Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How Do Brazilian Coffee Prices Threaten Indian Tigers?

There are more tigers in India than people thought, but the perverse impact of the global marketplace means they’re more endangered than ever.
By Jason Overdorf
The Daily Beast (April 2015)

NEW DELHI — When South Indian wildlife researcher M.D. Madhusudan detected a spike in illegal cattle grazing in the tiger reserves near the coffee plantations of Karnataka state some years ago, he traced the problem to a surprising source: a prolonged drought, not in India, but in Brazil.

With world coffee prices soaring, plantation owners boosted production, and neighboring subsistence farmers left their fields fallow to focus on a far more lucrative product: cow dung. Thanks to globalization, the organic fertilizer for coffee plants now sold at auction like brown gold. The result was tens of thousands more cattle trampling through nominally protected forest, which locals viewed as free pasture, and stripping it bare.

“This was a contingency in the global market that opened up an opportunity for locals here. But the change was so large that the knock-on consequences were pretty serious,” said Madhusudan, who is a wildlife biologist and co-founder of the Mysore-based Nature Conservation Foundation.

With consecutive droughts cutting Brazil's coffee exports by half in the mid-1990s, profits for Indian coffee growers soared by more than nine times, Madhusudan wrote in an academic paper published in Conservation Biology. (PDF)

New demand for organic fertilizer allowed subsistence farmers living near Bandipur National Park—who'd once used cow dung as fertilizer for their own crops—to sell it to coffee growers for as much as $100 a truckload, which is about 100 times the amount typically earned by a rural day-laborer. Recognizing a windfall when they saw one, they raised more cows, increasing their herds as much as 17 times faster than the national average, and drove them into the reserve to graze—making a third of it unfit for the tiger's natural prey.

Although coffee prices have dropped, the dung-sellers have moved on to supply farmers of organic ginger instead of scaling back, Madhusudan says. And his findings are more relevant than ever.

This January, the most thorough census of India's tiger population ever conducted showed that there are some 2,226 tigers living in the country's shrinking forests. That's a full third more than researchers had previously believed, and accounts for nearly three-quarters of the 3,200-odd wild tigers still surviving around the world. But it made headlines for the wrong reasons.

The world's newspapers almost universally reported the new number as a 30 percent increase in India's tigers over the past four years. But according to Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, “Saying that there's been a 30 percent increase in tigers is flat out wrong.”

Not only did the latest count rely on new methods— camera traps instead of the distinctive footprints, called pugmarks—but also for the first time the census covered large swaths of forest outside the country's 47 protected reserves. Some of the new numbers represented tigers found living in these previously unmonitored areas.

Reserves are already full, and locals hardly needed a census to tell them of big cats prowling outside their borders—thanks to a dramatic increase in attacks on livestock and people.

That the results show there are more tigers in India than was previously thought “is great news,” says Rabinowitz, “and the Indian government along with other NGO’s should be applauded for their efforts.” But, he adds, “Misstating these numbers as only increases resulting from better enforcement and protection efforts is a gross disservice to future tiger conservation.”

Which brings us back to the problem of coffee and dung and cattle grazing, which is really the problem of the perverse ways the global marketplace can affect delicate ecosystems like the tiger habitat and undermine the best-laid plans to protect them.

For decades, Indian conservationists thought they need only stop the commercial exploitation of forest resources by mining and timber companies. They believed that so-called subsistence use by the 147 million poor people who depend on the forests for survival was, or could be made, sustainable. Meanwhile, the leaders of Project Tiger, the government agency responsible for protecting the big cat, focused on carving out reserves and slowly pushing villages out of them.

But the improved tiger count shows those reserves are already full, and locals hardly needed a census to tell them of big cats prowling outside their borders—thanks to a dramatic increase in attacks on livestock and people.

At the same time, as the government endeavors to free up more and more territory for the mining of coal, bauxite and iron ore, Madhusudan's research indicates that the lines between subsistence and commercial use of the forest are growing increasingly blurred.

