26 October 2008

Moscow: a worm-hole and a Red Rectangle

Don’t try looking for a shower in Moscow. Our mission to get clean cost us four of our eight hours in the city, via a non-responsive hostel (thanks, Lonely Planet) and an over-priced taxi ride to an extortionately priced hotel… where a room booking for a shower would have required taking out a (non-sub-prime) mortgage. Sometimes when you get to a new city the whole experience is so confusing that it can take several hours of wandering endlessly to adjust. This was the Moscow worm-hole: a parallel reality where metros only ran in the wrong direction, and maps consistently failed to match up to places on first attempt. The fact that the taxi played Hotel California and Moon River added to the sense of things being curiously out of time.

Eventually we gave up on the washing plan, checked in our left luggage at Yaroslavl station (where the Trans-Manchurian and other Trans-Siberian trains leave), and headed to Red Square – or ‘Red Rectangle’, as one of my friends more accurately dubbed it. We arrived at night to find the building opposite the Kremlin lit up like a Christmas tree, which somewhat spoils the post-Soviet ambiance of the whole scene. That building is now a shopping centre, with a ‘Cartier’ store standing directly opposite Lenin’s tomb. The old man must be turning in his mummified grave.

3 October

Amsterdam to Moscow: borders and bogies

The journey started from Amsterdam (where I live) on 1 October with the relatively short 6 1/2 hour train journey to Berlin. From there we travelled onwards to Kiev. One thing you quickly learn to appreciate is how small Western Europe is – with Berlin its outermost border. We left the Amsterdam train at the city’s impressive new Hauptbahnhof (central station), but the Kiev train starts at the distinctly less fashionable Gesundbrunnnen. The surly, square-hatted, blue-uniformed train assistants lining the platform welcomed us to the former Communist bloc.

As the train crossed the Polish border, we passed a fleet of Volkwagen vans being imported into Germany. The train passed through Poznan and Warsaw on that first night, and when I awoke it was a beautiful autumn day in the countryside of south-east Poland.

Not long after we passed another border – into Ukraine. The border police there scan your passport with expensive-looking EU-funded equipment (by contrast, the Russian and Chinese officials later in the trip just stand you up and stare at you long and hard). The train then crossed no man’s land and back again, reversing and entering a train shed where the bogies are changed. I have no idea why they are called this, but it refers to the whole undercarriage of the train. As we remained in our carriages, the train was taken apart, with each carriage lifted up to have one set of wheels rolled out and another set rolled back in.

Aside from the curiosity of the train-lifting show, I marvelled at the administrative logic that presumably underpins this whole exercise. If the point is passenger convenience, then surely changing trains rather than a long border stop would be preferable. If the point is practicality, then I would have thought that adjustable wheels or twin sets of wheels that could be raised and lowered should be more convenient. So I’m tempted to think the whole scheme – which is repeated on the Russia-China border – has been designed by committee, then entrenched by years of repeated practice until that is just the way these things are done.

The Ukrainian countryside was also bathed in autumn sunlight and, aside from discovering courtesy of two British travellers that Chernobyl is now a tourist destination, the remainder of the trip to Kiev passed uneventfully.

We arrived late at night, but to a busy station whose grandeur showed no signs of fading. English got us nowhere with the station staff here, or in Moscow, but we managed to book an onward sleeper train leaving shortly after midnight. The attractive wooden carriages ushered us comfortably to Moscow, where we arrived the next afternoon.

1 to 3 October.

Russia before Russia, and the perils of ‘ethical travel’

My first experience of Russia was in The Hague. We were there to get visas as the Russian consulate, an anonymous doorway in the city’s embassy district. A man in a shiny suit opened the door and said nothing, but his eyes were saying – in an accusatory tone – what do you want? We waited for some words… and waited, the silence being a game of who would flinch first. ‘Is this the consulate?’ we flinched. Our reaction produced no words from our Russian companion, but he reached behind him and thrust two visa application forms into our hands. He requested a photo, monosyllabically (quite an achievement for a two syllable word). We didn’t have them. His stare was eloquently unimpressed. Eventually we managed to communicate that we simply want to ask some questions about visa applications, and were ushered in. The woman at the counter was exceedingly helpful and friendly.

