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Archive for March, 2017

Coal is Dead

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” said Donald Trump, surrounded by the usual gaggle of officials and (in this case) coal-miners, as he put his super-size signature on the Energy Independence Executive Order. But coal is dying as a major energy source in the United States for reasons far beyond the reach of executive orders.

“The miners are coming back,” Trump boasted at a rally in Kentucky last week, but no less an authority than Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, the biggest US coal company, promptly rained on his parade. “I suggested that (Trump) temper his expectations,” he said. “He can’t bring them back.”

Trump’s latest executive order is not just about coal, of course. It’s a frontal assault on all the Obama-era regulations that aimed at curbing climate change. But while it will slow the decline in US greenhouse gas emissions, it will not have a major impact on global emissions.

That is partly because US accounts for only 16 percent of global emissions. Compared to China’s 29 percent, it doesn’t matter all that much, and China remains committed to big cuts.

In January China scrapped plans for 104 new coal-fired power plants, and it intends to invest $361 billion (equal to half the US defence budget) in renewable energy between now and 2020. The Chinese government is spending that kind of money because it is rightly terrified about what global warming will do to China’s economy and above all to its food supply.

Like the Indians, the Europeans, and pretty much everybody else, the Chinese remain committed to the climate goals agreed at Paris in December 2015 even though the United States has defected. Their own futures depend on meeting those goals – and they know that the American defection does not destroy all hope of success. Globally speaking, it’s not that big a deal.

It would seem like a much bigger deal, however, if they were not confident that American greenhouse gas emissions will continue to decline under Trump, though not as fast as they would under a less ignorant and less compromised administration. Coal provides an excellent example of why.

In 2009, when Barack Obama entered the White House, coal provided 52 percent of US electricity. In only eight years it has fallen to 33 percent, and the decline has little to do with Obama’s Clean Power Plan. First cheap gas from fracking undercut the coal price, and then even solar power got cheaper than coal – so 411 coal-fired plants closed down, and more than fifty coal-mining companies went bankrupt.

Half the 765 remaining big coal-fired plants in the United States were built before 1972. Since the average age when American coal-fired plants are scrapped is 58 years, half of them will soon be gone no matter what Trump does, and even he cannot make it economically attractive to build new ones. (Only 9 percent of American coal-fired plants were built in the past quarter-century.)

Coal is by far the most polluting of the fossil fuels, producing twice as much carbon dioxide as gas does for the same amount of energy, but that alone wasn’t enough to turn the energy industry against it. It’s the cost per per kilowatt-hour of electricity that matters, and coal has simply been overtaken by cheaper forms of energy.

Even in India, the most heavily coal-dependent of the big economies and a country with vast amounts of coal, solar energy prices are now on a par with coal. Sheer inertia means that India will go on expanding coal-fired generation for a few more years, but its National Electricity Plan projects no further increase in coal-based capacity after 2022. King Coal truly is dead.

You don’t need good intentions to do the right thing for climate safety any more; just common sense. From fuel efficiency in automobiles to replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas or solar arrays, saving money goes hand-in-hand with cutting emissions. The economy is not your enemy; it’s your ally. So Trump won’t do nearly as much harm as people feared.

President Obama promised last year to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by about 26 per cent from the 2005 level by 2025. About half of that 26 percent cut would have come in Trump’s first and maybe only term (2017-20), so say 13 percent. The US accounts for 16 percent of global emissions, so do the math: 13 percent of 16 percent equals about 2 percent of global emissions.

That’s what would be at stake over the next four years if Trump’s presidency stopped all the anticipated reductions in greenhouse emissions that Obama based his promise on – but it won’t. A lot of those emission cuts are going to happen anyway, because they just make economic sense. At a guess, around half of them.

So how much damage can Trump do to the global fight against climate change over the next four years? He can keep global emissions about one percent higher than they would have been if the United States had kept its promise to the Paris conference. And that’s all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Coal…dead”)

Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)

Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness, who began as a terrorist and ended up as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, died peacefully in hospital on Monday aged 66. His career spanned almost five decades in the history of that small but troubled place – and by resigning from the power-sharing government in January, he began a new and possibly final act in that long-running drama.

If it really is the last act in the Northern Irish tragedy, leading eventually to some form of “joint sovereignty” over Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, then there may be some more blood spilled before the end. That would not have bothered McGuinness, for all his latter-day reputation as a man of peace.

As a Catholic born in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, McGuinness grew up believing that Britain must be driven out of Ireland and that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland must be forced to accept unification with the Irish Republic. But the burning issue when he was a young man was the oppression of Northern Irish Catholics by the Protestant majority.

The initial Catholic protests against that in the mid-1960s were non-violent, but McGuinness (aged 21) was already the second-in-command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by British soldiers.

The Provisional IRA exploited atrocities like that to convert the Catholics’ non-violent struggle for civil rights into a guerilla war employing terrorist tactics and aiming for unification with Ireland. McGuinness was one of the foremost advocates of violence, and quickly rose to become the IRA’s chief of staff.

He claimed to leave the IRA in 1974 in order to enter politics (which made it possible for him to talk to the British authorities), but all local observers agree that he remained a senior IRA operational commander at least down to the end of the 1980s. As such, he was probably responsible for such IRA innovations as “human bombs” (not to be confused with suicide bombs).

In 1990, for example, Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic civilian who worked as a cook at a British army base, was abducted by the IRA and strapped into a van packed with 450 kg of explosives. While his family was held hostage, he was ordered to drive the van to a British army check-point – whereupon the bomb was detonated, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers.

