Friday, July 31, 2015

Politics - the world's dirtiest job

It's really quite easy to be cynical about Canadian politics these days. One can actually sympathize with the large chunk of the Canadian voting public who don't bother to vote, particularly the younger people who stay away in droves.
With a federal election about to be officially announced any day now, we are about to witness causes for cynicism on a hitherto unheard-of scale. As usual, the Conservatives are by far the worst offenders, but the other parties will almost certainly get dragged into it too, even if only in a vain attempt to level the playing field.
It often amazes me that so many people are willing to get their hands dirty in partisan politics, that a career as a politician is still considered something to aspire to. Isn't there a TV series called "The World's Dirtiest Jobs" or something? I wonder if "politician" is in there? Of course, many, even most, people go into politics out of some degree of ideological commitment, but they must still be aware of the kinds of nefarious, underhand dealings and wranglings they will be expected to participate in.
The Conservatives are expected to "drop the writ" soon, beginning an unprecentedly long election campaign (not quite American long, but much longer than the normal, mercifully short, Canadian campaigns). They will do this because they know that the other two main parties do not have anything like their campaign funds, especially when the funds of local riding associations are taken into account, and will not be able to carry out as long and effective a campaign. They even passed a convenient new law recently effectively increasing the legal cap on campaign spending for longer electoral campaigns, so that the spending limits in this election may actually be as high as $50 million, twice the old $25 million cap. This is certainly not going to benefit the Liberals or NDP.
But, writ or no writ, election campaigning has already been going on for some time now, one drawback of the fixed election dates we now have. The Tories' are making almost daily announcements of localized infrastructure spending, out of a pre-authorized fund that could have been used any time over the last few years, but just happens to be being utilized just before the election. Furthermore, this is happening predominantly in Tory ridings and potential swing ridings and, at least in the case of Ontario, in direct opposition to the list of infrastructure priorities previously solicited from the Province. The Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program, on the other hand, was only introduced in May this year and is already rolling out cash, also largely in Tory ridings. These days, nothing is done without a specific, politically-directed purpose.
Canada is not plagued with Political Action Committees (PACs) to the same extent as the USA, but the pro-Conservative Working Canadians PAC, and the anti-Conservative Engage Canada PAC have both been active. Once the election is officially announced, however, different rules start to apply to such third-party groups, and we will be spared any more of the egegious advertising these peple are capable of.
The attack ads have not started in earnest yet, but they too will come. Conservative ads personally attacking Justin Trudeau seem to have been airing ever since the last election, although Trudeau is no longer considered the main threat to Harper, and they will need to turn their attention much more to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. And the opposition parties will no doubt respond in kind. It is a sad-but-true fact that attack ads, however unpleasant or misleading, do actually work.
The Conservatives are even using large chunks of taxpayer's money to further their campaign, and have been doing so for some time now. I don't watch much television myself, but certainly during the recent Pan Am Games coverage, every third ad seemed to be in praise of the goverment's "Economic Action Plan" and those non-progressive but photogenic tax tweaks that purport to benefit "hard-working Canadian taxpayers". These are not cheap ads. Apparently, about $10 million of hard-working Canadian taxpayers' money has been specifically allocated to this partisan chest-thumping, and the Liberals estimate that the Tories have spent around $548 million on partisan ads since coming to power. This extensive use of public money to tout an already-implemented government policy is unprecedented.
I could go on, but I'd only depress myself.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Aquí viene El Niño

All the indications are that this coming year will be a "super El Niño" year, a freak meteorological event that may relegate the effects of global warming to the shadows, at least temporarily (although there is some evidence that the more frequent El Niño's in recent decades, and particularly the incidence of so-called "super El Niño's", may well be directly related to climate change).
El Niño conditions occur every few years when the waters of the Eastern Pacific become warmer than usual due to a shift in the trade winds. During El Niño years, the usual east-west trade winds in the region reverse, pushing warm surface water eastwards, making Central and South America warmer and wetter than usual, and leaving Asia and Australasia cooler and drier. This plays havoc with normal weather patterns in both of these areas, and has potential worldwide economic implications.
It seems like the current El Niño conditions will almost certainly continue well into 2016, and it is thought that we may be faced with one of the strongest El Niño's in the last fifty years.
What might this mean in practical terms? Well, up until recently, Latin America has been experiencing extremely dry conditions, and many crops, particularly important export cash crops like coffee and sugar cane, are already quite water-stressed. Wetter conditions under El Niño may alleviate this problem to some extent, but will probably also adversely affect the taste of the coffee beans and the sucrose content of the sugar cane. So, expect your morning latte to taste just a little worse.
The effects on Asia, though, may be much more profound. Drier weather will probably reduce the output of rice (the staple food of most of Asia) throughout the region, driving its price up. India's soybean and oilseed production may also take a substantial hit, with knock-on effects for the price of the main alternative, palm oil. Australia's huge wheat crop may also be dramatically affected, with concomitant effects on world prices, as may China's water-greedy corn crop.
Negatively-impacted Asian producers may well see much of their agricultural exports move to less-affected American and South American growers. But the odds are that, in our globalized world economy, major supply and price challenges can be expected, no matter what. How things will play out in terms of extreme weather events like cyclones is anyone's guess at this point.
Canada is not usually directly affected in a big way by El Niño, although the current hotter-than-usual temperatures, droughts and record forest fires in the West of the country are due in good part to it. It is also expected to bring a warmer-than-usual winter, which may cause even worse conditions next year.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Should Toronto bid for the Olympic Games?

The Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games are over (barring the ParaPan Am Games), and the mass  hysteria in this city is beginning to settle down. The Games are being called a resounding success - did any city ever call its hosting of a major event an unmitigated disaster? - and the local people are still feeling all warm and fuzzy.
Cue, then, the predictable talk about Toronto possibly making a bid for the 2024 Olympic Games: serious, grown-up games in comparison to the Pan Ams, with serious, grown-up financial commitments to match. Currently, Rome, Paris, Hamburg, Budapest, and possibly Los Angeles, are in the hunt for the 2024 Games, and Toronto has until September 15th to decide whether to join them.
I must confess I breathed a secret sigh of relief when Toronto failed in its bid for the 2008 Games, and, if it comes to a vote, I would vote against another bid. This is not just "bah, humbug" from a cantankerous old geezer (well, there is a bit of that too): there are serious financial, administrative and security objections to hosting Olympic Games. Just making a bid would apparently cost $50-60 million; actually hosting the games would cost orders of magnitude more.
Although Brazil's bid for the 2016 Games was originally for $14 billion, the associated infrastructure spending is independently estimated to be in the region of $25 billion, and there will no doubt be more to come before the Opening Ceremony. Beijing's costs in 2008 are widely thought to have been in excess of $40-billion (we will probably never know the full total), even though the "sports-related" costs they made available for public consumption were only around $5.5 billion. The debacle of the Sochi Winter Games last year may have cost Russia over $50 billion, the costliest ever.
And bear in mind that huge cost overruns come as standard when hosting an Olympic Games. A University of Oxford study from 2012 revealed an average cost overrun of over 250% for Summer Olympics (slightly less for Winter Olympics). For example, the 2012 London Games was initially budgeted at £2.4 billion; after winning the bid, this suddenly swelled to £9.3 billion, and the final cost was probably substantially much more than that. Canada's own Olympic experience is just as checkered as everyone else's: although Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics was one of the closest to budget in recent decades, Montreal's 1976 Summer Games resulted in a ridiculous 796% overrun, the largest for any Games.
It is notoriously difficult to find convincing, comprehensive costs for these kinds of undertakings. But you can rest assured that the $8.7 - 17.1 billion cost mentioned in a 2014 feasibility study for a possible 2024 Toronto bid can quite reasonably be doubled or tripled. This is big money that Toronto (and Ontario, and Canada as a whole) can ill afford now, not to mention in the unknown economic situation in 5-10 years time.
Only 2 or 3 out of the 22 summer Olympics of the modern era have been able to make any money. Los Angeles in 1948 and Barcelona in 1992 (and possibly Atlanta in 1996) are often touted as role models in this respect, indeed as proof that profitable Olympics experiences are in fact possible.  But even these few commercial successes are far from rock solid. Barcelona, for example, was already undergoing something of a tourism renaissance, with or without the Olympics, and L.A. was only able to make money by persuading the IOC that they could use sub-par existing venues instead of building new ones, something which would not pass muster these days. There are, on the other hand, many more examples where the Olympics have drained local economies and government finances for many years.
And don't expect the Games to repay themselves in tourist and business revenue. Even the bidding countries don't really believe that old saw any more. It is almost impossible to place a figure on such spin-off income, but the benefits to local tourism in host cities is certainly overstated. For example, London apparently experienced a downturn in regular tourism during what appeared to be spectacularly successful Games in 2012, as many tourists stayed away to avoid the (non-existent) crowds and the expected public transit chaos. A similar thing happened in Sydney in 2000, as well as in several Winter Games (which are typically even less profitable than Summer Games). What tends to happen is that Olympic tourism simply displaces traditional tourism, resulting in little or no gain in local spending and trade.
A 2009 University of California, Berkeley report pointed out that even countries that made losing bids for the Olympics experienced an increase in trade, suggesting that the signal that a country was open for business was more important than the spending itself. A University of South Florida report on the impact of major sporting events in general unequivocally concluded that they cause "no real change in economic activity".
Even the much-touted stimulus in jobs that an Olympics bid brings to host cities are over-stated: most Games-related jobs are short-term, temporary and low-paying. Neither are the Olympics facilities particularly useful to the cities in the long run: most are very sport-specific, excessively large and not in the best locations for the local population, and are usually little used after the events are over. Thus, Olympic cities find themselves littered with expensive white elephants, taking up valuable real estate that could perhaps be better used for other purposes. Any infrastructure improvements which result from Olympic Games hosting are still paid for by the local taxpayers, and indeed may crowd out other badly-needed public investment in schools, healthcare, etc. Multi-billion dollar decisions on infrastructure should be based on local needs and not on the whims the IOC.
And of course, if everything does not go perfectly, there is always the risk of some very high-profile bad press for the host city and country. High profile events like the Olympic Games are also prime candidates for political protests and even terrorists attacks.
And God only knows how the Olympics will be perceived in 2024: as drug and graft scandals become more and more common in international sports, I can.easily see public support waning dramatically, thus increasing the economic risk commensurately.
Not looking quite so compelling?
Having said all that, I think probably the main reason for Olympic bids is not financial at all: people feel good to be hosting a major event of this kind. It makes them proud and happy, much like an expensive but successful wedding. But are we in a position to be throwing tens of billions of dollars at something so intangible? Think what else that kind of money could be doing, and how happy THAT might make us.