That means conservation must go beyond drawing borders, resettling residents, blocking highways and barring industries. Instead, planners must focus on creating economic opportunities for villagers outside the parks, while conservationists need to shed their obsession with inviolate forests and seek compromises that allow developments that do not sever the green corridors connecting protected zones.

Neither task is impossible.

In South America, Rabinowitz and Panthera have succeeded in getting governments from Mexico to Argentina to cooperate in the maintenance of a breeding corridor for jaguars by emphasizing that it doesn't mean freezing economic development—getting to the negotiating table and winning important concessions on projects such as Costa Rica's Reventaz√≥n hydroelectric project.

And with small scale projects near Bandipur, Madhusudan has demonstrated that straightforward measures like helping farmers acquire and install a solar-powered fence to stop wild animals from eating their crops encouraged them to invest in irrigation and replace their dung cattle with milk cows deemed too valuable to turn loose in the forest.

“You may be able to create completely protected areas. But you will never be able to rid them of neighbors,” Madhusudan said.

The trick is to make those neighbors into good ones.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Robots, not immigrants, could take half of German jobs

As right-wing protesters march against immigration, industry looks to machines, hoping robots will add at least as many jobs as they take away.
By Jason Overdorf

GlobalPost (January 2015)

BERLIN, Germany — Right-wing protesters marching against immigration and the so-called Islamization of Germany may soon face a new foe: the rise of the machines.

With low unemployment and a shrinking workforce, the economic engine of Europe continues to endeavor to reinvent itself as a nation of immigrants, even as the demise of the welfare state and fear of multiculturalism have brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets.

But recent reports suggest that robots, not immigrants, may pose the greatest threat to German workers — though the European Union has placed a $4 billion bet that robots will create rather than eliminate jobs.

The new wave of automation will hit white-collar workers hardest, according to Jeremy Bowles, a researcher at the Brussels-based Bruegel Institute.

“What's fundamentally different is that [these advances] have the ability to affect a broader set of workers,” Bowles said, comparing the next generation of computerization to the first wave of robots that hit assembly line jobs in the 1980s.

The impact of these innovations will vary across Europe, Bowles argues. But in Germany, as in the US, robots may soon take as many as half the existing jobs, according to the Bruegel Institute's analysis of the labor market.

These white-collar robots will be more software than hardware, eliminating service industry jobs in the way ATMs and automated telephone systems have already done. But — as the hostile reaction from German unions to other disruptive business models (think Amazon and Uber) has shown — bytes can be more revolutionary than bolts.

Why, then, is the European Union investing $4 billion to speed the development of robotics?

Automation was the bogeyman of the 1980s, but the automobile industry's experience with it then proved that robots can not only increase productivity but also create jobs, says Uwe Haass, secretary general of the European Robotics Association (euRobotics AISBL).

“Robotics is seen as a pivotal technology, which is not only going into robotics per se but into so many other branches and technologies. It will create new jobs because [it will make] new businesses possible,” Haass said.

The introduction of robots to perform deepwater inspections of oil drilling facilities, for example, has created a profitable new business sector following disastrous oil spills in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

The Autonomous Inspection Vehicle (AIV) Subsea 7.
(Heriot-Watt University/Courtesy)

A new generation of robot tools that operate like a worker's assistant, rather than their replacement, can help ensure that Germany's small, family-owned manufacturing businesses can stave off low-cost competitors from Asia.

Some robots in industries like agriculture, such as a self-driven picking machine, take over jobs that would otherwise go to migrant workers. But others make possible the tasks eliminated by high labor costs. In “precision farming,” for example, a robot nurse tends to individual plants, injecting water, pesticide or fertilizer in the precise amounts required — rather than spraying the entire field.

“All this is mesmerizing,” Haass said. “When I talk with people in agricultural industries, they are flabbergasted by these ideas.”

The EU suggests that robotics will have the net impact of creating 240,000 jobs across Europe, while a study by the International Federation of Robotics found recently that the 1 million industrial robots currently in operation were directly responsible for the creation of 3 million jobs.

To take advantage of those new opportunities, workers will need new skills, says Haass — and that will create major new challenges.

