Category Archives: Global

Challenging Global Oligarchy

ssange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

Assange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

The Panama Papers, and then the Paradise Papers, reveal much more than just the murky world of how the very wealthy avoid paying tax. They provide an insight into how democracy is being undermined by oligarchy. Phil McDuff, writing in the Guardian, shows how tax havens and offshore accounts have been set up as a direct result of government policy. They could and should be closed down. However, they will not be closed, not until we have some pretty radical political change. We live in a global oligarchy where the institutions of democracy have been captured and are being used to further enrich a tiny class of international billionaires. One might ask why a billionaire would want more money; surely they own every material possession they could possibly desire?

One explanation is that what they want is ever greater influence on the political process to promote their own vision of how the world should be. ‘Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist’ (Wikipedia) Globally the super rich are pouring more money into buying up the allegiance of ever more politicians and the media outlets that can promulgate their views. This increasing global trend toward oligarchy is being driven by a strange mix of American libertarians and autocrats, racists and misogynists, Putin’s Russian state machine, some extreme right-wing ideologues and organised crime networks and the limitless greed of already obscenely wealthy individuals.

In 2015 former President Jimmy Carter stated that the United States is now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” (Wikipedia). The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit Referendum and many other elections and political processes were swayed by the flows of dark money and divisive propaganda flowing from the global oligarchy. This is a complex area. Challenging this will require the actions of many people. The best journalists will be needed to uncover this labyrinthine, secretive and dangerous world. Politicians capable of taking a lead and painting a vision of how society could be better organised will need to step up to the task. It will also require the efforts of millions of us ordinary citizens of the world to work together to win the many millions of victories that need to be won in order to implement change.

The oligarchs may have more money and power at the moment, but they can be toppled. Our little local victory that I blogged about last week is one tiny step in the right direction. Millions more steps will be needed. Globally a broad movement that desires a more egalitarian and ecological political and economic system is globally growing in momentum. The limitless greed, belligerent nationalism and ecological damage of the current oligarchy cannot go on much longer.

China gets serious about pollution

Air pollution in Beijing

Air pollution in Beijing

This week China has shut down about 40% of all its factories, approximately   80,000 of them. Some may be shut down permanently, some just until they can clean up their act. The early evidence is that fines are being strictly imposed as the tax bureau acts in tandem with the pollution inspectors. Some factory managers and owners may well be sent to jail. There will be disruption in global supply chains. The price of Chinese made things, from clothing to car components will increase a bit in the short term. A few percentage points may be knocked off Chinese GDP figures. However all these things seem a small price to pay for the benefits at stake.

China has a public health emergency in terms of local pollution. In rapidly reducing this local pollution many macro ecological threats from climate change to ocean acidification can also be mitigated. In a blog a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need to create a pollution minimizing way of maximizing the social and economic benefits of a modern economy. By shutting down obsolete and dirty factories cleantech innovation will be stimulated, leading to more sustainable forms of prosperity. Just in purely economic terms China will probably benefit in the longer term.

Over the last sixty years or so successive legislation has helped clean up most of the rivers of Europe and North America. London’s air quality improved rapidly after the 1956 Clean Air Act. Cleaning up pollution always requires strong government leadership. This week Sadiq Khan introduced the new £10 toxicity charge for bringing older more polluting cars into the centre of London. Although this is to be welcomed, it is too little, too late. The pace of shifting to a cleantech economy needs to speed up dramatically.

The medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that 50,000 people in the UK, and 9 million globally, die each year due to poor air quality. It is time governments the world over took more radical steps to tackle pollution. It will mean shutting down thousands of businesses. This needs to be managed in ways that create greater social and economic security while cleaning up the mess. To me this seems quite doable. Stop subsidies to polluting industries, introduce hefty fines on all forms of pollution, introduce a universal basic income and incentivise cleantech innovation.