I'm pleased to report that, on September 15th, common sense prevailed and Toronto Mayor John Tory announced that Toronto would not be pursuing a bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, leaving Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Budapest and Hamburg to contest that dubious honour.

Monday, July 27, 2015

To vote or not to vote: expat edition

There has been much heart-searching and hand-wringing over the Ontario Court of Appeal's recent ruling that it is indeed constitutional that Canadian citizens who live outside the country for more than five years forfeit their right to vote in Canadian elections, a status quo that actually goes back to 1993, despite a short hiatus after a Superior Court ruling last year.
The argument on one side is that Section Three of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - which reads: “Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons” - guarantees votes for expats, regardless of how long they live away from Canada. But the court ruled that another clause in Section 1 of the Charter overrules this absolute right.
Many people seem absolutely incensed at what they see as an attack on the very roots of our democracy, and are bridling at the creation of "second-class citizens" in this way. Personally, I have swung back and forth on the issue.
Some argue that granting expats a vote is wrong because would allow them to shape Canadian policies that don’t directly affect them. Others argue that people do not necessarily vote for policies that directly and immediately affect them as individuals, but that they deserve a chance to affect the broader long-term direction of their country whether they live there or not. I can see both sides of that.
Neither is it as simple as to say that, because they pay taxes, they should be able to vote. The logical extension of that argument is that homeless citizens and even some retirees should lose their vote because they don't pay taxes.
Some have even suggested that special Members of Parliament be established to directly represent Canadians who live abroad, in much the same way as in Italy and France, which just seems kind of weird and pointless to me.
My gut feeling is that, by choosing to live abroad, expats are not affected by Canadian laws to the same extent, and so don't bear the same responsibilities of citizenship. As I see it, they have effectively withdrawn from the “social contract” of citizenship, and so forfeited their democratic rights. The ability to vote with, as the judge in the case put it, “no practical consequence for their own daily lives”, while affecting the lives of other people who do have to suffer the consequences, seems intuitively wrong to me. When they move back, they are welcome to vote again. In the meantime, I have no problems with them voting in their country of residence.
Another way of looking at this is that, if someone were to move from, say, Toronto to, say, Edmonton, they would not be eligible to vote in their old Toronto riding. Why, then, would someone moving from Toronto to Beijing expect to have that right? Looked at this way, five years is actually pretty generous.
What I reassure myself with in my prevarications, is that, when all's said and done on the theory and the ethics of the issue, it has almost zero practical importance: of the million or so expats who were actually entitled to vote in the last federal election, a grand total of 6,000 actually bothered.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Australia's flight from renewable energy

If we think we have it bad here in Canada with our head-in-the-sand, anti-progressive Conservative government, imagine, if you will, living in Australia. There, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is on a personal mission to roll back what few advances Australia has made in renewable energy.
Australia has a general reputation as bad as Canada's for its benighted refusal to take the threat of global warming seriously and for its persistent support for fossil fuels, and it is one of the few major countries in the world with worse per capita emissions of greenhouse gases than Canada. However, recent administrations there have made some token moves to support renewable energy, including the establishment of the Australia Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) in 2012, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) in 2013. Also, back in 2001 a national renewable energy target was set to generate 20% of power from renewable sources by 2020, a relatively modest proposal for a country so naturally blessed with sun and wind. By 2014, though, just 13.5% of Australia's total power supply came from renewables (mainly from decades-old hydro electricity schemes), and dirty coal remains the mainstay of its energy program.
Since coming to power in September 2013, Tony Abbot's government has already scaled back the renewable energy target, tried unsuccessfully to axe both Arena and CEFC, unceremoniously scrapped an election commitment on rooftop solar systems, and launched a parliamentary inquiry into wind turbines (which Abbott personally seems to hate with a passion). In 2014-2015, investment in large-scale renewable projects in Australia has collapsed to about one-tenth of the previous year's (this at a time when global renewable energy investment has been booming), and an estimated 2,000 jobs in the industry have been shed in the last two years, amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear and recrimination. Just recently, the CEFC has been ordered to halt wind and rooftop solar investments completely, putting its very raison d'être in doubt.
Abbott is unapologetic about his mission to stop the spread of windfarms, and even to reduce the number of wind turbines in current existence. And this is despite the fact that recent polls have reported that 82% of Australians view solar energy favourably, and 67% view wind power favourably, but only 24% see the fossil fuel industry in the same good light.
It is not clear quite why Abbott has this apparent vendetta against renewable energy, but one has to suspect the powerful fossil fuel lobby of being involved somewhere along the line. Either way, we here in Canada should perhaps be grateful that our provinces are trying to take up the slack on the fight against climate change, in the absence of any leadership from our federal government, and one can only hope that something similar may happen in Australia in time.

Well, blow me down, but the relatively sensible Brits are going the same way!
In recent weeks, Conservative PM David Cameron - "I believe we've been the greenest government ever", "Solar has been a huge success story for the renewables industry", " Renewable energy is not just good for our environment but we believe it's very good business too", etc, etc - yes, THAT David Cameron - has begun dismantling the British renewables sector by scrapping subsidies for onshore wind and commercial solar (currently the two cheapest forms of clean energy), slashing the energy efficiency budget, ending the tax break for clean cars, abolishing rules on zero carbon housing, scrapping the Green Deal Finance Company, lowering taxes on polluting firms, and even introducing a tax on clean energy.
I would like to tell you that these moves by prominent Conservative politicians, as well as the fossil fuels addiction of the pusillanimous Canadian Tory government regularly reported in this blog, are just the last gasps of Conservative ideologies before they go under forever. But the reality is that this is just money talking, and the Tories listening intently.

Monday, July 20, 2015

No fishing in the Arctic

The Arctic nations - Canada, the United States, Russia, Greenland (Denmark), and Norway - have signed an accord just this last week not to fish in the open waters of the central Arctic Ocean.
This might not seem like much of a big deal, and it might still be of little practical value unless other major fishing powers, like China, Japan, South Korea and the counties of the EU, can also be persuaded to sign on.
But, given that these Arctic nations are not exactly best buddies in certain other political spheres, and given the potential economic value of fishing in the newly accessible waters around the North Pole, it is actually a remarkable example of international cooperation on a thorny environmental/economic issue.
So, if they can agree on this, why can't they manage to resolve decades of argument over the national boundaries in the area? Or, even better in my view, agree to make the whole region, outside 200km of the coastlines, international waters, owned and preserved jointly as a part of our shared human patrimony, much like Antarctica.
And, if we can agree to disallow fishing there, can we not agree not to extract any minerals - oil, gas, metals, etc - the root source of most of the current acrimony in the region?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

