Asian Correspondent » Gerry OKane Asian Correspondent Thu, 02 Jul 2015 10:36:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Morons, politicians, religion and carbon emissions Tue, 23 Nov 2010 14:17:16 +0000

US-bashing is a pretty common global sport, especially by those states who have practised mass murder in their own countries in one way or another. I won’t point any fingers, we all know who you are. I won’t even mention that lonely, plasticine man in North Korea

What has been apparant lately is that the latest administration, that of President Obama, was expected  to do better: in stopping wars, in being sympathetic to Islam (after all nearly half of US citizens think he is a muslim), in employment or in helping the US Olympic team run the 100 metres faster. Most of all, India and China and the rest of Asia thought he might do better in his green policies and make a serious move, like sign some international agreement.

What people in Asia often forget, probably because most of them don’t recognise the real concept or don’t believe it exists, is that the US democratic system blocks controversial policies by both the President and by the party dominating Congress (made up of the Senate and House of Representatives). Obama can simply refuse to sign a new law, or the Congressional majority can simply refuse to ratify the latest White House idea. Congress also influences, especially through budgets.

Now if you watch this, you’ll see what Obama is up against. This man, Illinois Republican Congressman John Simkus, is fairly representative of the intellectual capacity of the vocal and powerful electoral minority. Bear in mind he is lobbying for the Chairmanship of this important committee. This is how he views cutting carbon emissions, this is how he sees losing jobs because of a “clean air policy”. (Bear this in mind, Beijing) This is often the level of debate that a new thinker like Obama has to horse-trade against.

It is also a classic example of where, when a brain is removed and replaced by regurgitating endless passages from a religious text, sanity, honesty, opportunities for improvement and possibly the survival of the human race, disappear into the stratosphere like CFCs. This is a statement to the Energy and Environment Sub-Committee.

Christianity has its place, as has Islam. But this sort of mumbo-jumbo spouted daily by various religious nutters with political and military might on their side, anywhere in the world, should leave all of us with serious concerns. If ever there was a time to shout that US slogan about drug use, “Just say No “, it’s now. Unfortunately it sounds just as stupid and is likely to be just as effective as Mrs Nancy Reagan’s well-meaning but ignorant plea in 1996.

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Recession’s pinprick effect on carbon emissions Mon, 22 Nov 2010 11:13:18 +0000

We’re back on track for the next international Olympic hot-air competition as the UN talks on climate change start in Cancun next week. One base-topic will be the latest piece of research on carbon emissions from the Global Carbon Project, a network of researchers around the world.

Their figures for last year show that growth in carbon emissions fell, but as a result of the recession and not by as much as had been expected. Indeed, the academics found the annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 was 1.6 parts per million (ppm) in 2009, which was below the average of 1.9 ppm per year during 2000 to 2008, but still above the mean growth rate for the previous 20 years of 1.5 ppm per year.

According to lead researcher Pierre Friedlingstein from the UK’s University of Exeter as quoted by the BBC:

“What we find is a drop in emissions from fossil fuels in 2009 of 1.3%, which is not dramatic and based on GDP projections last year, we were expecting much more…. If you think about it, it’s like four days’ worth of emissions; it’s peanuts.”

As a result of the recession, developed nations saw the most profound drops in emissions with Japan falling by 11.8 percent, the UK by 8.6 percent and Germany by 7 percent. In contrast the rapidly industrialising nations like China and India unsurprisingly saw their emissions growing with China up by 8 percent and India growing by 6.2 percent.

The research itself, published in Nature Geoscience concludes:

“The abrupt decline in fossil fuel emissions by 1.3 percent in 2009 is indisputably the result of the global financial crisis (GFC). However, the decline was smaller than anticipated because:

  1. the contraction of the Global World Product (GWP) was only -0.6%, as opposed to the forecasted -1.1%;  and

  2. the impact of the GFC was largely in developed economies which led more carbon-intense economies to take a larger share of the production of global wealth (with associated higher emissions). The long-term improvement of the carbon intensity of the economy (amount of carbon emissions to produce one dollar of wealth) is -1.7 percent y-1; the carbon intensity of the economy in 2009 improved only by -0.7 percent y-1.”

The upshot of all this research, according to the academics, is that the world has to find a way of decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions, a viewpoint oddly prefaced in last week’s report by The UK-India Business Leaders Climate Group (BLCG). In spite of the usual slew of political apparatchiks from the UK and India praising the approach of these business leaders who called for serious investment in renewable energies, locally generated and more efficient business practices, few of them saw the concept as fundamental for the future discussions on cutting greenhouse gasesm, especially in India.

As a result one can be fairly certain that Cancun is going to look and sound very much like Copenhagen, the scene of the last disastrous global political head-burying competition.

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A lot of wind in China’s energy policies Fri, 19 Nov 2010 12:59:37 +0000

China’s National Energy Administration has had a busy week in promoting green energy.

Its deputy director, Wu Yin, has announced that China’s wind power energy capacity is expected to put it in first place throughout the globe by the end of the year. This pushes the US into second place, according to figures form Bloomberg.

The official figures from the NEA is a capacity of 35 million kilowatts but Wu said it’ll probably be higher boosted by the completion of the first-stage of the Jiuquan wind farm base, the country’s largest wind power project.

The news comes as the NEA’s development plan for emerging energy industries from 2011 to 2020 reached the outside world outlining policies for the development and utilisation of nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, unconventional natural gas and other new energies. According to the organistion it’ll require an investment of about five trillion yuan.

It also looked at smart-grid technologies and alternative-fuel vehicle technologies.

One area the report highlighted was the effort to decrease the nation’s reliance on coal – good news since the US embassy has been decrying air quality in Beijing. But, according to the NEA, the cuts of sulphur dioxide emissions from coal will be about 7.8 million tons and carbon dioxide emissions of 1.2 billion tons in a year. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to take effect until 2020 and going back to an earlier diplomatic spat with the US, it’ll depend on who’s calcualting the figures.

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India and UK businesses urge low-carbon cooperation Tue, 16 Nov 2010 17:47:14 +0000

Business leaders in Britain and India are adamant that joint projects using low-carbon technologies can help lift rural India out of poverty, maintain economic growth and boost trade relationships.

A new report from The UK-India Business Leaders Climate Group (BLCG) calls for more UK investment in clean technologies in India, also observing that as India grows at around 9 percent a year, increases in greenhouse gases are inevitable and, in an effort to limit climate change, radical approaches must be taken.

The group, launched earlier this year to provide recommendations to the governments of the UK and India, sees significant opportunities for both business sectors in clean energy, energy efficiency, low carbon technology, water, waste management and related services.

High profile members of the BLCG, include HSBC, Rolls Royce, Suzlon and Bharti Enterprises and all are collectively valued at over £200 billion.

Rajan Bharti Mittal, Vice Chairman and MD, Bharti Enterprises and co-chair of the UK-India Business Leaders Climate Group commented: “Our economies have successfully partnered with each other in other areas for decades. We recognise that our future trade will be increasingly low carbon and is a priority for all progressive governments and businesses. We believe that our Charter of Principles can serve as a model to those other countries.”

While the initial report was welcomed by political leaders in the UK and India, they have yet to agree to turn all of the report’s recommendations into action. Indeed India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, while positive, said that his government would only “give this significant report the most serious consideration.”

The initial recommendations that will be implemented immediately include:

  • an online Clean Technology Development Directory of early stage Indian technologies across a range of sectors that provides relevant data to prospective UK investors
  • a Low Carbon Capital Manual, providing technical information on the financial tools, and the methods for creating them, for raising capital and increasing public private investment in low carbon projects in India
  • a high-level Low Carbon Economy Summit to be held in India in 2011 that will bring together the private equity/venture capital community in the UK with the technology innovators of India.

The report also pulls few punches. While it points out that the UK has voluntarily made reduction targets of green-house gas emissions of 34 percent to 42 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, it also critically highlights that the target of 10 percent of electricity generated coming from renewable sources by this year, has failed.

In India the power sector has been affected by a shortfall in both generation and transmission investment which has hindered smooth economic growth and the Government of India Planning Commission estimated in 2006 that almost US$23 billion of investment would be required to develop India’s energy infrastructure.

“There are further key challenges to overcome, including information and skills disparities and intellectual property rights enforcement. Finally, technology transfer has been slow due to the absence of policies to promote investment in innovation and technology development, lack of technology commercialisation models and slow adoption and diffusion across all stakeholders,” says the report.