In numerous blogs I’ve sounded an optimistic note that China’s carbon emission might plummet over the coming decade. These factory closures will contribute to that goal, and they will also help ensure China is a leading economic powerhouse in the future. As USA under Trump and Britain under the quagmire of Brexit both look back to a fantasy of past glory China is forging ahead, creating the kind of economy which will typify the post fossil fuel age. China has a long way to go to reduce its horrendous pollution, but it is making a very bold start, and that is to be welcomed.

Global Political Divisions

Andrew Weaver

Andrew Weaver joins Caroline Lucas, Jesse Klaver and Isabella Lovin as one of my political heroes.

On this blog and in numerous talks I’ve put forward the case that the prime political divisions can no longer be seen as left/right, but rather socially and ecologically literate on the one hand and oil addicted nationalistic despots on the other.

It looks like Trump is on the verge of pulling the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The US House Intelligence committee has issued subpoenas to Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen in the latest instalment in the Trump-Russia saga. There is certainly a huge overlap between Putin and Trump as they struggle to keep the global carbon bubble economy going. Both Trump and Putin are irrelevant. When it comes to finding solutions to the biggest issues facing humanity, from climate change to poverty, they either are in denial of the problem or simply don’t care. Other, more intelligent, socially and ecologically responsible politicians are taking leadership roles.

A few days ago there were elections in British Columbia. Andrew Weaver, inspirational leader of the BC Greens and a professor of climate science will now be an influential figure in John Horgan’s New Democratic Party government. Expansion of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline was one of the defining issues of the election and the result is a great victory for those of us standing up to big oil and their puppet politicians.

The EU and China look set to rebuff Trump and to increase political commitment to the Paris agreement and to intensify cleantech collaboration. They will want partners in North America. Canada, with Justin Trudeau, John Horgan and Andrew Weaver involved will have much to contribute. As the Federal government in Washington collapses into irrelevance individual states and cities are increasingly stepping up to take leadership roles. In April Isabella Lovin and the Swedish government delegation signed a climate cooperation agreement with California Governor Jerry Brown, simply bypassing the idiocy of what passes for politics in Washington these days.

Britain’s role in the world is rapidly diminishing as the Brexit buffoons lead the country into increasing inequality, isolation and irrelevance. Globally constructive solution focused thinking is being led by pioneering left leaning Greens and right of centre pragmatists like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping, who do certainly have their differences but are united in seeing the need to tackle climate change and to bring the post fossil fuel economy into being, and to doing it collaboratively.

Australian Solar (Again)

Baldivis

Baldivis: of 5,765 houses 3951 now have solar panels

In 2012 I wrote a blog entitled ‘Re-powering Port Augusta’, advocating large scale concentrating solar thermal power stations be built to replace Northern and Playford B ageing dirty brown coal fired power stations, which were due to close. Since I wrote that blog a number of coal fired power stations have closed and many parts of Australia have experienced power cuts. For many decades Australia has had excellent pioneer academic solar thermal researchers but still has no large scale solar thermal power stations with thermal storage. India, South Africa and Chile have all overtaken Australia on that front. Now, rather belatedly, there is a flurry of interest in building various types of solar power and energy storage systems in Australia, and especially in the Port Augusta region. Port Augusta in South Australia is ideally located for such projects with good grid connections, a very sunny climate and a workforce with relevant skills.

Sundrop Farms, with Aalborg CSP, have built the excellent system that I blogged about a few months ago (here and here). This however was relatively small scale and just for the tomato farm, not for feeding electricity into the grid, but does provide an excellent example of what can be done.

Australia’s adoption of solar power has been very unusual. The vast majority of its solar power, about 80%, is domestic rooftop arrays. (Solar farms only account for about 8%) Rising gas and electricity prices, recent power cuts, government policies that favoured small scale arrays, large numbers of detached owner occupied houses and falling prices of solar panels and batteries are all factors contributing to the rise in rooftop solar systems in Australia. Thirteen months ago Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg stated that 15% of Australian households had photovoltaic solar panels on their roofs. Renate Egan of the Australian Photovoltaic Institute claims this figure is now 26% (higher than any other country, except perhaps a few tiny island nations). In Baldivis, a suburb of nearly 6,000 houses to the south of Perth, the figure is 69% and rapidly increasing. Within a year or two it is likely that some such places will have solar panels on 90% or more of households.

