Latest Blogs on other sites

A view under the bonnet: chapter 3 of The Test.

Photo: Charlottesville, Virginia, 12th August 2017 - New players on the stage, probably unbothered about passing The Test Cambridge, UK, 31st July 2017 I land at Heathrow, take a train into London and then another to Cambridge. I have occasional sessional teaching duties at the University, with the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). CISL is widely known for running HRH The Prince of Wales’s Business & Sustainability Programme for business executives, and other advanced courses in sustainability leadership for business groups, tailored to individual company needs. CISL also runs part-time graduate programmes for business professionals, including the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership. My job today is to give the Master’s students a one-hour overview of the state of play in the global energy transition. I run through my slide show, updated overnight on the flight from Johnannesburg, trying not to let my tiredness show. The class is 30 mid-career to senior people doing an intense residential week towards their degrees in Sustainability Leadership. They are from the USA, Europe, Australasia, the Middle East and Africa. They represent companies including Accenture, BT, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, HSBC, IKEA, KPMG, PepsiCo, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever. The first three questioners all thank me for lifting their spirits with the positivity of my analysis. I wonder if I have overcooked it. I resisted the temptation to talk about The Test in my hour. I do so now, in synopsis. My optimism is qualified, with a small Q, I say. We have to fix this little aberration of solar lights versus kerosene lamps first. You can read the rest here.

Posted in Blogs

Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism – my paper for international business schools, in Chinese

Screenshot 2017-09-08 18.48.05 You can read more here..
Posted in Blogs

Corruption, subsidies, the mad math of kerosene, and the ups and downs on SolarAid’s front lines in Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia: Chapter 2 of The Test

jl-africa Picture: Team Malawi, Lilongwe, 22nd July 18th July 2017, Johannesburg Mandela Day. South Africans are celebrating the life of the father of their unified nation, four years after his death. Foreigners too. In Capetown, Richard Branson leads a parade with The Elders, a group of former world leaders and other senior luminaries that Nelson Mandela created to promote peace and human rights. The theme of Mandela Day this year is action against poverty. South Africa’s National Development Plan aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030, consistent with UN Sustainable Development Goal number one. They have a long way to go. More than 63% of South African children live in poverty as things stand. Sustainable electrification will be vital if African nations are to hit their poverty alleviation targets, and that is why UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 has the goal of clean energy for all by 2030. I am at the Power Gen Africa conference and trade show, a gathering of 3,000 electricity-industry professionals from all over Sub-Saharan Africa, checking out progress. You can read Chapters 1 & 2, hot from the front lines, here: The Test.
Posted in Blogs

My latest serialised free-download book ‘The Test': Chapter 1

kerosene Two extracts from the first chapter of my new book set out its premise. Like the previous book, it will be a live serialised linear narrative, telling a vital story of our times as it unfolds. The two scenes in the first chapter are in the Albert Hall, London, and at the 2017 Expo in Astana, Kazakhstan. “The idea has grown on me that the conundrum of expensive and high-carbon kerosene vastly outselling inexpensive and zero-carbon solar is a defining test of humankind’s instinct for collective survival. If we cannot quickly replace oil-for-lighting with solar lighting, given all the blindingly obvious economic and social imperatives for so doing, what chance do we have with all the many other global problems we face? In an age of climate treaties and UN Sustainable Development Goals, where we are making progress on many fronts, how can we be taking so long to kick this open goal? How can we be failing this test?” And: “An ambitious notion is beginning to take shape in my mind, triggered by my experience in the Albert Hall a week ago. Sitting in that hall, that night, were companies and organisations that could eradicate the kerosene lamp from the world within a matter of years, if they chose to work together with seriousness of intent. There were plenty not present who could add considerable fuel to such a campaign. It seems clear to me now what SolarAid should do in the next year. We should try to work with enough of those companies and organisations, in clever enough ways, that we play a useful role - maybe a catalytic role, if we can - in ensuring that civilisation passes The Test. How exactly? Next week I leave for Africa, and a tour of SolarAid’s front line nations. I will learn much on that trip that I can’t glean from an armchair in London. After it, I am hoping a plan will take shape.” You can read Chapter 1 here: The Test. I really hope you will find this, and the subsequent episodes, worth the chronciling. As with the previous book, I look forward to the impact of people-power editing. Each chapter will be edited, in the light of incoming comments, when the next chapter is published. In this way I hope that the book ends up as accurate and fair as I can make it, and if people end up not liking what I write, at least they will consider it that.
Posted in Blogs