One area highlighted is in biofuels. Sir John Banham – chairman of materials company Johnson Matthey said, “[In the report] you’ll see reference to the possibility that by combining technologies readily available in India and the UK, it could be possible for every village in India to have electricity and hot water delivered from gas.”

The report adds: Significant employment potential also exists in the area of biofuels. It has been estimated that the Government’s plans to increase industrial and village-level biofuel production have the potential to create ten million jobs across the country…

One area of particular interest in India and the United Kingdom is the expansion of locally generated power which reduces transmission and distribution losses. Centralized generating capacity is under strain in both countries, with some 450 million people in India having little prospect of being connected to grid electricity any time soon. The feedstock for this decentralized generation can come from both locally-available methane – for example, from sewage and food/farm waste – and renewable energy resources, including small-scale wind and hydro, solar and geothermal.”

As the next climate conference approaches in Mexico’s Cancun, these sorts of bilateral moves may be the best hope for reducing global greenhouse gases, while not hindering economic growth. But while companies may see the logic of this approach, governments always seem to be some distance behind.

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Companies fear world water crisis – report Mon, 15 Nov 2010 11:15:08 +0000

It’s easy to think that water is plentiful, but new research reports that large companies are worried that water shortages could affect their business within the next five years. It also highlights that both China and India are already facing serious problems over water sustainability.

It concludes that demand for water has risen and is now projected to outstrip supply by up to 40 percent by 2030, and approximately 80 percent of the world’s population already live in areas where fresh water supply is not secure.

They key findings also include:

  1. No companies in the Food & Beverage industry responded to the questionnaire.
  2. Most companies do have information on their direct water usage.
  3. Only half of the respondents saw water as a risk for their business and for their supply chain.
  4. Most companies do not have data on water use or water issues in their supply chain.
  5. Many companies have a water management plan, but only for their own plants.
  6. More than half of the respondents see water as an opportunity.

Called CDP Water Disclosure, the new report from the Carbon Disclosure Project put together by Environmental Resource Management (ERM), looks at the impact of water constraints on the world’s largest corporations and considering their worries, should bring into sharp focus the problems facing everyone.

It says: “Notwithstanding the current economic situation and the concerns about energy security, water, like climate change, will be one of the key issues of the 21st century.

Water scarcity is a growing problem that affects governments, businesses and individuals in many parts of the world. The actions of business will have a significant impact on the scale and impact of such scarcity and on the development and implementation of potential solutions. At present, however, business awareness of the issues, risks and opportunities is limited and investor understanding of the threats and opportunities is even less developed.”

The report highlights numerous concerns and questioned 302 of the world’s largest companies on behalf of institutional investors. These investors, who represent an estimated $16 trillion of assets-under-management, are increasingly becoming concerned that their estimates of what constitutes risk to their investment portfolios is wonky. For example, many fund managers began to reassess their investment risk profiles following the BP rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to figure out how to evaluate company governance and the implementation of best practice. Should these factors be absent, asset managers are now recognising that their investments can be at risk.

What’s worrying is that no company involved in the food or beverage industry took part, choosing to ignore the questionnaire but probably highlighting the serious issues facing them, considering other participants’ responses. While it seems that most of those taking part were already aware of the seriousness of water security, over half of those who faced a risk classified them as current or near-term, in the next 1-5 years.

“Thirty-nine percent of companies are already experiencing detrimental impacts relating to water including disruption to operations from drought or flooding, declining water quality necessitating costly on-site pre-treatment, and increases in water prices, as well as fines and litigation relating to pollution incidents,” said the report.

Japanese companies took the issues seriously, responding to the questionnaires and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing got a special mention for best practice in water management. However the report argues that we have been treating the supply of water like economic bubbles and several nations, including China and India were now facing serious problems.

“In many parts of the world we have consistently under-priced water, wasting it and overusing it as a result. Against a background of hugely inequitable access to water for basic human requirements around the world, we have depleted stocks of groundwater and diverted rivers at the expense of our future water needs, whilst also failing to meet all our current demands. In effect we have exploited a series of water “bubbles” – especially in agriculture – to support rapid economic growth over the past 50 years or so. We are now on the verge of water bankruptcy in many places with no way of paying the debt back. In fact, a number of these regional water bubbles are now bursting in parts of China, India the Middle East, the south western US, the Mediterranean and Australia; more regions will follow. The consequences for regional economic and political stability will be serious if we do not act soon. Current demands on water are many and urgent, future demands on water for food, energy and urban needs are huge. And climate change simply amplifies the scale and speed of the water challenge: managing our future water needs is, in effect, the adaptation challenge.”

As Pakistan can attest to following the recent and ongoing flood disaster, managing water resources will become critical not only to keeping companies going, but also in maintaining economic and social stability.

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Asian technology companies behind European counterparts Wed, 10 Nov 2010 13:38:28 +0000

It’s mixed news for Asian companies in the latest edition of the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics. In fact they dominate the last third of the research which ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, TVs and games consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change.

Greenpeace’s tone is praiseworthy for the firms, even those at the bottom of the league, in part because it wants to encourage them to change rather than alienating them. Markedly, the top three positions were all European companies – Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Philips – with US firms also doing poorly. Microsoft came second last, while Apple dropped furthest, slipping from fifth to ninth.

Top of the Asian firms was Korean firm Samsung which swept up the table from 13th place to 5th, as a result of one of its penalty points being lifted and improvements in its score on chemicals.

The report said, “It remains encumbered by one penalty point, which was first imposed in v.14 of the Guide for backtracking on its commitment to eliminate brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in new models of all products by January 2010 and PVC vinyl plastic by end of 2010. The second penalty point, served in v.15 for misleading its customers and Greenpeace by not admitting that it would not meet its public commitment until the time-line for that commitment had passed, has been lifted.”

But at the other end of the scale and coming in last was Japanese gaming company Nintendo with a score of 1.8 out of 10. It got the thumbs up from Greenpeace on its use of chemicals – PVC-free internal wiring on games consoles, banning phthalates and has a precautionary principle in its approach to managing chemical substances and for publishing its standards for chemicals management. But it performs poorly on handling waste and actually increasing rather than cutting CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases.

Chinese computer company Lenovo did get praise for improving its position in the league table to 14th position from 17th, with an increased score of 3.5, up from 1.9 points.

Greenpeace’s conclusion was that “Lenovo has made significant progress on three of the energy criteria; it now supports the need for global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to peak by 2015, with a 30 percent reduction in emissions from industrialised countries by 2020 and a 50 percent reduction by 2050, relative to 1990; it has set its own targets for reducing GHG emissions, aiming to eliminate or offset its scope 1 emissions by 100 percent by April 2011 and achieve absolute reductions in scope 2 emissions, with progressive targets up to 20 percent by April 2020, relative to 2008/09; it also reports the percentage of its products that meet the latest Energy Star standards, with many of its products exceeding the standard.”

Interestingly the pressure group noted that while the company had done better on reporting and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, they were not externally verified, echoing the US administrations arguments with China over future emissions cuts being independently verified.

As for Microsoft, the report is critical of an absence of improvement in the use of hazardous chemicals and substances. The criticism obviously stung as the Wall Street Journal reported the company’s response:

“Microsoft’s commitment to environmental sustainability includes strategies to minimize the impact of our operations; using IT to improve energy efficiency; and accelerating research breakthroughs that will help scientific understanding on a global scale. We acknowledge that more work remains to achieve our sustainability goals and continue to work to improve upon our efforts.

“With respect to voluntary elimination of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and phthalates, we face challenges similar to other manufacturers of complex hardware devices in terms of the availability, suitability and cost effectiveness of BFR-free alternatives, and the overriding concern for the safety of our consumers. BFRs and phthalates remain on our roadmap for targeted elimination and our new goal to eliminate these materials is December 31, 2012.” 

League Table


Sony Ericsson












LG Electronics





Greenpeace’s ranking criteria reflect the demands of the Toxic Tech campaign to the electronics companies. Its three demands are that companies should:

  • Clean up their products by eliminating hazardous substances.

  • Take back and recycle their products responsibly once they become obsolete.

  • Reduce the climate impacts of their operations and products.

The use of harmful chemicals in electronics prevents their safe recycling when the products are discarded. Companies scored marks out of 51, which it presents on a scale of 0 to 10 for simplicity.

]]> 0 The burning of green options in US politics Thu, 04 Nov 2010 15:49:06 +0000

It wasn’t only US President Barack Obama’s hope of political success that went up in smoke with the US mid-term elections, Proposition 19, the legalisation of cannabis in the state of California, which was tipped as having a real opportunity, failed.

