Monday, July 31, 2023

Most liveable city time again

It's that time of the year again and, as usual, Vienna is crowned the most liveable city in the world. No surprise there. Nor with Copenhagen at No. 2. Thereafter, though, Australia and Canada beat out many of the more expected European cities: Melbourne (3), Sydney (4), Vancouver (5), Zurich (6), Calgary (7=), Geneva (7=), Toronto (9), Osaka (10=), and Aukland (10=).

Felicitous company indeed.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Estimates of COVID cases in the UK - somehow

Apparently, the UK is still able, somehow, to monitor, or at least estimate, COVID cases.

According to reports based on data from the Zoe Health Study, there is quite a spike going on. Estimated case numbers have jumped from 696,656 on July 4th to 785,980 on July 27th. It is thought that the jump is largely due to outdated vaccinations and poor weather in July leading people to spend more time together indoors in poorly ventilated spaces!

Well, maybe. But where are they getting these estimates from? No-one is testing any more, and no-one is reporting their infections. 

The Zoe Health Study seems to be a kind of community science outfit, studying, among other things, the Big Poo Review and the Big IF Study (Intermittent Fasting), as well as their ongoing COVID monitoring efforts. 

Apparently, their COVID estimates are based on "PCR and LFT test data as of 2 days ago". What test data? No-one is testing! I'm not sure I would have a whole lot of confidence in these projections.


For the record, EG.5 (and EG.5.1) is fast becoming the top new COVID variants in the UK and, increasingly, around the world. Also know as Eris, after the Greek goddess of strike and chaos, EG.5 and its offshoots are descendents of Omicron, as was the previous front-runner, Arcturus or XBB.1.16, which is still the No. 1 variant in the UK.

It is similar to other Omicron variants in that it is not that virulent and dangerous, but it is highly transmissible. Typical symptoms include runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and sore throat (i.e. basically the same as the common cold).

Electric vehicle take-up in the UK

Having just got back from the UK, and having commented while there about how it didn't seem very EV-friendly, it was interesting to come across this article in the Yorkshire Evening Post (that hot-bed of radicalism) about owning an electric vehicle in the UK.

Apparently, there are more public EV charging points than petrol (gas) stations in the UK, some 44,408 in 25,521 locations, a number that has increased by 36% in the last year alone. Maybe they are just better hidden than here (or perhaps concentrated in the affluent south).

The other statistic that surprised me is the number of UK households that have access to off-street parking (and therefore relatively easy EV charging), which the YEP puts at 70%. Our experience is of narrow streets packed with parked cars on both sides of the street with barely enough room to navigate a car between them. Who knew? Maybe that's an affluent south thing too?

According to Fleet News, there are a,bout 1.1 million EVs in the UK, about 3.1% of the total, up by over 50% in the last year alone. 16.6% of all new cars in the UK were electric in 2022, plus an additional 6.3% being plug-in hybrids (total 22.9%). This compares with just 152,685 fully electric cars on Canada, (about 1.6% of all cars on the road) with just 7.7% of all new cars being electric last year. We have about 15,000 charging stations in Canada.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Canada should hold off on its unilateral digital serices tax

The OECD has been working for years on a multilateral deal to establish a minimum global corporate tax, and to enable countries to tax large international digital companes (like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber and AirBnB) under an equitable agreed formula.

At a recent meeting 138 of 143 countries agreed to sign on to the deal. The dissenting countries were: Russia, Belarus, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and ... Canada. The reason Canada finds itself in such suspect company? It is insisting on going it alone and instituting its own digital services taxation law, currently scheduled for January 2024.

This insistence represents a major stumbling block to the OECD deal, particularly coming as it does from an influential G7 country. If other countries see Canada going its own way, they may follow, jeopardizing the whole multilateral deal. It has put Canada at loggerheads with many of its usual allies, including the USA, which has even threatened sanctions against Canada, arguing that its actions would violate the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement.

138 countries have agreed to hold off for a year on instituting their own unilateral. Canada, along with a small bunch of other ne'er-do-wells and mavericks, has not. It's embarrassing and a major trade irritant. Canada would do better toeing the line and defending its bilateral trade with the USA than forcing through a unilateral digital services tax.

The carbon footprint of Canada's record wildfire season

Lost among the potential human and infrastructure impact (and the vague annoyance of the drifting smoke) of Canada's record-smashing wildfire season this year - a season which is by no means over, let's remember - is the immense carbon footprint of the fires.

With over 121,000 square kilometres of forest burned already in a total of of 4,774 fires, this forest fire season has been like no other. And now the Institute of Applied Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (yes, it's Chinese, but I have reason to disbelieve it in this case) has estimated that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the fires is in the region of 1 billion tons. Add in the other greenhouse gas emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, and the wildfires so far have been responsible for about 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. There may be an additional methane release element from fires that occurred in permafrost areas in the far north that is not included in these figures.

Now, a billion tons sounds like a big number, but what does it actually mean in context? According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 amounted to 670 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. A megaton is a million tons, so this year's wildfires have much more than doubled our annual carbon footprint, just like that. And remember, it's not finished yet.