One other vignette to set the tone for my trip: it almost didn’t happen. The ‘ethical’ travel agent I was advised to use for bookings to the conference, who then claimed to have booked my trip, called me back after I was told I had a confirmation and unilaterally cancelled it: ‘the itinerary was too complicated, and how about I take a plane instead?’ The delay killed off any plans to travel via Mongolia, and confirmed that I would bypass Belarus, since getting the visas for those two countries plus Russia and China would prove too time consuming. So in the end I bought up the tickets separately, with the aid of seat61, Amsterdam station, a Trans-Siberian specialist (Trans-Sputnik in The Hague), the China International Travel Service (for the return leg - rather delightfully for this age of streamlined bureaucracy, you collect the tickets from a filing cabinet on the 8th floor of a Beijing skyscraper), a much improved Rail Europe website (for my final leg from Italy), and the rest en route. In the meantime, I gained two wonderful travel companions for the outward leg.

ps. at some point I will get around to augmenting this blog with pictures – and maybe even some videos.

To Beijing and back by train: why bother?

Why did I just travel to Beijing and back? By train? Via Athens? I have, by now, several well-rehearsed short answers to this question. Climate change. Curiosity. A need to escape the internet. A book project to work on. None of these quite captures the whoLinkle picture, but each carries a grain of truth. First things first, though, I simply needed to go to both places for work – the Asia Europe People’s Forum (www.aepf.info) in Beijing, and an anti-corruption conference in Athens. So why not travel over land? ‘It seems a waste of time’ is the most obvious comeback – but it isn’t as if you enter a state of suspended animation as soon as the train door slams shut, as this blog will hopefully explain. Nor is , it just a ‘tourist outing’. There are many pleasurable ways, I’m sure, to do this trip touristically, but non-stop is unlikely to be the best of them. In fact, the Trans-Manchurian trains themselves are distinctly tourist-free, at this time of year at least: on the 13 carriages (give or take the odd attachment and detachment) that travelled from Beijing to Moscow, a grand total of three people – including myself – were not Russian or Chinese.

To start with the obvious: if you work on climate change, you should try not to fly. This is true, but trite. In spending any time tracking global processes, you are likely to end up with a hypocritically large carbon footprint (this is probably not the occasion for me to discuss how many ineffectual air miles are chalked up in maintaining a ‘global civil society’) and the best way to mitigate this is simply to think carefully what trips you really need to take, and which can easily be skipped. Having a sense of your own replaceability can definitely help too. But in the end, that still leaves an unhealthily large share of travelling – which, if you consider that a collective effort is necessary to achieve structural changes, hopefully outweighs the negatives of individual practice. Beyond that, I feel strongly that flying shouldn’t be the default instinct – as it is still is for many ‘activists’, even on short European trips. There are several ways to travel over land or sea, and www.seat61.com is an indispensable starting point for these (although I am still looking for advice on how to cross the Atlantic cheaply without breaking the bank).

The other reasons – writing, escape, meetings – I’ll come to as this story progresses. The one I keep coming back to, though, is to gain a sense of perspective. Travelling across Europe, then through the world’s largest country and on to the capital of the world’s most populous one, gives a sense of scale that no A to B tin-can hop from airport to airport can match.

15 September 2008

World's largest biofuel plant will not be veggie friendly

I just finished an article on agrofuels for the next Red Pepper... but since there are a lot of nuggets that I left out I may post a few here. I started with a theme of "what are the world's largest agrofuel producers?" That changed a lot, mainly because there have been several recent policy developments to report... but in the process I found a few interesting things.

Here's one: the Finnish-based Neste Oil is currently developing the world's largest biodiesel refinery in Singapore. Opening in 2010, it will process 800,000 tonnes a year. This will be joined by a similar-sized refinery in Rotterdam by 2011.

Both plants will process the company's NexBTL blend of biodiesel. This is made from a blend that includes palm oil. The Singapore plant is strategically located near production sites in Indonesia and Malaysia... which are hugely destructive, since much of this is produced on recently deforested land. In Indonesia's Riau province, which I visited last year, the land is a deep peatland - which makes the whole process massively damaging in climate terms, because peat is a rich carbon sink. Aside from palm oil, the blend is made from rape seed oil and... vegetarians beware... animal fat?!

A second nugget of info, which may be of interest to Premier League football fans.... Dubai Investment Group, who tried but failed to by Liverpool FC, have major investments in palm oil in Malaysia. They're still after a Premier League club...

07 August 2008

UN ‘clean development’ money sought for dam that threatens World Heritage Site in Panama

A new hydroelectric dam in Panama could receive funding from the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, environmental justice and conservation groups have warned.

The Chan-75 dam is being built by a subsidiary of the Virginia-based Allied Energy Systems Corporation (AES), which has now requested carbon credit certification for the project. Yet the environmental impact could be devastating.

“The construction threatens the environment and violates the human rights of the Ngöbe indigenous tribe living in the region” says Osvaldo Jordan of the Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD), a Panamanian environmental organisation.

