Saturday, 19 December 2009
Friday, 18 December 2009
Of course, drinking wine and eating pigs are themselves products of an industry which, while not monolithic, is certainly part of the French self-image, agriculture. Indeed this is perhaps the most totemic of the lot and (as with the electricity industry) this status leads to some curious and self-harming reactions on the part of government and individuals alike. Agriculture in France and across Europe is protected both by direct subsidies and by border tariffs. The result of this ought to be farmers profiting at the expense of the rest of the population who pay higher prices than they would if cheap foreign produce was allowed to compete with home-grown stuff. But in fact this is not the case; farming is in crisis. Both producers and consumers are losing out. The reaction will presumably be to keep throwing money at the sector - because of the visceral attachment to the image of an agricultural France decisions concerning farming bring into play far more votes than there are actual farmers - and hope that the problem goes away. But not only does this approach not seem to have worked it is also grossly unfair. Unfair on the consumers as mentioned above, but if they want to pay higher prices for local products then so be it. It is unfair primarily on producers in the world's poorest countries who are unable to break into foreign markets that would at least give them a hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. One of the stumbling blocks in the Copenhagen negotiations concerns the amount and the kind of aid to be given to poor countries to help them convert to a low carbon economy without harming their potential for growth. The poor countries want more than the rich are prepared to give and they want it with the smallest number of strings attached. This looks like being one of the points of disagreement that derails the whole process. So why not sidestep the whole question and instead of giving/lending money to poor countries remove all tariffs on their agricultural produce? The result would be a near immediate and long term rise in the wealth of these countries (long term since the price differential between a potato grown in Angola and one grown in Brittany or Idaho is not going to go away any time soon). If the tariff were removed in two steps - first lifting it on organic produce before extending it to industrially produced food then there would also be a direct incentive to consume less carbon and protect the environment in these countries. As it is many of these countries practice organic agriculture by default but you can be sure that as soon as they start having the money to buy synthetic fertilizers Monsanto et al will move in. The preferential tariff for organic produce would help protect against this. I would nevertheless have this system not last indefinitely so as not to disproportionately harm organic producers in the wealthier countries. An influx of cheap organic produce over a limited period of time might even benefit them as it will lower the price of organic food which is currently one of the main reasons people are reluctant to buy it. The price difference comes in part from higher costs but also because supermarkets can stick on a hefty premium as there is not enough supply to meet demand. If the markets were flooded then this would not be the case. Well, I am not an economist so I guess there are holes in my argument but it does not take a specialist to see that the manner in which Europe and America currently support their agricultural sectors (at great cost to their taxpayers and at an even greater cost to the world's poorest people) is not only foolish but immoral.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
Paris, like much of northern France, is under snow this morning. The result is beautiful - what is normally a grey and beige city is vividly black and white - but also slightly alarming. As was the case last winter the city doesn't really seem equiped to cope with snow, and cars and pedestrians are crawling along unsalted roads and pavements. Alarming too are the announcements of a potential power cut at 7 o'clock this evening. Temperatures are roughly 6 degrees below their seasonal average and hence the demand for electricity is correspondingly high. It is worrying that the French grid is not prepared to cope with a situation that while extreme is not that extreme, and it is curious that despite all the media coverage I have yet to hear a single request from any public body asking individuals to limit their electricity consumption. The possible black out is presented as something that has a high probability of occuring - tonight there is a 50% chance of snow and a 60% chance of a power failure - rather than as something over which we have any control. Worrying also that the previous record for electricity consumption was in January of this year. What this means is that for all the talk about climate change over the last 12 months people have done nothing to reduce their energy use. France generates 85% of its electricity from nuclear power stations which for all their bad press are actually fairly good in terms of carbon emissions. So perhaps there is a false sense of security in France regarding electricity - we produce a lot of it and we produce it cleanly so why bother limiting our consumption? And worse than this there has for a long time been a conscious policy in France of encouraging electricity use as this will support a major national industry; half of all electric heaters in Europe are installed in French houses. There is at the moment a rather unpleasant debate taking place in France about national identity which has predictably turned into a slanging match about Muslims and immigrants. Seen from an outsider's point of view a short-sighted, protectionist obsession with monolithic heavy industries - nuclear, aeronautic, automobile - seems as much a part of French identity as drinking wine and eating pigs.
