Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Green Climate Fund and COVID-19

 The Green Climate Fund has promised developing nations it will ramp up efforts to help them tackle climate challenges as they strive to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, approving $879 million in backing for 15 new projects around the world…The Green Climate Fund (GCF) was set up under U.N. climate talks in 2010 to help developing nations tackle global warming, and started allocating money in 2015….

Small island states have criticised the pace and size of GCF assistance…Fiji’s U.N. Ambassador Satyendra Prasad said COVID-19 risked worsening the already high debt burden of small island nations, as tourism dived…The GCF  approved in August 2020 three new projects for island nations, including strengthening buildings to withstand hurricanes in Antigua and Barbuda, and installing solar power systems on farmland on Fiji’s Ovalau island.

It also gave the green light to payments rewarding reductions in deforestation in Colombia and Indonesia between 2014 and 2016. But more than 80 green groups opposed such funding. They said deforestation had since spiked and countries should not be rewarded for “paper reductions” in carbon emissions calculated from favourable baselines…. [T]he fund should take a hard look at whether the forest emission reductions it is paying for would be permanent.  It should also ensure the funding protects and benefits forest communities and indigenous people…

Other new projects included one for zero-deforestation cocoa production in Ivory Coast, providing rural villages in Senegal and Afghanistan with solar mini-grids, and conserving biodiversity on Indian Ocean islands.  The fund said initiatives like these would create jobs and support a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Excerpts from Climate fund for poor nations vows to drive green COVID recovery, Reuters, Aug. 22, 2020

New Loan Sharks? Microfinance

Bangladesh may be the homeland of microcredit, but no country is keener on it than Cambodia. According to its central bank, there were some 160,000 branches of microfinance institutions around the country in 2016—one for almost every square kilometre of Cambodian territory. Almost 2.2m of Cambodia’s 10m-odd adults have a microcredit loan outstanding, according to the Cambodian Microfinance Association (CMA), an industry group. The average debt is $3,320—roughly twice the country’s annual gdp per person. Credit is growing by 40% a year.

The microfinance boom has brought many benefits. An obvious one is a decline in the use of loan sharks….But the industry’s breakneck growth may not be sustainable. Household debt has swollen as the size of loans has ballooned. According to the World Bank, the average loan grew “more than tenfold” over the past five years. …“[Cambodia] probably should have had a crisis by now,” admits Daniel Rozas, an adviser to the cma, “but somehow it hasn’t.”

That may be in part thanks to the efforts of the National Bank of Cambodia, the central bank, to tame the industry…Some regulations, however, may be exacerbating the industry’s excesses. The central bank’s introduction of an interest-rate cap of 18% a year in 2017 seems to have backfired. Because of the cap, the CMA says, microfinance institutions can turn a profit only by lending more than $2,000. The number of loans of $500 or less declined by 48% after the rule’s introduction, the World Bank estimates. Some fees rose, too.

The CMA says defaults are minimal, with only 1% of loans in serious arrears at the beginning of the year. But there are hints that borrowers are getting into difficulty. The typical loan uses land as collateral... Lenders seldom take borrowers to court to repossess land; it is not worth the time and expense for a loan of just a few thousand dollars. But many conscientious borrowers appear to sell their land voluntarily to pay up. Government surveys show that the proportion of people who are landless rose from 32% in 2009 to 51% in 2016. Among the many reasons given for selling land, one of the most common was to repay debts. Given that the government does little to monitor the conduct of lenders, and many land sales are informal, it is hard to tell how voluntary such transactions really are.

Excerpts from Service Economy: Development in Cambodia, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

Forest Infernos and Food Self-Sufficiency

The Mega-Rice Project (MRP) — the conversion of 10,000 square km of peat forest into rice paddies — that was adopted in Indonesia in 1997, was a mega-failure. It produced hardly any rice because the peaty soil lacks the requisite minerals. Instead of spurring farming, the draining of the waterlogged forest with a 6,000km network of canals fuelled fire…. It was the biggest environmental disaster in Indonesia’s history.  Burning peat in 1997 on Kalimantan and the nearby island of Sumatra generated the equivalent of 13-40% of the average annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The MRP was abandoned in 1999 but its legacy endures in the infernos that have ravaged Kalimantan almost every year since.