The dam’s construction is currently taking place in the Palo Seco Protected Forest within the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, in the Bocas Del Toro region of Panama. Yet the Chan 75 project does not comply with the guidelines of the World Commission on Dams. The construction threatens the La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by Panama and Costa Rica, and part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Earlier this year, BBC News reported the discovery of three new species of amphibians on the Costa Rican side of the Park, very close to the border with Panama. The dam will most likely cause the extirpation of all of the major migratory aquatic fish and shrimp species from the La Amistad, and will negatively affect populations of jaguars, tapirs, and harpy eagles.

The dam also violates the human rights of Panama’s indigenous Ngöbe population. The Panamanian environmental agency, La Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM), approved the construction without the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Ngöbe. The dam will result in the complete relocation of more than 1,000 Ngöbe subsistence farmers, and the destruction of their unique lifestyle. AES has met Ngöbe protests in response to the construction with the use of bribery, blackmail and outright police repression, all with the intention of pressuring the Ngöbe farmers to leave their land.

“The Chan-75 case is further evidence that the CDM is being treated as a subsidy stream for environmentally destructive projects,” says Oscar Reyes of Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. “It risks a lose-lose scenario, where the people and environment of Panama are threatened by a project that would allow industries elsewhere to continue polluting.”

A factsheet on the Chan-75 project can be found here

1. In March 2008, two non-governmental organizations, La Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo (ACD) and Cultural Survival, filed a petition to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to protect the human rights of the Ngöbe. The NGOs argue that the CDM should not be utilized to propagate human rights violations and the destruction of the world’s biological diversity in the name of clean energy.

2. In line with the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol carbon market, the CDM Executive Board is now accepting public comment on the legitimacy of the project. ACD and Cultural Survival are now requesting that comments on the project be sent to the CDM Executive Board, by emailing manja.welzel@tuev-sued.de with the heading (Changuinola, Panama – COMMENTS) before 8 Friday 8 August.

3. Hydropower is the most common form of technology in the CDM pipeline, with 828 such projects awaiting approval as of April 2008. See International Rivers, Bad Deal for the Planet http://www.internationalrivers.org/node/2826 for further details

18 July 2008

Fannie and Freddie sneeze, the world catches a cold

When United States Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave the US Congress a bleak assessment about the state of the country’s economy on Tuesday, he blamed the housing markets, high energy prices and tight credit conditions for a slowing of growth.

Bernanke’s statement came just two days after the Federal Reserve – which is the central bank in the United States - and the US Treasury Department came to the rescue of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

That move marks the latest development in a global financial crisis that was triggered by falls in the US housing market earlier this year.

The US had initially looked to the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two ‘government sponsored’ companies, to sure up the country’s mortgage market when the initial crisis hit.

Now the rescuers – which, between them, hold or guarantee more than $5 trillion dollars in mortgages - have had to be rescued with emergency loans from the Federal Reserve.
In response shares on Wall Street, the US stock market, slumped.

But why does it matter what happens in the US mortgage market? And what was the subprime mortgage crisis, of which this Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac bailout is a part?

As Jim Stanford pointed out in the last Red Pepper sub-prime mortgages were, in essence, cheap loans issued to home purchasers in the United States –offered at low rates to lure buyers into the market. When the rates started rising, the loans were increasingly defaulted – and lenders, realising their investments were liable, started to lose confidence in the market. That loss of trust then had knock on effects in other parts of the financial system, triggering a financial crisis that has seen the US tumble towards recession.

But the bursting of the housing bubble was only one symptom of a much wider financial crisis that is besetting the US economy. With the liberalisation of global economies in recent years, the old economic adage that ‘when the US sneezes the world catches a cold’ still has a ring of truth.

Like most crises, this one was avoidable – but the signs were not recognised by leading bankers and economists.

Bernanke himself attributed rising US housing prices to ‘strong economic fundamentals’ in 2005 – blind to the role of speculative activity in this sector.

The US housing boom was also fuelled by a lack of regulation, with the debt burden for US mortgages parcelled up and resold so that investors didn’t know what they were buying.

This pattern of speculation was itself underpinned by a disconnection between the real and financial economies. In essence, with the ‘real economy’ faultering, investors shifted their money to financial assets from which they could generate greater profits. But with stock markets spiralling out of control – failing to take account of the real value of their assets – it was inevitable that this ‘bubble’ would eventually burst.

The results have so far fallen hardest on homeowners in US, rather than on the corporations which speculated in continued growth. And these same investors have shifted assets back to the real economy – one of the key reasons why food and oil prices have been on the rise this year.

Nor is it a surprise that Chinese capital is the main foreign investment behind Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac.

As Walden Bello points out in an excellent article on chain-gang economics, China’s economic growth has largely depended on the ability of US consumers to continue their debt-financed spending spree to absorb much of the output of China’s production - a process backed up by massive Chinese lending to the US Treasury and US firms.

The result has been an unsustainable cycle of Chinese production and US consumption. And while it could help the Chinese, and the whole globe, to de-couple their economy from the US – there are not yet signs that this is happening.

Sarko's Club Med

A new Union for the Mediterranean was officially launched in Paris last Sunday, with French President Nicholas Sarkozy claiming it would help bring about peace and stability.

Actually, he was rather more romantic: 'The purpose of the Mediterranean summit, of this union for the Mediterranean, is that people learn to love each other in the Mediterranean region instead of keeping on hating each other, and fighting each other.'

Sarko's love-in was attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who added to their holiday snaps by posing together, as well as Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. This was the first meeting he'd had with Olmert, although he quietly slipped out of the room before having to listen to his Israeli counterpart.

Despite the hype, though the new club of nations is far from a new proposal. In fact, the Union for the Mediterranean is the latest of several attempts to formalize relations between the European Union and its neighbours to the South and East.

It was devised by Sarkozy as a key pillar of the French EU presidency, which runs until the end of the year.

The new Union overlaps with an earlier EU proposal for cooperation in the Mediterranean region, officially called the 'Barcelona Process'.

But suspicions are widespread to French motives for proposing the new club of nations.

Turkey has long expressed its reservations about the plan – seeing moves towards a Union of the Mediterranean as a manouvre by Sarkozy to block its entry into the European Union (and with good reason).

The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi boycotted the summit, claiming that the new Union was a ‘neo-colonialist’ attempt to reassert French influence in North Africa.

Beyond this posturing, however, the move towards a new Mediterranean Union is driven more by economic concerns than by grand intentions to build peace in the region.

Its formation has sparked up internal rivalry within the European Union, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel seeing it as an attempt by France designed mainly to advance its own economic and political interests in North Africa.

In response, Merkel won some concessions. The European Commission, which has so far spent 16 billion euros since 1995 on the ‘Barcelona process’ will limit its funding for the new Mediterranean union to 7.5 billion euros until 2013.

This package was agreed alongside a pledge to dedicate more funding to the EU’s eastern relationships – in which Germany has a stronger interest. Germany is the largest contributor to the EU budget.

Both policies, in fact, overlap with a more broad-ranging European Union Neighbourhood Policy to promote free trade and control migration into the 27-member bloc.

As part of this strategy the European Union is building detention centres to lock up migrants in Libya – as part of a cooperation agreement that critics have called a ‘Fortress Europe’ strategy.

The EU is also pursuing a series of bilateral trade agreements with Africa, aimed at opening up markets for European-based corporations. Trade between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbours amounted to 120 billion euros in 2006, with EU-based multinational companies the main beneficiaries.

In fact, the most immediate objective effect of the new Mediterranean union is the promotion of a series of investment projects – in water management, sea purification and nuclear energy – which are most likely to help French companies acquire lucrative new contracts in the region. And that's an idea that Sarkozy truly loves.

11 June 2008

The world in 23 minutes

Here's a TV programme that I did, which rounds up the world news from the last seven days (well actually 10 now because it went out a few days ago):


The main items are on the World Food Summit and Obama's primary victory

06 June 2008

Obama’s Middle East policy: more of the same?

What is it about American politics? No sooner has Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, than he’s in front of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee promising to strengthen US-Israeli military ties; promising not to negotiate with Hamas or Hezbollah; and promising to keep the threat of military action against Iran ‘on the table’.

So is there any chance that Obama – who’s election campaign message is ‘a change you can believe in’ - can bring about any genuine shift in US foreign policy towards the Middle East?

Well, his position on Iraq is unquestionably favourable to that of his rival. McCain has promised to ‘stay a hundred years in Iraq’, whereas Obama has pledged to withdraw US troops from the country within 16 months of his election.

But look behind the headlines and Obama’s call is for a withdrawal only of ‘combat troops.’ This would still leave anywhere between 35 and 75,000 so-called counter-terrorism troops and trainers in Iraq, as well as all or most of the 180,000 mercenaries that the US pays to support its military. He has also said little about closing the 15 permanent military bases that the US has built in Iraq, including the one less than 2 miles from the Iranian border.

Obama’s policy towards Iran is also ambiguous, at best. Initially, he sought to distinguish himself from other candidates in the US Presidential race by urging the need for immediate negotiations with Iran ‘without preconditions.’ He talked of the potential for Iran to enter the World Trade Organisation, as well as of the need to offer some guarantees to Iran.

As he gets closer to the White House he appears to be distancing himself from this stand and taking a harder line. His latest remarks on the supposed threat of Iranian nuclear weapons are a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong – an Obama White House would be a different beast to a McCain one. And the fact that Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia suggests that he might at least bring with him a more intuitive sense of the disastrous role of US militarism across the world.