If you don't trust those Chinese estimates (and I can understand that), Dr. Werner Kurz of Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Forest Service, who also heads up the National Forest Carbon Accounting System for Canada (busy guy), estimates the carbon emissions from Canadian wildfires to the end of July at 1,420 megatonnes, taking into account both managed (about 60%) and unmanaged (about 40%) forests. This is substantially higher than the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and more than double the emissions from Canadian oil and gas, agriculture and electricity production combined. This, again, is as of July 18th, just halfway through the 2023 season.

I think I preferred the first one...

Friday, July 28, 2023

Trudeau's new and ever-expanding cabinet

Justin Trudeau's recent cabinet shuffle has raised the expected howls of derision in some quarters, and stifled yawns in others. Very few seem as delighted with it as Trudeau himself seems to be (and, presumably, those who got the nod). Fully three-quarters of Cabinet positions changed hands, and several completely new names (and positions) appeared in the list.

I'm very much in the yawn category. Inserting back-bench MPs no-one has ever heard of into positions no-one knew existed is hardly going to rejuvenate a very tired-looking Liberal government, although it will probably raise the profile of some new, up-and-coming individuals, and pad out their résumés for the future.

But more than anything, for me, it brought home the sheer size of the Cabinet these days. I have always thought of a government Cabinet as composed of 10 or maybe 12 MPs in important and influential positions like Finance Minister, Justice Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, Environment Minister, etc. (Interestingly, many, although by no means all, of these actually retained their positions.)

But it turns out the Cabinet actually consists of 38 members (39 with the Prime Minister), including positions like Minister of Citizens' Services, Minister Responsible for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for Quebec Regions (that's quite a mouthful, and what does it actually mean?), Minister of National Revenue, Minister of Rural Economic Development, etc.

It could be argued that many of these are mainly symbolic, even that they are cynical gifts to supporters. You could also probably argue that they could be considered proving grounds for future promotions. Even more cynically, you could see it as an inclusive smokescreen for a continued move towards the centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office.

Either way, 38 is an awful lot of cats to herd. It's hard to believe that it can be very effective as a group. The ranks of equal numbers of men and women makes for a good photo op. But a Cabinet in the traditional sense? Not so much.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Fox News' "climate change hoax" narrative takes a scientific slant

I found a fascinating article on the Fox News website (yes, I do read these things occasionally, if only to see what the "other side" is up to) entitled "It's not climate change that's causing heat waves this summer but no-one wants to explain why".

It purports to explain that heat waves in the USA are not really getting worse (try explaining that to the residents of Phoenix, Arizona!), and that "there's no reason to believe that these weather events are evidence that the world is hurtling towards a climate change catastrophe". It calls the current "left-wing" news coverage "sloppy, irresponsible media reorting, combined with cherry-picked data". 

The article concludes that: "The ugly truth behind climate alarmism is that much of it is driven by a radical ideological agenda that is seeking to transform the global economy and American society, not by facts. The best way to fight back against it is to use cold hard facts. And those facts plainly show that there is no reason to panic about our ever-changing climate."

The article, incidentally, is by one Justin Haskins, whom I'd never heard of, but who is apparently the director of the Socialism Research Center at the Heartland Institute (and you can guess what they do!) and a New York Times bestselling author. Well, who knew.

Anyway, the one "cold hard fact" that Haskins presents to support his theory is a graph of the US Annual Heat Wave Index 1895-2021, which (below) shows, rather strikingly, a huge peak of heat waves in the 1930s, orders of magnitude worse than the recent historical record.

Haskins says the figure comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), although when I looked for it, I found other EPA figures showing a gradual increase in heat wave frequency, duration, season length and intensity, all since the 1960s (when record-keeping became more reliable). All also quite striking, but not in accordance with Haskins' theory.

I did eventually find a version of Haskins' figure, however, on the Statista website, and it does indeed show a huge spike in heat waves in the USA in the 1930s, unparalleled by anything before or since. Interestingly, the EPA webpage referenced earlier specifically addresses this phenonenon. The spike, it says, "reflects extreme, persistent heat waves in the Great Plains region during a period known as the 'Dust Bowl'. Poor land use practices and many years of intense drought contributed to these heat waves by depleting soil moisture and reducing the moderating effects of evaporation."

So, to use the 1930s as the sole refuting factor of the otherwise clear trends shown by every other metric would seem the ultimate in the kind of agenda-driven "cherry-picked data" that Haskins claims to abhor so much. 

The fact that we are living through the hottest month ever (at least in the last 100,000 years)? Who cares? Following on from the hottest ever June? So? That the ten hottest years ever all occurred in the last 13 years? Pshaw! That the Mediterranean and North Atlantic have recorded record high temperatures two months before the usual high temperature mark? Irrelevant! That the four hottest days ever, globally, all occurred this month? Cherry-picking!

Now, I know, you don't go to Fox News for the latest in science-based evidence. But it's interesting that the other "radical ideological agenda" is using a more scientific approach - albeit a flawed one - to support its "climate change hoax" narrative.