While opinion polls pointed to it passing, a late surge in money and vociferousness on the part of the ‘No’ vote had its desired effect. Either that or the ‘legalise cannabis’ vote couldn’t be bothered to turn up or forgot the election was on.

And it looks as if it might be a sign of things to come. The world of green business is on a slump again as a result of the swing to the republicans. It also bodes ill for future climate change negotiations and that always means butting heads with China and, to a lesser extent, India.

It’s been pointed out that by those in the know that all those Republicans who gained seats in the House of Representatives are climate sceptics. While President Obama has let it be known that he intends to beef up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Republicans are looking to cut it down to size. But more importantly the Republicans are back to questioning climate change.

It’s been quietly announced that the Republican party is planning to hold high-profile hearings to examine the alleged “scientific fraud” behind global warming. So while everyone else has gone through the soul searching and investigations and most scientists agree to a greater or lesser extent that there is a human impact on the climate, we can see that next stage of climate talks bogged down in not just the Obama administration’s mindset but pressure from Republicans. And they have a mindset that if it’s conservative enough and gets votes, we’ll pressure it. They’d teach the flat-earth school of navigation at Naval college if they could get a vote out of it.

And with that in mind watch what happens with the investigation into China’s alleged susbsidising of green technologies in an uncompetitive way. It’ll take on a larger role in the domestic politics of US.

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Marijuana, the hope of a real green business Tue, 02 Nov 2010 12:26:56 +0000

I can just Lee Kuan Yew choking on his cornflakes as he listens to the results of the mid-term elections in the US. It’s not so much that Harry, as his very old friends used to call him, thinks that the Tea Party is an insult to tea, or that he’s weeping for ol’ Barak losing his party’s majority in the House of Representatives.

No, Harry’s despair could be the result from California’s Proposition 19, a state-wide ballot to legalise the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.

That bane of Asia, marijuana, looks set to take its place in the pantheon of green, so to speak, business with sustainable production.

And only days before Californians vote on the issue (and the polls show that those for legalisation are just ahead), a new medical report from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in the UK and published in the renowned medical journal, Lancet, argued that alcohol was more damaging than heroin. Marijuana comes way down the list of harmful drugs, well below even tobacco.

The debate is nothing new. In 1971 the Nixon-appointed Shafer Commission urged that the use of cannabis be re-legalized, but their recommendation was ignored.

In truth, for Californians, the legalisation debate is not too much about sustainable issues. In 1996 the state legalised cannabis use on medical grounds and so grew a huge industry of medics who would prescribe the drug at the drop of a hat. This time around it seeks to make legal possession of up to an ounce of the drug, to be smoked in private or licensed establishments, so long as you’re over 21.

For California, the argument for legalisation is is that it opens opportunities to help its ravaged economy. Already the medicinal growing of the crop produces annual sales of $14 billion. The new regime could bring an estimated $1.4 billion a year in tax revenues. It could also keep up to 78,000 people arrested each year on cannabis-related charges, out of the judicial system and allow drug enforcement authorities to concentrate on more dangerous drugs.

On its borders, the Mexican government has been battling drug cartels who get up to 60 percent of their revenues from selling cannabis in the US. Some 28,000 people have died in these drug wars, and the argument goes that the move will deal these gangs’ finances a serious blow.

While Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has not come out for the Proposition, he has controversially said “it’s time for a debate”.

And while the report in the UK yet again opens the debate on marijuana, no doubt the government will point out it is co-authored by Professor David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs adviser who was sacked by the then-Labour government in 2009. But he is joined by other former members of the government’s own committees and other experts and they ranked 20 drugs on 16 measures of harm to users and to wider society.

The debate also has other implications. Hemp, in simple terms the same plant as cannabis but without the active ingredient of THC, is one of the most sustainable plants in the world. Research by Britain’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra before its name was changed) on hemp growing discovered that in all experiments it was better to simply plant it and harvest it, eliminating the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

Evidence shows that in 6000 BC cannabis seeds were used for food in China and 2000 years later they began making textiles from it.

The potential of the plant globally is staggering. Commercial hemp seeds in the UK are used in cooking oil, high (so to speak) in Omega 3 oils. The fibrous leaves and stalks can be used in textiles, paper, rope, sails or even in BMW door panels. It is also one of the faster growing biomasses known, producing up to 25 tonnes of dry matter per hectare per year and is happy to grow in areas that other commercial crops may find too arduous.

Now this is a tip for those looking at the commercial aspects of hemp. Don’t join the EU. The UK was too busy writing cheques for Brussels to notice the hemp legislation slipped under the bills by France and Italy, that meant in order to legally cultivate it, harvesting has to be done a full month before the best time in the UK’s growing season and the THC-free seeds had to be supplied by France.

Today major producers include Canada, (unsurprisingly) France, and China. Paradoxically, the US in the world’s biggest importer of hemp.

There’s a new green business President Obama and sprinkle the seeds on your cornflakes, Harry.

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US-China talks hide serious politics behind rare metals Sat, 30 Oct 2010 15:47:41 +0000

Just as the US mid-term elections come to an end soon, news emerges that China has been making reassuring noises to the US on the, ultimately strategic, subject of rare earth metals.

News has been flashing around the world’s major news outlets that at a side-line during the Asean conference in Vietnam the US ostensibly took on the role of go-between on behalf of Japan in discussing the increasingly acrimonious territorial issue of the islands – known as Senkaku in Japan as and in China as Diaoyu. (They are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China).

It seems that the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton got ‘reassurances’ from Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that China would honour international trade agreements or use the supply of rare earth metals, particularly vital in the production of green energy equipment. In the main it was a deal to allow Japan resupply of rare metals, of which it imports 56 per cent of China’s output, following China cutting of supplies during the Islands dispute.

China had extended the ban further afield and considering that it now exports 97 per cent of these metals vital in the manufacture of wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and even MRI scanners, this is something of a worry to the US. Of course it certainly could slow-down President Obama’s key policy of economic growth through green tech and green energy, and as the mid-term elections are winding up Obama’s Democratic party are desperate for good news in trade issues to help in winning.

Of course China knows this and what’s more made the concession on “using rare-earth metals as “a diplomatic, political or economic tool in dealing with other countries”, less than 48 hours before the elections in the US. Too late to swing many opinion polls. On the other hand the announcement of “restrictions” came a good seven days before the mid-terms. Ouch.

But it hasn’t done the Chinese much good either, flexing their metal muscles on the next great growth industry – sustainable energy generation including solar and wind. It only goes to give more ammunition to the US Steele workers union-sponsored 301-investigation into China’s trade practices. More here.

And it comes some weeks after a New York Times report highlighting the security and economic dangers in China’s dominance of this critical resource.

Interestingly in all these stories, the reports only cite “sources”. The State Department official online announcements remain silent on the topic, as does Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, or so long as this blog ahs gone to press. The whole issue has serious political ramifications on relations in the south China sea, Japan’s hi-tech manufacturing sector, the multi-billion dollar Obama-sponsored renewable energy recovery package, the EU’s green energy sector and even to places like metal-rich countries like Afghanistan.

And since other rare-earth mines in places like Australia and Canada went out of business years ago due to China’s mining companies undercutting prices, it gives US strategists cause to consider that China’s foreign policy planning may be far longer term than their own.

If you want to know how these metals are use try looking here.

How rare earth metals are used –

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China’s environmental hypocrisy Tue, 26 Oct 2010 16:43:41 +0000

For those with memories the story of African natural assets being sold for relatively paltry sums to foreign capitalist running dogs by a corrupt political elite was a regular feature in the China’s People’s Daily.

It’s doubtful that it will be this week.

It seems that Madagascar’s national parks service asked two international conservation groups to find out where all its timber was going. And, surprise, surprise, the capitalist running dogs of the year are from China.

The report by the Global Witness and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has been leaking out at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Nagoya, Japan, primarily to the BBC. (To read the full story go here)

According to the two organisations, which undertook an unusually comprehensive examination of the trade even following the wood to China, its prime use is as reproduction furniture.

While European companies have also come in for criticism, their role is small. Earlier this year the two organisation called upon a French shipping company Delmas to cancel a shipment to China of hundreds of tons of rosewood from Madagascar. They accused the company, a division of French container shipping group CMA-CGM, of facilitating the destruction of Madagascar’s last remaining forests caused by the vast illegal cutting of rosewood trees.

What makes this all the more nauseating is that only a few weeks ago I mentioned, with some astonishment it has to be said, that the Chinese government had stepped up to the challenge of biodiversity and deforestation. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Report for Business 2010 had mentioned China as being a case in point of recognising that the damage being done to the environment and eco-system was costing more to the country than the profits from the trade. Indeed in 2009 it had also issued a code of conduct for timber companies overseas.

More green window dressing?

Between 1949 and 1981 China logged 75 million hectares, 92 percent of which were natural rather than plantations. “The ensuing rapid deforestation resulted in the loss of ecosystem services, notably watershed protection and soil conservation. In 1997, severe droughts caused the Yellow River to dry up for 267 days, affecting industrial, agricultural and residential water users in northern China. The following year, devastating flash flooding occurred in the Yangtze and other major river basins, resulting in the loss of 4,150 lives, displacement of millions of people,” the report said.

The government’s own figures estimated damages at 248 billion Yuan (US$30 billion) and in 1998, China banned logging and TEEB estimates that the value of forest ecosystem services lost due to timber production as expressed in terms of the market price of timber suggests that the cost of timber may have been almost three times more than the market price.

It’s a case of it’s no good at home but it’s perfectly acceptable to exploit a poor foreign nation. So for the editorial writers in the rest of the world, time to expose China for the ‘imperialist, capitalist running dogs’ that they are.

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UN turns to cyber-citizens to protect global wildlife Tue, 19 Oct 2010 13:36:43 +0000

As the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) announces more and more depressing, but hardly surprising, news about the state of global plant and animal life, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has launched an online database of protected areas around the world. These protected areas are deemed critical to the survival of global environments and wildlife but are often poorly regulated or monitored.

In an effort to keep up with the social networking phenomenon, the open system is also an effort to keep up with what is happening in these areas. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), a joint initiative between IUCN and UNEP-WCMC ,was started 30 years ago as a basic global list of national parks, but is based on data from governments and other authorities. However with an estimated 150,000 global sites the data on them and how effectively they are protected is often scanty.

Without directly saying it, the project is hoping to get citizens around the world to comment on how effectively these sites are being managed by nations, offer suggestions and, probably provide a forum for criticism.

The more publicised side is that it provides a multi-lingual opportunity to plan holidays and gain a greater understanding of widlife. UNEP hopes it will also increase the number of people visiting such sites, generating income to help with their upkeep.

Called it links into and from existing web-based resources, such as Google maps, Wikipedia and the Google-owned photo-sharing site Panoramio.

In a press statement UNEP said:

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has joined forces with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to create – an interactive, social media-based website that provides in-depth information on both the leading lights and hidden gems of the conservation world.

Using the latest satellite images, users can pinpoint individual protected areas – such as national parks or marine reserves – and zoom in for information on endangered species, native plant life or types of terrain.

Protected Planet also offers visitors the opportunity to upload photographs of their trips to protected areas, write travelogues of what they saw and experienced for Wikipedia and recommend places of interest nearby—information that can be shared through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

This in turn might inspire others to make the journey, thus bringing much needed income to communities in often poor and sometimes remote areas of the globe.

The Ecotourism industry is growing fast and currently captures $77 billion of the global tourism market. As concern about global warming increases, more tourists than ever are opting for eco-friendly holidays, including visits to protected areas. According to Travel Weekly magazine, sustainable tourism could grow to 25 percent of the world’s travel market by 2012, taking the value of the sector to approximately $473 billion a year.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “National parks and protected areas represent one key and successful response to conserving and managing this planet’s nature-based assets. And in a way that can generate revenues and livelihoods for local communities. Indeed by some estimates, $1-$2 billion of global tourism is linked to the world’s network of around 150,000 protected sites”.

“But the benefits of well-managed tourism are currently uneven with some parks popular magnets for tourists and others hidden gems that are relatively unknown. Protected Planet has the potential to change this by bringing the world’s protected areas into a living room near you. So whether you are a government official or a scientist or a citizen looking for a holiday of a lifetime, click on for a new adventure,” he added.

However there are likely to be critical comments of the project. Many of the sponsors are global oil companies.

On top of that future political rows are likely. Taiwan, for example, is described as a ‘province’ of China. China’s dislike of Google’s satellite system, Google Earth, will limit its use there and Wikipedia descriptions and comments of Chinese protected areas (on a quick investigation) are virtually non-existent, as they are for many of the Asian areas. Indeed this fact is one reason why the system has been created.

Check the system out and start filling in the blanks, it offers a chance to monitor how our global protected habitats are managed whether governments like it or not.

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China’s 301 problems in perspective Sat, 16 Oct 2010 20:50:47 +0000

There should be little surprise that the US government has decided to investigate claims that China has been subsidising its green energy sector, nor that, should the claims be substantiated, it has pledged to take them to the World Trade Organisation.

As I mentioned some weeks ago, the United Steelworkers union handed a 5,800-page petition to the office of the US Trade Representative Ron Kirk accusing Beijing of effectively subsidising its green energy sector and hindering foreign companies from competing in China.

Coming so close the sensitive time of Congressional mid-term elections, where President Obama’s Democratic party is desperate to have something positive to take to the generally xenophobic electorate, the move satisfies cross-party lobbyists and sticks two fingers up at China’s stance during the recent UN climate talks in Tianjin.

The announcement of the first investigation under section 301 of US trade law since 2001 immediately prompted China’s Ministry of Commerce to say the allegations were groundless. “The United Steelworkers union allegations on China’s clean energy policies are groundless and irresponsible,” the ministry said, unsurprisingly, if stretching the truth somewhat.

Rather ominously, the ministry added that any action taken against China’s clean energy policies sends the signal that the US doesn’t support China’s efforts to improve the environment. Perhaps that’s a hint that China intends to be more obstructive at the next Cancun climate talks than it was in Tianjin.

There, China, with some justification, blamed the US for failing to meet its responsibilities to cut emissions and for trying to overturn UN principles. At the same time, the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions (and paradoxically the biggest recipient of carbon credits) refused to have its own estimates of cuts in emissions independently verified.

As anyone who has dealt with China knows, its use of state figures falls under the adage of ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics ‘. It certainly made few friends in the US delegation when one of its negotiators completely forgot the national preoccupation with ‘face’ and accused the US of behaving like a ‘preening pig’.

The steelworkers have made allegations in five key areas:

  • restrictions on access to critical materials

  • performance requirements for investors

  • discrimination against foreign firms and goods

  • prohibited export subsidies and prohibited domestic content subsidies

  • trade distorting domestic subsidies

But true to the long-held US foreign policy strategy of walk quietly and carry a big stick, the same day it announced the investigation into China’s green energy policies, it said it would delay a scheduled report on whether China is manipulating its currency to gain trade advantages. Considering that China is the largest holder of US government debt, the whole thing is becoming perilous.

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Green focus promised on India’s $2.3tn energy package Thu, 14 Oct 2010 19:02:08 +0000

As the last day of the Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit trundles on, the positive news continues to pour out. India, it seems, is planning to spend $2.3 trillion by 2030 to improve its energy sector. ‘Much’ of that expenditure will be focused on energy efficiency policies and the use of clean technology.

B.K. Chaturvedi, a member of India’s Planning Commission told the summit that as the country is already the world’s third-worst carbon emitter, yet still has to provide electricity to half of its one-billion-plus population currently without power, so it was crucial that energy efficiency had to improve and that there be an increased use of green sources such as solar, wind and nuclear power.

Much of the plan for increased power generation is based on coal, and while India plans to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP by between 20 and 25 percent by 2020, from 2005 levels, it still needs to increase its primary energy supply by up to four times its current levels and its electricity generation capacity/supply by up to six times the nation’s 2003-04 levels by 2032 according to the Planning Commission’s energy report.

However, exactly how much of the $2.3 trillion will be spent on renewable energy as opposed conventional energy generation was left conveniently out of his presentation. A look at the Planning Commission’s summer report on energy can be found here.

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Concern and ignorance on carbon issues for Asia’s companies Mon, 11 Oct 2010 14:42:04 +0000


Companies in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in Malaysia, Japan and India, are worried that their bottom-line will be hurt by tougher laws on greenhouse gas emissions.

This was the conclusion of a survey released at the annual Carbon Expo Australasia conference from ratings agency Standard & Poor’s and carbon analytics firm RepuTex.

 The report found that while some companies viewed the issue of reducing carbon emissions as a way to enhance competitive advantage, generally they were ignorant in understanding both how carbon charging works and the likely future structures of environmental regulation.