As work begins in 2020 on the new plantation, is history poised to repeat itself? The government says it has learned from the past. Nazir Foead of the Peatland Restoration Agency says that tractors will steer clear of what remains of Central Kalimantan’s pristine peatlands…but the rest is covered in “shallow peat”, no more than 50cm deep, and so can be cultivated without cataclysm, he says.  Environmentalists are not convinced… Smouldering swamps belch vast amounts of carbon. In 2019, the fires that swept Indonesia emitted 22% more carbon than the conflagration in the Amazon rainforest did. 

But the government argues it must go ahead with the plantation, and quickly, in case covid-19 brings about food shortages… For decades the political elites “have been chasing this ideal of food self-sufficiency”, says Jenny Goldstein of Cornell University. Prabowo Subianto, the defence minister, is one of its greatest champions.

Excerpts from For Peat’s Sake: Indonesia’s Environment, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

War and the Innocent Bystanders

During a visit to Tokyo in 2017, Donald Trump called on Japan to buy “massive” amounts of American weaponry. At the time, North Korea was testing new rockets regularly. For the Japanese government, buying Aegis Ashore, a pricey American missile shield, allayed both concerns. Not all Japanese, however, were happy with the purchase, especially in Araya, a quiet residential neighbourhood of low-slung homes next to the sea in Akita city—and the site of a proposed Aegis base.

Akita City, Japan

Jittery locals fretted about electromagnetic waves from the system’s radar and debris from its rockets. They worried about becoming a target in a conflict, as the city’s oil refineries were during the second world war. “Why, why here?” asks Sasaki Masashi, a retired railway worker and head of a neighbourhood council. “It says: ‘Please attack us’,” complains Sakurada Yuko, another anti-Aegis campaigner. They have collected signatures, harangued officials and voted against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party  which unexpectedly lost a seat in Akita in elections to the upper house of parliament last year.

In June 2020  Akita received unexpected but welcome news: the government declared it was scrapping the $4.2bn purchase of Aegis Ashore. Kono Taro, the defence minister, cited the ballooning cost of ensuring that boosters did not fall on civilian property….

Excerpts from Anti-anti-missile systems, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

Trade in Human and Animal Hair in the 21st Century

“My outfit for the day determines what hair I will be wearing,” says Olayinka Titilope, a Nigerian wigmaker. She has a different peruke for each day of the month…She sells wigs for between $60 and $800. Those at the top end are made of human hair from Cambodia, she says.  Some African feminists argue that to wear a long, straight-haired wig or hair extension is to grovel to Western ideals of beauty. Yet wig-buyers in Nigeria seem to enjoy variety. Sellers advertise hair from everywhere. Brazilian is praised for its sheen and durability; Vietnamese, for its bounce; Mongolian, because it is easy to curl. One seller in Lagos offers “Italian posh hair” which is supposedly odour-free. Whatever the label says, much of the hair really comes from elsewhere, often China, a source some buyers deem downmarket.

It is hard even for the most conscientious hair-traders to trace where their wares came from. Most of the hair that reaches Africa travels via factories in China, where it is sorted and often treated, dyed or curled. Bundles of human hair may be bulked up with horse mane or goat thatch….“The demand for hair generally exceeds supply, fuelling an almost constant sense of scarcity,”…

In the past decade Myanmar has quadrupled the volume of hair it ships out and is now the world’s fourth-largest exporter. Nay Lin, a hair-trader in the former capital, Yangon, says he knows when the economy is bad because more women turn up at his shop to sell their tresses. …Some 500km north of Yangon, in the town of Pyawbwe, farmers who once harvested onions and chillies now spend their days unpicking hairballs. These are often gathered by door-to-door collectors, who buy hair from people’s combs and bathroom plugs. Some hairballs arrive in sacks from India and Bangladesh. Workers in Pyawbwe (which has earned the nickname “Hair City”) make about $1.20 a day untangling them and removing lice or white strands. This hair is so common in Chinese factories that it is referred to as “standard hair”. It costs more than the fake stuff, but less than locks cut straight from a head. “We call that stuff factory trash,” scoffs Ms Titilope, who insists that none of it goes into her products…

Excerpts from Nigeria’s demand for fancy wigs fuels a global trade, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

Everything Moving in Space Is a Weapon? Yes.

Kosmos 2542, a Russian satellite that was launched in November 2019, was “like Russian nesting dolls”. Eleven days after its launch it disgorged another satellite, labelled Kosmos 2543. Then, on July 15th, Kosmos 2543 itself spat out another object, which sped off into the void.  Merely a “small space vehicle” to inspect other satellites, said the Russians. Nonsense, said the Americans; it was a projectile. The intentl.. was to signal Russia’s ability to destroy other nations’ satellites….In January 2020, America complained that Kosmos 2542 and 2543 had tailed a spy satellite in an “unusual and disturbing” way (American satellites have also sidled up to others in the past). 