2014 was the hottest year on record, and other subversive claims

Just in case you don't trust the global warming statistics of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (that hotbed of dissent, radicalism and revolution), a report just out from the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has confirmed, in the latest edition of their annual State of the Climate report, that 2014 was the Earth's warmest year on record.
Based on contributions from 413 (probably subversive) scientists from 58 countries around the world, and produced in partnership with that other bunch of extremist agitators the American Meteorological Society, the Report covers many different trends and indicators of the global climate system, including: various types of greenhouse gases; temperatures throughout the atmosphere, ocean, and land; cloud cover; sea level; ocean salinity; sea ice extent; and snow cover. The latest Report is the 25th annual, and so provides a good basis for comparison.
Among other findings the Report concludes that:
  • 2014 was the warmest year on record, based on four independent global datasets of temperatures near the Earth's surface;
  • concentrations of the major greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, reached historic high values and continued to rise during 2014 (CO2 reached a global average of 397.2 ppm in 2014, compared with a global average of 354.0 in 1990);
  • the globally averaged sea surface temperature was also the highest on record (i.e. the highest in 135 years), and was particularly notably high in the North Pacific Ocean;
  • likewise, the upper ocean heat content reached a record high (oceans absorb over 90% of Earth’s excess heat from greenhouse gas forcing);
  • global average sea level rose to a record high in 2014, some 66 mm above the 1993 average level, continuing the 3.2 ± 0.4 mm per year trend in sea level increase observed over the past two decades;
  • the number of tropical cyclones in 2014 was well above the average (91, compared to the 1981-2010 average of 82 storms per year), and the 22 named storms in the Eastern/Central Pacific were the most to occur there since 1992.
On almost the same day as this Report was published, I notice that The Libertarian Republic website reported a study from the University of Alabama which purports to prove that "the Earth will be entering its 22nd year without statistically warming trend", based on satellite data from a particular group of Remote Sensing Systems.
Well, I think I know which source I would rather trust...

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Canada owning the podium in the Whatsitcalled Games

Well, the 2015 Pan American Games are well underway here in sunny Toronto, although you might be forgiven for not knowing.
There has been much huffing and puffing about the Games here locally for months, nay years. The Mayor in particular has been singing their praises at every opportunity, even though he was somewhat unimpressed with the news that Kanye West (who is booked to be the head star among other stars in the Closing Ceremony) is actually American and not Canadian, as he had previously thought. It does seem rather a strange decision, I must admit - Canada is not short of high-profile musical talent.
Among the hoi polio, however, opinions are rather more mixed. There is a certain amount of national pride and excitement around the Games, and most (but by no means all) of the events are adequately attended, if not sold out, after a very slow initial roll-out.
Most people in the street, though, are probably more likely to equate the Pan Am Games with traffic queues, and the under-utilized and much-berated high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes that have been introduced on some local highways for the period of the Games. Personally, I would like to see the HOV lanes continued indefinitely - they are supposed to be lightly-used, that is the point of them, so that public transit and multi-person car travel is expedited.
But, other than some sporadic viewing on television, the Games have not exactly blown me away. As one letter to the paper put it recently: "When was the last time you interrupted your summer to watch the Pan Am Games?" My American sister-in-law, herself a reasonably sporty person, had never even heard of them.
Although apparently the third largest international multi-sport games (after the Olympics and the Asian Games), they definitely do not have the cachet of the Olympics. And that is perhaps best exemplified by the teams fielded by many of the 41 countries involved. Many of the top names are notably absent. Indeed, home country Canada is one of the few countries sporting its "A" team, although even here there are several athletes who have chosen to "save themselves" for the IAAF World Championships (which clearly have higher prestige in the minds of some competitors). Some top athletes are also quoted as having had to choose between attending the Pan Am Games or an Olympic qualifier meet in their sport, and so of course they chose the Olympics.
That said, Canada are doing exceptionally well, and are, at the time of writing, easily top of the rankings in terms of gold medals, and only barely below the United States (which has ten times the population) in overall medal numbers. In the rather embarrassing and un-Canadian language of recent Olympics, Canada is indeed "owning the podium". Whether this is an objective and representative test of international athletic prowess, though, is another question entirely.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Government of Canada (predictably) unimpressed with Iran deal