Trump’s attempt to pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement: a personal reaction from Solaraid  

trump I was barely listening as he delivered his speech. I had heard most of his mantras already. I also knew that he would be unable to complete a US pullout, legally, until his second term. And he surely can’t aspire to one of those now, with all the skeletons that are rattling in his closet. I was thinking instead about what people can do in the face of madness such as this. One of the options is to focus on projects that demonstrate, in a way that is impossible to ignore, that he is wrong. And more, that the belief system he is a symptom of is wrong: rottenly, suicidally, wrong. I stared at the little solar light on my desk as the President pursed his lips and blustered his distortions and lies. Nothing that I know of shows how wrong Trump is on energy more than that light. It captures the perversity of his world view in perfect miniature. There are four main reasons why. First, it is a solar device that beats by a flying mile the fossil fuels that Trump and so many of his financial backers favour, simply on economics. In the developing world, where more than a billion people have no grid electricity, you can stand a solar light with its built-in photovoltaic cell in sunlight by day, creating electricity to store in the tiny battery inside, and in so doing cancel the need to burn oil in a kerosene lamp at night. In the process you save $70 on average each year. That’s a lot of money if you are on less than a dollar a day. It captures in microcosm the trillions of dollars that the world would save in the years ahead if we moved from oil and other fossil fuels to solar, batteries and other clean energy technologies. But Trump loves oil. He has populated the White House with oil executives and lobbyists. He mocks solar. He does his level best to hold back the global energy transition. Second, using this solar light has enormous health benefits over fossil fuels. With it, you breathe clean air in your home. Burn oil, or coal, and you add to the body count of the single biggest killer in the world, air pollution. But Trump digs coal. He intends to stop the Environmental Protection Agency even monitoring the harm that burning it does. Third, these lights create more jobs than equivalent fossil-fuel use ever could. Distributing them provides a lot of people with livelihoods. Yet Trump wants to create new coal jobs, rather than figure out ways to help the mere 50,000 left in the US coal mining industry join the 370,000 already working in the US solar industry. Fourth, using this light helps people in poor countries to make, and save money. It gets them on the energy ladder, on the road to economic development. It helps them help themselves. To escape risking those death boats foundering in the Mediterranean. Think of it. If you are one of those billion-plus people who have no grid electricity, you have two options if you want to see at night. One is to spend tens of dollar a year on kerosene, candles, or battery torches. The other is to buy a solar light for $5 with a one-off payment, and save those tens of dollars. After paying back the $5, which you can do in a matter of weeks on kerosene costs avoided, you have free light for the three-plus years of a quality-verified product’s lifetime. You have a licence to scrape dollar bills off the ground by the handful every year. But Trump seems utterly uninterested by such opportunities. He wants to keep the poorest of the poor poor. He proposes nothing to help them, meanwhile building walls to keep them out of his homeland. He wants America to turn in on itself, even to a new kind of despotism, if he can bully enough people into not opposing him as he brings it about. I am lucky. I have a chance to show Trump how wrong he and his kind are. SolarAid, the charity I set up and part-fund with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits, has catalysed the first two solar light markets in Africa. We have sold nearly 2 million solar lights so far. But here’s the thing that currently burns me up. The entire solar lighting industry, even in a world with more than a billion people devoid of access to grid electricity, has only sold at most 30 million quality-assured solar lights! Most of the billion people only have the kerosene option, because whereas the oil companies are good at getting kerosene distributed, the rest of the world has so far done a pretty dismal job of making solar lights available. How terribly sad is that. And there is more. For the last year, global sales of solar lights have been falling. Falling steeply. What are we doing wrong, collectively? How can it be that we have allowed the no-brainer social win that these solar lights represent largely to pass the poor by? How can the large-scale global solar market, which has grown every year for many decades, be rising so fast today, while the solar lighting market falls? There are compound reasons, but they amount to a simple single overall narrative: collectively, we are not trying hard enough. And that is where my personal opportunity to make the Trumpistas see the light kicks in. I’m going to redouble my efforts to reverse the trend in solar light sales, both SolarAid’s and the global solar lighting industry’s. That’s one thing I can do, personally, to resist the Trumpist assault on reason. I invite anyone who wants to help me, in any way, to do so. Individual soldiers contribute to the winning of wars by fierce involvement in individual engagements. There have to be many of them, if the war is to be won. I commend this particular engagement, to all busy people who side with the resistance.
Posted in Blogs

