emissions and dirty energy. It is responsible for more than 40% of Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the worlds 12th largest emitter, yet only the worlds 25th largest economy. Brazil, with a GDP nearly four times greater than South Africa emits less, as do France, Italy and Indonesia.

South Africa’s emissions are directly linked to its coal addiction. The greatest local emitter is the secretive parastatal electrical utility Eskom, almost entirely reliant on coal.

The second significant emitter is Sasol, South Africa’s massive oil-from-coal industry. Sasol was originally state-owned but was privatised in 1979. Its Secunda plant is the world’s biggest single point source of CO2 emissions. 

The extent to which the South African state, through Eskom, subsidises energy is neatly illustrated in its incestuous relationship with BHP Billiton, the Australian owned transnational. Billiton pays less than it costs Eskom to produce power in an irrational sweetheart deal. 

South Africa committed to a 34% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 and a 45% by 2025. CREDIT: M BociurkiwBilliton’s Mozal aluminium smelter in Mozambique presently pays around 10% domestic consumers are charged in South Africa. Eskom has consistently refused to provide figures for Billiton’s power costs in South Africa. Attempts to gain transparency remain deadlocked in court. Billiton’s role is not insignificant, consuming up to 10% of Eskom’s total capacity. Billiton should be paying for new power plants, not the public.

Eskom has refused to provide any sort of transparent breakdown of costs for its power generation and supply networks in order to enable independent analysis of its operations. This is unacceptable behaviour by a national utility, but Eskom’s corporate arrogance is well established. Further, Eskom has obstinately blocked access to grid infrastructure thus thwarting entry by independent power generators.

South Africa’s failure to adopt renewable energy, despite numerous promises, is just as remarkable. The renewable energy white paper of 2003 committed to 4% of renewable energy (1650MW) by 2013. Not only is this target unattainable, the only installed renewable energy project to date - the Darling wind farm - is tiny (5.2MW), foreign-funded, privately managed and completed despite persistent state indifference.

Eskom’s only planned renewable projects, a 100MW concentrated solar plant and a similar capacity wind farm are only on the cards because their funding of US$240 million was offset against the World Bank’s US$3.4 billion loan granted to build Eskom’s massive coal power station at Medupi. That Eskom’s only renewable projects are the result of World Bank conditionalities demonstrates Eskom’s obstinate reluctance to pursue renewable energy options.

Besides paying lip service to renewables, the SA government committed to a 34% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 and a 45% by 2025 during the run-up to the Copenhagen COP15 negotiations. Clearly, considering Eskom’s commissioning of two massive coal power stations, these reduction commitments are now unattainable except through statistical manipulation. 

Eskom’s influence on government policy has undermined any meaningful mitigation of its catastrophic generation policies. Lobbyists from within Eskom and the nuclear industry reactivated the nuclear programme, shelved in 2008 because it was considered unaffordable.

On the other hand the open market has indicated willingness and capacity to immediately install over 11 000 Megawatts (MW) of wind generation capacity in the Western Cape Province alone. This has been stymied by government policy decisions to cap wind energy at 4 800 MW. Even this capacity is dependent upon a state-run tender system, with further negative implications.

As if all of these background shenanigans are not enough, the host country’s position as co-ordinator of negotiations is utterly compromised by having both Eskom and Sasol represented on its COP17 negotiation team. The unreality of it all is Kafkaesque. 

The fact that Eskom, Sasol – and consequently the South African government – remain fixated on false solutions like “clean coal technology,” (a contradiction in terms) and “carbon capture and storage,” (another non-starter in terms of practicality and cost) demonstrates the degree to which the host nation’s perspectives are fundamentally compromised.

South Africa cannot, in any way, be taken seriously as an honest broker in the COP17 negotiations. Any failure to broker a fair and binding deal in Durban is symptomatic of the incestuous relationship between Eskom, Sasol and the South African Government, acting in concert as proxies for the polluters of the world.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org This commentary first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS)