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Observations of an Expat: Saving the World v Energy Supplies

By Tom Arms

A perfect storm appears to be gathering over Glasgow to obstruct the COP26 Climate Change Conference which starts on 31 October.

Two hundred countries, 100 hundred world leaders and 30,000 participants from politicians to climatologists, to diplomats to businesses and to pressure groups, will turn the Scottish city into a logistical nightmare for a fortnight.

But that is an insignificant issue and a tiny price to pay if the world’s governments come up with a workable plan to reduce global temperature rises to the target of 1.5 degrees centigrade by 2050 or—hopefully– sooner. Unfortunately, that appears increasingly unlikely for a host of reasons.

Top of the list is the world economy. It is in a mess. The pandemic has left every country staggering under the weight of crippling debts and eaten up money that could otherwise be spent on the green revolution. So far, according to the World Economic Forum, the worldwide Covid bill has come to $11 trillion, and it is still growing.

Money is being borrowed. Taxes will rise. And it is difficult to imagine how world leaders can afford to balance paying for the pandemic and the switch to renewable energy while satisfying public demand for improved living standards.

It is a problem shared by democracies and autocracies alike. Long-term national and international policies are required but the political horizons of most democracies are tied to the next election. As for autocratic countries, they need identifiable improvements in living standards to compensate for the lack of political freedom.

This could help explain why China’s President for life Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will be conspicuous by their absence in Glasgow. China has over a thousand filthy carbon-emitting coal-fired power stations and employs 12 million workers to feed them. Almost every climatologist and energy expert reckons that Beijing has zero chance of reaching net-zero emissions by its extended target of 2060. China—the world’s workshop—is responsible for 27 per cent of global carbon emissions.

Russia generates five per cent of global carbon emissions. The reduction has flatlined over the past ten years and there appears to be a minimal effort by Moscow to reduce them further. But more importantly, is Russia’s role as a fossil fuel producer. It provides EU countries—the world’s largest trading bloc—with a third of its natural gas and—when you add oil—more than 40 per cent of its energy needs. Moscow wants to increase rather than decrease that dependency which explains why Putin is dragging his climate change heels.

Next is the US where consumer opposition and Democratic Senator Joe Mancin have combined forces to block President Biden’s key Clean Electricity Programme. Under this plan, power stations would be paid by the federal government to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources at a rate of four per cent a year. If they fail to reach this target the electricity utility companies pay the government.

But a fly has appeared in this climate change ointment. Senator Mancin has emerged as Congress’s swing vote, and he has decided to use this position to block the programme in order to protect his coal mining constituents in West Virginia. Incidentally, Senator Mancin earns $500,000 a year from coal mining investments.

The problem of consumer opposition was highlighted by Republican Senator Joe Barosso who said recently that the current shortage of energy supplies plus general economic woes have alerted the high-energy consuming American public that legislation to protect the climate will mean major lifestyle changes. The Republican Party slogan is “no oil means no jobs.” And, of course, Donald Trump is the world’s leading climate change denier.

The European Union appears determined to go green. Or at least part of it. This week’s European Council summit was faced with a firm “NIE” from rebellious Poland to reduce its coal production and usage. In fact, Warsaw has threatened to torpedo the EU’s climate change action plan unless it is allowed to continue mining and burning coal. Three-quarters of Poland’s energy is generated by its homegrown coal.

Then there is the problem of weaning poverty-stricken developing countries off fossil fuels. Led by China and India, they successfully argued at the Paris Climate Change Conference that the carbon emission problem was created by developed countries and so developed countries should help finance the switch to renewable energy in the developing world.

A guilt-ridden developed world agreed and pledged to foot the bill for up to $100 billion a year. However, it has fallen short of that target every year since. President Biden promised at the UN General Assembly to double America’s contribution, but British PM Boris Johnson (who is hosting COP 26) has cast doubt on the West’s ability to pay even the current reduced figure.

The role of Boris Johnson highlights another problem– competence. The British leader is disliked throughout the EU because of Brexit and regarded as a political lightweight everywhere else. He has not helped his cause– and that of climate change– by announcing the opening of a coal mine in Cumbria and the sale of new North Sea oil and gas production licenses. A respected and strong host is essential to the success of any international gathering.

The issues listed above are only the tip of the iceberg blocking the COP26 Titanic. This Pandora’s Box has a single but important butterfly of hope—the alternative to failure is so much worse.