The course of an Obama presidency is far from fixed, moreover. His support base amongst the many Americans who oppose current US foreign policy is a cause for hope, if they manage to use that position to pressure him to resist a ‘business as usual’ approach to the Middle East.

But while I’d like to believe in the change that an Obama presidency would bring, I’m not holding my breath. For those of us who don’t believe in the Great Men theory of history, the political conditions in which a leader operates are all important.

The salient question is not what Obama wants to achieve, so much as what it is possible for him to achieve. What openings can he find or engineer in a Washington that is wedded to an aggressive sense of its own national interest, and beset by powerful lobbies, from the arms industry and pro-Israel groups, as well as an oil industry looking to achieve ‘energy security’ at any cost?

The signs so far are that Obama is likely to prove unwilling and unable to redefine the US national interest in ways that would fundamentally break with the ideology of empire.

23 May 2008

Oil boom... and bust?

In Indonesia, thousands of people protested as the government cut fuel subsidies in response to sharply rising prices.

In France, fishermen are blockading oil refineries .

And in the United States, Ford is to cut production of its oil-hungry sports utility vehicles; while American Airlines has retired old planes and added a $15 surcharge to flight tickets.

This week, oil prices hit record highs of $135 per barrel – which, even taking inflation into account, is higher than at the peak of the 1970s oil crisis.

Is the world running out of oil? Or are oil traders cashing in on temporary price hikes – creating a temporary bubble that will soon burst?

With oil prices reaching record highs, there is no shortage of explanations for the current boom.

The latest surge came after the US government reported that its supplies of crude oil and petrol fell unexpectedly in the last week.

Financial speculation was rife, with a $5 dollar price hike in a single day’s trading on Wednesday bearing all the hallmarks of a speculative bubble.

The weak US currency was also a factor, as it makes it cheaper for holders of other currencies to buy oil - which is traditionally priced in dollars.

In addition, many investors see commodities such as oil as a hedge against inflation and the falling dollar.

But while some analysts consider that, in the short term, this bubble could burst, the fundamentals of oil supply and global politics make it more likely that the price of a barrel of crude will continue its upward trend.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) last year reported that oil demand is likely to outpace rises in oil supply until at least 2012, generating significant shortfalls.

The economic and consumer boom in the world's largest developing countries, particularly China and India, are one key factor.

But this is accompanied by a pronounced slowdown in the expansion of global supply, due mainly to a dearth of new discoveries, which many analysts take a sign that the world is approaching peak oil - the moment in our history where supplies start to dwindle.

This trend has been exacerbated by the unwillingness – and, to some extent, inability - of the oil cartel Opec to pump significantly more crude.

Recurrent political disorder in key oil fields already in production – including Iraq and Nigeria – is a further factor.

US aggression towards key oil producers, including Iraq, Venezuela and Iran – has made the markets nervous too, with the resulting spike in oil prices having a significant ‘blowback’ effect on the US economy itself.

So what is the effect of all this?

The environmental impact is ambiguous. A cut in flights, and a decline in sales of gas guzzling 4x4 vehicles in the United States is good news for the planet. But price alone will not change the oil addition of Western consumers. And while oil-dependent companies are reporting losses, oil companies themselves are doing well – with the high price making it viable to invest in new “unconventional” oil sources, such as tar sands and deep-offshore fields.

The impact on the US economy is more telling, however. With oil prices now over twice what they were a year ago, they are fuelling US inflation by making it more expensive to transport goods such as food.

This, in turn, is helping to weaken the value of the dollar on international currency markets – which then inflates the price of oil itself in international trading.

More fundamentally, though, the high oil price is weakening the US economy in the longer term by generating a huge balance-of-payments deficit.

As the United States continues to feed its oil addiction, wealth is being transferred at a rapid rate to the economies of oil-producing nations.

When the CAP doesn't fit

The European Commission presented plans to shake up its Common Agricultural Policy, its multi-billion dollar system of farm subsidies, last Tuesday.

But the new proposals do little to fundamentally reform the system, despite pressure from rising global food prices, and growing environmental concerns about large-scale industrial agriculture.
More than 40 per cent of the European Union’s 155 billion dollar annual budget is spent on farm subsidies.

Currently, 15 per cent of farmers receive 85 per cent of the direct farm subsidies in the EU’s 27 member states.

Under the Commission’s new proposals, the EU would cut the link between its subsidies and the amount of food that is actually produced on the land. It claims that this will help to protect the environment and promote traditional family farms.