The survey, pithily entitled Asia Pacific Corporate Carbon Exposure Survey Highlights Climate Change Concerns & Increased Mitigation Activities, did say that at least there was a growing awareness that issues of climate change could affect profits and turnover but developing corporate policies on how to deal with the issue was confused.

The survey companies summarised the key points as:

  • The most carbon-intensive sectors in the Asia-Pacific region are utilities (58%), energy (18%) and materials (13%). In terms of country breakdown, Japan (31%), China (29%) and South Korea (11%) produce the largest portion of carbon emissions in the region.

  • Recognising climate change and carbon-reduction commitments as a possible source of competitive advantage, 46% of the survey respondents already perform direct emissions forecasting to determine future carbon liabilities and build carbon-management strategies.

  • Indirect carbon costs make up the vast majority of all carbon liabilities, with direct permit costs across contributing only 3% of total liabilities. Supply chain (63%) and electricity related cost increases (34%) together combine for 97% of all carbon liabilities.

  • The survey also shows that the current and evolving regulatory and physical environment in the Asia-Pacific region could lead to the following opportunities: investors increasingly using an understanding of variations in carbon performance within sectors to identify which companies pose the greatest risks to portfolios, as well as opportunities presented by carbon-efficient leaders; reduced exposure to increasing energy costs through new technologies and behavioural change; and, potential acceleration in R&D of new technologies in carbon intense sectors, on the back of enforced carbon-reduction regulations.

  • Although more than a half of the surveyed respondents view the regulatory and physical risks of climate change as “serious”, only a minority of companies demonstrated a good understanding of those risks. Existing levels of awareness around factors such as carbon prices, expected climate change regulation, financial risks and opportunities are relatively low, meaning that there is a substantial knowledge gap that still needs to be addressed.

The survey polled 300 companies but was based on responses from 28 companies, though the results also included data from 1,657 Asia-Pacific companies monitored by RepuTex.

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China dominating cleantech employment globally Thu, 07 Oct 2010 17:32:59 +0000

While back-stabbing and blame-shifting plagues the U.N. climate talks taking place in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, new research shows that China is surging ahead in dominating global green employment.

A new report from research company Cleanedge called Clean Tech Job Trends 2010 highlights China’s growing dominance of an industry that backs the new low-carbon global economy. In 2009 China’s government spent US$34.6 billion to boost this sector, almost double the investment of the United States. On top of that new figures from research company Cleantech saw investment in China jump to $153 million in the third quarter from $30 million in the second quarter of 2010. Over all, investment in Asia spiked to more than $300 million in the third quarter from less than $100 million in the second quarter, contrasting weaker figures for the rest of the world.

“Recent indicators point to China’s rising dominance, including the fact that China, which passed Japan this year to become the world’s second-largest economy, now outspends both the U.S. and Europe on clean energy,” the report said.

It added: “Brazil and China account for the largest share of renewables employment globally, representing more than 700,000 and 250,000 respectively in the bio-ethanol and solar hot water industries alone…. many of these jobs can’t be exported, as they are based heavily on local jobs in installation, operations, and maintenance.”

While there is acknowledgement of the growing internationalisation of the sector with companies operating across borders, it is China which is coming out on top currently. However of the op employers in the pure green tech sector, the Danish company, Vestas Wind Systems, is the biggest employer with 20,730 pepople, followed by LDK Solar with just under 13,500 employees and Suntech Power Holding with 12,548.

On top of that it is now the headquarters for six of the world’s biggest renewable energy employers.

The report points out how China has benefited from domestic policies:

“China’s lower overall worker productivity, lower employment costs, and incentives for employment over automation account for much of China’s larger employment count, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of China’s exuberant rise. Barring any significant policy changes by other nations, China based companies are poised to increasingly dominate as clean-tech employers both domestically and abroad – unsettling news for other nations looking for their companies to gain a competitive clean-tech advantage.”

But it’s not all good news for China. Almost unnoticed, Mexico has been making big strides into clean tech manufacturing.

“With a combination of cheap labor and geographic proximity, the United States’ third-largest trading partner is attracting attention from those looking for low-cost access to the North American clean-tech market,” the report said.

It also warned that this news of China’s dominence would be a wake-up call for US policy makers and the steel-makers call for a WTO investigation may get a better reception.

So while China, in particular, stonewalls the negotiations among the 177 governments meeting this week to try and agree the shape of the ‘new’ Kyoto Protocol, arguing the West should take on a bigger burden than China, it is raking the cash and stands to dominate the future of global cleantech. :Lucky old China.

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A decade of discovery for marine census Tue, 05 Oct 2010 11:22:25 +0000

Time for us all to accept the wonder of the natural world and join scientists from around the world in being mesmerised by the images and research released in the First Census of Marine Life. The decade-long study of life in the world’s oceans has discovered an estimated 6,000 new species – up from the 5,000 estimate given in a draft report in February this year.

The astonishing piece of research by 2,700 scientists from 80 countries, included 540 expeditions often into some of the harshest regions of the world, one of which was ground-breaking research by the British Antartic Survey logging 16,000 species alone in the frozen waters.

The census findings also prompted scientists to increase the estimate of known marine species from about 230,000 to almost 250,000. The Census of Marine Life (COML) (a summary report can be found here) research programme cost US$650 million and set out in 2000 to answer three questions:

  • What lived in the oceans?
  • What does live in the oceans?
  • What will live in the oceans?

The one conclusive conclusion reached, is that the world needs to know even more. Astonishing images and video have been gathered from the 650 scientific institutions involved (along with organisations like the BBC).

To see BBC video of sea life from the Philippines look here, from Indonesia, look here and from Heron Island, along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, here.

The Guardian in London reported  that Jesse Ausubel, environmental scientist at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and co-founder of the COML project said that the results had far exceeded any vision he had started with.

“In 2000, there was a chaos with regards the information about marine life. Now we have a valid list of species, 201,000 as of yesterday. 90,000 of these species have web pages in the Encyclopaedia of Life. 35,000 of these have DNA sequences. It’s not your grandfather’s census: this census is this wonderful, living, interactive set of databases on the internet with hyperlinks to images, sounds, the ability to create maps.”

But the paper warned that apart from the wonders that the research had highlighted, the world under the water was in danger.

“The COML will form a baseline against which scientists will be able to monitor biodiversity changes as they are affected by a range of environmental factors. “We live in a world of very rapid change,” said Ausubel. “Increasing illumination and sound in the ocean, the removal of sea life, acidification, changes in temperature and currents. We want to monitor and evaluate the effects of these and other activities. We can’t do any of these in the absence of baselines. We hope what the census has done is create the first baseline and create a framework in which it is easy to add more information about marine plants or other newly-discovered animals.”

For Asia, the report should make sensitive reading. All around the region coral reefs are threatened, pollution levels are increasing and an indiscriminate attitude to fishing and sea life are contributing to the extinction of our planet. Perhaps some of the images captured in this report might make people recognise the wonder of the world and take a greater interest in protecting. Otherwise your children’s children will only be able to read about much of it in books.

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Good news for tigers, for a change Thu, 23 Sep 2010 12:05:27 +0000

The effects of diminishing habitat on tiger populations has been brought into stark focus with the death of a plantation worker in Sumatra, mauled by one of the few living animals in the whole of the Indonesian archipelago.

It highlights yet again the huge damage to the natural world by palm oil plantations in Asia. To say his death was unfortunate, is something of an understatement to his family, but to come across one of the estimated 400 left in the huge island that is Sumatra is certainly unlucky.

As Asian Correspondent reported last week, rather unsurprisingly, the plight of the tiger throughout the world was getting worse and that trying to protect vast tracts of land willy nilly, will not save the magnificent beast.

But there is some good news for the tiger.

The famed BBC Natural History unit has managed to catch on film a ‘lost’ population of tigers in a remote area of the Himalayas.

Or to put it in perspective, they didn’t discover them since the local population had known they were around for some time, but it was all news for the scientific community. Not only did they find high densities of tigers in the Bhutan foothills (but putting this in perspective it means three animals in a hundred square miles), but that they roamed in areas not thought possible.

Unique footage has shown that not only did tigers exist in an area unregistered by the experts but, far more importantly, that they were living and breeding at altitudes previously thought too hostile for them.

Camera traps at an altitude of between 3,000m and 4,100m in Bhutan, above which trees start being unable to survive, were left for three months to work automatically. It captured a number of tigers, one of which was lactating indicating breeding.