In what may be a legacy-defining move, Barack Obama (technically, the P5+1 group of UN Security Council members United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany) has finally struck a controversial deal with Iran. Under the terms of the deal, which are spelled out in great detail, Iran essentially agrees to curb its nuclear program and ambitions, and the West agrees to lift the punitive economic sanctions that have been crippling the country for decades now.
The deal may not be perfect, and the underlying motives (of both sides) may not be wholly transparent. This is amply demonstrated by one of the provisions, that if Iran is seen to be compromising its terms at any point, the sanctions will be slapped right back on. The agreement may or may not stop the spread of nuclear weapons in the region, as Mr. Obama earnestly claims, but this nevertheless seems to be a major step forward for international relations and a victory for the power of negotiation. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is demonstrably not the hawkish and unstable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the oppressed people of Iran deserve this chance at redemption.
Reactions have been mixed, though, to say the least. Predictably, the loudest outcry has come from Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the agreement a "stunning historic mistake" which "will enable it [Iran] to continue to pursue its aggression and terror", a prime case of the (nuclear) pot calling the (would-be nuclear) kettle black. He has repeated his vow to unilaterally attack Iran in order to keep it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Sunni Islamic countries, principally Saudi Arabia, have raised their objections to anything that might give a break to Shia Muslim Iran, an equally predictable sectarian knee-jerk reaction. Shia regimes like Syria and Iraq, on the other hand, have welcomed a stronger Iran in the hopes that it will be able to give more support to their own internal factional struggles. Traditionally pro-American Arab states like Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan have voiced their approval of the deal, although they are clearly worried about how it might alter the balance of power in the region. The less theocratic and more plutocratic countries in the area, like Turkey, UAE, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, also see economic advantages from the accord, and remain tight-lipped on the political implications.
In North America, the US Republicans, of course, have object vociferously to anything the Democratic government does, griping unconvincingly that the deal undermines American national security, and bandying around emotive phrases like "appeasement" and "death sentence" with gay abandon, and vowing to repeal the accord as soon as they possibly can.
And, guess what, Canada's Stephen Harper - perhaps the world's staunchest apologist for Israel these days - is more than willing to go out on a limb to take the Israeli point of view, even at the cost of opposing all his other allies. Canada is therefore doggedly sticking to its own paltry sanctions against Iran, flying in the face of international public opinion, and repeating the tired mantra that Canada "will continue to judge Iran by its actions not its words". Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson did mention, however, that he was appreciative of the P5+1's "efforts" to negotiate an agreement. Thanks, Rob.
It's getting to the stage where it's just plain embarrassing to admit to being Canadian...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ontario's Green Energy Act - 6 years later

