Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nuclear Might Be The Answer – At Least For Now

For a few moments this weekend, our worst fears were reignited. An earthquake of 6.8 magnitude on the Richter scale struck off the east coast of Japan and created a tsunami. This is perilously close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that was so dangerously damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and workers that are cleaning up that plant were briefly evacuated because of fears that the same thing could happen again.

Luckily, in this case, the quake was considerably smaller than before, and the tsunami it created injured only one person, rather than causing the apocalyptic scenes and massive death toll of the previous one – the waves that reached the coast were only 20cm high this time. So it seems that the world continues to be safe from the possibility of another major nuclear meltdown along the lines of the Chernobyl incident of 1986. However, this latest scare does force us to ask tough questions about what our energy mix should be made up of.

The problem we face is that, of all the major energy technologies currently available to us, nuclear is the most sustainable option that can realistically provide the huge amounts of energy our current society needs. Nuclear is essentially a carbon-free energy source – it doesn't release any greenhouse gases in the process of creating energy, and only a relatively small amount in the extraction of uranium from the ground. And it produces far more energy than any renewable technology, all while taking up less space and being much quicker to scale up to the necessary levels.

At the same time, it's potentially very dangerous, as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima have all shown us.

So what can we do? It seems clear that we should not see nuclear as a long-term option. Over a long enough timescale, nuclear power raises a number of complicated questions that we may not be able to answer – what do we do with the waste, for one thing; and how can we ever be truly safe from meltdowns and leakages caused by natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami? This means that we must continue to aim for a long-term policy that combines the scaling-up of renewable technologies like solar, tidal, and wind power (as well as many other possibilities) with a reduction in the amount of energy we consume.

But while we chase those policy goals, we must also be pragmatic about the risks that face us today. We need to cut down on our carbon emissions much more quickly than renewable technologies can be developed, and this means that we must take a sensible approach to nuclear power and consider it as a carbon-free technology that, although dangerous, can be of use to us in the short-term.

Very few nations have regular earthquakes, and the safety technology of nuclear plants has increased massively since the days of Chernobyl. Consequently, we must accept that the risk of a nuclear meltdown is relatively small; while the risk of catastrophic climate change if we do not reduce our emissions is huge. It's time to balance those probabilities, assess the risks, and choose a technology that allows us to avoid climate change in the short-term while providing the energy we need to keep society running while we pursue other long-term energy goals like reducing consumption and growing renewables. And that may well mean being brave and choosing nuclear.

[ Richter scale, Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, Chernobyl incident, carbon-free energy source, greenhouse gases, renewable technology, Three Mile Island, natural disasters, Japanese tsunami, long-term policy, policy goals, carbon emissions, nuclear power, catastrophic climate ]

Monday, July 14, 2014

Europe is stronger united than divided

Once again, the UK is being extremely silly when it comes to the important topic of Europe – a shame for all those of us who think a strong UK presence in the EU is important. This time around, the British Prime Minister David Cameron has been opposing the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, arguing that he is too much of a ‘Brussels insider’ to be able to make the necessary reforms to the EU in the coming years.
This was a ridiculous platform on which to base his argument – of course Juncker is a Brussels insider, just like the previous President Jose Manuel Barroso was, and just like the next President of the Commission will be. They’re all Brussels insiders, that’s practically a requirement of the job – to take on Juncker on that basis was always going to be a losing battle, and one which has lost Cameron much respect among other European leaders.
That loss of respect was shown in the final vote on the Juncker nomination – 26 votes in favor, only 2 against, from the UK itself and Hungary. This massive defeat, with only a fairly marginal right-wing country behind the UK, makes it much harder for Cameron to have a leading role in the very reforms he is trying to promote over the next few years. And all of it was done just to gain a little extra support from Eurosceptics in the British Conservative party and the UK electorate.
It may seem like those Eurosceptics lost the battle – Juncker will almost certainly be the next President, after all. And yet, they may have taken a large step towards winning the war – with Cameron losing influence in Europe, it will be easier for the Eurosceptics to convince the public to vote for Britain to leave the EU in a few year’s time. There may well be a referendum on that exact issue in 2017 – the Conservatives have promised to hold one if re-elected next year, and there is a fairly good chance that other parties will promise the same so as not be left behind in the electoral race.
This would be a huge tragedy. The UK has long had a somewhat combative relationship with the rest of the EU, but this is a good thing – the EU is, as mentioned above, full of insiders who all have the same opinions. Having a grumpy old uncle like the UK on the sidelines is actually good for them, it provides useful criticism and can help rein in the worst excesses of groupthink. In return, the EU has done a lot of good for the UK, even if many British citizens don’t realize it – it has made the country more multicultural, made the people of the UK more educated about the rest of Europe, and allowed quick and easy trade. This has been a big part of helping London to become the most important city in the continent and one of the most important in the world.
For this relationship to end would be bad for everyone. The UK would lose a substantial part of its world influence without being part of the European bloc, as well as losing all of that preferential trading with other European countries. Meanwhile, the EU would lose a large chunk of it’s population (the UK has 70 million people, 13% of the EU’s 505 million citizens), as well as saying goodbye to one of the more moderate countries on a continent that is increasingly falling under the influence of extremist right-wing parties.
Consequently, it is highly important for both sides to work to repair this damage over the next few years. The UK must accept that it cannot always be center stage and bend the rest of the EU to its will; but the other countries of the EU must also be willing to make a few concessions to please their grouchy neighbor – it may seem painful or unfair to do so at times, but it will ultimately be in the best interests of everyone in the Union.