The discovery means that an idea to create a ‘tiger corridor’ could now work and connect up some of the main areas in Asia where there are isolated areas of surviving tigers. The benefit of the of the corridor is that it covers remote areas but that could also bring together disparate populations strengthening their genetic diversity and improving their survival chances.

The corridor scheme promoted by a conservation group Panthera plans a reserve stretching from Nepal, Bhutan, into India, through Burma to give an area of 120,000 square kilometres, much of it mountainous. Eventually it would extend into Thailand and some of its neighbours.

While the news of healthy undiscovered tiger populations can not be greeted with anything but glee, unless you’re a plantation worker in Sumatra, it will require political will and enforcement from governments that have frequently been found sadly lacking in the past.

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China’s green energy policies under attack – the politics Tue, 14 Sep 2010 15:49:12 +0000

One piece of news that hasn’t made much of an impact in Asia yet has been the re-emergence of the steelworkers in American politics. And why should it? Well because, last week the United Steelworkers Union alleged that China has been illegally helping its companies take dominant market share of the renewable energy industry through subsidies and trade restrictions.

As far as its concerned it’s time China played by the same rules that everyone else in the world does (except for the US). The union’s case addresses five key areas:

  • restrictions on access to critical materials
  • performance requirements for investors
  • discrimination against foreign firms and goods
  • prohibited export subsidies and prohibited domestic content subsidies
  • trade distorting domestic subsidies

The fact that this isn’t the first time that the United Steelworkers has put China in its sights, should come as little surprise. Anyone remember the Battle for Seattle in 1999? That was when a World Trade Organisation ministerial conference was nearly overwhelmed by protesters of every political hue arguing for every possible position.

Then the loudest rallying calls were demands for free global trade access from emerging economies, China in particular, while US steelworkers protested against losing their jobs because of cheap Chinese steel flooding the US market.

The steelworkers might have made headlines by dumping tonnes of Chinese steel in the city’s harbour, much to the chagrin of the Greenpeace protesters, but the imports kept coming.

This time the protest goes further and could have serious implications on Sino-US relations. The complaint stretches across the complete renewable energy sector and decisions will have to be made during the sensitive time of Congressional mid-term elections.

The union’s complaint has been officially filed with the office of the US trade representative which has passed it on to the White House. Now it’s a waiting game to see whether the Obama administration will follow-up with the World Trade Organisation.

Unfortunately for President Obama it’s a subject that gets the huddled masses quite irate in the US. Just as everyone is expecting the US recovery to stall, the most recent trade figures show that it has a monthly trade shortfall with China of $25.9 billion (ouch), near an all-time high.

Not only that but as part of Obama’s Recovery Act, he shouted from the White House dome that the clean energy sector would be critical to America’s future and awarded billions of dollars in tax credits to companies in the sector.

So the powerful and politically adept United Steelworkers Union has left President Obama to make a decision on his pet project, renewable energy, just as Congressional elections come round and his Democratic party is desperate to regain seats lost at the last mid-term election and not lose any more. This sidebar may have a serious impact on the more controversial (for right-wing Americans, anyway) domestic policies that Obama has espoused.

Of course what makes the issue all the worse is that outspoken critics point to the stimulus package and have been asking why so many foreign companies, in particular Chinese (Yingli. and Suntech Power, for example) benefited from the US recovery package.

So in reality for Obama, while his neck might not yet be in the noose, he is hog-tied and and standing under the tree.

Indeed the United Steelworkers might have a point in its broader attack on Chinese protectionism, alleging that an entire industry benefits from a stream of policies to protect it. While the Chinese government might have publicly back-tracked on its ‘Buy Chinese’ policy, other ‘unofficial’ and official supports exist.

A year ago an analysis of Yingli, LDK Solar and Suntech (China’s top three solar related companies by market capitalisation) by an academic in the US, showed that bank loans averaged 25 percent of corporate capital. Many of the loans are unsecured and supported by China’s cash-rich and government-influenced banks: China Construction Bank, Bank of Communication, Export-Import Bank, China Development Bank and the list goes on.

The union is demanding that the Obama administration open talks with China under a WTO process and if the President doesn’t get his way, then make a formal WTO complaint.

I seem to be getting a case of deja vu….

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How companies play the ‘greenwash’ game Tue, 07 Sep 2010 14:48:11 +0000

As the world continues to debate the way the world should look under the new realities of sustainability, global warming and environmental protection beware the flood of ‘greenwash’.

Greenwash, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are “activities by a company or an organization that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment.”

And what better example of that is the ongoing saga of palm oil and deforestation by the companies controlled by Indonesia’s Widjaja family and grouped under the name Sinar Mas. As I warned following the publication of the so-called audit, it required closer reading than listening to the press pronouncements controlled by the company’s public relations gurus, Bell Pottinger in both London and Jakarta.

It also shows how the world of corporate sponsorship and public relations work.

In spite of Bell Pottinger gaining headlines around the world that the audit had cleared Singapore-listed PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology of deforestation, it has only taken a couple of weeks for US fast-food chain Burger King to announce it was cancelling all palm oil contracts from the Sinar Mas group.

In a statement to Asian Correspondent, Burger King said: “After completing a thorough review of the independent verification report conducted by Control Union Certification (CUC) and BSI Group, BKC believes the report has raised valid concerns about some of the sustainability practices of Sinar Mas’ palm oil production and its impact on the rainforest. These practices are inconsistent with BKC’s corporate responsibility commitments.”

It concludes: “As a result, BKC has decided it will no longer purchase palm oil from Sinar Mas or its subsidiaries.” That means that the 17.6 percent of palm oil sourced for Burger King global operations will now be bought from somewhere else.

Now this would suggest that in spite of company executives and Bell Pottinger proclaiming to the world that the company had been vindicated and was innocent, it was untrue so far as Burger King bosses were concerned.

Indeed to highlight just how far the process of greenwash has become, the invitations to the London press conference gave the impression that global products giant, Unilever, had given a thumbs up to the audit. Considering that Unilever had been one of the high-profile defectors from the Sinar Mas companies it piqued reporters’ interest.

What’s of interest is that Unilever has remained tight-lipped about the audit and has made no press statements at all. All this should have been obvious during the rush top clear PT Smart and Sinar Mas since their global crisis management public relations team at Bell Pottinger also represent, surprise, surprise, Unilever.

Of course all things are open to interpretation and Burger King was not followed by Cargill, the world’s largest trader of agricultural commodities.

Cargill has said it will continue to trade with PT Smart and other Sinar Mas firms. It was: “…encouraged [that] PT SMART has acknowledged areas of non-compliance with the RSPO and its own company policies, that it has committed to taking corrective actions and to strengthening its standard operating procedures to address these.”

And further down the release it acknowledges the detail I highlighted in the original audit; that the audit only covered PT Smart operations and excluded the previous operations and activities of the parent group, Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources Limited which is not Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified. But Cargill would discuss its future with Golden Agri-Resources too.

In the interest of balance Cargill does have a ‘plan’. It has a policy of only using RSPO certified products, indeed some of its own plantations were amongst the first  to gain such accreditation, and it plans to work towards that.

While Cargill is now firmly in the sights of the next Greenpeace pressure campaign, expect less than explosive responses from some of the other environmental groups. The company made $107.9 billion in sales and other revenues and its profits were $2.6 billion this year (actually profits were down by 22 percent from the year before) and it knows how to spend it.

Without pre-empting Conservation International’s (CI) reaction to any future Greenpeace campaign against Cargill, it may find it hard to turn away the $1.5 million donation for a biodiversity conservation project in Ore, Papua New Guinea from Cargill and Flora and Fauna International will be loathe to hand back cash for its orangutan project in Kalimantan.

Now watch out for the greenwash again and bear in mind the words of Lord Bell of that oft-mentioned PR company, who reportedly told a British newspaper examining the ethics of taking dubious foreign contracts, “I am not an international ethics committee”.

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Sustainable energy – in one end out the other Fri, 20 Aug 2010 21:06:38 +0000


A Chinese scientist and his colleagues could bring a whole new meaning to BP with his prototype energy system using urine as a power source. Along with that what creates the pee can power cars….

No, I’m not taking the proverbial ‘p*ss’, Dr Shanwen Tao and his research partner, Dr Rong Lan at the renowned Scottish university of Herriot Watt have just been awarded a grant of £130,000 to develop the Carbamide Power System.