“How can we steer education in schools and universities to improve the qualification of people? How can we improve qualification of industrial workers who have been doing repetitve jobs?” he said.

“That's the crucial point.”

Over the longer term, these new developments could also mitigate immigration by unskilled workers, says economic researcher Bowles, because machines will become cheaper than workers more quickly in rich countries than in poor ones. But the rise of the machines is likely to inspire a lot of white-collar hand wringing before that happens.

“Historically, technology has created as many jobs as it has destroyed,” Bowles said. “[But] this exact topic has created panics for decades and decades.”


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Berlin, the party isn’t over — it's just no longer free

The German capital’s legendary club scene has gone for-profit.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — On the eve of a new year, Europe's capital of slouching, grungy cool has found itself in the midst of an identity crisis.

This debt-plagued city has clawed its way to international respectability partly thanks to a tourism boom. But longtime residents who gave the German capital its cachet as “poor but sexy” — as dubbed by former Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who stepped down this month — worry newcomers are killing the vibe.

That includes the legendary club scene.

Something definitive has already been lost, says Jan Jasper Kosok, the founder of an influential German pop culture blog called Knicken, or Kink.

“The era of the ultra-cool, big and central club is basically over,” he says, going on to name several shuttered or transformed venues. “There’s no such thing as the Deep, the old, old Cookies or 103 anymore. Big clubs are either commercial or overcrowded with tourists.”

The club scene emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, when the euphoria of newfound freedom in the ex-communist parts of the city found expression in some of the thousands of square feet of empty space created by the closure of former East German businesses.

Although techno was the musical genre of choice, the aesthetic was industrial because of the available concrete venues. The club Tresor, for one, was housed in a department store vault. And because there was no such thing as closing time in Berlin, unlike most other cities, the party never had to stop.

“All these kids from East and West went to Berlin to see what’s going on, and then there were no authorities for a while to chase after illegal clubs,” Tresor founder Dimitri Hegemann recently told The New York Times.

Now some complain that there are just too many of those kids.

Hardly a month goes by without a newspaper article bemoaning the onset of higher rents, the end of grungy authenticity or the demise of a cherished nightspot.

Earlier this month, artists painted over iconic building-sized murals by the Italian artist Blu in the hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg, in the former east, rather than participate in the city's transformation into “an amusement park for those who can afford the rising rents,” Lutz Henke, one of the artists/vandals wrote in the Guardian.

Last summer, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Mayor Monika Hermann raised eyebrows in the Berlin senate with a proposed “code of conduct” for tourists who view the party-town reputation as an invitation to smash bottles and urinate on doorsteps.

And at last year's “Berlin Music Days” festival, also called “Bermuda," panel discussionsfeatured topics such as “Techno-tourism: We don't want to become Ibiza,” a reference to the Spanish island renowned for its tourist-oriented summer club scene.

But amid all the naysaying, some believe something more than just common gentrification and immigration may be underway.

Although the frontier days of underground parties are winding down, impressarios from the golden age have figured out how to commercialize the club scene without sacrificing everything that made its reputation.

Part-time DJ Julian Braun says now there's a place for everyone.

“It became way more professional and institutionalized,” he says. “Before, you'd have to know people or be on some underground mailing list to be invited to parties. That's not so important anymore.”

Instead, clubs such as Berghain and Watergate — which both recently celebrated their 10-year anniversaries — have become institutions of a sort while remaining at the cutting edge of the techno music scene, where they still defend their own ideas of cool.

Notorious for its anything-goes gay floor, where a guest is said to have once turned up with a dildo made of frozen feces, Berghain has neither toned down for tourists nor allowed the club to become a circus show for the curious.

In addition to their strict, seemingly arbitrary door policy, bouncers put stickers on smartphone camera lenses to enforce the club's ban on selfies — and turf out anyone who dares peel them off.

And while Watergate has reputedly become such a tourist mecca that Berlin clubbers say they'd never pay for entry there, many still wait in lines that are rarely shorter than 50 yards. Impressario Steffen Hack, a Berlin squatter and radical before reunification, ensures that only the money in the till at the end of the night reminds him of Ibiza.