But the Confederation Paysanne Europeanne, a Europe-wide network representing small farmers, also claimed that the new measures do not go far enough. It argues that market de-regulation pushed by the EU has undermined food sovereignty globally.

The EU’s new proposals would also abolish set-aside, the practice of leaving 10 per cent of arable land fallow.

This measure is supported by farmers’ representatives, but was strongly criticised by environmentalists – who claim that the fallow land is a lifeline for the continent’s birdlife.

Reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy have long been demanded by Southern governments and development organisations, which have criticized the European Union for forcing developing countries to open their markets to heavily subsidized European agricultural produce. This is said to undermine the development of sustainable agriculture in poor countries.

Yet with the rise in food prices globally, the gap between the market price and the EU prices has narrowed; and with that, attention has turned to the role of other EU measures, such as its biofuel subsidies for the production of fuel from crops, in undermining sustainable agriculture.

10 April 2008

A victory against BAE

"No-one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice. It is the failure of Government and the defendant [the Director of the Serious Fraud Office] to bear that essential principle in
mind that justifies the intervention of this court."

"It is obvious . . . that the decision to halt the investigation suited the objectives of the executive. Stopping the investigation avoided uncomfortable consequences, both commercial and diplomatic."

A pretty emphatic verdict from the High Court in the battle over the Saudi-BAE corruption case, then. Stopping a Serious Fraud Office inquiry on the grounds of 'national security' was one of the most reprehensible acts of the Blair premiership.

Well done to CAAT and The Corner House who brought the case (and see the Control BAE website for more details).

The stock market reacted with its usual ethical indifference - BAE shares were down 1.3 %, only marginally below the FTSE average for the day's trading. Business-as-usual, in other words. How about, just for once, instead of the government interfering in the legal process to prevent investigations into fraud, it regulates the arms trade instead?

22 March 2008

Clinton's right-hand man: who exactly is Mark Penn?

If you read enough reports on the race for the Democratic nomination for US president, there's one name that comes back at you again in quote after snide quote: Mark Penn, chief political strategist for Hilary Clinton. Penn's usual stock in trade is to dismiss as irrelevant any Obama gains. Most notably, he has claimed that the smaller states that Obama has won don't count and that caucuses don't count; most recently, he added that the endorsement of Obama by Bill Richardson, the Latino New Mexico governor who's endorsement both Democrat candidates had courted, doesn't count. And the less said about his early campaign memos talking up the 'inevitability' of Hilary's candidature, the better - let's just say they seem a bit premature now.

If there's a consistent analysis underlying these spin attempts, it is the idea that elections are won and lost by small 'c' conservative swing voters... and that any attempt at redrawing the map of US political politics should be shunned. So while Republicans were busily moving the 'centre' of US politics far to the right, the Clintonite Democrats were chasing to keep up with them. Whatever the flaws of Obama's campaign, it is at least an attempt to break with this strategy.

Penn's role goes beyond that of 'chief strategist', however. As CEO of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, Penn is at the centre of the corporate web that surrounds Clinton's candidature. Burson-Marsteller is the PR agency of choice for governments engaged in human rights violations, and corporations seeking to scupper environmental legislation and action on climate change (see here for some background, albeit a bit dated). The firm is also well versed in anti-labour propaganda, which landed Hilary in some hot water with US unions last year.

13 March 2008

Unspinning Darling’s climate claims

Alistair Darling claims that auctioning EU pollution permits will encourage investment in renewable energy. But the Treasury backs the opposite view in Europe, while continuing to push nuclear power.

It’s becoming an iron law of budgets that the initial spin gives way to a far less attractive reality. The first Budget since Brown was supposed to have a green streak running right through it. But several of Alistair Darling’s environmental claims fail to stack up.

Carrier bags grabbed the headlines – and there are, indeed, may good reasons to charge for their use or, better still, ban them altogether. But to mention these in the context of climate change strategies looks suspiciously like ‘greenwash’. As the environmentalist George Marshall points out, ‘An average plastic bag produces 31 grammes of Carbon Dioxide, about the same as comes from driving my car 90 metres. That doesn’t get me very far towards the supermarket. If I was in a jetplane it wouldn’t get me to the end of my garden.’

A more serious, though less headline-grabbing, flaw lies in Alistair Darling's claim that the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) can be used to 'encourage investment in low-carbon technology and in energy renewables', aided by the auctioning of allowances for energy generators. This is misleading for several reasons.

Darling claimed that ‘we have helped build the Emissions Trading Scheme to curb the amount of carbon produced by generators and large industrial users.’ What he failed to add is that it didn’t work. In its first phase, the ETS awarded windfall profits to these large-scale polluters, but there is no evidence that carbon trading actually reduced any emissions. In fact, the corporate lobbying around the scheme was so fierce that, in 90 per cent of cases, the ‘caps’ on emissions failed to cap anything, proving far less effective than conventional regulation.