Rooftop solar looks set to increase. So far this is mainly by adding solar panels to existing buildings, which are often not ideally suited due to their orientation and many having hipped roofs. If new houses were designed and orientated to maximize solar generation very much more power could be produced at very competitive prices. The next steps will be to increase energy storage and for people to switch to electric transportation systems. As I’ve said before, Australia could become a 100% solar powered economy. It is happening piecemeal, but could be very beneficially aided by clearer government goal setting and forward planning.

The Politics of Hope & of Hate

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling the Swedish statistician, who died in February. A powerful advocate for a better, more caring future.

What’s going on in the World? It seems to me that old definitions of left and right are rapidly becoming obsolete, or at least are morphing into new forms. Humanity faces the existential threat of climate change. People are starving to death in Somalia. Globally millions are fleeing poverty or simply seeking a better life in a different country. The world is urbanizing at breakneck speed. There seem to me to be three broad camps emerging.

The mainstream is under attack, and in many places the political parties that embody this philosophy are seeing support collapse. Tony Blair, John Major and Hilary Clinton are politicians who represent this old centre ground, close to the interests of bankers, relaxed about growing inequality and only prepared to take action on climate change as long as it didn’t seriously disrupt existing business models. This centrist position is under attack from two very different perspectives.

On the one hand we have the Trump-Putin-Farage camp of xenophobic, right-wing populists, who deny climate science in order to keep the fossil fuel driven economy going and to protect the economic interests of a tiny clique of billionaires. These demagogues, like all demagogues, ‘protect the rich by getting the poor to blame the weak.’ (A succinct definition from Alain de Botton) Hence the travel bans, incitement to racism, attacks on the institutions of democracy from the courts to the media, the web of lies in order to undermine calm rational debate. The revival of fascism is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, yet fascist ideologues from the 1920’s such as Julius Evola are now back in fashion!

On the other hand there is an emerging green worldview. Clean air and unpolluted water and a healthy biosphere are seen as fundamental human rights. Climate change is understood to represent a challenge of paramount urgency. From this perspective leaving the vast majority of the world’s known fossil fuels in the ground is seen as necessary. A very rapid ramping up of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures represents a huge economic opportunity. Social inclusion and economic equality are seen as fundamental objectives. Taxing all forms of pollution, closing tax loopholes, increases in top rates of taxation are all seen as necessary in order to fund excellent health and education for all. Multiculturalism is to be embraced as is gender equality. I’ve recently blogged about Jesse Klaver in Holland and Isabella Lovin in Sweden who both personify this emergent Green politics and in a UK context I’d cite Caroline Lucas and Molly Scott Cato.

In a traditional left – right dichotomy environmental protection, investments in health and education and other aspects of ‘big Government’ were seen as being against the interests of business. However from the emergent Green perspective they can be seen as complementary. In a blog last month I cited a report from the World Economic Forum that judges Sweden to be both the best country on Earth in which to do business and the one with the best systems of health, education and environmental protection. Essentially it is a well functioning modern state. By contrast the UK and USA are becoming less economically competitive partly because they don’t have such healthy and educated populations and are riven with social problems stemming from inequality. The fact that Sweden is committed to phasing out the use of fossil fuels by 2045 is a moral imperative to tackle climate change: it is also a business opportunity. Many examples could be cited, but an interesting one is the steel industry, which currently emits vast quantities of Co2. Sweden is the first country in the world planning to switch from coal to renewably generated hydrogen to run its blast furnaces, so creating new economic opportunities while reducing emissions.

In international development we see the contrast perhaps most strongly. The new despots collude with global corporations to maximise short term profit and exploit poor countries, with Liam Fox’s Empire 2.0 and Donald Trump’s America First policies as typical. Meanwhile the emergent Green worldview is highly internationalist. Multilateral cooperation is fundamental. As the wonderful Swedish statistician and epidemiologist Hans Rosling argued, it makes sense in every way to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals as rapidly as possible. All 7, 8 or 9 billion of us humans could have Swedish levels of prosperity if we shared resources better, cooperated to reduce conflict, pollution and inequality and jointly developed the cleantech of the future. As I keep arguing in these blogs, technologically and philosophically, providing high quality, universally inclusive, food, shelter, electricity, education and health services is achievable: politically it will be extremely challenging.

What is needed is for millions of people to pitch-in and join the political movement that is trying to establish the politics of hope not hate. Green parties around the world are at the heart of this process. So too is building alliances with mainstream parties who are more slowly beginning to see the opportunities that a radically different, more ecologically sustainable, socially just and globally connected world might entail.

Hydrogen Shipping

Energy Observer

Energy Observer, which uses on-board solar and wind power to desalinate and electrolyse seawater to make hydrogen for its hydrogen fuel cell power system.

Ships are responsible for a lot of global pollution. Small gains in efficiency have been more than offset by the increased volume of trade. Historically most environmentalists argued that relocalizing the economy and decreasing trade was the best way forward, but there is little evidence that this is about to happen any time soon. Another path is to make shipping very much less polluting. Currently most shipping uses diesel engines burning a particularly polluting form of fuel oil known as bunker oil. A range of exciting technical innovations are pointing to the possibilities of a future with global trade based on pollution free ships.

In 2013 I blogged about the MS Turanor making the first circumnavigation of the globe using just photovoltaics and batteries and I’ve frequently blogged about hydrogen fuel cars, trucks and trams. Today I want to focus on two hydrogen powered boats that I think have tremendous potential.

In April 2016 Cheetah Marine successfully launched a catamaran powered by an outboard motor using hydrogen in an internal combustion engine. Cheetah are based at Ventnor in the Isle of Wight where they make hydrogen using energy from the solar panels on their workshop roof to split ordinary mains water into oxygen and hydrogen using ITM’s electrolysis process. The hydrogen is stored in pressurized tanks on the boat.

The Energy Observer is a French boat currently being completed ready for its official launch this May in Paris. Again it is a catamaran but in this case using hydrogen fuel cells. Seawater will be purified and pass through an electrolysis process onboard the boat utilizing energy from onboard solar panels, two small vertical axis wind turbines and a traction kite. A six year round the world trip is planned calling in at 101 ports as an educational showcase for clean technology.

These two hydrogen powered boats, along with MS Turanor, show the technological potential for shipping to become radically more sustainable. What is needed at this stage is strong action on pollution through outright bans, taxes and other disincentives, and support to take these innovative cleantech solutions out into the mass market. Last month I blogged about how electric buses, many with solar panels on the roof, have suddenly leapt from the eco-fringes to the commercial mainstream in some Chinese cities such as Shenzhen. How long will it be before clean renewable hydrogen replaces dirty bunker oil as the main energy source powering the global shipping industry? Much of the best innovation is happening in Britain and France, yet will it be China that takes it into mass commercial production? We need to stop pollution and replace it with very much cleaner technology, and there are huge economic and health opportunities to be gained by doing so. To grab these opportunities requires political support. It is about time Britain and Europe turned this native innovation into the norm for mainstream commercial shipping. If they don’t somebody else will. Bunker oil has had its day. Better technologies are available. Now is the time to develop and deploy them.

Solar Buses in China

Solar powered buses

Chinese Battery Electric Buses, with solar panels.

Over the years I’ve posted a number of blogs about why I’m optimistic that Chinese carbon emissions will plummet over the coming decade, and that the Chinese will make significant headway on tackling their ghastly air pollution. I’ve also written about lots of prototype zero emission transportation systems, but much less about the mass roll out of such systems and the effect they might have in reducing pollution.