Six years after Ontario's groundbreaking Green Energy Act (GEA) was introduced in 2009, it remains one of the most contentious and polarizing pieces of legislation ever brought in by the current Liberal administration. But a cool, objective analysis reveals that it was a bold and insightful law, forward-thinking and essential for the province's situation at the time (and even today).
The GEA was designed to smooth Ontario's transition from traditional manufacturing (mainly in the automotive industry), which had been largely decimated by the early 21st Century, to the future of manufacturing, the green energy industry. It did this by subsidizing wind, solar and other clean technologies, and by forcing the industry to use a significant element of local components and services.
Much has happened in the intervening years, and green energy and clean tech in general has established itself as a major and growing force in the world economy. The GEA rules requiring green energy developers to buy local no longer apply, after complaints from Japan and the European Union led to a World Trade Organization ruling in 2012 that the rules were against international trade law.
But the Act did indeed kick-start a local clean manufacturing sector, as several of the companies profiled in a recent Globe and Mail article attest, and the buy-local aspect (even if short-lived) was key to that. Even if many of the companies are actually foreign-owned, they are at least employing local labour and building local expertise. In the process, Ontario has positioned itself reasonably well within the new paradigm, again largely thanks to the provisions of the GEA, and is now exporting significant quantities to the United States, which (unlike Canada) is actively encouraging renewable energy.
But the Act also has its share of detractors and critics, and its effects have not been wholly beneficial (very little legislation can boast that). The main criticism levelled at the GEA is that it has single-handedly caused a large increase in electricity prices in the province, to the extent that the policy has actually driven manufacturing out of the province. A little perspective and objectivity is needed here. Electricity prices have indeed increased significantly in recent years, but in actual fact very little of this is directly attributable to the GEA. A much greater impact on electricity prices has arisen from the independent decision to close down Ontario's coal-fired power stations (surely a good decision in itself), continued reinvestment in expensive nuclear and gas plants (not such an unalloyed good), and necessary investments in the reliability, upgrading and transmission of electricity production.
Only time will tell if the green industry the GEA has encouraged in Ontario will survive in an increasingly competitive global economy. But, even without the local content rules, many companies are still flourishing, largely feeding off the huge demand from south of the border. However, Canada's market share of the world's clean tech market amounts to only about $12 billion out of an estimated $1 trillion worldwide, and it is gradually losing even that market share as countries such as the USA, China and Europe ramp up their production capabilities.
It would be a real shame if Ontario and Canada fritter away what advantages they have in the field based on the statistical cherry-picking of a few partisan economists (the right-wing think-tank The Fraser Institute and the provincial Progressive Conservatives being among the most strident, along with the University of Guelph academic Ross McKitrick, who also just happens to be a member of The Fraser Institute). The Ontario Conservatives have even vowed to repeal the Act if they ever achieve power, although thankfully the chances of that remain slim.
Even if the cost of clean electricity is higher than that of dirty electricity, it is still the right path to follow (although, in the absence of artificial subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power, and with continued investment and economies of scale in clean tech, that is not necessarily the case anyway). What is important is the "real" or "full" cost of the power we consume, complete with environmental externalities and taking into account all future liabilities involved. And, if we don't like the cost of something, then common sense dictates that we should use less of it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Looking on the sunny side - solar news

I recently came across a bunch of interesting articles on solar panel applications that I wanted to share.
A Dutch entry in the annual World Solar Challenge in Australia took my fancy  It may look wacky and science fiction-ey, but it is at least a more practical machine than most of the entrants into the race, which tend to be low-slung, ultra-streamlined, single occupant affairs, totally impractical for day today use.
The University of Eindhoven's entry, however, fits four passengers, and even has a trunk. It has a respectable top speed of 125 km/h, and can run for over 1,000 km on a fully-charged battery pack. What's more, the car is "energy positive", meaning that it generates more power than it uses, and can upload its excess energy into the grid. Pretty neat!
Also in the Netherlands, in the small town of Krommenie just outside Amsterdam, a bike path made of glass-coated solar panels is producing even more electricity than initially anticipated. In its first six months, the 70 metre bike path has generated about 3,000 kWh, enough to power a small household for a year.
The bike path is made of many small solar panels sandwiched between glass, silicone rubber and concrete (with a laminated coating to provide traction), and is strong enough to support 12-ton trucks without damage, and to last for a estimated 20 years. Each individual panel is connected separately to the grid (or directly to street lighting) in order to prevent unnecessary outages, and the panels around the faulty one are able to pinpoint the problem for quick repair.
In theory, the technology could be extended to regular roads. A California start-up called Solar Roadways wants to see just that happen in the USA, claiming that, if all of America's roads were paved with solar panels, it would produce more energy than the country consumes. Plus, the panels' internal heat prevents ice and snow build-up, and built-in LED lights can even be used to show traffic messages. Is the future really here?
Next, an American start-up company called Ubiquitous Energy has plans to bring to market a technology for producing completely transparent solar panels that was first demonstrated experimentally about a year ago.
Previous "transparent" solar panels have only been partially transparent, and also tended to cast a rather strange colourful shadow. By shrinking the components and changing the way the cells absorb light, though, this new design is transparent and unobtrusive enough to be used in everyday windows. Effectively, the cell selectively harvests that part of the solar spectrum that we humans cannot see with our eyes, while letting regular visible light pass through.
Although currently still quite inefficient in terms of energy produced per square metre, it is hoped that efficiency should increase with commercial production, and also that it will be possible to produce cost-efficient window panels all the way from large industrial applications right down to small consumer models, potentially allowing huge areas to be brought into action. Various spin-off ideas are also being investigated.
And finally, the Netherlands again: decorative, multi-coloured solar panels to be used in practical applications like highway sound barriers, bus stops, even park benches. "Luminescent solar collectors" or LSCs are a cheap type of solar panel that allows for bright colours to be used, and a professor at Eindhoven University has begun a test installation of the collectors as noise-cancelling barriers on the main A2 highway near Den Bosch.
The panels are substantially cheaper than standard silicon-based solar panels, and arguably more attractive. They are essentially sheets of plastic that, depending on the particular dye used, capture a certain wavelength of sunlight, which is then funnelled toward solar cells on the panel’s edges. They are less efficient than traditional solar panels (by about a fact of 2), but they may have wider applications, and the professor envisages their use on bus stops, park benches, outdoor concert stages, and potentially many other sites. Why not?