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Democracy isn’t just a stunt

The last week has seen large protests in Hong Kong against the power that the Chinese government in Beijing continues to wield over the ‘special autonomous region’. Beijing maintains the right to choose the city state’s Chief Executive, and protesters in favor of full democracy held a mock ballot to call for a different electoral system, as well as getting as many as 500,000 people to march in the streets to show their displeasure.
The Chinese government predictably denounced this as a stunt, and as ‘not legitimate’, which is obviously a rather foolish thing to say – of course it was a stunt, and no-one actually believed the results of the ballot would be considered binding. But the protest does seem to indicate a strong feeling among the people of Hong Kong.
China’s difficulties with Hong Kong stem from the ‘one country, two systems’ set-up that came about when British rule ended in 1997. The UK only agreed to hand Hong Kong back to China if the Chinese agreed to maintain the existing system for a minimum of 50 years – capitalist and with some amount of democracy (although the British themselves never gave the people of Hong Kong a fully free vote, hence why Beijing has the power to select the Chief Exec).
Consequently, China must give Hong Kong a fairly long leash, allowing freedom of the press and freedom of assembly; while also ensuring that the leash is firmly attached, and Hong Kong does not get any ideas that it is a separate or independent country from the Chinese mainland. This is achieved through encouraging Chief Execs that support the Communist party – China is also promising full elections in the future, but again, only Communist party members will be allowed to stand.
These demonstrations indicate, however, that China will eventually need to accept that it is hard in the modern era to remove democracy and freedom once people have a taste of it. The citizens of Hong Kong will not accept slippage of their rights, they will not allow Beijing to change their system without a very large fight. In fact, it seems considerably more likely that as time goes on the people of mainland China will want to increase their democracy to be in line with Hong Kong, rather than vice versa.
So rather than trying to stifle or control democracy in Hong Kong, or dismissing legitimate democratic expression as a stunt, China instead needs to find a way to slowly and carefully open itself up to democracy. There have already been some successes here, with elections for local positions being held – although again, only Communist party candidates are allowed to run in such ballots.
The introduction of a market system in China over the past three decades has done much to increase living standards, but the market alone cannot keep people happy forever. Now that the people of eastern China are wealthy (although there is still much room for improvement in the west of the country), they will begin to look for other things to increase their happiness – and they may well follow their counterparts in Hong Kong and in the west in demanding more say in those who govern them. China needs to embrace this tendency sooner rather than later, and not stifle the feelings of its autonomous citizens in the south.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Could First Nations end the tar sands destruction?