FT and BBC articles agreed on something very important yesterday

Screenshot 2017-05-22 13.12.07 Coverage in the FT and BBC yesterday recounted how the SM100 solar light - developed by my team at SolarAid with Chinese solar giant Yingli, and designed by cool UK design company Inventid - is a big new opportunity to fight poverty in Africa and elsewhere. With this light, SolarAid can turn £4 into £145 cash for local spending on food and essentials in east Africa a time of famine. There cannot be many social-benefit paybacks as good as this, anywhere, today. On our website you can read how we calculate our costs for delivering solar lights to Africans, not-for-profit, so they can resell them, for profit. In this way, we create both jobs and big savings on oil no longer needed for burning in kerosene lamps. Our costs of delivery are £4 per solar light, based on four years of audited accounts. We know from our industry-leading follow-up research that the savings on each light sold are £145. We further know what that gets spent on ….and food and seeds are high on the list. This is a great way to help people help themselves while famine stalks the continent. We also save a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions per kerosene lamp replaced. To get solar lights out to the frontier areas where we work, SolarAid is currently overdependent on increasingly impossible-to-predict and precarious donations from large organisations. Managing the cash-flow on this basis alone, as we try to get as many lights into the field as we can, is really stressful for my team (OK, I admit it, me too). So I am endeavouring to boost the charity's ability to help by soliciting as much of a regular and predictable donation stream as I can from individuals and communities (including those within big organisations!). With that predictability, we could actually get many more products into the field. Accordingly, I’m writing to everyone I know (and lots besides) to ask if they can help. So please, could you consider signing up for £4 each month - the price of a drink - to get one light to Africa each month, a dozen a year? (Or more drinks if you like of course!). It is easy to do so here. A few clicks of a mouse on our website, a single e-mail for friends / contacts, just forwarding this …or perhaps some good idea I haven’t thought of! - anything you can do to help will be hugely appreciated. Come on. Its a war. Lets us good guys win it. To do that we have to win many battles. And this one, given the economics of cheap solar versus expensive oil, is so eminently winnable.
Posted in Blogs

An opinion on the problem of Mexico’s oil and Trump’s wall

Untitled Op-ed by Jeremy Leggett for Energiahoy, slightly edited from the Spanish: What do you do if you are running out of oil, and your neighbour’s President, who has plenty of oil, seems to hate you? The answer is that you develop a renewable-powered economy as fast as you can. That Mexico’s proved oil reserves have declined by more than a third since 2013 is very bad news for the Mexican economy. The country will run dry in less than nine years if there are no new discoveries. Better news is that going renewable fast, including in transport where most oil is used, is eminently feasible in the current world. A great global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is under way, much faster than most people think. As a consequence, those choosing to stay addicted to fossil fuels, even if they have a lot of them, are heading for trouble. This is because they are entering a time where much oil, gas and coal will end up un-needed, whether they like it or not.

Mexico is already running the fastest of any Latin American country on wind and solar. But there is much room for acceleration. An economy going renewable fast like the one I advocate for Mexico can show a fossil-mired economy like the one President Trump hopes for where the future lies. Mexico can match Trump’s ignorance with inspiration.

An example. Mexico could build its own wall, made of solar panels. Such a wall, 6 metres high along the full length of the border, would generate well over 2 gigawatts of electricity. It would be a glittering money-maker, making a mockery of Trump’s uneconomic coal mines and the fading debt factories that are his shale gas and shale oil regions.

In a sense, Mexico would be building its own wall, and making America pay for it. Trump fears Mexican migrants, though they contribute so much to his economy. If he and his tribe stay in power and get their carbonaceous way, Mexico would be welcoming skilled American migrants, attracted to its clean-energy industries as America’s shrivel.

A Mexico going renewable fast would be far from alone. Middle East oil producers are intent on the same. Dubai wants all roofs solar by 2030. Abu Dhabi intends to be exporting no more oil within fifty years. City governments worldwide see what is coming. More than a thousand target 100% renewable power, some like Canberra as soon as 2020. So do more than 80 of the biggest global corporations, in Google’s case as soon as 2017. New global renewable power generation capacity exceeded new fossil fuel capacity for the second year running in 2016. This is because solar and wind are cheaper than any other form of generation in many markets already, sometimes by a wide margin. Plunging battery and electric vehicle costs ensure this megatrend will spread, displacing fossil fuels not just in the electricity sector but in transport. Investors increasingly understand what is coming, and are beginning to move their money accordingly. Some big energy companies are seeing the writing on the wall. Much of the utility industry has already embarked on 180 degree U-turns in business model, switching from fossil-fuel supply to decentralised renewables. The oil and gas industry, clocking up trillions in debt in dogged pursuit of their status quo, cannot be far behind. Even at $50 oil, the oil majors can’t cover their costs. Some say American shale will help save them. But of the three main oil-producing shale belts, production has already peaked in two against industry expectations. Meanwhile, the clean energy technologies race ahead, surprising even their most ardent supporters - like me - with the speed of their cost reductions. Some Silicon Valley gurus now expect that by 2030 all new energy will be solar and wind, and all new vehicles will be electric. What we are witnessing is a total system change. It has happened before, in not much more than a decade, when the horseless carriage replaced the horse-drawn carriage. And this system change is capable in principle of changing the face of civilisation: much for the better. Renewables have so many social advantages over fossil fuels, from the bottom of the energy ladder to the top. Mexico can be a pace-setting leader in this global transition. In fact, it has no choice.
Posted in Blogs

Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 3, 21st March – 20th April 2017

Screenshot 2017-04-22 21.38.05  1. Climate action: Trump endeavours to dig a little coal  President Trump moved to dismantle President Obama's climate legacy with an executive order that seeks to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. Within a week, 17 US states filed a legal challenge. China immediately pledged to uphold its Paris climate commitments, including considerable efforts not to use coal, accusing the US of “selfish” behaviour. The EU joined the pushback. Miguel Árias Cañete, the EU’s climate action commissioner, said: “The continued leadership of the EU, China and many other major economies is now more important than ever. When it comes to climate and the global clean energy transition, there cannot be vacuums, there can only be drivers, and we are committed to driving this agenda forward.” Fine sentiments. But whereas China can point to policies consistent with its rhetoric, unfortunately the same cannot be said of much EU national policymaking, as things stand. Among EU states, only Sweden, Germany and France are pursuing goals consistent with the Paris target of 40% cuts in carbon emissions by 2030, according to a study by Carbon Market Watch. As ever, much will depend on industry, and one encouraging development this month was a pledge by Eurelectric, a trade body which represents 3,500 utilities with a combined value of over €200 billion, vowing no new investments in coal plants after 2020. Among the 28 EU countries, only Polish and Greek companies did not join the initiative. 2. Energy transition: Fast, but not fast enough Record new renewable power capacity was added in 2016, UNEP figures showed: 138 gigawatts of it, up 9% despite investment falling by a worrying 23%. Renewables now provide 11.3% of global electricity. New global solar capacity outpaced wind, IRENA reported, by 71 to 51 gigawatts. Solar in California exceeded 50% of supply, for the first time ever, causing a net market oversupply resulting in a short interval of negative wholesale prices. Costs of renewables keep falling. GTM Research predicts that solar will drop below two cents per kilowatt hour in 2017. Offshore wind is the latest renewable to defy predictions. EnBW and Dong won offshore wind tenders in the North Sea with the first subsidy-free bids. Moody’s reported that wind is now cheaper to install new than coal is to operate in 58 power plants across 15 Midwestern states, at $20 a megawatt versus $30. Trump told a rally in Kentucky that “the miners are coming back”. But they aren’t. Not even top US coal boss Robert Murray expects that, in the face of real contemporary economics. As for US renewables companies, they were professing this month that their industries will thrive even without the Clean Power Plan. Their confidence is rooted in record solar installation and above average wind installation in 2016, plus federally agreed tax credits that would be difficult for the Trump administration to dismantle. The news was also broadly good for EVs this month, with Tesla meeting production targets and its shares soaring to an all time high, for a while making it the most valuable car company in America. Meanwhile Big Oil, facing predictions of significant demand destruction by EVs within just years, is struggling to break even. Most of the oil majors didn’t even cover their costs in 2016, a Wall Street Journal analysis showed, despite a rising oil price. Some oil companies say American shale will help save them. But of the three main oil-producing shale belts, production has already peaked in two. The oil industry loves to taunt its critics with the mantra that “peak oil is dead”. For some players, it is clearly not the case. Mexico’s proved oil reserves have declined by more than a third since 2013. This month its National Hydrocarbons Commission country warned that the country will run out of oil in less than nine years if there are no new discoveries. What an incentive fast oil depletion like that must be to build a clean-energy economy fast, never mind climate change. (More on this in my keynote to the MIREC renewables congress in Mexico City on 10th May). And there are many other stand-out non-climate incentives around our troubled world, from air pollution to risk of stranded assets. But new figures showed that clean energy investment dropped 17% in the first quarter of 2017. 3. Tech for Good: Evidence of effort Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics outpace even those in clean energy, and continue to be used in many ways for the betterment of society. But evidence that they have profound downsides was everywhere this month. YouTube and Google’s use of algorithms to automatically match ads with content is the basis for widespread criticism that they fed the spread of fake news in the crucial months running up to both the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, much of it orchestrated by a well organised nationalist-right dark-propaganda network. The two companies ran into further, related, trouble, with big name advertisers boycotting them for posting ads next to racist and other offensive content. The boycotters included such diverse actors as AT&T, the BBC, the British government, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Verizon, and WalMart. Google responded quickly, saying it was in a race to ramp up its AI capability to deal with the problem. But that is no easy task. Nobody has pulled off such a feat of megadata sifting before. As part of their effort, they have begun to use outside firms to verify ad standards. They might want to hurry. The inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, argues that concentration of power over information, such as Goggle and Facebook now possess, is dangerous for society. He is plotting, with others in the Decentralized Information Group at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL), means to decentralise control of data in his creation. The threat AI and robotics pose to jobs becomes ever clearer. More than 10 million UK workers are at risk of being replaced within 15 years, PwC calculated, some 30% of the workforce. The IPPR estimates a similar figure: robots replacing 1 in 3 UK jobs over the next 20 years. A report by the US National Bureau of Economic Research goes further, suggesting that large numbers of jobs have already been lost to robotics in America, and are unlikely to come back. Wages have been depressed in the process, they contend. The question arises, then, as to how much this has been fuelling populist rage, on both sides of the Atlantic, making it easier for nationalist demagogues to push their argument that "the other" - immigrants and anyone else who is not in what psychologists call their in-group - is entirely to blame. Whatever the answer to that question about the past, the additional stress just around the corner will clearly pose a dire threat to social cohesion if nothing is done. The imperative for government and business to act is obvious. 