“Do you feel like I’m a snobby, arrogant guy who sits on his club and feels like Puff Daddy?” Hack recently told Exberliner, a Berlin newspaper for English speakers. “We are Kreuzbergers. It sounds stupid, but we feel probably like a socialist club, with all the [contradictions] that are in that sentence.”

Police raids are still virtually unknown and Saturday-night parties continue well into Monday, thanks to both the usual club drugs and tourists who turn up on Sunday afternoons, when lines are shorter and bouncers apply a more liberal door policy.

Smaller clubs such as Farbfernseher — or Color TV, located in a former television shop — and throwbacks like About:Blank, Chalet and Renate still have something of the old Berlin vibe, and the quality of the music on offer hasn't declined, the pop culture writer Kosok says.

It's just that now it's about making money.

“The good times of Berlin clubbing were kind of over, when the illegal summer parties were not taking place at the center of the city anymore,” Kosok adds.

“They charge you for that Berlin feeling now, which renders it senseless.”

Senseless, perhaps. But still sexy.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Germany’s hipster scene meets precision engineering

A tattooed engine guru is bringing California hot rod style to Porsches.
By Jason Overdorf

GlobalPost (December 2014)

HAMBURG, Germany — Dressed in black denim, canvas sneakers and a motorcycle-gang inspired Mezgerwerk sweatshirt — the brand he created with his business partner — Matthias Hoeing looks more professional skateboarder than expert engine-builder.

As a machine tool whirs in the background inside his workshop, he raises the cuff of his sweatshirt to reveal a forearm “sleeved” by red and green tattoo ink.

“I grew up with skateboarding and rap music and punk rock and American cars,” the 40-year-old mechanics guru says. “That's the kind of stuff that influences me.”

As a veteran racecar engine builder, however, Hoeing has the technical chops to realize his drive to bring California hot-rod culture to Germany's staid community of Porsche afficionados.

With its reputation for clockwork precision, special certification programs for “authorized” mechanics and pricetags upward of $50,000, Porsche likes to present its cars as unimprovable.

Most Germans who drive and restore classic models have always approached their cars more like museum curators than motorheads. But Hoeing wants to smash that conservative image, whatever the old-school collectors or brand stewards may say.

“To them it's sacrilege,” he says. “But I don't care.”

Hoeing cut his teeth building racing engines for Hamburg-based manufacturer Thielert in 1998 before moving to southern California in 2001 to work for Porsche Motorsport, the Stuttgart-based automaker's racing team.

Then he met Magnus Walker, a British Porsche restorer who has brought the rocker hair, tattoos and wild designs of the custom car scene to California Porsche fans for the past 20 years.

“In Germany, I was building Porsche engines,” Hoeing says. “But I had no desire to get into the Porsche scene because to me it was dentists and lawyers and people who drive their preppy cars to the ice cream parlor.”

“When I met Magnus,” he adds, “it was an eye-opener.”

Since he returned to Hamburg in 2008, Hoeing's supercharged engines have been clawing out a foothold for the muscle car in Germany's Porsche world.

Although the Southern California aesthetic for body styling has yet to take off, the growing popularity of hot rodding and so-called “custom culture” suggests he may have picked the right moment.

Hot rods, tattoos, low-riders and choppers have made a dramatic leap in popularity during the past decade and a half, says 44-year-old Michael Perrech, who started organizing the “Kustom Kulture Forever” exhibition in Herten, Germany, 13 years ago.

“It was very hard in the early years because hot rods weren't very popular,” he says. “Now we're at the point that companies like [workwear maker] Dickies come to us about sponsorships.”

Hot rodding is especially big in the former East Germany, where groups like Hot Heads Eastembrace Rockabilly and American cars — perhaps a reaction to the political repression and 18-horsepower, recycled-plastic vehicles that were the specialty of the German Democratic Republic.

At least one company, Sour Krauts, has created a “motowear” brand featuring helmeted skulls, gothic script and slogans in the vein of “Trust me: I have a beard.”

But a huge gulf remains between the hot rod world of facial hair, tattoos and ducktail haircuts and big brands like Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, Perrech says.