In all, the IRA killed 1,781 people during the period when McGuinness was a senior commander, including 644 civilians, and McGuinness was probably involved in the decision-making on half of those attacks. Fintan O’Toole, a columnist in the Irish Times, recently called him a “mass killer”.

But if so, he was a pragmatic mass killer. When it became clear in the 1990s that the campaign of violence was not delivering the results McGuinness had hoped for, he was open to peaceful compromise, at least until circumstances improved. He played a key role in persuading most of the more dedicated IRA killers to accept the power-sharing government embodied in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, in Northern Ireland, McGuinness became the Deputy First Minister of the province, sharing power with the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He was seen as a calm, constructive politician during his ten years in office – but he never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

When he resigned in January, he had two excellent pretexts for doing so. First, he knew that he was dying (from a rare heart condition). Second, First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and his partner in office, was entangled in a profoundly embarrassing energy scandal but was stubbornly refusing to step aside.

However, McGuiness was also well aware that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum created new possibilities in Northern Ireland (which voted heavily to stay in the EU).

The open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic depends on both countries being part of the EU. When Britain leaves it will almost inevitably become a “hard” border that controls the movement of both goods and people. That would greatly anger the Catholic of Northern Ireland, and if Sinn Fein goes on refusing to appoint a deputy prime minister then no new power-sharing government is possible either.

There was an unscheduled election early this month that produced no movement from Sinn Fein, and another may be called at the end of next week. But there is no sign that either Sinn Sein or the DUP will budge, and in the end Britain may be obliged to re-impose “direct rule” from London on Northern Ireland, which would anger Catholics even more.

McGuinness was probably not hoping for a return to violence, but he was undoubtedly open to it if necessary. Solving the border issue will require creative thinking all round, and could lead to outcomes the IRA and Sinn Fein would welcome – like joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. A little violence could help to stimulate that kind of thinking.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He claimed…soldiers”)

What’s Wrong with Southeast Asia?

Thirty years ago most of Southeast Asia was run by thuggish dictatorships. Then the Philippines showed the rest of the world how to get rid of the dictators without violence, and its non-violent example was watched and copied around the world. But now the thugs are coming back where it all started.

The democratic revolution in the Philippines in 1986 was quickly followed by the non-violent overthrow of the generals in Thailand in 1988(though they continued to intervene every few years), and then by the fall of Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998. By then the example had also spread through the rest of Asia (democratic revolutions in Taiwan and South Korea and even an attempt at one in China).

The democratic wave swept across the rest of the world too: Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, South Africa in 1994, a large number of Latin American and African countries in the past quarter-century, and even a brave (but failed) attempt at democratisation in several Arab countries. More people now live in democratic countries than in dictatorships.

But in the cradle of the non-violent revolutions, things are going backwards. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, is a self-proclaimed murderer who boasts about how many people his death squads kill. “If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out,” he declared in December. “I have done this before, why would I not do it again?”

“Duterte Harry” (as he is called in homage to Clint Eastwood’s film portrayal of lawless cop “Dirty Harry”) was elected to the presidency with a massive majority last year, and he is still hugely popular with ordinary Filipinos. But this is not democracy; it is populist demagoguery of the most extreme kind.

About 8,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by police and vigilantes, with Duterte’s warm approval and encouragement, since he was elected last June. And the fate of Thai democracy is equally disheartening, although the strongmen there wear military uniforms.

Thai democracy, deeply polarised by a long-running political battle between the urban middle class and the rural poor, fell to a military coup in 2014. Two years later, the Thais ratified a constitution that grants the army permanent power over the political system, including the right to appoint all 250 members of the Senate. And even so the military have now postponed the promised election from this year to 2018.

Indonesian democracy still survives, and the latest president, Joko Widodo, is a genuinely popular figure of unimpeachable honesty. In the 2014 election he saw off his opponent, a former general and ex-son-in-law of the old dictator Suharto, with ease. But there are signs of rising extremism in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

The hard-line Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), which demands a sharia state in a country where 15 percent of the population are not Muslim, has been leading violent demonstrations against Basuki Purnama, the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. He is facing spurious charges of “insulting Islam”, but the FPI’s real objection is that non-Muslims should not hold positions of authority over Muslims.

There is clearly support for this view among some of the capital’s Muslims – and to make matters worse many senior military and police officer have had close links with the extremist organisation. Indonesian democracy is certainly the healthiest in the region, but it faces serious threats.

And then there is Burma, the latest convert to democracy in Southeast Asia. After half a century of almost continuous military rule Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the democratic opposition, is finally the effective leader of an elected civilian government.

But she still operates under a military veto, and she has to close her eyes to the brutal attacks on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the army and other Burmese ultra-nationalists insist is not really Burmese at all. The army is using this conflict to burnish its own nationalist credentials and undermine the fledgling democratic government, and “The Lady”, as she is universally called, dares not defy it.

There is no country in Southeast Asia where democracy is really secure, and in most cases the main reason is the overweening power of self-serving military and police forces. Power struggles between the old political and economic elite and “new” politicians like Widodo in Indonesia and the brother and sister Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, both overthrown by military coups, play a large role too.

But there are many other new democracies with over-mighty militaries and privileged elites that do not want to let go, and yet the failure rate is significantly lower everywhere else except the Middle East. There may be some common cultural factor that unites the Southeast Asian countries, but it’s unlikely: they are variously Buddhist-, Christian-, or Muslim-majority.

So what’s the matter with them? Maybe it’s just bad luck. After all, they aren’t actually a statistical sample.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“About…uniforms”; and “There…threats”)