Monthly Archives: May 2013

Bay of Bengal: ports against fishing

Strait_of_Malacca. Image from wikipedia

Bangladesh’s Chittagong, has… become a bottleneck. The Bangladeshis are modernising it… China is putting $200m towards upgrading the airport at Cox’s Bazar, the country’s southernmost tip, to attract investment and tourists.

Myanmar’s …new government, keen for foreign inflows to help rebuild the economy, has been approving projects that sat idle for years. Sittwe is one, but it looks small compared with the Dawei project on Myanmar’s Tenasserim coast… a deepwater port, industrial zone and highways to connect it with distant Bangkok, estimated to cost $8.5 billion.Thailand’s rulers dabbled for centuries with the idea of building a canal across the Kra isthmus, which would link their own gulf directly to the Andaman Sea and save days of costly shipping through the Strait of Malacca. Dawei should do the trick…. The Japanese are taking advantage of Myanmar’s opening to build a riverine port called Thilawa, south of Yangon.

The Chinese are exploring ways round their own Malacca-strait dilemma. They have been building new oil and gas pipelines across the whole of Myanmar starting from a new port-terminal at Kyaukphyu, near Sittwe….China’s activity in the Bay of Bengal is purely “defensive” [some say] but Indians versed in the “string of pearls” theory, which sees Chinese-built ports encircling India, will not be much comforted.

Amid the sometimes airy speculation, it is relatively easy to predict the effects on the repurposed waters of the bay. Yugraj Yadava, the director of an environmental watchdog in Chennai, says increased shipping is already eroding traditional livelihoods and polluting the sea. About 31% of the world’s coastal fishermen live and work on the Bay of Bengal, and they stand to lose huge tracts to the port-builders (and to rising sea levels, too). Mr Yadava says the bay still has some of the world’s healthiest natural fisheries, but they are under threat, not least from non-native species that stow away in long-haulers’ ballast.

Collisions between fishing vessels and commercial ships are becoming more frequent, as are snagged nets. All this will probably accelerate in the next few years. Before the Bay of Bengal falls victim to its new-found popularity, it might be good if some of its beneficiaries were to build a transnational maritime authority, to limit the damage.

Excerpts, The Bay of Bengal: New bay dawning, Economist,Apr. 27, 2013, at 40

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Exceeding the Carbon Budget:industry bets that climate policies will fail

coal mine china. Image from wikipedia

Several  reports suggest that markets are overlooking the risk of “unburnable carbon”. The share prices of oil, gas and coal companies depend in part on their reserves. The more fossil fuels a firm has underground, the more valuable its shares. But what if some of those reserves can never be dug up and burned?

If governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of that carbon would have to be left in the ground, says Carbon Tracker, a non-profit organisation, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, part of the London School of Economics. Their analysis starts by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide that could be put into the atmosphere if global temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C, the most that climate scientists deem prudent. The maximum, says the report, is about 1,000 gigatons (GTCO2) between now and 2050. The report calls this the world’s “carbon budget”.

Existing fossil-fuel reserves already contain far more carbon than that. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its “World Energy Outlook”, total proven international reserves contain 2,860GTCO2—almost three times the carbon budget. The report refers to the excess as “unburnable carbon”.

Most of the reserves are owned by governments or state energy firms; they could be left in the ground by public-policy choice (ie, if governments took the 2°C target seriously). But the reserves of listed oil companies are different. These are assets developed using money raised from investors who expect a return. Proven reserves of listed firms contain 762GTCO2—most of what can prudently be burned before 2050. Listed potential reserves have 1,541GTCO2 embedded in them.

So companies and governments already have far more oil, gas and coal than they need (again, assuming temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C). Logically, the response to this would be for governments to leave their reserves untouched and for companies to run theirs slowly down, returning more of what they earn to shareholders. Neither of these things is happening. State-owned companies are taking an increasing share of total energy output. And in 2012, says Carbon Tracker, the 200 largest listed oil, gas and coal companies spent five times as much—$674 billion—on developing new reserves as they did returning money to shareholders ($126 billion). ExxonMobil alone plans to spend $37 billion a year on exploration in each of the next three years.