“They don't really get hot rodding,” he says. “Everything has to be strict and on the point.”

Hoeing says he's an engine builder, not a car builder, and the high price of admission — one of his rebuilt engines runs $25,000 to $60,000 — means Porsches will never outstrip Fords in Germany's custom car scene. But with his engines providing the muscle and his image setting the tone, the gulf may be set to shrink.

Touted by Walker as the best Porsche engine builder in Europe, Hoeing had more business than he could handle before he teamed up with his business partner Torsten Hanenkamp last year. Their six-man workshop's engine business is now growing fast on the strength of bread-and-butter rebuilds that coax 380 horsepower from a standard 3.6 liter, 250-horsepower Porsche 911.

Their Mezgerwerk brand — named after Hans Mezger, sometimes called the greatest engine designer of all time — has all the right ingredients to become a cult hit like West Coast Customs, the team behind MTV's “Pimp My Ride,” and Orange County Choppers.

Hoeing says his business is already diversifying. “I get emails from people who want to buy T-shirts or sweatshirts every day.”


Thursday, December 18, 2014

As migrant deaths reach record, Europe retreats from protecting lives

Rights groups are urging governments to act after more than 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — When Mazen Dahhan decided to flee Syria’s civil war last year, he entrusted his life and those of his wife and three children to a smuggler in Libya who promised to take them across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The 37-year-old neurosurgeon hoped he and his family would find refuge in Italy. But less than 24 hours after they embarked on the journey, their fate took a harrowing turn.

Their ship came under fire off the coast of Malta from traffickers in another boat. When their vessel sank, Dahhan says, his entire family drowned.

“You can’t imagine what it was like,” he says. “I lost ten years of my life in ten seconds.”

At least 30 of Dahhan’s fellow passengers perished. More than 200 were rescued in the following days, the Guardian reported last October.

The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has soared since then: More than 3,000 people have drowned attempting to cross the sea this year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. At least 5,000 people have lost their lives while crossing seas and remote deserts or mountains across the globe, making 2014 the deadliest year on record for migrant deaths, the group says. It emphasizes that the real number could be much higher.

(Simran Khosla/GlobalPost)

As the world marks International Migrants Day today, human rights groups are making urgent calls for countries to find a political solution to the global immigration crisis. The issue is particularly severe in Europe because of the number of deadly conflicts raging in nearby regions in the Middle East and Africa.

“We must address the drivers of desperation migration and act in concerted and coherent partnership,” IOM’s director William Lacy Swing said in a statement. “This is a battle we must fight together. We need more political leadership and the courage to counter the worrying rise of xenophobia.”

The tragedy that befell Dahhan’s boat, along with another shipwreck a week earlier in which more than 350 migrants from North Africa died near the Italian island of Lampedusa, prompted Italy’s then-Prime Minister Enrico Letta to announce a robust rescue mission in the Meditarranean.

The Mediterranean had “turned into a grave,” Deutsche Welle quoted him as saying.

Italy’s naval search and rescue operation, called Mare Nostrum, has saved up to 150,000 lives over the years, Amnesty International says. But last month, reeling from the task’s magnitude, the authorities announced they would hand over patrolling the Mediterranean to the European Union.

In October, Britain said it would no longer support future Mediterranean rescue missions, claiming that saving migrants only encourages more asylum seekers to risk their lives.

Even as the question of how to deal with the growing number of refugees seeking asylum in the EU has become increasingly acute, the issue has devolved into a political shouting match among member states.

Some countries are calling to attention to what they say is the disproportionate number of refugees they’re accepting.

A look at the figures indicate that some of the loudest complainers — France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom — aren't actually taking in a significantly larger number of asylum seekers relative to the size of their economies and populations, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Experts point out that countries such as Malta and Sweden are taking on a far greater share of the burden than Germany and other countries raising the loudest outcries.

“Contrary to popular perceptions, Germany’s intake of refugees is relatively low in comparison to other EU countries,” London School of Economics professors Luc Bovens and Jane Von Rabenau wrote in a blog post. “Politicians are playing with the numbers so as to overstate how much responsibility Germany is assuming for EU asylum seekers.”