Our recent article about indigenous issues in North America was obviously very well timed, as there have been two major breakthroughs on the issue since writing it – both of them in Canada. Firstly, the city of Vancouver, on Canada’s western coast, has officially recognized that it was built on First Nations land (First Nations is the equivalent Canadian term to ‘Native Americans’ in the US) that was never officially given up by treaty. People simply turned up and built on the land, without any concern for the legality of what they were doing or the ownership of the resources they were using. This will, of course, not change anything – Vancouver isn’t going to pack up and move to a different part of the country, after all – but it is a highly symbolic acknowledgement of the events of the past.
More importantly, the Supreme Court of Canada this week also announced that it recognizes the Tsilhqot’in tribe of British Columbia as a ‘nation’ who never surrendered their land to the Canadians and therefore have the right to govern themselves and do whatever they like with their territory. This is a landmark ruling on First Nations rights, and one which has been going through the courts for twenty years. In terms of showing respect for the native peoples of the Americas this is huge, and it also shows that Canada is light years ahead of the USA in such matters; but the most immediate effect might be on energy policy.
Canada’s most famous energy resource (at least in recent years) has been the tar sands around Fort McMurray in northern Alberta province. This is a region with a heavy First Nations presence, and many of the campaigns against the tar sands have focused on the health and livelihood effects they have had on local native people, as well as their environmental destruction. Getting the tar sands oil from northern Alberta to other parts of the country, continent, and world, also requires threading oil pipelines through land that may now be recognized as being owned by First Nations. This declaration by the Supreme Court suddenly seems to make building these pipelines much more difficult, as it accepts that native people have the right to say no to them.
Such a possibility is very bad news for energy companies. There may be a few First Nations who are willing to accept pipelines in exchange for employment opportunities and royalties from the sale of the oil, but the vast majority will be against the despoiling of their land and the destruction of the environment. There have already been multiple anti-pipeline protests in indigenous areas of the country, including British Columbia and Ontario, and with some First Nations even going to Washington to protest US support for the Keystone XL pipeline that will take tar sands oil down to the Gulf of Mexico.
All of this means that the increasing acknowledgement of the rights of First Nations in Canada could be vitally important not just to the native people themselves, but also to those of us interested in sustainable, clean energy. There is now the very real chance of one of the most damaging energy sources in the world being cut off, with no possibility of actually transporting tar sands oil to anywhere outside of Fort McMurray itself. This could force the governments of Canada and the US – and perhaps other countries that were hoping to import tar sands oil – to re-evaluate their priorities when it comes to energy, and to start investing in serious sustainable alternatives. The First Nations already understand the destructive power of fossil fuels – it’s time for the rest of us to follow their lead.

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Pride Week – A Time For Tolerance

It's currently World Pride Week (with the main march happening this year in Toronto), and a time in which many local gay pride marches also take place around the world. Such parades are well-known, at least in the west, for their fun atmosphere, with dancing, drinking, colorful clothing, and people getting sprayed with water pistols. But Pride Week also offers us an opportunity for a deeper reflection on issues of morality and human rights.

It's not particularly controversial to say that many people around the world are not big fans of alternative lifestyles that include homosexuality, bisexuality, transgendered people, or any of the many other identities that fall under the Pride banner. In Russia, gay pride marches are often attacked by extreme right-wingers, with collusion from the police. But even in supposedly tolerant countries like the US, a large number of people in a significant proportion of the country are at best uncomfortable with LGBT people, and often actively hostile to them. Sometimes this is for religious reasons, sometimes because of arguments about morality, and sometimes simply because of a visceral personal feeling with no real reason to back it up.

Most people reading this blog live in free countries, where they allowed to think whatever they like about anyone they choose, and so holding these opinions is fine, even if it is unjustified. But we must always remember that our opinions are simply that – opinions, which should have no bearing on whether or not LGBT people receive basic human rights.

In places like Uganda (and, again, even the US and Russia) many gay people are in fear for their lives and can be sent to prison or even killed for their sexuality. Whatever your beliefs about LGBT people, this is undoubtedly wrong – nobody deserves to die simply because of who they have sex with. Lesser examples of discrimination also abound – gay couples being turned away by motels or inns, for example; or, of course, the struggle over allowing gay men and women to marry. Again, whether we officially call it marriage or not, it would be wrong to stop LGBT people from expressing their love for one another and receiving the many benefits that the state gives to married couples.

These are basic human rights to equal treatment and dignity that we are talking about, and we must support these rights for all people if we are to support them for anyone. If we start to say that some people are not worthy of such rights because of their sexuality, then we can have no complaints when others start saying we do not deserve the same rights – perhaps because of our race, our gender, or our religion.

Homosexuality is not a choice, nor is it a disease, and it is certainly not something we should fear or try to eradicate or hide from view. It has been a part of society since history began (read anything about the Ancient Greeks if you don't believe me!), and we need to start treating it in the sensible, mature manner which it deserves. We can start by saluting the tolerant countries and communities that have taken in gay Ugandan refugees who fear for their lives, who have worked with vulnerable young people to stamp out homophobic bullying, and who are happy to welcome and take part in the pride parades of their towns and cities. And we can wish everyone, gay, straight, or anything else, a happy World Pride Week and a tolerant, understanding future.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Strong action on biofuels – but can anything stop the rise of coal?