4. Truth: Liars under growing scrutiny As investigations into the conduct of the Trump election and the Brexit vote continue, it becomes ever clearer that the nationalist right is capable of extraordinary feats of voter manipulation. A group of UK academics warned this month that dark money is a threat to the integrity of British elections. The Electoral Commission is investigating whether work by Cambridge Analytica, one data firm at the heart of the controversy, constitutes an undeclared donation from an impermissible foreign donor. Cambridge Analytica is majority owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major bankroller of Donald Trump. Steve Bannon, Trump’s head of strategy, has been a major player in the development of the company and its capabilities. Filings of White House staffers’ interests this month show he has made millions shaping right-wing thought, via Cambridge Analytica and other organs. The pushback unfolding against this fast-emerging Orwellian narrative is often extraordinary to behold. The Los Angeles Times published a series of  essays by its editorial board this month. “Our Dishonest President”, the first was entitled. “Why Trump lies”, the second. They read like a science fiction novel of a dystopian future society. But they are about real-life America, today. New arenas of corporate responsibility are being stimulated, unsurprisingly. Google announced it will begin to display fact-checking labels to show if news it purveys is true or false. Facebook gave a green light to its employees to protest against Trump on May 1st. Dramas build slowly in the courts as truth and lies compete. A judge rejected Trump's defense against a claim he incited violence at one of his rallies. 5. Equality: Talk of cutting aid as famine rages Meanwhile, though you would hardly know it from mainstream media coverage, we are in the midst of the gravest humanitarian crisis since 1945 – since the creation of the United Nations. 20 million people face starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, the UN warns. Drought has descended on Kenya, triggering violence as displaced peoples migrate. Amid all this, populist nationalists continue to contend that aid budgets should be cut. The UK government, to its credit, is resisting this so far. As for the considerable potential role of clean energy in building equality and alleviating poverty, an international gathering of the Sustainable Energy for All organisation in New York this month called for more urgent action on progress towards global energy goals. In SolarAid, my colleagues and I could not agree more. Our work is based on the fact that if you burn oil in a kerosene lamp in Africa and it will cost you almost $80 a year, yet a solar lamp retailing at around $5 will give clean light for free, for 4 years. So if you were one of the poorest people in Africa, which would you rather do? Save $70 a year to spend on food and other essentials, in a time of famine, or burn a fistful of ten dollar bills each year, and risk your health breathing the fumes? This should be an obvious starting point for a massive programme to free up local money for the necessities of poverty alleviation, SolarAid contends. But sales of the most affordable of these lights are actually falling in Africa, and in fact the rest of the world too. In Malawi, for example, we are one of only a few organisations working to help. More on that subject, a microcosm of global challenges and opportunities in energy, in an e-mail in a week or so. 6. Reform of capitalism: Graphic evidence of the need The Bank of England has admitted to fearing, in the current febrile financial climate, that it may not be able to spot the next global crisis coming. Few who studied the forensics of the last one, and the response - or mostly lack thereof - can be surprised. There are obvious candidates for a trigger in the inflated stock market, and mountainous debt in car loans, credit cards, and mortgages. The Brexit gamble is also potentially on the list. The IMF professes that its unpredictable outcome poses a risk to global stability. Given the fact that regulators regard another crisis as inevitable, and see an unreadable multiplicity of potential paths to it, who can realistically contend that the unbridled 21st century version of capitalism is anything close to a satisfactory way to run a global economy today? Root-to-branch reform might take some mapping, but starting points are not too difficult to find. One involves the jailing of executives guilty of gross corruption. Until this starts happening, how there can be hope for wider reform, or the necessary adjustments of cultures? Shell offered up a perfect example this month. The company is under investigation for one of the most corrupt deals in the history of the oil industry.  E-mails show that top executives handed a billion dollars to the Nigerian government, knowing it would be passed to a convicted money-launderer,  in return for a giant oilfield. The CEO of the day, Peter Voser, knew of the deal. The current CEO, Ben van Buerden, described the evidence in e-mails as "really unhelpful", but "just pub talk." One might hope that if the forces of the law cannot sort out behaviour of this kind, then investors might be queuing to punish a company as wide of the ethical mark as this using their money and governance power. Not on recent evidence from Wall Street. The social media company Snap, owner of a popular photo exchange website, went public in February with investors queuing to pour cash into it. This despite the twenty-something co-founders specifying that investors would have zero voting rights. Far from failing, in the exodus of financial custodians that this dangerous first-of-a-kind should have been faced with, Snap raised $3.4 billion and achieved a valuation of $19.7 billion. What a gloomy precedent this now sets for the future. It raises the prospect, in principle, of a small cadre of almost unregulated and unconstrained tech billionaires calling the shots on how the AI and robotics innovations of the next few years are deployed. We had better all hope, if this is the way investors and regulators allow events to unfold, that said billionaires, and investors in them, are not friends of the the populist nationalist right. Yet the way financiers were lining up to engage with Marine Le Pen as the French Presidential election neared suggests we can far from rely on this. 7. Common security: If you elect nationalist demagogues, you will be more likely to experience World War 3 Let me be brief on this final point. In the Trump administration's handling of Syria and North Korea, where is there any evidence at all of basic statesmanship? Of rudimentary strategy even? Of any thought that there might be lessons to be learned in decades of diplomacy? Ahead of the election, Trump seemed to grasp the inadvisability of poking a hornets nest with a stick, let alone many millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles. "Again, to our very foolish leader", he tweeted at Obama (all in capital letters), "do not attack Syria - if you do many very bad things will happen." Suffice it to say that one particularly bad knee-jerk reaction from Trump and/or those he turns into his adversaries, and all bets are off on the balance of play I endeavour to summarise above. A message for my senior grandson, if he made it this far in this blog. Sorry fella, I have been trying for a quarter century. But I and all the people like me have pretty much failed, to date. Hopefully there is some comfort in the thought that we are still trying.
Posted in Blogs

Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 2, 20th February – 20th March 2017: Tech-for-good and truth take a pounding

Screenshot 2017-03-25 17.18.18 This month evidence of the potential use of AI and robotics for social benefit continued to lag portentous developments. On the one hand, the prospects for improving healthcare systems continue to grow. Google plans a health record tracking system loosely based on the bitcoin concept and using its DeepMind AI, for example. It aims for real-time tracking of data by hospitals, health organisations and patients alike. Beneficiaries will have better treatment prospects. Lives will be saved. On the other hand, a Microsoft researcher warned openly this month that AI, even in its current state, is ripe for abuse by aspiring despots: perfectly suited to the centralizing of power, tracking of populations down to the last individual, the demonizing of outsiders, all while radiating authority via a faux neutrality. “This is a fascist’s dream,” said Microsoft’s Kate Crawford, pulling no punches. “Power without accountability.” All this before quantum computers have arrived on the scene, which they will within five years, Google is now saying. These machines will be significantly faster and more powerful than current computers. Ordinary mortals outside the campuses of Google, IBM and the like cannot imagine what will be possible with the algorithms that they will be using. “Artificial intelligence runs wild while humans dither”, read a headline in the Financial Times this month. It was a major understatement. With the integration of AI and robotics, the threats to social coherence compound. Google-owned robotics firm Boston Dynamics unveiled a hybrid robot easily capable of inducing nightmares. Though it is designed currently only for manual tasks, it resembles a Terminator riding on a hoverboard. This in a world where robots can be programmed, today, literally to read the minds of humans they interactive with, provided the latter wear electrodes on their heads. Thus connected, the robot can correct simple mistakes in manipulating objects by translating electrical patterns from the human brain into code. Warnings are proliferating of intelligent virtual helpers that would take away human jobs by default, in the near term, especially in customer-facing roles in banks and call centres. Large-scale deployment of such machines would quickly deepen the inequality gap, fuelling the very social divisiveness on which the new despotism feeds. It is not as though practitioners of AI and robotics are blind to the dangers. This month, 40 experts convened at Arizona State University for a workshop to plot Doomsday scenarios, and how to counter them. Tesla’s Elon Musk and Skype’s Jaan Tallinn funded the exercise. Bloomberg’s account of the meeting suggested that the experts were rather better at dreaming up the Doomsday scenarios than they were the countermeasures. Other initiatives include the creation of AI Now, an online research community researching social impacts of AI, and the idea of a tax on robots, to help finance social adjustments, supported among others by Bill Gates. Speaking of the Microsoft founder, clearly much will depend in this unfolding drama on the character and actions of the tech billionaires whose companies and technologies are located in the heart of the emerging drama. They will be increasingly unaccountable, on recent evidence. This month Snap Inc, the parent of Snapchat, went public in one of the most successful IPOs ever. It’s shares soared, valuing the company at $28bn. And incredibly, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel successfully persuaded a critical mass of shareholders to invest without their being given any voting rights at all. This lack of governance and accountability - and investors’ willingness to tolerate it - sets a dangerous precendent in capitalism. If Snap rides on its IPO cash proceeds to rival Facebook, Google, and the others in scale, the world had better hope 26 year old Spiegel is a man with a heart and conscience. That question mark will also apply to the founders of new companies that will inevitably try to emulate Snap. Worryingly, experts on a recent conference panel on tech leadership professed that psychopaths are rife in Silicon Valley. Studies suggest that whereas the proportion of psychopaths in the general population is around 1%, it is 4-8% in the corporate environment. To see how this can play out in the tech world, consider the recent chronicle of alleged malfeasance and definite gross unpleasantness at Uber. It makes ominous reading for those of us who hope that tech and tech and tech companies can be a transformative force for social progression. And the whole saga is a manifestation of the leader’s character and values. Which brings us to the theme of truth. In a world where your tech is drifting almost unopposed towards being perfect infrastructure for despots, wherein a new elite of breathtakingly wealthy leaders might be in danger of enhanced levels of psychopathy, the approach of the populist right to use of propaganda assumes critical importance. And here too the news is bad. New research from Columbia University, analysing 1.3 million articles in the run up to the US election, has shown that the internet itself did not favour the creation and spread of fake news. Rather, it was deliberate use of the technology for this purpose by a Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem that created havoc with reporting of true facts. More evidence of how this lie machine works comes out by the week. The Guardian dug deep into the origins of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial company that claims to use personal data to swing elections, and which may indeed have delivered on this claim in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. More emerged on how it is funded, with big-data billionaire Robert Mercer, backer of Donald Trump, prominent in the story. The whole narrative raises profound questions about the state, and future, of our democracies. Again, tech does not appear to be helping the defenders of democracy, but abetting the aspiring new despots. Accusations that Google has been spreading fake news have intensified. It has been found to be repeatedly sharing falsehoods and conspiracy theories through its “featured snippets and search” functionality. There have also been major problems with its advertising this month, with organisations including the Guardian newspaper cancelling accounts because their ads had been placed next to extremist material. Amid all this chaos, the founder of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, called this month for tighter regulation of online political advertising. This, among many other responses by society, is clearly going to be needed. Perhaps the British government can lead the way, for the current US government certainly will not. This is not as impossible a prospect as it may sound. The UK government was one of the organisations to pull its ads from Google because of proximity to inappropriate extremist content.
Posted in Blogs

Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism, month 2, 20th February – 20th March 2017: Climate action holds ground and energy transition accelerates

Screenshot 2017-03-24 13.22.41 Action around the world on climate and air pollution continued to offer cautious grounds for hope this month. The IEA reported that carbon dioxide emissions have not increased for a third year in row, despite the global economy growing. Fighting climate change requires that they begin to fall soon of course, but growth of renewables has much to do with the current freezing of emissions, and that trend will surely continue globally. The imperative of facing up to air pollution should ensure this, never mind climate considerations. In early March China vowed a new round of steel and coal capacity cuts as part of its national drive to eradicate its “airpocalyse”. In the UK, where carbon emissions have fallen to late-19th century levels, London's air nonetheless remains illegally toxic. Businesses are now pressuring a strangely pollution-tolerant government by acting alone. Increasingly climate- and air-pollution battles are being fought, and won, in court. The latest setbacks for governments have come in South Africa and Austria. One climate lawsuit, brought by a group of American schoolchildren against their own government, is a first of its kind. If successful, it could force even a denialist Trump government to act. Chevron became the first oil major to warn its investors that it faces risks that its business may be curtailed by climate change lawsuits. Nobody should be surprised. BlackRock, the biggest asset manager in the world with $5 trillion under management, announced that it intends to put businesses under pressure to explain how they will manage climate risks. And the divestment from fossil fuels implied, should satisfactory risk mitigation explanations not be forthcoming, continues anyway. In the UK, a government pension scheme became the latest notable investor to begin ditching oil and gas investments. The IEA and IRENA joined forces in a report to warn how far this could go, should companies fail to adapt their portfolios to climate risk: $1.3 trillion of oil and gas assets left stranded by 2050 But Earth’s temperatures are continuing to rise, and with them the sorry catalogue of impacts. The worst-ever episode of coral bleaching continues into its fourth year. Massive permafrost thaw newly documented in Canada foreshadows huge carbon release, scientists say. Every month now the drip of horrible news like this continues to depress everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Every reason, then, for the global energy transition to accelerate. Here too progress this month offers encouragement. Industry figures showed that solar power leapt by 50% worldwide last year, from 50 gigawatts to 76. Both China and the US almost doubled their capacity. There are now more than 300 gigawatts installed around the world, up from almost nothing in 2000. And this month an immense milestone was chronicled in an excellent report by Trusted Sources: solar has outstripped oil in terms of energy paid back for energy invested in production. The gap is widening all the time. It is only time before this inescapable fact begins to play in the marketplace. Wind is doing quite as well. Offshore wind is now joining onshore wind on a plunging cost trajectory. Costs fell fully 22% last year. An offshore windfarm now averages $126 for each megawatt-hour of capacity, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance: cheaper than new nuclear at $155 a megawatt-hour, and closing fast on the $88 average price tag of new coal plants. It becomes easier by the week to see why the Saudis, in this new world order, would be kicking off a $50 billion renewable energy plan to cut oil use. Indeed, their move to join the global energy transition is widely seen as widening the appeal of Saudi Aramco’s upcoming initial public offering, which will be the largest ever. The solar component will open share sales up to a wider pool of investors, analysts say. Shell felt the need to move this month too. CEO ben van Buerden confessed that the oil and gas industry risks losing public support if they lag behind in the transition. He announced plans for a boost in renewables spending in his company. Shell also sold off the majority of their tar sands assets - the most carbon-intensive of their reserves - this month. Environmentalists were unconvinced about this new greenery, pointing out that Shell's clean energy budget would still be only $1bn out of $25bn total expenditure by the end of the decade, and that staying in the tar sands makes no business sense any more anyway, because it risks wasting capital and stranding assets. Big energy, it seems, is increasingly fearing that peak oil demand is looming, so fast has been the growth of renewable competitors to oil and gas, and electric vehicles. Shell suggests the peak could arrive by the late 2020s. Statoil professes between the mid 2020s and the late 2030s. Carbon Tracker, let us remember, argues that even this is too conservative: that worldwide demand for oil and coal could peak by 2020. Norway leads the way. 37% of the country’s new cars are now electric, and the transportation minister expects it to be 100% in just 8 years. In the USA, dozens of cities announced a plan to buy $10 billion worth of electric cars and trucks to demonstrate demand while making a statement about President Trump’s intended retreat from air pollution standards. Driverless cars will accelerate the switch to electric transport greatly, and California is on the verge of allowing fully autonomous vehicles on its roads, having proposed new regulations that free the way for vehicles with no steering wheels and no human backup, potentially to enter force this year. 27 companies await the green light, and analysts expect a revolution not just in transportation, but in the very way society organises. Batteries are increasingly not just about EVs but utilities and buildings. Last year the US installed enough batteries to power a city the size of San Diego for an hour. Most of them came in response to the vast Aliso Canyon gas leak in California. But the surge in demand is global. “The Age of the Giant Battery Is Almost Upon Us”, Bloomberg enthused. Those who worry about grid balancing are having an increasingly hard time finding a sympathetic ear. For example, National Grid and Google are now considering using of the latter’s DeepMind AI to balance supply and demand on the UK grid. Rarely are the modern political struggles far from the drama. Trump says he wants to put coal miners back to work, but he faces the small problem that more than 3 million Americans now work in clean energy, compared to the mere 53,000 now employed in US coal. California, the world’s fifth biggest economy, loses few opportunities to oppose Trumpist fossil-fuel advocacy. Governor Gerry Brown said this month that the state’s record boom, in which clean energy has been heavily involved, is sure to outlast Trump’s “noise”. The oil industry is at present celebrating a rebound in shale drilling, given higher oil prices. That is true, they are feasting on yet more debt to frack yet more barrels. But jobs are not rebounding they way production is. Between a third and a half of the 160,000-plus workers who lost their jobs since 2014 are not returning, analysts say. As one redundant worker put it, “pretty soon every rig will have one worker and a robot.” One wonders who will monitor the thousands of spills of liquids reported this month at fracked oil-and-gas drill sites. Perhaps it will be the robots, for it certainly won't be the US Environmental Protection Agency, under this eyes-tight-shut new US government and its reckless determination to ignore any downsides of fossil fuels. Which is where I turn to tech used for good or ill, and truth: the subjects of the next blog covering this eventful second month.
Posted in Blogs
Appropriate civilization includes environmental balance, sustainable capitalism, empathic societies, racial and religious harmony, poverty alleviation at home and abroad, common security, and use of tech for social good.

New despotism includes environmental sabotage, reckless capitalism, isolationist nationalism, incitement to racial and religious hatred, retreat from aid, war mongering, and the use of tech for social harm.

Free ebook and updates

Join the c.9,000 who receive e-mail summaries-and-commentaries from me about the course of The Great Transition as the drama unfolds. You can unsubscribe at any time with no worries, and I will never forward your details to anyone.

I will send you a link to a FREE copy of The Winning of The Carbon War as soon as you subscribe.