Wednesday, 16 December 2009
Thursday, 10 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
OK, enough Copenhagen, time for some Johannesburg. Here, for what they are worth (ie. not much), are my predictions for the World Cup:
South Africa; France
Argentina; South Korea
Brazil; Ivory Coast
Perhaps a bit of a Europe/Africa bias in my predictions (ie. no Uruguay, Paraguay or Mexico) and South Korea and Slovakia are outside bets. We shall see.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
I once spent a night in a room above a wine bar in Antwerp. The place was lovely - large bed, view over an art nouveau square, little kitchen area with a bottle of Genever in the fridge - and so was the bar downstairs. Unfortunately I was kept awake all night by the bar next door which was more of a get shitfaced on Trappist beer and dance until you puke kind of place. I mentioned this to the owner of the wine bar the next morning and he apologized, said that it was not the first time this had happened and promised he would speak to the owner of the other establishment. He did and the upshot was that the owner of the noisy bar offered to pay half of my night's accommodation. In some sleep-deprived, masochistic fit of righteousness I refused, saying that it was not right that someone should repeatedly screw their neighbour and then pay their way out of it. A situation rather like this, where some people will respect the rules of civism and get reimbursed by others who don't is what is proposed by the "cap and trade" approach to carbon emissions. Of course the "cap" part of "cap and trade" - the total amount of carbon to be emitted worldwide is fixed at a certain level which will encourage companies to use less so that they can sell their surplus allowance to other companies who can't or won't reduce their emissions - means that the two scenarios are not exactly the same. (So far as I know no such proposal has been made about world noise levels, although a quieter world would presumably be one of the side effects of a low carbon economy.) This "cap" will be progressively lowered so as to insure the price of the carbon credits does not stabilize or fall and hence polluting will stay costly. Unfortunately there is a proposal to alter the bill before the US congress to allow companies to purchase offsets instead/as well as carbon credits. This would mean that there would be no limit at all - the "cap" would become purely theoretical. And regardless of whether the offset amendment is included in the bill or not regional discrepancies will inevitably exist - and indeed may even get worse. While over all pollution might go down, in certain areas it will stay the same or even increase - a victory for the planet but not for the people living near a dirty power station (or a noisy bar). If "cap and trade" is to work both locally as well as globally (and the verdict is still out on both of these points) it will need to be coupled with laws that limit the emissions any one source can produce. In this regard the announcement yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health is extremely good news as it paves the way for the agency to regulate emissions of these gases. One wonders why it took so long to arrive at such a finding (I'm guessing eight years of George W. Bush didn't help) but, as with Obama's belated decision to attend the Copenhagen summit at all, better late than never.
Monday, 7 December 2009
A couple of weeks ago the Copenhagen negotiations which open today seemed doomed to fail. Now things seem a little less catastrophic. The decision by Barack Obama to attend the closing days of the summit reflects not just his desire to participate in the negotiations but also his belief that something might come of these talks. While virtually every other leader in the world was prepared to attend regardless, Obama, burnt by the public embarrassment of his failure to bring the Olympics to Chicago, was only willing to attend if he felt the conference would produce tangible results. This is pathetic but it's behind us now. There will always be fans who couldn't care less about the muddy games in February and only turn up when their team is in the final but as long as they make some noise in the stadium we'll forgive them. Without America these negotiations were going nowhere. With America present there is at least some hope. Of course the real problem is that whatever is decided at Copenhagen there will be no legal framework to enforce those decisions for at least another six months. And even after six months when all the negotiators meet again in Mexico there is no guarantee that a treaty will be signed. However by then we will at least have an idea of the nations which are obstructing progress. Let us give America, Canada and Saudi Arabia just a little more time to get their house in order and if they don't then maybe it is time for a boycott. Not something facile à la Freedom Fries but more along the lines of the apartheid-era boycott of South Africa. Opponents of boycotts and trade embargoes say that they are unjust measures which punish the entirety of a nation for the sins of its ruling class. This argument has a certain logic when you are speaking about poor nations like Iraq or Cuba but the countries threatening to derail the Copenhagen negotiations are far from poor. A boycott would shame them more than it would actually hurt them financially. And since if these negotiations fail the whole world will be hurting financially anyway a dose of shame is probably the best we can do.