Dr Tao is confident that by using urea, also known as carbamide, he can power a new type of fuel cell instead of utilising the existing techniques of expensively extracted and potentially flammable hydrogen or toxic methanol. His team’s process breaks the urea or urine into water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, to reprocess waste water, with electricity as a by-product.

According to Herriot Watt and its spin-off department Youtricity, the patent pending technology could both provide a way to create renewable energy while drastically cutting the cost of waste water treatment.

Contemporary fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity with heat generated as a by-product. “Traditional fuel cells usually involve hydrogen or methanol at one side and oxygen or air at the other, separated by a specialised ionic-conducting membrane,” reported the university. The problem with the current technologies is that these proton exchange membranes are expensive as are the fuels themselves.

The Carbamide Power System uses cheaper membrane and catalysts, and runs on urine or a mass-manufactured carbamide industrial fertiliser. Apart from the obvious benefits, Dr Tao believes applications include power generation in submarines and for isolated or remote areas.

Dr Tao said: “Growing up in rural eastern China I was aware of the use of urea as an agricultural fertiliser. When I became a chemist and was looking at fuel cell development, I thought of using it in the process.

It’s the second announcement form Scottish universities in a week of new ways to create sustainable energy sources.

Edinburgh’s Napier University has developed a new biofuel made from whisky by-products in a project funded by Scottish Enterprise’s Proof of Concept programme.

The team there has created biobutanol, which gives 30 percent more output power than ethanol and does not need engine conversions in cars. It uses the two main by-products of the whisky production process which are “pot ale”, the liquid from the copper stills, and “draff”, the spent grains of which the Scottish whisky industry produces 1,600 million litres of pot ale and 187,000 tonnes of draff.


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Audit finds Sinar Mas breaks law but requires close reading Fri, 13 Aug 2010 11:02:45 +0000

Well Sinar Mas is back in the news, or as far as it wants to be. The independent audit of its rainforest clearing activities has been released prompting some intriguing questions of underlying issues. It certainly makes me think a closer eye should be kept on the operations of Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) which now seem to be doing the dirty work for Smart.

The upshot is that, officially, its subsidiary, Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (Smart) has been found guilty of clearing land for palm oil plantations before it had received permits or made conservation assessments. Sure, why make conservation assessments? Sod the orangutans.

On top of that it was found guilty of destroying peat-land which releases CO2 into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.

In the interest of balance I must report that the audit determined Smart had not destroyed primary forest. However a further examination of the report raises questions about other Sinar Mas companies.

All of this came out in a recent press conference ran by the company’s new PR company Bell Pottinger, according to the Ecologist. A spokesman for Sinar Mas admitted that the company must “do better“ but that it was committed to conservation. Naturally Greenpeace, which has been creating havoc for Sinar Mas among its largest buyers by releasing photos and reports outlining its wholesale destruction of rainforest, called the process a ‘greenwash’.

Already Unilever, Nestlé and Kraft, some of the biggest buyers of palm oil globally, have decided to stop doing business with Sinar Mas. Unfortunately they are considering this report and if the wheat is not separated from the chaff may begin trading again.

What is intriguing are some of the nuances underlying this whole story. Firstly, the employment of PR company Bell Pottinger has been a recent development. It’s a PR company noted for its crisis management abilities and handling clients with shabby images. Former and current clients include Imperial Tobacco, McDonalds and the oil trading company Trafigura, which was convicted recently of illegally exporting toxic waste to Africa.

The boss of Bell Pottinger’s parent company and driving force behind it is Timothy Bell (now Baron Bell) who had the dubious accolade of being behind the image and PR for former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher’s three successful general elections.

Now, it seems, that the press conference to talk about the audit was delayed for a couple of weeks, leading cynical old hacks like me to conclude that Bell Pottinger’s crisis management gurus needed more time than originally thought to identify angles to make Sinar Mas look better.

The report itself only took three weeks (pretty impressive efficiency considering both the remote areas covered and the fact it was done in Indonesia, not noted for its speedy business process) and looked at only 40% of Smart’s total planted palm oil plantations. It excluded any part of Papua when Sinar Mas executives have already admitted it plans to develop over a million hectares of land.

The audit also said that 98% of the land developed was what is known as ‘degraded’ areas. In reality this means land that had already been cleared of rainforest, which kind of avoids the question of who degraded them in the first place.

Importantly the audit points out (in very small print in the whole 84 page report), that Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) or its subsidiary operating companies, also part of the Sinar Mas brand name, was not a member of Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Therefore no validation of its procedures could be given.

At the same time the audit pointed out that SMART did use GAR subsidiaries but did not have legal control over all operating companies controlled by GAR. On the other hand it managed all of GAR’s palm oil operating units.

What exactly this means is open to question. Did GAR subsidiaries which do not fall under the RSPO’s remit slash and burn rainforest, later to hand them to GAR as prospective palm oil plantations later to managed by SMART?

Who knows, it’s a question studiously avoided by the audit.

The independent audit was carried out by Control Union Certification and the BSI Group, as well as two experts from the Bogor Agriculture Institute (IPB). Both CUC and the BSI Group are approved by the RSPO, an industry body which has already been shown to fall short on its aims of producing sustainable sources of palm oil.

Now one cannot say that CUC or the BSI Group are anything other than legitimate and honest verifying groups, but past evidence does show that CUC in particular, is not immune from having the wool pulled over its eyes, or in one case the cotton.

It seems CU india was pulled up by The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) of India over certification of organic cotton. One client which had CU certification, Raj Eco Farming, was found to be using genetically modified cotton (which is not considered organic) and the certificate was withdrawn and pushed CU India into a series of surprise investigations of farmers and suppliers to check that further haky panky was not going on. As CUC said its Indian subsidiary and “one other certification organisation were made responsible for discrepancies at Raj Eco farms”. In other words it relied on misinformation supplied by the client.

Call me cynical but I smell a rat in this whole process and have little doubt that somewhere along the line ecological rape is practised knowingly by some of the groups executives.

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Finding an ‘extinct’ Asian frog and curing cancer Mon, 09 Aug 2010 11:21:06 +0000

Conservation International (CI) needs you! At least if you live in parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia, the international charity (while not exactly phrasing its new project like that) is launching a search for ‘lost frogs’. In the next few months teams of scientists will be scouring countries around the world in search of amphibians thought to be extinct with two of their top ten list coming from Asia.

According to the group these frogs are the most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet and for once esoteric Asian eating habits are not to blame. Habitat loss, climate change and disease have been listed as the main reasons that the class Amphibia (which includes frogs, toads, newts and salamanders) is under threat with half of the 6,000 species in decline and a third at risk of extinction.

According to the group the reason for the new search is that research on amphibians is dated and their importance to the world far greater than their size might indicate. “They help to regulate pests that destroy crops and spread dangerous diseases like malaria. They constitute a vital link between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, aiding in nutrient cycling that keeps ecosystems functioning smoothly,” argues CI.

On top of that is a growing realisation among scientists that these odd creatures, some of which can regenerate limbs or eat prey through their eyeballs, may have answers to many biomedical research questions, ranging from cancer to stomach ulcers.

Indeed one of the searches focuses on Australia where the Rheobatrachus vitellinus and Rheobatrachus silus  frogs have disappeared. More commonly known as the gastric brooding frog, their call to fame was that tadpoles were reared from eggs in the stomach of the female and gave broth through the mouth.

Nice party trick, you might say, but for scientists the interest was that the frog suspended the production of stomach hydrochloric acid during the pregnancy (so as not to dissolve the little offspring) and this could lead to a more successful treatment of stomach ulcers in humans.

Bad news for those with ulcers, though, they were last seen in 1985 and are listed as extinct, thought to be caused by the chytrid fungus which devastates populations in months and is blamed for many of species decline.

So in Australia the hunt is now on to rediscover it.

Meanwhile in Malaysia and Indonesia, CI is searching for the Ansonia latidisca or Sambas stream frog. There have only been two recorded specimens in two different places on Borneo (at Mount Damus, Kalimantan and Mount Penrissen, in western Sarawak) and that was 50 years ago. No photographs exist, although there are drawings.

Optimism for finding this frog is low since most of those areas have either been logged (which damages the habitat), used for agriculture or leisure.

So should you come across these tiny creatures or want to join the hunt or get in contact with Conservation International try here and good luck, should you find them it could be the start of new cures for human disease too.

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Biodiversity and corporate realities Sun, 25 Jul 2010 15:59:16 +0000

While the United Nations Environment Programme’s TEEB report makes all the right noises about associating the defence of biodiversity with increasing corporate profitability, the serious question comes as to whether companies have the capability to incorporate these ideas.