Diesel buses and trucks are a major source of pollution in Chinese cities. Their days are numbered. Battery electric bus sales are booming. China represents 98% of the global market for such vehicles.  Many now have solar panels built into the roofs, as the above photograph shows. In Europe and North America a few pioneering places are doing small scale trials, mainly by importing electric buses from China. A few ground breaking efforts are being made to design and build electric buses, some with roof mounted solar panels, such as in Kampala, Uganda, by Makerere University and Kiira Motors, the first such project in Africa. However it is only in China that the rapid adoption of electric buses is forging ahead at incredible speed. The huge city of Shenzhen plans to have a fleet of 15,000 electric buses up and running by the end of this year. Other cities are expected to follow in rapid succession. There are several Chinese electric bus companies that are expanding very rapidly, such as BYD which is currently growing 50% per year. Chinese deployment of solar power is currently growing at 100% per year. Increasingly renewable electricity will be what fuels both the Chinese electricity grid and its public transport systems. Trains, trams, trucks, cars and motorbikes are all likely to go electric, or hydrogen fuel cell. It is now becoming possible to envisage fossil fuelled powered cars, trucks and buses in the same way we see steam trains, with a strange confused nostalgia for a more polluted past. If humanity is to have a future it will be with clean, pollution minimizing technology, and currently China is forging ahead of the rest of the world. Chinese carbon emissions rocketed during the decade 2002 to 2012 then levelled off for the last five years and now, I believe, are on the cusp of rapid reduction. And as carbon emissions fall so too will local air pollution. There is a long way to go, but improvements can be remarkably rapid, as the roll out of battery electric buses and solar power in China show.

China: CSP

China_provinces

The Provinces of China. New CSP will mainly be in Qinghai, Gansu & Inner Mongolia.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) uses mirrors and lenses to focus the energy of the sun to make steam, drive turbines and so make electricity. This solar technology can be used to directly drive industrial processes, desalinate seawater, or to power air conditioning via absorption chillers. With CSP heat is usually stored in molten salt and this is then used to generate electricity in the evenings after the sun has set. This is a very important advantage over photovoltaic solar. I’ve long been a fan of this technology and have written about it frequently on this blog. In the first decade of this century Spain lead the world, before abandoning support under the Rajoy government in 2010. In February 2013 I posted a blog asking ‘where next for CSP?’ I’ve posted blogs about Morocco, Chile, South Africa and USA who have all built impressive examples of this technology.

Until recently China had not built any serious CSP power projects. A couple of months ago they simultaneously announced twenty projects, ranging in scale between 50MW and 135MW, all with thermal storage and all designed and built mainly by local companies. Various mirror configurations will be used: parabolic troughs, power towers and Fresnel systems. All the projects will have to be up and running before 2019 to get the agreed price of 1.15 yuan/kWh. This is a very tight time scale, but I’d expect all will be achieved on schedule. The Chinese government refers to these as demonstration projects. If they are successful, which I’m sure they will be, I would expect the next tranche of projects to be on a larger scale. The projects are all in the sunnier west of China: mainly in Qinghai, Gansu and in Inner Mongolia. High voltage direct current power-lines will connect them to the cities on China’s less sunny east coast.

Jeremy Williams wrote an interesting blog about China’s carbon emissions and the various viewpoints people have about their future emissions. On this issue I’m firmly on the side of the optimists. I’ve blogged before about how China’s carbon emissions skyrocketed in the decade 2002 to 2012. They’ve since declined a little. I both hope and expect they’ll plummet over the coming decade, 2017 to 2017. Urban air quality is a very serious health issue in China, and China is also very vulnerable to climate change. The government is very conscious of these threats and has the money and technological ability to take action on a heroic scale and by doing so it will become a leader in both the technological and political spheres, just as USA is abandoning any sense of political leadership, particularly on Climate Change. China is investing heavily in most forms of low carbon energy, including nuclear, wind, solar photovoltaics and hydro. All forms of energy generation have advantages and disadvantages, but CSP seems to me to be one of the best for the hot dry regions of the world. These initial twenty projects will probably be followed by many larger scale projects over the coming decade, and make a significant and worthwhile contribution to reducing carbon emissions and local air pollution.

Lovin trumps Trump

Swedish Green deputy PM

Isabella Lovin, Swedish Deputy Prime Minister, signs Zero Carbon legislation. The photo is a parody of Trump.