World Review

Poland and the debate of national law v. EU law continued to dominate the European agenda this week as it moved up to the heads of government level. The Poles remain intransigent and are backed by Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel played her normal conciliator role when she urged compromise while at the same time stressing the central role that the acceptance of the primacy of EU law plays in the European Union. Commission President Ursula van der Leyen took a harder line when she said that if Warsaw failed to toe the legal line it would lose $66 billion in covid aid. The problem would be easier to resolve if it involved one or two arcane legal issues. But the Polish government’s dispute is with EU laws that affect their illiberal legislation regarding press freedom, LGBT rights and independence of the judiciary.

Nigeria is in a mess. To be more precise, it is in a bigger mess than usual. And because it is the most populous African country (211,400,000) and the continent’s second-biggest economy, this is bad news for Africa and bad news for the world. The cause is the age-old problem of corruption exacerbated by Jihadism, the pandemic, a rapid rise in gang violence and a resurgence of Biafran secessionism. Boko Haram has carved out a caliphate the size of Belgium in the northeast corner of the country and Nigeria’s federal forces have made no headway in combatting it. In the southeast, the Igbos are making noises about reviving the secessionist dream that failed so dramatically half a century ago.  At the same time roaming gangs have kidnapped 2,200 people so far this year. The instability has led to 8,000 Nigerians being killed since January. More than two million have been displaced and hundreds of thousands have died of starvation and disease. Nigeria has plenty of petrodollars that could be spent on resolving the above problems. But if it suffers from endemic corruption complicated by rivalries between the more than 250 competing ethnic groups and politicians intent on skimming off the top, middle and bottom.

Some of the Brazilian senators investigating President Jair Bolsonaro handling (or mishandling) of the coronavirus pandemic wanted the Brazilian president charged with crimes against humanity and genocide. But political pressures and possibly a realisation that this was an overstatement and threatened to devalue the term “genocide” meant that the commission of inquiry changed the wording to “a crime of epidemic resulting in death.” That does not in any way mitigate Bolsonaro’s responsibility for 600,000 Brazilian covid-19 deaths, the second-highest after the United States. Bolsonaro has called coronavirus the little flu; blocked a national lockdown; branded as “tyrants” local governors who did lockdown in their regions; told Brazilians to “stop whining” when deaths reached new heights and dismissed opportunities to buy new vaccines.

It looks as if former Trump aide Steve Bannon will go to prison for a year for contempt of Congress. He will also probably have to cough up a $100,000 fine. The House of Representatives this week voted 229 to 209 to refer Bannon’s case to Attorney General Merrick Garland for a final decision on whether or not to prosecute. On the surface, it appears to be an open and shut matter. Bannon was subpoenaed and refused to testify, claiming that ex-president Donald Trump’s lawyers advised him to assert executive privilege. There are two problems with his claim. One, he was not working in the White House on 6 January and two, an executive privilege for misdeeds committed while in office ends when a president leaves the White House. Otherwise, Gerald Ford would not have needed to pardon Richard Nixon. It seems that Bannon actually has a lot to offer the investigation. He has publicly said that he knew about “extreme events” in advance of the riots and in a podcast, the day before said: “all hell’s going to break loose tomorrow.” The fact of the matter, however, is that the American wheels of justice grind incredibly slowly. It is expected to take several months at the earliest before any prosecution reaches a courtroom and then it can be delayed further by arcane legal arguments. This could easily take past the mid-term congressional elections and buy Trump time to prepare for 2024. As for the prison sentence and fine, a spell inside seems to be a badge of honour for former Trump aides and the fine will probably be paid by Republican backers, although Bannon can afford it. He is worth $20 million.

It was Englishman Henry Wotton who said: “An Ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie and intrigue for the benefit of his country.” The 1604 observation was tailor-made for 21st century US Secretary of State Colin Powell who died this week. He was universally recognised as a decent and honest man, and the second Bush’s administration ruthlessly exploited his blameless reputation to justify an unjustifiable war. Powell joined the US army in 1958 as a second lieutenant when the number of Black officers could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand if that. He served three distinguished tours in Vietnam as well as in Korea and Germany before Ronald Reagan chose him as his National Security Adviser. He returned to the army as a Lieutenant General but was quickly promoted by President George H. Bush to four-star full general rank and appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When Bush’s son “Dubya” moved into the White House he was surrounded by a sea of neoconservative advisers who were generally regarded with distrust and suspicion by the international community. They needed a man of impeccable credentials as top diplomat to offset their reputation. Powell was the obvious choice. Powell was the only one in the administration that the world might believe when he told the United Nations that the US had “solid intelligence” that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This was a lie. He knew it was a lie. He said it because he was ordered to do so and he was an army man who had been ordered by his commander-in-chief. He regretted it almost as soon as words were uttered and later described his UN speech as a “blot” on his otherwise largely unblemished legacy.

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