Anti-satellite weapons are not new. During the cold war, America and the Soviet Union developed several ways to blow up, ram, dazzle and even nuke each other’s satellites. The countries conducted two-dozen anti-satellite tests between them. Ten were “kinetic”, involving a projectile physically striking a target. But new competitors, and new technologies, mean anti-satellite warfare is a hot topic once again. China has conducted ten tests over the past 15 years, including a kinetic one in 2007 that created a great deal of space debris. India conducted its first kinetic test in 2019. America, Russia and China have all manoeuvred their satellites close to others, sometimes provocatively so. New methods of attack are being tested, including lasers and cyber-attacks.

Some satellites, such as America’s GPS constellation, blur the distinction between military and civilian assets. Over the past decade, America’s armed forces have put payloads on three commercial satellites, and plan to pay Japan to host others on its own navigation satellites….Then there is the question of what counts as an attack. Michael Schmitt, a law scholar, and Kieran Tinkler, a professor at the us Naval War College, say it is unclear whether jamming a civilian satellite would violate the general prohibition on attacking civilian objects. Blowing up a military one, meanwhile, might or might not constitute an indiscriminate (and hence illegal) attack, depending on whether it could have been disabled by other means and how much debris was produced.

Perhaps the biggest difference between space war and terrestrial war is how long the consequences can last. Much of the debris from China’s 2007 test, for instance, will still be in space at the turn of the next century. The more debris, the greater the likelihood of accidental collisions with other satellites, which generates more debris in turn. Enough debris could lead to a chain reaction known as Kessler syndrome, which could render entire swathes of near-Earth space unusable for decades…

Space Junk

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires states to consult each other on actions that “would cause potentially harmful interference”, though the rule has rarely been heeded. Most countries accept that, in wartime, a body of existing laws known as international humanitarian law would apply, as on Earth—something America confirmed in its “Spacepower” doctrine, published on August 10, 2020. International humanitarian law is based on principles such as distinction (between combatants and civilians) and proportionality (between civilian harm and military advantage). But how to apply such ideas in a place with few humans is not always obvious.

The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is being spearheaded by McGill University, in Montreal, and a separate Woomera Manual by the University of Adelaide. Both hope to publish their documents 2020…

Russia and China would like a formal treaty banning all weapons in space. Both are keen to prevent America from deploying space-based anti-missile systems which might threaten their own nuclear forces. America and its allies resist this. They argue that it is impossible to define a space weapon—anything that manoeuvres in orbit could serve as one—and that it would be easy to cheat. The European Union has instead proposed a voluntary code of conduct. Many non-Western countries would prefer a binding treaty…. Though most are not space powers, many are likely to become so in the future, so their buy-in is important.

Excerpts from Satellite warfare: An arms race is brewing in orbit, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

The End of the Mindless Self-Indulgence: the Gulf States

Algeria needs the price of Brent crude, an international benchmark for oil, to rise to $157 dollars a barrel. Oman needs it to hit $87. No Arab oil producer, save tiny Qatar, can balance its books at the current price, around $40 (summer 2020)….The world’s economies are moving away from fossil fuels. Oversupply and the increasing competitiveness of cleaner energy sources mean that oil may stay cheap for the foreseeable future. 

Arab leaders knew that sky-high oil prices would not last for ever. Four years ago Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, produced a plan called “Vision 2030” that aimed to wean his economy off oil. Many of his neighbours have their own versions. But “2030 has become 2020…” 

Still, some see an upside to the upheaval in oil-producing states. The countries of the Gulf produce the world’s cheapest oil, so they stand to gain market share if prices remain low. As expats flee, locals could take their jobs…

Remittances from energy-rich states are a lifeline for the entire region. More than 2.5m Egyptians, equal to almost 3% of that country’s population, work in Arab countries that export a lot of oil. Numbers are larger still for other countries: 5% from Lebanon and Jordan, 9% from the Palestinian territories. The money they send back makes up a sizeable chunk of the economies of their homelands. As oil revenue falls, so too will remittances. There will be fewer jobs for foreigners and smaller pay packets for those who do find work. This will upend the social contract in states that have relied on emigration to soak up jobless citizens….With fewer opportunities in the oil-producing states, many graduates may no longer emigrate. But their home countries cannot provide a good life. Doctors in Egypt earn as little as 3,000 pounds ($185) a month, a fraction of what they make in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. A glut of unemployed graduates is a recipe for social unrest…

For four decades America has followed the “Carter Doctrine”, which held that it would use military force to maintain the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. Under President Donald Trump, though, the doctrine has started to fray. When Iranian-made cruise missiles and drones slammed into Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, America barely blinked. The Patriot missile-defence batteries it deployed to the kingdom weeks later have already been withdrawn. Outside the Gulf Mr Trump has been even less engaged, all but ignoring the chaos in Libya, where Russia, Turkey and the UAE (to name but a few) are vying for control.