UNHCR data supports those claims:

France has taken in fewer than four asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 66 million.

The UK has taken in two asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 64 million.

Germany has taken in around two asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 83 million.

Sweden has taken in 12 asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 10 million.

Malta has taken in 23 asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 423,000.

Concerns about the financial and social costs of absorbing refugees has pressed some European lawmakers to direct more spending to border policing and other programs designed to keep asylum seekers out of the continent, Amnesty International says.

“The measures they have been taking to keep people out are getting more severe, and financially they spend more and more money on building the fortress Europe,” says Franziska Vilmar, an Amnesty expert on refugee and migrants' rights. “This is the tendency, and there is no shift in sight.”

EU member states spent almost half of a $5.6 billion EU fund for refugees and asylum seekers between 2007 and 2013 on infrastructure and other border control measures for the Schengen area. Less than a fifth of that amount was allocated for the processing, resettlement and integration of refugees.

What the countries do seem to agree is how much money should be spent on rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Triton, the operation run by Frontex — the EU’s border-policing organization — to fill the gap left by Mare Nostrum’s closure, has a budget of $3.8 million a month. With only a handful of permanent staff, it relies on the largesse of member states for equipment and personnel. It will limit its operations to 30 nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa, and its primary focus will be border control.

The former Italian operation, in contrast, cost $11 million a month. The Italian navy patrolled as far as 160 nautical miles from Lampedusa to the border of Libyan waters. Although it performed other duties, its focus was search and rescue.

The disbanding of Italy’s Mare Nostrum for a weaker replacement suggests that trend is continuing despite the deaths of as many as 23,000 people trying to reach Europe since the year 2000, Amnesty International says.

Italy discontinued its operation because its neighbors refused to help foot the bill, complaining that Rome was sending asylum seekers on to other countries rather than documenting them according to a set of EU rules known as the Dublin Regulation.

Under those rules, the country that documents an asylum seeker's first entry into the EU bears responsibility for housing while the claim is evaluated — unless the person has family ties in another EU country.

Critics say that gives Italy a strong incentive not to document the people it rescues, while politicians in France, Germany and Sweden have increasingly called for a reform of the Dublin system to push asylum seekers into relatively unpopular destination countries, such as Poland and Slovakia.

As the debate continues, neither the migration policy debates nor the sea journeys' dangers appear to be deterring those fleeing ongoing sectarian violence and civil wars across various parts of the Middle East and Africa.

The toll weighs heavily on survivors like Dahhan.

“I blame myself,” he say of his family's loss. “I cry every night and every day. I don’t know how I’m supposed to live again. Life has no meaning.”


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Europe's 'supergrid' ambitions show how complicated shifting to renewable energy is going to be

As international negotiators in Lima struggle to set emissions targets, battles in the EU are highlighting trouble ahead for the next phase of tackling climate change.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — As international negotiators in Lima, Peru struggle to agree on a major deal that would cut emissions at a UN climate change convention on Friday, Europe's efforts to forge a united front at home suggest that any binding commitments on reducing greenhouse gases would be only the first of many hurdles in any serious effort to keep global temperatures down.

The European Union is leading the way in some respects.

Before the UN could come up with a plan, the EU passed its own binding commitment in October to slash greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent of 1990 levels before 2030.

Last week, Germany's cabinet also agreed to cut emissions by 78 million metric tons a full decade ahead of that deadline by forcing coal-fired power plants to shut down.

Already, Germany's program of Energiewende, or “energy transition,” has changed market conditions so dramatically that two of its largest energy suppliers — Stockholm-based Vattenfall and Dusseldorf-based EON — have announced plans to quit burning coal or sell offtheir fossil fuels assets altogether.

But as Europe's conflict with Russia raises concerns about energy security on the continent, the competing agendas of the EU's member states and their various electricity companies has made progress on the key prerequisite to meeting emissions reduction targets painfully slow.

There’s nearly unanimous agreement that the cheapest and fastest way to reach the targets is to connect all 28 member states to the same electricity “supergrid.” The European Commission has made more than $7 billion in funding available to spur construction.