Such behaviour, on the face of it, makes no sense. One possible explanation is that companies are betting that government climate policies will fail; they will be able to burn all their reserves, including new ones, after all. This implies that global temperatures would either soar past the 2°C mark, or be restrained by a technological fix, such as carbon capture and storage, or geo-engineering.Recent events make such a bet seem rational. On April 16th the European Parliament voted against attempts to shore up Europe’s emissions trading system against collapse. The system is the EU’s flagship environmental policy and the world’s largest carbon market.  Putting it at risk suggests that Europeans have lost their will to endure short-term pain for long-term environmental gain. Nor is this the only such sign. Several cash-strapped EU countries are cutting subsidies for renewable energy. And governments around the world have failed to make progress towards a new global climate-change treaty. Betting against tough climate policies seems almost prudent.

The markets are [also] mispricing risk by valuing companies as if all their reserves will be burned. Investors treat reserves as an indicator of future revenues. They therefore require companies to replace reserves depleted by production, even though this runs foul of emission-reduction policies. Fossil-fuel firms live and die by a measure called the reserve replacement ratio, which must remain above 100%. Companies see their shares marked down if the ratio falls, even when they pull the plug on dodgy, expensive projects. This happened to Shell, for example, when it suspended drilling in the Arctic in February….

At the moment neither public policies nor markets reflect the risks of a warmer world.

Energy Firms and Climate Change: Unburnable Fuel, Economist, May 4, 2013, at 68

Dykes for Kickbacks: flooding Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (known locally as HCMC), Vietnam, a city full of rivers and canals,   has so far been spared a devastating flood, and donors have so far been eager to help. The World Bank, for example, has upgraded stormwater and canal infrastructure in a few central districts, and on April 8th, 2013 officials from the Dutch city of Rotterdam were in town to promote a joint Dutch-Vietnamese project designed to help HCMC adapt to climate change.Yet nearly half the city lies less than one metre above sea level, and scientists say groundwater extraction, which causes land subsidence, may be having a huge unseen effect. Nearly 70% of the city is already vulnerable to extreme flooding, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Flood risks are rising in HCMC’s lower-lying districts, in part because the property boom that accompanied Vietnam’s 2007 entry to the World Trade Organisation led many developers to build wherever they could. One potential victim is an Intel factory inside a high-tech park on HCMC’s eastern outskirts. The threat to such a big firm is troubling because the city accounts for more than half of foreign direct investment in Vietnam, and exports have helped offset weak consumer demand. In Vietnam urban floods also pose public health risks in the form of outbreaks of cholera or dysentery…

The government is promoting a plan to build a 172-km (106-mile), $2.6 billion system of ring dykes to protect urban areas west of the Saigon River. But the financing is not yet secure, and the World Bank has said such large flood-control solutions may be unsustainable.

A better option may be a smaller $1.4 billion dyke proposed by Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch consultancy that has managed similar projects in New Orleans and other flood-prone places. But officials at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development typically prefer expensive infrastructure projects, which offer opportunities for kickbacks. “They love dykes,” says Ho Long Phi, a professor at Vietnam National University in HCMC.  Mr Phi may be Saigon’s best flood-control asset. Unlike many Vietnamese officials, he understands that bigger flood-protection measures are not necessarily better, and that if the city is to prosper in the long term, it will need to work with, rather than against, nature. Today’s policies will only transfer flooding risks to future generations. In Mr Phi’s view, the only thing that may change the government’s short-sighted approach to flood prevention is a catastrophe,

Up a creek: A low-lying city must take drastic action to prevent flooding, Economist, May 4,  2013, at 41

The Hunter and Killer Algorithmic Drones

Drone Aladin of the German army 2008. Image from wikipedia

The Pentagon is discussing the possibility of replacing human drone operators with computer algorithms, especially for ‘signature strikes’ where unknown targets are killed simply because they meet certain criteria. So what characteristics define an ‘enemy combatant’ and where are they outlined in law?