A Middle East less central to the world’s energy supplies will be a Middle East less important to America. ..As Arab states become poorer, the nature of their relationship with China may change. This is already happening in Iran, where American sanctions have choked off oil revenue. Officials are discussing a long-term investment deal that could see Chinese firms develop everything from ports to telecoms… Falling oil revenue could force this model on Arab states—and perhaps complicate what remains of their relations with America.

Excerpts from The Arab World: Twilight of the Petrostates, Economist, July  18, 2020

A Dream Come True? the Saudi Nuclear Program

Saudi Arabia has constructed with Chinese help a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, an advance in the oil-rich kingdom’s drive to master nuclear technology…Even though Riyadh is still far from that point, the facility’s exposure appears certain to draw concern in the U.S. Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers has expressed alarm aboutabout Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 vow that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” ….Saudi Arabia has no known nuclear-weapons program, operating nuclear reactors or capacity to enrich uranium. But it says it wants to acquire nuclear plants that Saudi authorities say will generate power and reduce its reliance on oil, its principal export…

“Yellowcake” is a milled form of uranium ore which occurs naturally in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries such as Jordan. It is produced by chemically processing uranium ore into a fine powder. It takes multiple additional steps and technology to process and enrich uranium sufficiently for it to power a civil nuclear energy plant. At very high enrichment levels, uranium can fuel a nuclear weapon…Olli Heinonen said that…yellowcake facility alone wouldn’t mark a significant advance unless the yellowcake is converted into a compound known as uranium hexafluoride and then enriched. But Mr. Heinonen said of the Saudis, “Where is the transparency? If you claim your program is peaceful, why not show what you have?”

One Western official said the facility is located in a remote desert location in the general vicinity of al Ula, a small city in northwest Saudi Arabia. Two officials said it was constructed with the help of two Chinese entities. While the identities of these entities couldn’t be learned, the China National Nuclear Corp. signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia in 2017 to help explore its uranium deposits. A second agreement was signed with China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp. That followed a 2012 pact announced between Riyadh and Beijing to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Riyadh has expressed a desire to master all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. It is constructing with Argentina’s state-owned nuclear technology company a small research reactor outside of Riyadh. In recent years, the Saudis have significantly expanded their nuclear workforce, experts say, through academic nuclear engineering programs and growing research centers. In addition to its agreement with Argentina, the Saudis are collaborating with South Korea in refining the design of a small commercial reactor to be built in Saudi Arabia, and that could also be marketed to other nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It also has public cooperation agreements with Jordan on uranium mining and production.

Excerpts from  Warren P. Strobel et al., Saudi Arabia, With China’s Help, Expands Its Nuclear Program, WSJ, Aug. 4, 2020

How to Poison a Population: War and Persistent Oil Pollution

Oil pollution in Syria has been a growing concern since the 2011 onset of a civil war that has taken a toll on oil infrastructure and seen rival powers compete over control of key hydrocarbon fields. In the Kurdish-held northeast, a large storage facility in the Rmeilan oil field in Hasakeh province is of particular concern, according to the Dutch peace organisation PAX. [A River of Death, pdf] Oil leaks from the Gir Zero storage facility have been suspected since at least 2014, the latest in March 2020, it said in a June report. Thousands of barrels have leaked out into creeks in the area over the past five years, threatening the health and livelihoods of people in dozens of villages….

The major Rmeilan field controlled by the Kurdish administration, located near a US airbase, has been among the Syrian Kurds’ most prized assets since regime forces withdrew early on in the war. But oil wealth comes at a heavy cost for livestock farmers
whose sheep and cows have died because they drank oil contaminated water.

Residents too suffer heavily from the pollution because  of the foul odour of gas and crude oil wafting over the area… Compounding the situation, makeshift oil refineries have cropped up across the northeast in recent years, dumping oil waste in the waterways…These informal refineries receive oil from nearby fields and process it to provide benzine, gasoline and diesel to locals.