It is barely a fortnight since Trump’s inauguration. He is proving as ghastly and bonkers as we feared he might be. No American president even comes close. Hitler in 1933 is perhaps the best comparison. It is still way too early to see how things will develop. USA has very much stronger checks and balances than Weimar Germany had. Civil society is still strong. Resistance, demonstration and litigation will abound. My task here is not to detail the mess, but to understand it, and to offer hope for a better future.

Alex Steffen wrote an excellent article focusing on the carbon bubble as the prime motivator for both Trump and Putin and why their interests align so strongly. They are the political mouthpieces of oil industries whose very existence depends on delaying any meaningful action on climate change. Scientific reality demands humanity quits fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and the vast majority of governments signed up to the Paris agreement to start the transition to a low carbon economy. Trump and Putin exist to resist this. George Monbiot has written some of the best investigative journalism about the dark forces behind Trump, Brexit and the Conservative party and the Atlantic bridge that unites them.

By contrast many countries are embracing the transition to a zero emissions economy, and are doing so in ways that are very good for people and for the planet. Sweden is perhaps the most outstanding example to focus on. In legislation signed this week by Isabella Lovin, the Swedish Green Party member and deputy Prime Minister, Sweden committed itself to become a zero emissions economy by 2045. The photograph of the signing was designed as a parody of Trump’s style of signing executive orders. Not only great legislation and leadership, but done with humour! Environmental regulation does not need to be a cost to the economy; it can be the opposite, a net gain. The World Economic Forum (hardly a green or leftie organisation) recently issued a report titled ‘Why Sweden beats other countries at just about everything’, which shows how economically competitive Sweden is while running a very well functioning welfare state with great quality of life indicators.

The horrors of Trump’s America and the antics of Theresa the Appeaser may grab the headlines but it is the countless small changes happening elsewhere in the world that give me hope. The Irish vote to dis-invest from fossil fuels is but one of hundreds of hopeful signs from all over the world, which, like the Swedish legislation for zero emissions, indicate the inevitable ending of the age of fossil fuels and the possibilities of a better future.

Trump: Appeasement or Resistance?

Climate Science takes to the streets

Climate Science takes to the streets

Today Theresa May will be meeting Donald Trump in Washington. In 1938 Chamberlain went to Munich to appease Hitler. There are parallels. Trump is emerging as a real and present danger to world peace and good governance and must be resisted and not appeased.

Donald Trump’s insane plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and get the Mexicans to pay for it is not surprisingly causing outrage in Mexico. The Mexican senator Javier Lozano summed it up: “The uncertainty is over. It is confirmed that we will have to deal with an arrogant and ignorant despot in the USA”.

It is humiliating that the British Prime Minister is going to grovel at Trump’s feet. Britain needs friends in North America, but Theresa May would be better employed meeting Mexico’s President Pena Nieto and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rather than wasting her time trying to influence Trump. It is at a time like this that we should be deepening and strengthening our membership of the European Union, not blindly blundering into Brexit.

Naomi Klein provides insightful analysis of Trump’s cabinet and the corporate capture of American political power. It is clear that the resistance of ordinary citizens will be crucial to uphold human rights, climate science and much else. As Trump tries to silence scientists they are increasingly resorting to publishing facts on social media. For Twitter users I strongly recommend following ClimateReality. As they tweeted this morning “It’s a sad day for democracy when stating scientific truths becomes a rebellious act”. Again very similar to 1930’s Germany. We must not appease Trump and stifle scientific debate.

The recent Women’s March was the largest single day protest in US history. Worldwide about 4.8 million people participated in over 500 marches in eighty-one countries. Marching is important, but it is only a small token gesture. We will need to organise globally online and face to face in our communities to have any chance of success, and get politically engaged. Globally most people want the same things: peace, cooperation, clean air and water, economic and physical security. The UN Global Goals are all easily achievable if we can unite and cooperate together to build a better future. To overcome the forces of ignorant and despotic nationalism civil society will have to get organised on a scale it has never before achieved. That is the challenge. Join in. Connect. Be a part of the change you want to see.