Whatever tbe figures and graphs say, this extraordinary collection of photos from the BBC shows explicitly the human suffering worldwide during this exceptional month of July 2023.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Record sea temperatures off coast of Florida

A buoy off the coast of Florida recently recorded water temperatures of 101.1°F (roughly 38°C), about the temperature of the average hot tub. It could be the hottest seawater ever tested.

The buoy reading, taken in Manatee Bay, Florida (south of Miami, near the Florida Keys) might have been considered an error were it not that it had been recording similar levels for several days, and other buoys in the area were also recording temperatures that were almost as crazy.

Most of the South of the United States has been stewing in record temperatures for most of the month of July (it has been over 110°F - 43°C - in Phoenix, Arizona, for the whole month). But this sea-water reading has still shocked scientists, and there are justifiable fears for the already hard-pressed coral reefs off the Florida coast, which are likely experiencing an unprecedented bleaching event. Coral-planting operations have been halted as sea temperatures in the high 80s Fahrenheit (low 30s Celsius) have been recorded as deep as 70 feet (20 metres) in southern Florida.

Scary stuff.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Small modular nuclear reactors won't help Ontario or Canada

Ontario produces a good part of its electricity from nuclear power stations (currently about 60% according to Ontario Power Generation, most of the rest being from hydroelectricity), and it is now planning on doubling down on this technology by putting billions into refurbishing and extending the life of  old reactors and investing in the unproven technology of small modular reactors (SMRs or SMNRs).

Yes, nuclear power is a carbon neutral source (depending on how you count it), but it is also an extremely expensive option. Even the World Nuclear Association estimates that nuclear power is currently 3 or 4 times more expensive than large scale solar and onshore wind power (and some estimates put this much higher). Large nuclear projects can also take well over a decade to get up and running (plus, they usually run almost as long again behind schedule). And these costs do not even factor in the costs associated with the high-risk storage of spent fuel rods for centuries to come. Most nuclear programs worldwide rely on huge government subsidies to make them anything like commercially feasible.

For these and other reasons, gigawatt-scale large reactors are widely considered obsolete these days. For example, there has only been one nuclear power project initiated in the USA in the last 50 years (in Georgia), and that one is running into problems. The last nuclear plant commissioned in Canada was at Darlington in 1977 (it came online 5 years late, in 1993, and its final cost had ballooned to nearly four times the original estimate). The billions of dollars that have already been sunk into the commercial nuclear program in Ontario have been showing up on your electricity bill for decades now, in the so-called "global adjustment" line

Proponents of SMRs, though, claim that, because they are smaller than the huge traditional nuclear power stations that sucked up so much of the energy investment of the late twentieth century, they will be safer, cheaper and quicker to build, and they that units will one day be manufactured in factories and shipped ready-made to their final sites. Joe Biden included billions for SMRs in his otherwise forward-thinking Inflation Reduction Act, and even the usually astute Bill Gates is investing heavily in them.

But, let's look at the reality. To date, there are actually only two advanced SMRs anywhere in the world: a pilot project in China, and another very small one in Russia (hardly role models). A few others are currently under construction in China, Russia and Argentina. 

US developer NuScale plans to developed one in Idaho, but is already running into problems and has already substantially increased its estimated construction costs and price per megawatt of power even before a single brick has been laid. So far, buyers have only signed up for about a quarter of the plant's capacity, and the company has said that it will not begin construction until it is 80% subscribed. Bill Gates' Terrapower project is even further away from reality, and is facing at least two years' delay as it tries to source uranium from an suppliers other than Russia.

So, don't expext SNRs to become a climate change solution any time soon (and soon is exactly when we need it). The industry worldwide is essentially stuck at the prototype stage, and none of the units built to date is truly modular as original envisaged. All the attention being paid to them is also distracting from more plausible solutions like clean wind and solar energy coupled with updated smart grids, expanded storage capacity,  virtual power plants, and demand response strategies.

Which begs the question of why Ontario and Canada are even considering SNRs. Canada has published a whole Small Modular Reactor Action Plan, which it calls "the next wave of nuclear innovation", and into which it intends sinking a substantial wodge of taxpayer money.

And now Ontario has announced plans to build three SNRs at its Darlington nuclear site, which it is calling "key to meeting growing electricity demands and net zero goals". They are hoping these could come online somewhere between 2034 and 2036 (at least in theory), which is way too late for the serious work that needs to be done on reducing the province's carbon footprint, especially if Doug Ford also goes ahead with his ill-advised plans to expand gas-fired power stations in the province.

What a mess!


And now, the West's only licensed small nuclear reactor, NuScale Power's project in Idaho, USA, is being abandoned, posing new questions over the deliverability of the technology. This is mainly due to ballooning costs (a constant problem with nuclear projects of any kind) and supply chain issues.

This leaves the only functioning SMRs in Russia and China. And would you trust Russian and Chinese technology?

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Are negative electricity prices a big problem?

