31 May 2008

A coal-based future is - literally - no future

By Rupert Read

Estimates vary, but, roughly, the world has only about 40 years of known oil reserves (and 65 years of natural-gas supplies) remaining. At current rates of consumption, that is to say, the world will entirely run out of oil before 2050.

The world has enough coal reserves however to last an estimated 155 years, with some of the largest reserves being moreover in the two biggest oil-consuming countries, the US and China.

Hidden inside these facts and figures is a threat to our future so vast that even now barely anyone thinking about our ecology dares to contemplate it openly. The threat is that of human beings turning to coal on a vast scale to replace oil and gas as they progressively run out – and of liquefying and gasifying coal on a vast scale, to directly replace them. Why is this a threat? Because the carbon consequences would be astronomical.

The threat posed to our climate's stability by the resurgence of coal as a mass-scale fossil fuel is terrifying enough. 'Clean coal' remains little more than handy ad-man's greenwash: even if and when it becomes commercially viable, it will be a fairly poor option in terms of carbon emissions: but that point is far from having been reached yet, and may never be. By plumping for coal now, Britain and the US and China are playing Russian Roulette with the climate.

But the picture becomes far worse, when one does what virtually no-one yet has dared do: including the (already-technologically-available) processes of gasification and liquification into the picture. Gasification is a problem, because it will be terribly tempting to continue to run our cookers and boilers and so on ersatz (coal-based) natural gas – at a terrible carbon cost. But the biggest single reason why changing the state of coal is a terrifying threat to the human future has to do with the possibility of the production of 'coal-oil' on a large scale opening up.

For the big limitation of coal of course appears to be its unsuitability for contemporary transport systems. That is where oil is such a beautiful material. That (along with its fake green credentials) is at the root of the lunatic craze for large-scale biofuels, which we One World Columnists have been warning about for years, and which the rest of the world seems at last to have caught up with us about.

But sky-high oil prices, unlikely ever to descend to their levels of a few years ago (given that oil is indeed running out, becoming more and more precious), render the technology for liquefying coal into 'coal-oil' commercially viable.

The carbon 'hit' of coal is of course much greater than that of oil. But the prospect of coal-derived liquid petro-chemicals brings in its train the prospect of business-as-usual in the transportation sector – the one sector where carbon emissions are already rising. For there is of course an energy-intensive process involved, to turn coal into oil. Where will that energy be provided from? In a business-as-usual case: once again, from coal…

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a US-based environmental advocacy group, estimates that the production and use of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and other fuels from crude oil release on average about 27.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon. The production and use of a gallon of liquid fuel originating in coal emit about 49.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, they estimate. That's almost twice as much. Even some fans of the coal-to-oil plants describe them as carbon-dioxide factories that produce energy on the side.

And here is a worrying straw in the wing: In June 2006, two US Senators from coal-producing states, from Illinois and of Kentucky, introduced a bill to offer loan guarantees and tax incentives for US coal-to-liquid plants. The name of the Illinois Senator? One Barack Obama…

If we put Old King Coal in our tanks, we are stoking the fires of the apocalypse. It's worth repeating: "If you make gasoline or diesel out of coal, you double global warming pollution from cars and trucks." The words of David Friedman, a renewable-fuels expert at the renowned Union of Concerned Scientists.

If human civilisation is to survive and flourish, most of the Earth's remaining coal must remain in the ground. If we put off the impact of peak oil by switching to coal-oil, we will bring on climate catastrophe.

There must never be large-scale use of coal for making synthetic oil – if we want there to continue to be large-scale life.

Thanks for help with researching this column to Paul Roome and Chris Keene.

24 May 2008

The struggle for a Palestinian history

By Juliette Harkin

The Nakba (which means catastrophe in Arabic) is the name given to the period when Palestinians were forced to flee from their homes throughout 1948, allowing for the creation of the Israeli state. As Israel celebrates 60 years of statehood, Palestinians around the world have been commemorating the Nakba for what it was – ethnic cleansing to make way for European settlers. That these settlers were fleeing from persecution and a European created Holocaust is no conciliation to the millions of Palestinians today without a home.

But, this year's commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba is not just about dwelling on the past. It is not about the destruction or expulsion of one people in favour of another, for that is already occurring with catastrophic effect to the Palestinians. It is a call for more understanding and knowledge about what is happening today in Palestine.