Monday, July 06, 2015

UNESCO weighs in on the Canadian oil sands

In yet another black eye for Canada's international environmental reputation, the respected United Nations environmental agency UNESCO has publicly warned against development of the Alberta oil sands.
In particular, they point to possible contamination of nearby Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site which straddles the Alberta-NWT border. Following up on a petition filed by the Mikisew Cree First Nation, UNESCO has requested that Canada “not take any decision related to any of the development projects that would be difficult to reverse”, and requested that it submit environmental assessments to the world heritage centre.
UNESCO has not yet withdrawn Wood Buffalo's world heritage status, or even designated it as "in danger", but the threat is certainly there. Such a move would of course be highly embarrassing for Canada, and the Harper government has been quick to agree to work with UNESCO on an assessment.
It is embarrassing enough that a Canadian First Nations band has to resort to an international agency like UNESCO to get some action on environmental matters of this magnitude.

Greece opts for the outside track

Well, let's mark the occasion: Greece has resoundingly voted "No" to the terms of an EC bailout program that would involve more austerity measures.
In the worldview of the smiling new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, this represents the victory of democracy over EC tyranny and economic blackmail. To everyone else, it looks like the victory of bullheadedness over common sense, and the prelude to a spectacular economic implosion of a once-proud nation (and possibly even the beginning of the end of the grand European experiment, if the predicted snowball effect takes hold).
I do wonder whether the Greek voters fully understood the referendum question. I must admit, when I read it, I found it far from easily comprehensible. It reads:
Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled "Reforms For The Completion Of The Current Program And Beyond" and the second "Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis."
Say what?
Anyway, enough virtual ink has already been spilled on the matter, and I don't intend to add my own analysis into the mix, other than to mention that - far from the Greek Finance Minister's claim that  “Today’s No is a big yes to democratic Europe, and it strengthens the protection that Greece offers its people” - I can't see the decision in anything other than a negative light, and it seems to me that Greece's path to prosperity just got that bit harder. Greece's many creditors are unlikely to look very favourably on new proposals with no concomitant austerity measures, and their patience has all but run out.
Yes, the Greek people have been through some tough times recently, but I've a suspicion that they ain't seen nothing yet. They are out of cash, out of options, and now they are out of friends.

Just a few days later, Tsipras managed to get the Greek parliament to vote for a bailout package of tax increases and spending cuts which shows a marked resemblance to the very package the referendum voted against so recently (and of which Tsipras himself was so hawkish in his rejection).
Some might argue that the referendum debacle was necessary for Greece to salvage at least a modicum of its national pride. But such a climb-down so soon after the vote perhaps indicates that Tsipras himself was never under any illusions that Greece would be able to proceed on its own, and that the whole referendum process was purely an exercise in political brinkmanship.
Of course, it is still by no means certain that Germany and the EC will accept the revised package, and there are still many in Europe who would willingly part with an albatross like Greece, whatever the implications. The drama is by no mean over yet.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Saudi Prince gives $32 billion to charity

According to the BBC, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is to give away essentially his entire personal fortune of $32 billion to charity. This extraordinary gesture puts to shame the philanthropic contributions of people like Bill & Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, whose donations amount to a paltry $2 billion so a year.
Ranked 34th in the Forbes List of the World's Richest People, the Prince claims to have been inspired by the Gates Foundation. Although closely related to the ruling Saudi royal family, Prince Alwaleed is considered highly Westernized and quite progressive in his views, particularly on women's rights (most of his staff are women). He sees philanthropy as a personal responsibility and an intrinsic part of his Islamic faith - a rare positive reference for Islam.
The money is to be distributed over a period of several years through his charitable organisation, Alwaleed Philanthropies, and is to "help build bridges to foster cultural understanding, develop communities, empower women, enable youth, provide vital disaster relief and create a more tolerant and accepting world".
Fine words indeed.