Excerpts from Delil SouleimanBlack waters: Oil spills pollute northeast Syria creeks
by Delil Souleiman, AFP, July 23, 2020

Global Nuclear Waste Movements: from Estonia to Utah

Regulators are weighing whether a local uranium company can import the material for processing at a mill near the border of a Native American reservation. For Energy Fuels Inc , the shipment represents an economic lifeline, after the company posted an operating loss of $7.8 million for the first quarter of 2020. Its president in March 2020 described the U.S. uranium industry as being “on the cusp of complete collapse.”
But for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe living near the facility – the only operational uranium mill in the United States – the proposal has stoked fears that tribal land will become a dumping ground for global radioactive waste. Both the White Mesa mill and the tribal reservation are in San Juan County, Utah’s poorest.

The mill, built in 1979, was only meant to process conventional uranium ores from the Colorado Plateau for up to 20 years, the tribe says. The Navajo Utah Commission and Navajo Nation have also that the company’s application be rejected. “The state of Utah must recognize and acknowledge the reality that the mill is far past its design life and no longer a conventional uranium mill, but, instead, a radioactive waste dump seeking to operate for decades, if not a millennium,” the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said in a document submitted to the state….

The 660 tons of powdered material in question, now sitting in 2,000 drums at a plant on the Estonian coast near the Russian border, would be Energy Fuels’ first-ever radioactive import from outside North America. The powder is a byproduct from tantalum and niobium mining by Estonian company Silmet, which contains uranium. But it cannot stay within Estonia, where there is no licensed facility for reprocessing radioactive material. Energy Fuels says there is enough uranium in that byproduct that it is worth processing. Opponents say Energy Fuels is simply taking in waste, which would be stored on site. According to Energy Fuels business from the shipment would help the company keep its 70 workers employed.

Energy Fuels anticipates demand for domestic uranium could rise, after the Trump administration in April 2020 proposed a $1.5 billion federal uranium reserve that would purchase uranium from domestic producers. Such a reserve, however, would need Congressional approval – a major hurdle. The reserve was one of the main proposals to come from a federal Nuclear Fuel Working Group aimed at reviving the U.S. uranium and nuclear industry. The United States currently imports over 90% of its uranium from abroad for its reactors.

Excerpts from Valerie Volcovicin Utah, a Debate Stirs Over Estonian Radioactive Waste, Reuters, July 16, 2020

Fatalism about Plastics: Intractable Plastics Pollution

The annual inflow of plastic could nearly triple from 2016 to 2040, the study found, and even if companies and governments meet all their commitments to tackle plastic waste, it would reduce the projection for 2040 by only 7%, still a more-than twofold increase in volume.  The study’s authors, the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust and sustainability consulting firm Systemiq Ltd., set out a range of measures to stem the flow and called on businesses and governments to do more to reduce the use of plastic. 

The study attributes the surge to a growing global population using more plastic per person. Other factors include greater use of nonrecyclable plastics and an increasing share of consumption occurring in countries with poor waste management. China and Indonesia are likely the top sources of plastic reaching the oceans, accounting for more than a third of the plastic bottles, bags and other detritus washed out to sea, according to a study published in 2015 by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia.

Over the past two years China has been making strides to improve waste management, including banning the import of plastic and other waste from developed countries like the U.S., which for decades have shipped much of their trash overseas. Indonesia has implemented its own restrictions on trash coming in from overseas, while lawmakers in the U.S. are increasingly trying to find ways to improve the country’s domestic recycling rates as export markets vanish.

They found that flexible plastic packaging—particularly items like potato-chip bags and food pouches, which are made of several materials and typically aren’t recycled—accounts for a disproportionate amount of ocean plastic. The As You Sow report said companies should stop selling products in flexible plastic until it is recycled or composted in significant amounts. Companies, in response, have been redesigning flexible packaging to promote recycling. For example, Nestle recently began selling a line of Gerber baby-food pouches made from a single material. But hurdles remain, particularly around collection and sorting of the packaging…

The amount of plastic flowing into the oceans could be reduced by as much as 80% over the next 20 years through a combination of reduced plastic use, increased recycling, alternatives to problematic packaging like plastic pouches and better waste management, the Pew-Systemiq study said…

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, Ocean Plastic Is Getting Worse and Efforts to Stem the Tide Fall Short, Study Finds, WSJ, July 23, 2020