Drone strikes and targeted killings have become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in their ongoing war against terrorists. But what impact is this technology having, not only on those who are the targets (both intended and unintended), but on the way we are likely to wage war in the future?

John Sifton is the advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, and says that while drones are currently controlled remotely by trained military personnel, there are already fears that the roving killing machines could be automated in the future.  ‘One of the biggest concerns human rights groups have right now is the notion of a signature strike,’ he says. ‘[This is] the notion that you could make a decision about a target based on its appearance. Say—this man has a Kalashnikov, he’s walking on the side of the road, he is near a military base. He’s a combatant, let’s kill him. That decision is made by a human right now, but the notion that you could write an algorithm for that and then program it into a drone… sounds science fiction but is in fact what the Pentagon is already thinking about. There are already discussions about this, autonomous weapons systems.’‘That is to human rights groups the most terrifying spectre that is currently presented by the drones.’

Sarah Knuckey is the director of the Project on Extrajudicial Executions at New York University Law School and an advisor to the UN. She says the way that drones are used to conduct warfare is stretching the limits of previous international conventions and is likely to require new rules of engagement to be drawn up…The rules of warfare built up after World War II to protect civilians are already hopelessly outdated, she says. The notion of border sovereignty has already been trashed by years of drone strikes, which she estimates have targeted upwards of 3,000 individuals, with reports of between 400 and 800 civilian casualties.

Excerpt from Annabelle Quince, Future of drone strikes could see execution by algorithm, May 21, 2013

US Coal Exports to Asia: Coal States v. Coastal States

gateway pacific terminal. image from http://gatewaypacificterminal.com/

Energy wars in America’s West are nothing new. But the rancour aroused by the coal-export proposal[from Montana and Wyoming to Japan, India and China through new ports built in Oregon and Washington] has become as toxic as a four-chimney belcher. Coal states accuse coastal ones of high-minded NIMBYism. Campaigners say corporations have a primeval attitude to the environment. Cities and counties lock horns over jobs and trade. Everyone accuses everyone else of bad faith, basic innumeracy and, in some cases, black ops.

Local objections focus on the trains that would carry coal to the Gateway Pacific Terminal. At capacity, 18 trains a day would run to and from the facility: nine bearing coal and nine returning empty to the mines. BNSF Railway, one of the project’s backers, says little new rail infrastructure would be needed, as traffic remains below its 2006 peak. Sceptics doubt that, and say the bill will be dumped on taxpayers.

Even without new tracks there is plenty to object to. The coal trains would rattle through central Seattle (the empties could return via other tracks, says BNSF), potentially gumming up roads already groaning with congestion. “I don’t want this terminal built,” says Mike McGinn, the mayor. In Bellingham, a group called Whatcom Docs (named for the surrounding county) worries about trains spewing diesel particulates. Others fret about coal dust flying off the trains; the Sierra Club, an environmental NGO, is threatening to sue BNSF for polluting Washington’s waterways.

Excerpts, Coal Exports in the North West: Dirty War, Economist,  Apr. 20, 2013, at 35