He also claimed that 100 per cent of the permits awarded to energy generators should be auctioned. This reflects the European Commission’s position, but distorts the bigger picture. In other sectors, the EU has proposed that many of these permits to pollute need not be auctioned until 2020, and it provides a huge get-out clause that would potentially allow all of them to be given away free even then.

The idea that this scheme would generate investment in low-carbon technology and renewables is also highly questionable. Indeed, the European Commission has suggested that only 20 per cent of these auction revenues need be directed towards alternative energy investment. An Ecofin meeting of European finance ministers on 12 February (at which Angela Eagle represented the Treasury) balked at even this modest proposal, rejecting any EU-wide target for 'mandatory earmarking' whatsoever.

Where Darling is more accurate is in his assessment that such measures will encourage investment in nuclear energy. In fact, as the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) has shown, the government’s promise of unilateral action to underpin the price of carbon can best be read in relation to its nuclear policy – providing a means to provide indirect subsidies to this industry in a situation where direct subsidies look politically unacceptable.

The larger point is this. If the incentives to act on climate change are focused mainly on price, what happens is that the richest actors in the market are allowed to buy their way out of responsibility, while perverse incentives are created for the nuclear industry or the dirtiest forms of oil exploration (as BP’s recently stated intention to extract oil from Canadian ‘tar sands’ has shown).

Such proposals are far from green.

14 February 2008

Be My Anti-Valentine

"Happy unimaginative, consumerist-oriented and entirely arbitrary, manipulative and shallow intepretation of romance day."

That warm sentiment, and other great cards like it, can be found here

Of course, if anyone wants to just ignore this and send chocolate, then the Red Pepper office address is on the bottom of the page on our website ;-)

11 February 2008

Climate change and dead canaries

Last December, as the UN climate conference was basking in hot sunshine (with frequent gusts of hot air blown from the mouths of government and industry delegates), NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally reviewed data that Arctic sea ice could melt entirely by the summer of 2040 and found that, in fact, this process could happen by the summer of 2012.

"The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming. Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines" said Zwally, who as a teenager hauled coal.

The reason such predictions can be so wrong is that climate change is not a linear process, but is subject to a whole series of feedback loops and tipping points. A lot of scary evidence for this is presented in a new report from Friends of the Earth Australia, entitled Climate Code Red

Imported goods, exported pollution

Imagine the following scenario: UK business outsources to China or is outflanked by cheap imports. China ships stuff back to the UK. The UK then claims an 'emissions reduction' because the domestic emissions are 'off the books'. Repeat the same effect across the globe and what does this global free trade model amount to, in terms of its impact on climate change? Well, look here: "A new study shows that 20% of the earth's carbon is emitted from production activities in developing nations that are aimed at meeting the consumption needs of developed countries."

EU ETS: the emissions trading handouts continue

Those of you interested in the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (and frankly, with a title like that, how could you not be?) might be interested to learn that the EU's claims that it will start auctioning its 'permits to pollute' are dubious, at best. Ok, if you haven't got the faintest what I'm on about, click here .

Despite the EU's claim that auctioning will become ‘the basic principle for allocation’ under the new ETS after 2012, the European Commission's draft directive sets up so many exceptions to this rule that it is hard to see what happened to the rule at all:

* First, it names the risk of ‘carbon leakage’ – 'ie. relocation of greenhouse gas emitting activities from the EU to third countries and thereby increasing global emissions.' as a result of its climate policy. This is used to justify the fact that most polluting sectors of the economy will continue to receive free permits to pollute; and that in others the ‘transition’ from free permits to auctioned ones is delayed for several years - despite the acknowledged urgency of the climate crisis.
* Second, the terms of this transition from a system of 'free' to 'auctioned' permits are lax. There will still be free allocation of 80% of allowances in 2013, decreasing year on year ‘by equal amounts’ until ‘no free allocation in 2020’. In other words, the majority of permits to pollute will still be given away until the middle of the next decade.
* Third, it is also proposed that a Commission study will identify by 30 June 2010 which sectors are affected by carbon leakage, and potentially allow these energy-intensive industries to receive ‘up to 100% of allowances free of charge’. This will be re-assessed every three years, so polluters who fail in their lobbying first time out can have several more bites.

To summarise what's happening here (in case you've not read the whole EU Draft Directive): the shift from a system of free permits to allowances is delayed, with the potential that it won’t happen at all. Where allocations are given away, windfall profits for the EU’s most polluting companies will continue. Where they are auctioned, windfall profits for the EU can be expected. Only 20% of that money will be ring-fenced for reinvestment in renewables or for contributing to funding for the poorer electricity users and countries… from whom the property rights to this ‘carbon’ were stolen in the first place!