As European energy prices once more dip into negative territory, due to a short-term glut of solar and wind renewable energy (and also new nuclear capacity, although that part is rarely reported), we have to ask what that actually means in practical terms.

Electricity prices dipped below zero in a dozen European countries this week, including Germany, France, UK (European?) and Netherlands. This was due to record investment in renewables combined with a reduction in demand following the Russia/Ukraine energy crisis of last year, and, in some countries a spike in hydroelectric power due to floods.

In practice, though, this doesn't mean that consumers were being paid to consume electricity. People pay agreed, contracted electricity prices, not the raw market spot price. It means that, temporarily, power suppliers have to pay their wholesale customers to take their electricity. Often, it means that power producers pay neighbouring countries to take excess electricity off their hands. Here is a pretty good explanation of how all that works.

Negative electricity prices have become more of an issue as countries become more reliant on relatively unpredictable, cheap renewable sources, and they will remain an issue until battery technology improves. They do, however, signal an "imbalance" in the market at the wholesale level, and could discourage future investments in energy infrastructure.

However, negative electricity prices are not necessarily a bad thing. They provide incentives for power utilities to make their power stations more responsive to changing conditions, and create new business opportunities in the area of demand adaptation and energy transmission and exportation. They are an indication that an electricity system is not sufficiently flexible. They are also an indication of just how cheap and plentiful renewable energy has become, an environmental success story. 

In some ways, negative electricity prices are a good problem to have. And, in the scheme of things, they don't actually happen that often, or for prolonged periods.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Why documentary channels turned into trashy reality TV

 Folowing on from my post about "rolling coal" and the reference to "reality TV" programs on the Discovery Channel, I wondered about the trend into trashiness of once-educational television stations like the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel (TLC), the History Channel, etc.

I remember moving to Canada in the late 80s and being blown away by my first experience of cable television, which featured, among other delights, a whole channel devoted to weather forecasts, and several channels airing high-quality documentaries on history, nature, science, etc.

When I returned to Canada innrhe late 90s, after several years in South America and Europe, these documentary channels has almost all morphed into "reality TV" purveyors, many of them actually not about reality at all, but rather faked reality. It was a blow, and I have struggled to understand it.

It seems like the mean reason is ratings and advertising dollars. Like it or not, entertainment-orientated programming (aka trash) apparently pays the bills much better than education. 

The other main reason is the change in viewing habits brought about by the rise of specialized streaming services and on-demand content on the internet (although it's not clear to me quite why this necessitated a trend away from education and towards "entertainment" - there is plenty of trashy "entertainment" content on the internet too).

Rolling coal, another great American conservative invention

God, you learn something new (and depressing) every day, don't you?

Apparently, there is a thing called "coal rolling" or " rolling coal", whereby idiots (almost exclusively young white idiots) illegally modify their pickup trucks to by-pass their pollution controls, so that they spew out 40 to 100 times the exhaust of a standard vehicle, pumping out black smoke in the process.

The jolly wheeze then is to form a kind of blockade on the road in front of electric cars or bikes and engulf them in black plumes of diesel exhaust, because, you know, they're clearly environmentalists or lefties or whatever. Women may also be targets of this obnoxious prank, as may any kind of progressive political protests (e.g. Black Live Matter, police repression, gun violence and trans rights rallies have all been targeted).

As well as creating a public nuisance and excess pollution, they are also causing visibility problems for the others drivers or cyclists, potentially putting their lives at risk. One 16-year old in Texas ended up ploughing into a group of cyclists while rolling coal at them, sending six of them to hospital (the kid was only charged after a public outcry against him).

It's all part of an increasingly aggressive and entitled American conservative movement, which is happy to take the law into its own hands in order to make a political statement (although the perpetrators may be hard-pressed to explain their political point). It has developed into a kind of counter-culture, boosted by the likes of (illegal) reality TV sensations, the Diesel Brothers.

A real head-scratcher.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Claims that mental illness not linked to violence rings false

I seem to have read many articles about mental illness that make the point that, to quote one, "people with serious mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence themselves than the general population", and furthermore, "people living with mental health conditions are no more likely to engage in violent behaviour than the general population".

I can believe the first of these claims, although it glosses over the fact that those with serious mental illness are a very small subset of the general population, so that, as a percentage of the entire population of victims of violence, their numbers are tiny.

I find the second claim to be less instantly believable, though, so I tried to get to the bottom of it. I found a meta-analysis by the Treatment Advocacy Center, which looked at various studies around the world on the incidence of violence among schizophrenia sufferers, and reached a "conclusion that I did not want to reach", namely that "there appears to be a relationship between mental disorder and violent behaviour", particularly during times when they are not being treated.

How does that square with the claims so often put forward by mental health advocates? Well, I'm not sure. Are they cherry-picking results? Are they just guessing, or making unsupported claims that back-up their own agenda? Who knows?

Alberta Premier Smith not fooling anyone except Albertans

I don't have a lot of respect for Alberta Premier Danielle Smith. Her brand of populist conservatism exemplifies all that is wrong with Canadian politics. But her stance on Alberta's liquid natural gas (LNG) exports seems particularly wrong-headed.

Smith claims that LNG is better than coal, and so Alberta (and Canada) should get credits for reducing global carbon emissions under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. She is saying that Alberta should receive credits and plaudits for producing the second-worst energy product rather than the worst. (Although even that claim is somewhat suspect - a recent study shows that, if you take leaks into account, gas-powered energy may be just as bad a coal.)

Unfortunately, that is not how the carbon accounting numbers game of Article 6 works. Importers can claim credits for using gas instead of coal (a rather suspect concept in itself), but producers and exporters can not also claim credits for the same transaction (that would be double-counting).

Actually, I'm pretty sure Smith must know this - she can't be that clueless can she? - but persists in claiming it anyway, in a vain attempt to make Alberta's horrible economy look slightly less horrible. Don't be fooled. Unless you are an Alberta conservative, in which case it is probably an article of faith, and truth and common sense do not come into it.

Toronto is in crisis, but Toronto is still a good place to be

As Olivia Chow takes the reins as the first left-wing mayor of Toronto for many a year (in fact, since David Miller, back in 2010), she must be heaving a big sigh at the enormity of the task before her.

It's not just me getting old and ornery (although that is happening too), but it is widely agreed that the city of Toronto is not in a good place right now, partly as a result of feckless hands-off governance by Rob Ford and John Tory, but partly as a result of circumstances outside of anyone's control.

There is a homelessness crisis, an affordability crisis, an opioids crisis, a mental health crisis, a transit crisis, an office vacancy crisis, a violent crime crisis. Stabbings on the subway, syringes in back alleys, makeshift tents festooned around our parks. Hell, there is a crisis crisis. 

There is so much crisis around that it's easy to forget that Toronto actually still has a lot going for it. It's still the 98th most livable city in the world (out of 173) according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. There are still more construction cranes at work in the city than in any other city in North America (more than in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington DC COMBINED). It is building new parks, schools, community centres, and redeveloping the huge Port Lands area. Hundreds of thousands of newcomers continue to stream into the city. The TTC is expanding, albeit excruciatingly slowly, with much-needed subway lines and rapid light transit. Toronto has seen 32 homicides this year, which sounds bad, but compares to over 300 in similarly-sized Chicago.

Hmm. Maybe things are not so bad.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Deep-sea mining is a possibility, but not a definite

Hard on the heels of Norway's announcement that it intends to mine the seabed for rare mineral nodules, comes another announcement, by the Canadian-owned company The Metals Company (TMC), that it is looking to mine the deeo sea around Nauru in the South Pacific.

Now, you'd think that there were laws against that, but not so. Or not quite. The International Seabed Authority (ISA), the autonomous organization whose task it is to regulate mining on the ocean floor, failed - as of July 9th - to agree and legalize those rules (known as the Mining Code), and companies can technically now legally apply for deep-sea mining permits, despite an almost complete absence of environmental protections. 

So, of course, they will. In spite of the huge investments involved in such a technically challenging project, there will always be companies (and states) willing to take those risks because the potential payback is huge. Minerals like nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese and other rare-earth elements - minerals that are essential for electrification and energy transition (think EV batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, etc) - are available in large quantities in the deep ocean.

Mining companies like The Metals Company argue that climate change and the energy transition is too important to be held up by some bureaucratic rules about potential seabed harms. They hold themselves up as environmental saviours, although their real motivation is the profit motive. They also argue that mining of any kind is inherently destructive (true), and that deep-sea mining can actually be less environmentally destructive than land mining (very debatable).

The mining of deep-sea rocks known as polymetallic nodules using robotic cutting machines presents many environmental challenges, principally the destruction and compaction of substantial tracts of the ocean floor, and the creation of huge sediment plumes that impact aquatic life well above the sea-bed. Add to this noise pollution, electromagnetic effects, disruption of larvae habitat, contamination, fluid flow changes, and changes to the flow of nutrients, and it is clear that there are plenty of reasons to ban such deep-sea mining.

The Metals Company is just one of 18 companies or states that have applied to the ISA for testing and sampling permits. Thus far, none of them has been granted an actual mining contract, but time is pressing. If the ISA and its constituents members cannot get its act together soon to establish oceans protections, then the genie may be out of the bottle. If rapacious and unethical actors like Russia snd China are allowed in on the act, then all bets are off for the health of the ocean floor.

The ISA has been negotiating the Mining Code since 2014, but these negotiations have become bogged down in recent years, and now matters have come to a head. If the ISA manages to finalize the Mining Code by July 21st, then it could be agreed by the entire ISA Assembly at their end-of-the-month meeting. But this seems like a very tall order.

In the meantime, there is perhaps one saving grace. The ISA Council did make one important decision at its March meeting: commercial deep-sea mining should NOT take place in the ABSENCE of regulations. The ISA could also choose to issue a temporary moratorium on deep-sea mining, something that many environmental organizations, countries (Canada recently came out in favour of it, to its credit, joining a growing list of nations), seafood and other concerned companies (Google, BMW, Volvo and Samsung among them) are strongly advocating.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Ford's green energy announcement too little too late

When Doug Ford and his PCs were elected to power in Ontario back in 2018, one of the first things they did was to lay waste to Ontario's burgeoning green energy sector, summarily cancelling literally hundreds of wind and solar energy contracts. This set Ontario back many years in the process, necessitating an increased reliance on polluting gas power stations and expensive nuclear plants (oh, and it cost the province hundreds of millions of dollars in contract cancellation fees).

Fast forward to 2023, and Doug Ford and his PCs, inexplicably still in power in Ontario, have announced a return to renewable energy projects in the province, part of a policy detailed in the OPG report Powering Ontario, released this week.

I imagine that Ford will probably claim this as an important step forward and a prime example of conservative environmental vision. In fact, it's too little too late, and a belated attempt to rectify past mistakes. It also comes on the heels of other announcements of an expanded nuclear power program, against the advice of most experts.

So, this is not Ford suddenly seeing the error of his ways and getting green religion. This us just the same old bumbling, over-confident, error-prone Ford. He needs to be gone, while we still have the remnants if a funtioning province.

Friday, July 07, 2023

The folly of giving Ukraine cluster bombs

The United States has taken the very controversial step of offering Ukraine a package of artillery that includes cluster munitions (aka cluster bombs) to help in its war against Russia's invasion of that country. 

Ukraine has specifically asked the US for cluster munitions, and both Ukraine and Russia have allegedly already used them in the 16-month old war. The USA announced today that it plans to include thousands of them as part of its latest $800 million aid package to Ukraine. They said it was a "difficult decision", and one that they deferred "for as long as we could", but they argued that not sending the munitions would leave Ukraine under-armed and under-protected, and thereby lead to even greater civilian harm. Ukraine is running out of ammunition, they say, so what else can they do? Furthermore, they argue that Ukrainians have promised that they will use them responsibly, given that they are being used in their own country, in order to protect their own citizens.

Cluster bombs release large numbers of smaller bomblets that are scattered in mid-flight, and that can kill and maim indiscriminately over large areas. Also, a good proportion of those bomblets in each missile (anywhere fron 1% to 40%) fail to explode, particularly if they fall on wet or soft ground, and pose an ongoing danger for decades to come, much like land mines. 

The 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty calling for a global ban on these weapons has been ratified by 111 countries including Canada and pretty much all of Europe (i.e. most of NATO), but, notably, NOT the USA. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have signed the treaty. In addition, President Biden would have to specifically waive a US legal prohibition on the export of weapons with high failure rates, but he seems willing to do just that.

However, there is much opposition to the American plan, and they will have a hard job of persuading most of the rest of NATO at the upcoming high-level meeting. Germany is strongly against it, as is UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Canada and Spain have also come out strongly against the US plan, and the UK has also counselled against it. Some members of President Biden's own party have been outspoken against it. Human rights groups across the board are unanimous in their condemnation of the plan, if only because it gives less-responsible countries carte blanche to use them in their own little disputes.

When reports came out that Russia was using cluster bombs, quite early in the war, America was full of righteous indignation, and even called it a war crime. But now they are suddenly acceptable? They say their dud rate is much smaller than that of the cluster bombs the Russians have used (less than 3%, compared to the Russian 20-40%), which seems a bit of a disingenuous argument, to say the least. 

The point is, though, the alternative to giving Ukraine cluster bombs is not giving them nothing. Provide Ukraine with precision-guided missiles like HIMARS and Storm Shadows by all means, but please don't let us resort to inaccurate, indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions. The West needs to maintain some moral high ground, otherwise it is no better than Russia.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Toronto's transit system is actually pretty good

Most Canadian media outlets and newspapers are reporting on the recently released transit report card from the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Here are a few of the headlines: City had least reliable service in 2022; Toronto transit has least reliable  in the GTA; TTC has the least reliable transit system compared to over municipalities in Ontario; TTC ranked last among GTHA transit systems in new report card; etc.

You get the idea: Toronto's transit system is rubbish, the worst of the worst. But, actually, service reliability was just one of many factors that the Board of Trade looked at. Overall, Toronto's TTC earned a solid B rating, along with Mississauga, the highest rating of any transit system tested. Hamilton and Waterloo scored a B-, Oakville and Milton a terrible D-. If Toronto were to expand its express bus service, add more streetcar routes, and address some safety issues on the TTC, it would have scored an A, says the Board of Trade.

You would never have gleaned that from a quick perusal of the headlines, or even a quick read of most most them. So much for press transparency and objectivity.

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Oil companies revert to form

So, here's a depressing article: Oil giants ramp up hunt for new deposits.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the price of oil and gas has spiked, and the major European oil companies in particular have lost no time in pivoting (as they say) back to their old traditional oil-and-gas business. The development of new deposits, and the search for new potential reserves, is on in earnest once more. It's the Wild West all over again.

Companies like Shell and BP, which talked a good game about their transition to a more forward-looking, longer term, more environmental focus on renewable energy, have suddenly reverted back to their base business of fossil fuel extraction. Record profits, and the promise of more, will do that.

I guess it was never about doing the right thing after all; it was all a matter of chasing after short-term profits for their rapacious shareholders. If arms sales were more profitable, they would get into that too (well, actually...)

It doesn't come as a surprise. But it is, nevertheless, infinitely depressing.

Toyota solid state battery could be (another) game-changer

Over the years, I've reported many promising new developments in EV battery technology. The word "game-changer" has often been bandied around with gay abandon. Well, here's another one.

Toyota, of all companies - after single-handedly kick-starting hybrid car technology, it has been conspicuous by its absence in the full electric vehicle field - has announced it has developed a solid state battery with a range of 1,200km (745 miles) that charges in less than 10 minutes. Now, wouldn't that be nice?

I have looked into solid state batteries before, and there are several challenges still to be overcome, not least their cost. But the fact that Toyota is making this very public announcement suggests that they are making some serious progress. Yes, it's still at the prototype stage, and scaling-up is always fraught. But it could be a, well, game-changer.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

The chances of a true centrist party in Canada are slim

Speaking of "yet another", there was yet another article in the paper bemoaning the divisiveness of current Canadian politics. In a time where the Conservatives have moved too far right and embraced populism, the Liberals are too divisive, too lefty, and too prone to virtue-signalling, and the NDP too anti-business and unrealistic (or so we are told), it raises the old jokey adage "Where is the Purple Party?", the party to synthesize the best of right and left, to find a place in the middle where most Canadians secretly long to be.

It's a bit of a disingenuous plea. The Liberals historically have filled that niche, swinging chameleon-like to the left and right as needed to appeal to the middle class and the middle-of-the-road. The Liberals always considered themselves the "natural governing party" of Canada, and indeed they have been very successful, forming the government for well over 70% of the last century, and over 60% since the year 2000. But with that success came a certain cockiness and sense of entitlement that many Canadians find distasteful.

At the moment, the Liberals (especially with their "confidence-and-supply" deal with the NDP), are drifting to the left - not that bad a thing in my view - in order to compensate for the Conservatives' distinct rightward list. But the chances of a bona fide centrist party arising and gaining the attention of the electorate? Slim to none, I would say. 

Meanwhile, get used to the nastiness and ad hominem attacks that characterizes modern Canadian politics. We have a long way to go before we sink to the levels of modern-day US politics, but they (particularly the Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre) are learning some of the underhand tricks that makes politics south of the border so fractured and fractious.

What's in a flag?

There's an interesting and fun article this week's Economist magazine on vexillology, the science of flag design. It's not something I've ever thought much about, except idly wonder why so many flags feature the colours red, white and blue. But flags can be powerful, and their design is important, and they can be an important rallying point for a country's people. Think of Canada's red maple leaf, or Ukraine's iconic sky-blue and wheat-yellow banner.

The article starts by noting that several American states are currently in the process of redesigning their flags, mainly because their old ones are badly design, overly busy, or just ill-advised. It then goes on to enumerate some basic principles of good flag design. Firstly, keep it simple - can a child draw it from memory? Keep its symbolism meaningful (think of Israel's Star of David, or Americas 50 stars and 13 stripes)? Avoid politics (think of Mozambique's AK-47 gun). Limit the palette to a few basic colours (South Africa is one of the few to boast six colours in its flag, two or three are much more common, and Jamaica, amazingly, is the only country that does not include the colour red in its flag). Be distinctive (e.g. Nepal's jagged double pennon is the only national flag that is not regular, and Switzerland and the Vatican are the only countries that have a square, not rectangular flag). And finally, don't just copy another country's flag, to avoid the situations of Indonesia and Monaco, and Romania and Chad, who share identical flags.

Believing that the arts are not essential is apparently a contentious viewpoint

After reading yet another article about how essential art and culture are to humanity, despite the impossibility of pinning down any economic benefits, I'm still not totally sold on the idea.

I know it's the conventional wisdom, at least in progressive liberal circles. But it just rings slightly false to me. It seems to me that art and culture are just a nice-to-haves, not a sine qua non of human life. I like music, plays and movies as much as the next guy (the plastics arts perhaps less so), but they strike me as middle (and upper) class pastimes, and hardly essential to life as we know it. 

This will perhaps be anathema to many, but is art important to a homeless guy or a cancer victim or a displaced migrant in a war zone? Surely, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that. Even during the pandemic, intellectuals were arguing that we need to keep up funding for the arts, otherwise we would, well, lose our humanity in some poorly-articulated way. But what people really needed was help with their rent, protection of their jobs, and vaccines.

So, the question has been asked before, ad nauseam, but what is the value of art? Is it a basic human right? Or can we actually do without it? A quick Google search for "is art and culture really that important?" yields a myriad links, almost all affirming that art is indeed an important, nay, essential, part of our lives. Even a more negative search for "art and culture is not essential to humanity" yields pretty much the same set of views (in fact, most of the same articles as the first search).