Bringing the Nakba of 1948 into the present is a way of showing how what happened then is intricately linked with what is happening now.

The British government's historical record in Palestine and the subsequent Nakba shape the every day lives of Palestinians today.

Lord Balfour declared in a letter that the British government would view with favour the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Zionists lobbying for an Israeli state in Palestine seized on this and continued their project of settlement, in a land that already had a people. In doing so they ignored the part of Balfour's declaration that stated nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. The British must take historical responsibility.

At St Antony's College in Oxford University last week, politics lecturer Karma Nabulsi told how a British delegation of MPs met with Palestinian refugees some years ago, to see how the problem could be resolved. The MPs were told that an apology would be a good start.

No one seems to want to admit that a wrong has been done. The Israelis employ a powerful public relations machine to ensure that only their version of events reaches much of the mainstream media in the west. President Bush saw nothing wrong in ignoring the Palestinian narrative of history as he spoke to the Israeli Knesset about their biblical right to the land.

Karma Nabulsi went on to talk about the imperative now for Palestinians to continue to retrieve their own history; a history that renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe says has been taken from the Palestinians along with their land.

That the idea of Nakba so greatly offends the senses of the Israeli government and much of its public is indicative of the leap that still needs to be made before people can begin to talk of a real peace.

Karma Nabulsi also indicated that we, in the west, need to understand the Palestinian situation outside the confines of the failed Oslo and subsequent 'peace agreements'. The second Intifada of 2000 was an inevitable attempt to restore the Palestinian national and historical narrative in the face of the failed peace process and failed leadership.

Since Oslo the injustices brought about by the Israeli state on the people of Palestine have been reduced to a series of 'incremental steps' in a 'peace process' that actually delayed resolution of the fundamental Palestinian right of return into a 'final status' compartment to be dealt with later.

Karma Nabulsi explained how this fragmentation of Palestine and its people effectively ignored the essence of the Palestinian struggle - the right to self determination and return for all the people of Palestine. The Oslo peace accords effectively disconnected the Palestinians living under occupation from those refugees living outside of the territories.

Today, a piecemeal peace is discussed with willing negotiators in the West Bank, without considering the millions of refugees outside of Palestine, the Palestinians within Israel and the Palestinians suffering in Gaza. When we know the Palestinian narrative and its historical context we then can see how more compromise and denial of history cannot lead to peace.

This article draws on a lecture by Dr Karma Nabulsi, Fellow at St Edmund Hall and Lecturer at Oxford University, on the 21 May 2008 at St Antony’s College, Oxford, hosted by the Oxford University Arabic Cultural Society.

17 May 2008

Human atrocities and the short arm of the law

By Liam Carroll

Ending the age of impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity has been a major global demand since the end of the Cold War. Ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, genocide in Rwanda, rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda, mass expulsions and brutality in Darfur. They may be the worse cases but there are others, and the phenomena is set to endure, unless a way can be found to deter them.

Well, the growing recourse to charging perpetrators in international courts offers some hope. The tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia have arrested, tried and convicted over a hundred war criminals and the Special Court for Sierra Leone has managed to get Charles Taylor (who fuelled the war by exchanging guns for diamonds from neighboring Liberia) in the dock. The International Criminal Court is in pursuit of the infamous Joseph Kony from the Lord's Resistance Army, for horrendous crimes in Uganda, and crimes committed in Darfur and the DRC are also under investigation, with three suspects already in custody.

This is a massive advance in ending impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity that include mass killings, sexual violence and recruiting and exploitation of child soldiers on a huge scale. Entirely absent during the Cold War, one has to go back to the Nuremberg Tribunals of Nazi War Criminals to find a precedent for trying war criminals outside of domestic courts.

It is hoped that the effect of seeing impunity for atrocities coming to an end will have a deterrent effect in other conflict situations. At it’s most utopian, the threat of investigation and prosecution, even for national leaders, would raise the global standard on what is considered permissible conduct in both war and peace.

An example of the deterrent effect occurred in Kenya after the recent election fiasco when Kofi Annan reminded both the government and the opposition that if they didn't reign in their rampaging supporters, then a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity would be set up; according to the International Crisis Group, the violence was quickly brought to a close.