China and Australia: the coal and iron trade

Western Australia iron ore mining. Image from wikipedia

China’s demand for iron and coal has helped to turn it into Australia’s biggest trading partner and to keep Australia more economically robust than most other rich countries. But in some parts of the country the new relationship with China came as a reminder of the unwelcome side-effects of the boom… Chinese trade not only helped Australia survive the global downturn. It has also boosted the currency’s strength, and made it harder for manufacturers to find markets for their exports. The problem is unevenly distributed around the country. South Australia has suffered the greatest pain: in no other state does manufacturing account for such a big share of the economy…. Five years ago, Mitsubishi closed its plant in Adelaide. Australia’s remaining carmakers, Holden, Ford and Toyota, have shed jobs steadily since then. Australians are buying imported cars more cheaply than ever, especially from Japan; their dollar has risen by 26% against the yen since October.  Even wine, South Australia’s third-biggest export, has suffered: exports in fiscal 2012 dropped in value by A$62m ($65m), or 2%. Codan, an electronics company based in Adelaide, has done better. By making many high-tech products in Malaysia, it has been able to protect itself from the strong Aussie dollar.

The Australian dollar: Resources boomerang, Economist, Apr. 20, 2013, at 44

The Use of Torture in Afghanistan

Construction_in_Tarin_Kowt. Image from wikipedia

Military police at Australia’s detention centre in Afghanistan were pressured to make prisoners more “pliable” by gagging them, depriving them of sleep and denying them exercise.Sources with first-hand knowledge of the detention centre at Tarin Kowt have said that senior officers from Australia’s special forces, as well as the “force exploitation team” – defence intelligence – and the mentoring taskforce, pressed the detention management team to “condition” suspected insurgents before interrogation.A source said the pressure was “strongly resisted” by the detention management team and the gagging and other techniques were not carried out. The account by multiple sources is among a number of claims that contrast with assurances this week from Defence Minister Stephen Smith that Australia “approaches its responsibility for treating detainees with dignity and respect with the utmost seriousness”.

A young male detainee who was deaf mute and possibly intellectually disabled was held in the centre because of pressure from the Special Operations Task Group, despite concerns from medical staff that he was not fit to be detained.  A senior Afghan intelligence officer, a Colonel Hanif, complained vigorously that detainees were being transferred from Australian to Afghan custody on scant evidence that they were insurgents.  The Defence Force denied a teenage boy access to his dying father, a suspected insurgent who had been shot in a battle with Australians. The boy was allegedly turned over to US interrogators, though the ADF denies this.

The claims relate to 2010 and 2011, after Australia took responsibility for managing detainees in Oruzgan province from the withdrawn Dutch troops…..But Fairfax Media has been told that in the first year Australia was running the detention system, tensions flared between the military police who managed the detainees and the forces who captured and interrogated them.  One source said: “We had two very conflicting sets of guidelines: one was to treat them humanely but the other was the pressure from the SOTG [Australian Special Operations Task Group]*** and intelligence guys who wanted us to condition them in such a way as to make them more pliable … so their state of mind was conducive to interrogation. “They wanted us to gag and hood the detainees to stop them from talking to each other.

Excerpt, David Wroe, Deborah Snow,Military police pressured to make prisoners more ‘pliable’,  Sydney Morning Herald, May 18, 2013

***Special Operations Task Group (SOTG)  The Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) is deployed to Southern Afghanistan to conduct population-centric, security and counter-network operations. At around 300 personnel, the SOTG is one of the largest, most potent Special Forces units in Afghanistan. The SOTG is primarily based in Multi-National Base Tarin Kot but has command and liaison elements in Kandahar and Kabul. It consists of approximately 300 personnel from the 1st and 2nd Commando Regiments, the Special Air Service Regiment, the Special Operations Engineer Regiment, the Special Operations Logistic Squadron, and various other services, units and commands around Australia.  The SOTG trains, mentors and partners with Afghan National Police officers from the Uruzgan Provincial Response Company (PRC) and other branches of the Afghan National Security Forces, in order to build their capacity and capability to establish and maintain security and stability in the region.SOTG operations are Afghan Police led in order to build confidence in the ANSF and improve the connection between the local people and the Afghan Government.  The Task Group also works closely with the co-located CT-U providing Special Forces support to operations in Uruzgan province.

Source: http://www.defence.gov.au/op/afghanistan/info/factsheet.htm