There’s both good and bad news coming through this week when it comes to energy news. On the one hand, we have some positive new EU rules on biofuel use; and on the other hand, we have some very bad news about the growing use of coal. Let’s have a look at both of them.
In Europe, the EU have agreed new targets for biofuels derived from food crops such as maize. There is a general target for 10% of all fuel to be from renewable sources by 2020, but from this year onwards, only 7% can be from food-derived biofuels – previously the entire target was expected to be reached from such fuels. Why is this good? Well, although making fuel out of renewable resources like food crops is a better option for our environment than continually digging up more fossil fuels, it is starting to have a damaging effect on food prices and hunger. By allowing food crops to be used as fuel, there was always a risk of pushing prices up and of prioritizing food for our cars over food for humans. This new target should help to avoid those problems, although it’s not as strong as the original 5% that was suggested.
What will be needed, however, is for more money to be invested in developing alternative biofuels from things like algae. These will have a much smaller environmental and social impact than using food crops, but are currently only in the developmental stage, and the EU is not yet providing enough incentives to encourage further research. They have set an informal target of sourcing 0.5% of their fuel from such sources by 2020, but this is both too small and non-binding.
Now for the bad news. Despite these alternative fuels, coal is now reported to be the fastest growing energy source in the world, and is currently commanding a greater share of the worldwide energy market than it has since the 1970s. The continued use of such an environmentally damaging fuel threatens to wipe out any gains that might be made from new energy technologies, and could push us ever closer to unstoppable climate change. The growth in coal usage is partially being encouraged by the needs of rapidly developing countries like China, but we cannot totally blame them – western countries are also increasing their usage of coal, and are not providing enough help for developing countries to green their energy systems and economies.
So on the one hand, we see politicians aiming for a more enlightened energy policy. On the other, we see market conditions (the high demand for energy coupled with the cheap price of coal) pushing us in the other direction. It leads us to conclude that a more coordinated international energy system may be needed – one which is based on political and social decisions rather than simply the whims of the market. We need to develop a system of international investment in researching and developing new energy technologies that can put an end to coal and oil once and for all. This isn’t going to happen without serious cooperation between states, and it isn’t going to happen if we leave things up to a capitalist market system – instead, cheap fossil fuels will simply continue to be extracted and burned.
The EU’s approach is a good start – they are working together to try to develop a system that benefits European citizens, people of other countries, and still leaves room for businesses to operate and grow within the confines of a planned energy policy. It needs to be extended and made stronger, and applied to all areas of our energy consumption, and similar moves need to be encouraged on a worldwide stage. If we are going to avoid climate change and dig ourselves out of the energy problems we have created, we are going to have to work together, consciously.
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Monday, June 16, 2014

Bursting the housing bubble

To read the newspapers in the UK, you might think that the housing market is both the most important thing in the country, and something that is of innate benefit to all citizens. There is constant jubilation over rising house prices, and that seems to be about the most important thing to publications like The Daily Mail. Think about things a little more deeply, however, and it’s becoming plain to see that the UK is in the midst of a housing crisis which is desperately hurting the lives of the poorest members of society.
For many people, rising house prices are not a good thing. Poorer people who have lived in London for decades are finding themselves increasingly unable to stay in the market in that city. In many cases they are renting from the local government, or from private landlords, and the increased value of the property means that the government wants to sell their house for a profit, or the landlord wants to charge double the rent. When that happens, and these people want to move somewhere nearby – it’s impossible, due to the high prices.
Worse, many of the new owners that are fuelling this bubble in house prices are absentee landlords living in other cities or countries. Many new developments in London are specifically targeting Chinese and Singaporean owners, advertising London housing as an investment in the future – buy the house now, rent it out for a few years, sell it when the prices go up. This creates a very unstable situation for the people who rent, and further prices these new homes out of the reach of ordinary Brits.
In many cases, the potential benefits of such expensive housing are also not realized. Local governments can collect something called ‘council tax’ from each household, but the way in which this is arranged means that any apartment-style building is considered low value, and pays very little tax  compared to a normal house. This is the same even if the cost of the building is higher – one apartment owned by a Ukrainian millionaire in Hyde Park cost over £100m, but requires less council tax per year than a £200,000 home in a poor area. This means that many parts of London are not getting the tax income they need to provide services and housing for the poor.
Consequently, social housing for the poor is no longer being built in England, or is only being built very slowly. There is little money available to provide it, and even if such money was made available by increasing taxes or diverting money from other budgets, the government of the UK has essentially abandoned its responsibility to house its people over the past thirty years. It is now assumed that something as vital and as basic as shelter should be left up to the free market – this is the curse of neoliberal ideology striking again.
When combined with the outlawing of squatting – which in many cases was the last recourse of the poor and homeless who need somewhere to sleep – this is undoubtedly a crisis. The rich continue to profit from the rising prices and the desperation of the poor to have somewhere to stay; while the poor themselves suffer from uncertainty and exploitative rents, going to food banks because they can’t afford to eat after paying the rent, or simply becoming homeless when they can’t make ends meet. Once again, the policies we live with are backwards, and the poor suffer.

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