There is of course a long way to go, and the tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia are due to be terminated next year, even though notorious war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain on the loose in Serbia or Bosnia. There are also further risks that the Security Council may give up pressuring the Sudanese government for summonses against a Janjaweed militia leader and the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs who, somewhat ironically, is supposed to have given the orders for some of the most atrocious crimes in Darfur.

These prosecutions are in jeopardy for political reasons, and here-in lies the real threat to the advance of the rule of law in world affairs. Freedom from prosecution for crimes is now a regular feature of peace negotiations. In Uganda and the Sudan, negotiators are now trying to build impunity from prosecution (for Joseph Kony and other LRA leaders) into their peace agreements. Negotiators may be loathe to drop charges too readily, but in the face of failure to achieve peace, the temptation to drop prosecutions as an incentive to forge agreement, becomes more appealing. This has already occurred in the war between the southern Sudanese and north Sudan when impunity from prosecution was part of the final Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This is not all bad, as it does at least demonstrate that the threat of prosecution can act as a tool of persuasion, even if ultimately it is set aside.

Unless prosecutions are actually forthcoming though, the deterrent effect will weaken and loose credibility. This becomes a particular problem when addressing crimes committed by more powerful states and their allies. Who would pursue Chinese, American or Russian officials for crimes against humanity? What about Israel or Hamas? At what point should the rule of law come to bear on extremely heated political issues such as those in the Middle East? How can the ICC pursue criminals without the assistance of the UN Security Council of which five countries have the right to exercise their vetoes?

The advance of the rule of law in world affairs has much promise as a tool for ending impunity for crimes against humanity. There do seem to be some fairly robust limits though as to what can be achieved in bringing powerful countries into line. Currently, in the global arena, we have what might be termed ‘the short arm of the law’, it remains a worthwhile challenge to see if it’s supporters can’t make it somewhat longer.

10 May 2008

A bushman's holiday

By Marguerite Finn

As this year's holiday season kicks off, it is comforting to know that, according to the United Nations (UN), tourism has a key role to play in tackling climate change. In April, at an international seminar in Oxford, the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told delegates: "There is now a clear understanding that the [tourism] industry can be part of the solution to climate change, by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions as well as by helping the communities where tourism represents a major economic source to prepare for and adapt to the changing climate." According to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the number of international tourists continues to climb, with 898 million arrivals registered last year and further increases expected as traditionally poor countries emerge as more popular tourist destinations.

In May, 3,000 delegates from across the world met at the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) and announced that indigenous peoples have a crucial role in the climate change debate. Despite their role in resisting oil, gas and coal exploitation and their practice of using their lands and forests in sustainable ways, indigenous peoples have been largely excluded from the international dialogue on climate change. A report presented to the Forum also stated that the rising demand for biofuels would "destroy the tribal lands and lives of 60 million indigenous people worldwide". Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the Forum's Chairperson, said: "States and corporations must be guided by the standards set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Proper mechanisms must be developed allowing the participation of indigenous peoples in the global debate."

Far away from dreaming spires, ivory towers and exasperating acronyms, the Bushmen in Molapo in Kalahari have been forbidden to draw water from a borehole on their own land. Why? Because the Botswana government is allowing a South African-based 'Safari & Adventure Company', to build a Tourist Lodge there. Survival International say the lodge will need to sink boreholes to pump huge amounts of water from the Kalahari – but the Bushmen are not allowed to take water from their single borehole. The Bushmen, evicted by the Government in 2002, won the legal right to return to their land in 2006, but the government is making this impossible by preventing them from using their borehole and refusing to issue hunting permits.

International law dictates that there should be no development on tribal peoples' land without their free, prior and informed consent. The Bushmen of the Kalahari have not been consulted about the building of a Tourist Lodge on their land. Survival's Director Stephen Corry, said: "the government has the gall to tell the Bushmen to make the 400km round trip to collect water from outside the reserve, when tourists will be showering and sipping their drinks nearby". It's against the most basic human rights and is illegal. He hopes "many tourists will stay away when they know the background".

Will they? The Safari and Adventure Company's website says the company was launched in response to "market demand seeking product across southern Africa in the mid-tier eco-tourism and adventure market". They plan to build a suite of lodges in key wildlife and nature areas in South Africa, Namabia, Botswana and beyond. They assure us that "commitment to local community economies is integral to the Safari and Adventure Co."

The diamond industry transformed Botswana from an agriculture-based economy to one in which diamonds account for 80 percent of exports. The Government believes its National Eco-Tourism Strategy will foster "community acceptance of tourism". In a world facing food shortages, is devoting land to building air-conditioned Lodges offering jet-setters all the comforts of home, the best way forward?

The UN issues contradictory messages about tourism, development and climate change. I am a member of the United Nations Association (UNA), which exists to support the work of the UN, but I disagree that tourism provides any solution to climate change – given that most destinations are reached by air, a most polluting and unsustainable form of travel. Finding a solution to climate change and alleviating poverty seem have become irretrievably mixed up in a cauldron of growth-driven global panic. Governments, in denial about the true nature of the crisis, cast about for quick technological fixes.

At this week's 'Business Call to Action' event in London, organised by the British Government and UN Development Programme (UNDP), twelve international companies announced 'creative business initiatives' to tackle poverty in Africa. Tourism featured highly amongst them. One Chief Executive assured us: "this is not philanthropy, this is business logic". Common sense logic says the energy required to fuel tourism will cost the Earth.

3 May 2008

Why Facebook may be their Fourth Estate

By Juliette Harkin

Can the fast-paced change in the Arab media help to nurture democracy? At a recent United Nations Association meeting in Norwich, we discussed how it was not realistic to expect the media to deliver democracy. But, despite the difficult times in the region, it is important to recognise the advancements within the Arab media landscape over past decades and the positive role this can play.

The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow; 27 years in power and still clinging on. His government remains in the spotlight for a continued crackdown on journalists, bloggers and activists.

Nothing seems to irk Arab governments more than the perceived or real criticisms levied on them by the private and commercial media, operating outside of direct state control.

Government attempts to control and interfere in the media are nothing new. We have seen it between the BBC and the British government over the 'sexing-up' of the dossier for the Iraqi war.

But in the Arab world the establishment, licensing and operations of Arab broadcast and print media have traditionally been controlled by the government through their ministries of information. This has rendered the media as nothing more than a propaganda machine to serve those in power. The result has been a growing demand for alternative sources of information.

Some of the UK and other mainstream media seem to feel there can be no quality Arab media. But the Arab media scene over the last decades has been a rich one in which media outlets face many of the same challenges as the European media as well as their own particular challenges.

The more well-known Arab satellite channels, led by Al Jazeera, as well as a plethora of information and entertainment channels, have provided people with a flow of information that had been previously unavailable.

The advent of these satellite services changed the media landscape permanently. State broadcasters realised that they could no longer control the flow of information and suppress 'bad news'.

In a climate of reform and democratisation during the 1990s, a vibrant and pluralistic media developed or flourished once more in countries such as Lebanon and Morocco. Independent and private broadcasters and newspapers have been established in Egypt, Syria, Oman, Algeria and Palestine, to name a few. Countries such as Jordan and Qatar have gone so far as to do away with information ministries altogether, although the controls do rest elsewhere.

However, there are red lines that cannot be crossed for the private and commercial operators. A seemingly increasing hardline response to a critical media over the last few years has led some to question whether these gains towards an independent media and free press are actually being reversed in countries such as Egypt.

On the other hand, Arab governments claim the media is not professional and accurate and this is why there have been problems. Arab ministers of information have become so fed-up with what they see as the unprofessional conduct of the Arab satellite channels that they called an emergency summit earlier this year and drew up a charter for regulating the multitude of Arab satellite channels now operating from within and outside the Arab world.

Without doubt, there are rogue players in the world of satellite broadcasting producing ideologically-led content; they are more interested in representing political interests than in journalism.

The Egyptian government is watching the media closely. As journalists and bloggers face prison sentences for the words they have written, the brief flourish of reform that greeted the presidential elections in 2005 has faded away. Now we have Facebook activists and bloggers calling for strikes and leading Egyptian intellectuals, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, urging non-violent protest and action against the worst excesses of the regime.

Is this a sign that gains in the media landscape over the last decade are receding in the face of hardline state control? And/or are new media platforms, for example blogging and social networking sites such as Facebook, becoming the new Fourth Estate in holding governments to account?

The media, traditional or new, cannot compensate for a lack of democratic structures.

One thing is for sure: the gains made over the last decade or so cannot disappear, as 'consumers' who are exposed to plurality, choice and alternative perspectives and information are unlikely to stop demanding more.