In its ‘action’ list for companies to help them jump aboard the biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES) bandwagon, it calls on them to use their corporate social responsibility and corporate governance foundations to assess and interact with biodiversity issues. It outlines ways in which firms should be looking at measuring BES and assess its interaction across all the company’s value propositions.

The reality is that few global companies even want to pay lip service to concepts like corporate responsibility: Sinar Mas in Indonesia seems to find it a chore to even officially answer allegations of whole-sale destruction of biodiversity in the rainforests.

Part of the research done for the report was undertaken by the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and while TEEB gratifyingly reports that about half of consumers in Europe or North America would not buy goods if they thought biodiversity was being threatened by their manufacture, figures aren’t so good for the companies.

A review by PwC of the annual reports of the 100 largest companies in the world by revenue in 2008 only found 18 companies mentioned biodiversity. On top of that PwC estimated the cost of soil erosion in Europe at €53 per hectare each year. Annual economic losses caused by introduced agricultural pests in the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, India and Brazil exceed $100bn, PwC estimated. But depressingly, only two of the world’s largest 100 companies identified biodiversity loss as a strategic issue.

The fact is that for all the talk of corporate responsibility it is something that so far has proved hot air. During the credit crunch in the UK a senior risk manager, Paul Moore, who raised concerns about HBOS’s risk exposure was fired, in spite of subsequent evidence that his worries were right. So while the bank accepted that good business required a risk manager with board level access, it didn’t mean that they listened to them.

So how can company boards be made to listen to the realities: that biodiversity and ecosystems will become critical to their profitability? While in the UK, a recently updated Corporate Governance Code says “The board is responsible for determining the nature and extent of the significant risks it is willing to take in achieving its strategic objectives. The board should maintain sound risk management and internal control systems.”

But that remains a generalisation and there is growing feeling that the way corporate governance and socially responsible investing has evolved, has just become a tick-boxing exercise without paying attention to the real issues. At a recent Zematt Summit, Colin Melvin, chief executive of Hermes Employee Ownership Services (a socially active UK pension group), argued that the best way of persuading companies to behave more responsibly was for shareholders to push them.

Already the Dutch institution, Rabobank, has specific requirements for financing projects and needs impact reports on biodiversity for palm oil and soya and works with borrowers to improve their environmental performance. Indeed this sort of work is expanding with the UK government announcing a research project to examine how palm oil is used by consumers in the UK and how to maintain a supply from sustainable sources.

But the serious way forward will be to hold companies to account by their shareholders and regulators. Nowhere is it more obvious than the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While BP is being forced to set aside huge sums of money to pay for damages it has also meant that asset managers are starting to ask themselves is their own process of examining risk and social responsibility up to scratch?

Insurers and asset managers are beginning to ask companies about risk and contingency plans and should the TEEB system become widespread and accountable, the current trend of generalised statements in annual reports will not be satisfactory.

The first market opportunity that those behind TEEB see is the development of a market for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation and related land-based carbon offset initiatives (REDD+). The argument is this will also support biodiversity through the conservation of natural forests. It is something that reflects the global carbon market which was worth over US$140 billion in 2009.

But the realities are that carbon emissions are not decreasing and the comparison of social responsibility behind the BP disaster and what happened in Bohpal shows that justice rarely gets done, even when the issues are transparent.

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Biodiversity economics makes sense, needs persuasion Wed, 21 Jul 2010 14:34:37 +0000


Last week’s report from the United Nations Environment Programme’s TEEB (the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) initiative got far less debate than one might have expected. Its results released at the first Global Business of Biodiversity symposium, held in London, essentially state something I have long thought an obvious truth – that ultimately global companies will lose money if global diversity is not protected.

What makes the report of interest is that rather than trying to persuade executive boards and their shareholders that there is some moral obligation to the world to protect the environment and its biodiversity, it is arguing that if they don’t it will affect their bottom line at some point.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Report for Business – Executive Summary 2010‘, report highlighted examples where business both suffered and benefited from either ignoring or protecting biodiversity and argues that it is an issue with as much relevance to developing economies, as those in North America and Europe.

The importance of the issue of defending biodiversity is a sensitive one in Asia, as the issue of dolphin slaughter and whale hunting has shown so obviously over recent months, but it is moving up the political agenda. The TEEB report was at the behest of the so-called G8+5 countries (the five being China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa) and has now led to agreement to establish the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Its counterpart, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for all its recent criticism has brought the issue of climate change to both the political front-line and the boardroom.

One report, published in the renowned journal Science, concludes that governments have been “woeful” in implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity which was signed by 191 nations in 2002. For more on Asian Correspondent see here.

For all my haranguing of the Chinese government, one example offered by the summary was the cost and damage caused by deforestation. Between 1949 and 1981 China logged 75 million hectares, 92 percent of which were natural rather than plantations. “The ensuing rapid deforestation resulted in the loss of ecosystem services, notably watershed protection and soil conservation. In 1997, severe droughts caused the Yellow River to dry up for 267 days, affecting industrial, agricultural and residential water users in northern China. The following year, devastating flash flooding occurred in the Yangtze and other major river basins, resulting in the loss of 4,150 lives, displacement of millions of people,” the report said.

The government’s own figures estimated damages at 248 billion Yuan (US$ 30 billion) and put deforestation and farming on steep slopes as causing these events. In 1998, China banned logging and TEEB estimates that the value of forest ecosystem services lost due to timber production as expressed in terms of the market price of timber suggests that the cost of timber may have been almost three times more than the market price.

Of course this depends on how you measure such things and measuring biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES) is not straightforward. At least the TEEB report admits this but proposes ways to develop standards. Nevertheless it is adamant that the integration of BES into business “can create significant added value for companies”, helping secure sustainable supply chains, gaining new markets and customers, among other things.

The report’s rallying call to companies is summarised as:


  • Identify the impacts and dependencies of your business on biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES).
  • Assess the business risks and opportunities associated with these impacts and dependencies.
  • Develop BES information systems, set SMART targets, measure and value performance, and report your results.
  • Take action to avoid, minimize and mitigate BES risks, including in-kind compensation (‘offsets’) where feasible.
  • Grasp emerging BES business opportunities, such as cost-efficiencies, new products and new markets. 
  • Integrate business strategy and actions on BES with wider corporate social responsibility initiatives. 
  • Engage with business peers and stakeholders in government, NGOs and civil society to improve BES guidance and policy.


But for all the optimism in the report – it gleefully notes that about half of European and US consumers say they would stop buying products from companies that disregard biodiversity concerns – the realities of the corporate world should hardly reflect that optimism: something we’ll look at again.


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Climategate: Research unit vindicated – again Tue, 13 Jul 2010 14:35:22 +0000


Academics at the climate research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in England, are breathing easier after another investigation has concluded that hacked emails contained nothing that called into question the standard of research on climate change.

The review, chaired by former civil servant Sir Muir Russell, said that while the academics failed to display the proper degree of openness in complying with Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, there was nothing that compromised its data in the case for man-made global warming put forward by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Emails hacked from the university’s database were released to the public, mainly through the internet, just before the Copenhagen climate summit last year, leading many to conclude there was some sort of political agenda behind the act. The result, however, was an avalanche of accusations and conspiracy theories claiming that data was manipulated and any conclusion that there were man-made influences behind climate change were false.

The climate sceptics took centre-stage. Indeed as the conspiracies leaked from every internet orifice, some political leaders took them as a way to justify watering down any national compromises expected at the Copenhagen conference.

Sir Russell’s investigation, considered the most comprehensive so far, has already been backed by other assessments on climate change. Days before its conclusions were released, the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency released its own report concluding that it found no errors that would undermine the main conclusions in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on possible future regional impacts of climate change.

The Muir Inquiry did do something that no-one else had done. It examined the rigour of their data. Unlike any of the published sceptics, his staff downloaded the used data from public sources, used its own program to analyse them to build a temperature record and produced conclusions reflecting those of the CRU and other international scientists.

The new report does criticise the CRU’s openness in revealing data, primarily through responding to official freedom of information requests, but then at the end of March, a report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee made the same criticism. Sir Russell pointed out that in a ‘climate’ of scepticism, those with their minds already made up that these reports of climatic disaster were false, would only be more justified in their beliefs.

Even with all this, a statement from the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an influential sceptical think-tank, said that the report still called into question the CRU’s research, although it too could only directly criticise the lack of freedom of information requests.

No doubt the politicians will ignore this report too.


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