Among the many purported justifications of this view are things like: "It is the medium through which we process our emotions and ideas"; "it is an important tool for learning, teaching and communicating"; "art can cross cultural boundaries as it can be understood in any language and all social groups"; "art and culture can help us rethink time"; "arts and culture help create and maintain stable, peaceful societies"; "art makes life more manageable, tolerable and enjoyable"; "art is an essential part of the human experience"; "it promotes expression and creativity"; "it helps all of us develop necessary soft skills"; "it provides historical context"; "it gives us a place to gather as a society"; etc, etc. Oh, and that old chestnut, "without the arts, we are a species; with the arts, we are a civilization". Hmm.

Hell, even polls back up this impression. A 2019 Ipsos poll found that over 90% of Americans believe that the arts are an important part of the education system, that 80% say it is important for adults to continue to have access to arts education outside of school, and that 79% believe that arts education is important to society and that it will continue to be so in the future. A 2018 public opinion survey found that large pluralities believe that the arts provide meaning to our lives, that arts institutions add value to our communities, and even that most would vote for political candidates who seek to increase funding of the arts.

You get the idea. But all of this sounds distinctly woolly and unscientific to me. Much of it also sounds like self-serving propaganda from, well, artists and intellectuals. (Plus, it is a large stretch to go from believing that the arts are have a beneficial effect to asserting that they are absolutely essential.) Is there anything a bit more rigorous and objective? Even a dissenting view?

I had to try the very negative search for "no, art is not essential to humanity" before I could find anything even approaching my own views. For example, an open letter entitled,"I am an artist and I believe that art is not essential", which contains such assertions as "to have art in your life is a bonus not a necessity", "only the privileged can actively pursue the arts", and "art has no direct effect on survival". For example, an eNotes Expert Answer from a "certified educator", which includes the hard-to-refute but rather basic defences: "food, water, shelter clothing ... are arguably the only things we actually need, that are essential to our survival"; "humans are the only creatures that create art, and in the animal and plant kingdoms, they do not have art and they continue to survive just fine".

Maybe I could find more (and better) apologies if I tried hard, but it is apparent that my view that art is not essential is a contentious, minority viewpoint. But I would still contend that the reason it appears so is that only artists snd intellectuals have bothered to broach the subject online. Those homeless guys, cancer victims and war refugees didn't quite get around to it, it not being a major priority for them.

Electricity from thin air - no, really

Interesting development in renewable energy, courtesy of The Guardian: electricity from thin air, much as predicted by Nickoa Tesla almost a hundred years ago.

Well, actually, not so much thin air as thick, or more specifically, humid air. Discovered by happy accident at the University of Massachussetts Amherst, it seems that an array of microscopic tubes, or nanotubes, can generate a small but continuous electic current, as airborne water molecules bump around inside the tubes, creating a kind of small battery as one end of the tube becomes differently charged from the other.

The team is now experimenting with thin sheets of materials punched with tiny holes, or nanopores, sheets that can in principle be multiply stacked together. The Lisbon-based Catcher Project is also experimenting with the idea, establishing a start-up to try and make the technology commercially feasible.

I'm not saying that this will become the energy source of tomorrow, but it may become yet another string to our bow, which is all to the good.

Some interesting trends in poverty in Canada

I was introduced to a rather surprising factoid by an article in this weekend's Globe and Mail. It claimed that "the Chinese Canadian community experiences higher than average poverty rates, including higher than Black and South Asian Canadians".

Now, I am accustomed to thinking of Chinese Canadians as relatively successful immigrants, partly, I suppose, because you see all those smartly dressed young men and women walking around the Financial District downtown. So, of course, I checked into it.

And, lo and behold, according to StatsCan, 15.3% of Chinese Canadians lived in poverty in 2020, compared to 12.4% of Blacks and 10.8% of South Asians. Well, go figure.

Some of the other poverty factoids from that web page are also illuminating, not to say shocking (and not all in a bad way). For example, the overall poverty rate in Canada was 8.1% in 2020, but that compares to 14.5% just five years earlier, in 2015. Just as an aside, that was the year Justin Trudeau and the Liberals took over the country after ten years of Tory administrations. Coincidence? I think not.

In fact, the poverty rates of immigrants in general more than halved between 2015 and 2020, from 18.8% to 9.1%, not much above the national average. Child poverty was less than half of its 2015 levels. The poverty rate for one-person families headed by women with a small child - always the poorest family type - fell from 62.7% to 31.3% (although still five times the rate of couple-families with a small child). Transgender men (12.9%) and women (12.0%) face much more poverty than cisgender men (7.9%) and women (8.2%), but non-binary people face the highest of all at 20.6%, more than twice the national average.

Interesting stuff, even if all the rates are still shockingly high. And, although 2020 may have been an unrepresentative year, coinciding as it did with the high government transfers and temporary pandemic relief benefits resulting from the unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, the reduction in poverty under the Liberals is quite startling.