It strikes me that there is a genuine problem that is being addressed here – ie. the EU can set rules on pollution domestically, but if these are not matched elsewhere in the world then factories could fly to those places where there are fewer environmental restrictions. However, (1) threats of this nature tend to be overstated as a lobbying ploy by industry to extract favourable terms from the EU: the real costs of relocation and the infrastructure needed to maintain certain industrial locations are high and may outweigh what could, in practice, only be a short-term economic benefit of relocating to avoid EU caps. A far more important point is (2) that this is a problem of the EU’s own making, since it is aggressively pursuing free trade policies (now rebranded as ‘global Europe’) that encourage a race to the bottom to undermine standards; (3) the EU's caveat to all this - namely, that it must also abide by WTO rules - disavows the EU’s role in making those rules in the first place. If you don’t worship at the alter of free trade, by contrast, this is a non-issue: there are various was of regulating to ensure emissions reductions without having to make concessions to insure against flighty capital.

And finally, in case you were ever stuck on how to rebrand failure as success, try taking some lessons from the EU:

The failed 2005 to 2007 ETS is now referred to as the “first ‘learning-by-doing’” phase. This phase ‘successfully established free trade of emission allowances across the EU, set up the necessary infrastructure… developed into the world’s largest single carbon market…’ etc….. hang on, there’s something missing from this list… successfully established a market, right, but what about actually achieving any emissions reductions? … “However, the environmental outcome of the 1st phase of the EU ETS could have been more significant [you don’t say…] but was limited due to excessive allocation of allowances in some Member States and some sectors, which must mainly be attributed to reliance on projections and a lack of verified emission data.” Ah, I see, nothing to do with excessive corporate lobbying meaning that the caps on this ‘cap and trade’ scheme were set so high that they didn’t actually cap anything…

29 January 2008

Costly BAE Blunder

If I had a dollar for every press release I'd laid my eyes on... I'd be Donald Trump. Well, Donald Trump without the toupe, obviously. If I had a dollar for every well-written press release, I'd more likely to be scraping along on minimum wage. This one popped into my inbox today, though, and is interesting - not only does it raise the latest scandal about unaccounable defence contracting, but it also keeps short and to the point, as well as raising key campaign objectives ("BAE is a burden, not a benefit, for the British economy." ) I hope it gets wide attention - as the court case in a few weeks time surely will too.


The arms company BAE Systems is so far over budget with two of its latest projects that they will cost UK taxpayers £2.2 billion more than expected. The figure is revealed in a report by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, which looks at BAE's contracts with the Ministry of Defence. The Committee found that the budget for BAE's Astute Submarines has increased by 47% and the budget for BAE's Type 45 Destroyer ships by 18%.

Symon Hill, spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), said: "This is outrageous. BAE has once again been exposed as a drain on taxpayers' money. This waste is on top of the roughly £850 million spent every year on subsidies for the arms trade. BAE is a burden, not a benefit, for the British economy."

The news comes only weeks ahead of a High Court case in which the Government's relationship with BAE will come under scrutiny. On 14th and 15th February, lawyers for CAAT and The Corner House will argue that the Government behaved illegally in cutting short a Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE's Saudi arms deals.

27 January 2008

New issue, new issues

Ok, so I've not exactly been a regular blogger. Where do regular bloggers get all their time, exactly? The new issue of Red Pepper is out very soon. The highlight, for me, is an excellent piece on Pakistan by Graham Usher. It is always a tricky question as to how to balance our coverage of contemporary events with news agendas at the time of publication, but this article gets behind the headlines to make sense of the situation there more clearly than any other commentary I've yet read.

Sometimes we're successful at predicting what will be topical. For example, today's Observer trails a new 'eco battle' over airport expansion, another issue that is covered in the new issue. When we go to press we never quite know if someone will scoop our stories but I'm confident that the article we ran goes into far more depth than the Observer could, and I'm pleased that it doesn't just focus on the forthcoming battle over a third runway at Heathrow - important though that is.

My own contribution was to try to decode new proposals aimed at 'reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation' - which was the hot issue at the Bali climate conference, although it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. The best background reading on this is still, probably, this paper from the Forest Peoples' Programme.

And finally, it isn't all words, words words. As well as a photo essay on Ghana and football, we've got an extract from a new Atlas of Radical Cartography

As always, it is good to receive feedback on the magazine. Hopefully, this new blog won't be so cluttered with spam as the old one, so the comments aren't fighting for space with hot Russian sexbots, cheap viagra and mortgage advice....