Some believe the supergrid could begin to bear fruit as soon as 2018.

But the work needed to put those electricity grid connections in place is so huge, it's easy to see the commission's financing scheme as little more than window dressing, says Andrew McKillop, former in-house policy analyst at the European Commission's energy directorate.

“Cross-border gas transport and storage infrastructures are massively developed relative to the same thing for electricity, which almost do not exist,” he says.

Some forecast that the supergrid won't see “serious development” until at least 2035, after an investment of “several hundred billion euros,” he adds.

But with fixed tariffs for green energy providing a guaranteed return on investments, financing is one of the smaller obstacles.

The real hurdle is that behind every new connection stands a complex set of stakeholders for whom the greater good isn't always good for everyone.

“The overall social welfare effect in Europe [of linking national electricity grids] is almost always positive,” says Markus Steigenberger of the Berlin-based climate think-tank Agora Energiewende.

“But if you go down to look at a single country, the situation might be different.”

The need for the supergrid is well-established.

Because the energy supply from the sun and wind varies according to weather conditions and time of day, distributors will have to build in oversupply and costly storage capacity to meet Europe's goal of generating as much as 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050.

But connecting national electricity grids will dramatically reduce that redundant capacity, the result of a “smoothing effect” from incorporating a larger geographical area so that strong sun in Spain can balance a dearth of wind in Germany, the former EU adviser McKillop says.

“The question of intermittancy of renewables would be resolved or reduced,” he says.

That would mean substantially lower costs.

By some estimates, in order for EU member states to reach the 2020 target of generating just 40 percent of their power from renewables without linking the national grids, they would have to build 70 percent more reserve capacity.

That required reserve increases significantly when the target for the share of renewables is boosted to 80 percent.

“Not doing the grid doesn't mean you can't decarbonize,” Steigenberger says. “But it's many times more expensive.”

Anyone can do the math. But just as the different perspectives of rich and poor countries have stymied the UN negotiations on emission cuts, the different needs of the various EU member states and influential companies continue to plague the nuts-and-bolts efforts to build the supergrid.

It's not always the case that the advance guard of the conversion to renewables — chiefly countries in Western Europe — are pitted against the coal-powered East.

A planned connection between the German and Norwegian electricity grids called NordLink will enable Germany to offload excess wind power to hydropower-rich Norway during its dry season and stabilize its own supply the rest of the year.

Although power companies are keen on the plan, Norway's energy-intensive industries have fought to lock in the country's electricity in the hope of keeping prices down.

Such concerns have thwarted efforts to link Norway to wider European markets since the 1990s, according to a 2012 report commissioned by the Smart Energy for Europe Platform.

Analysts found that another scheme — to increase linkages between Germany and western Denmark — would have a negative effect on social welfare in both countries even though the plan would benefit Europe as a whole. That project was recently shelved.

In another case, experts believe adding a third cable to the two existing links connecting the Polish and German electricity grids would benefit both nations and their neighbors, some of which already receive electricity generated in Germany and routed through Poland's grid.

Polish and German companies, too, were keen on the plan, which has been under discussion since 2006. Wind energy from Germany might have allowed Poland to speed the shutdown of its coal-burning power plants.

Nevertheless, the scheme has yet to get off the ground because of the Polish government's fears that spikes in supply from Germany's wind producers would result in nationwide brownouts.

More from GlobalPost: Britain grapples with its role in the torture of terror suspects

As renewables grow to account for an ever-larger share of the world's energy supply, such problems are poised to become increasingly complex.

Managing a grid dominated by a steady supply from conventional power plants is relatively simple. But with renewables allowing consumers to plug in and drop out, draw power and contribute supply, it can become well-nigh impossible — as suggested by a Hawaiian electricity company's move to stop homeowners from installing solar panels last year.

For the UN negotiators trying to set emissions targets, that’s not a good sign that the next phase of the battle to control climate change will be any easier.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Switzerland considers a gold rush

A referendum requiring the central bank to hoard gold may spell more trouble for the euro zone.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (November 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — Switzerland may be best known for its bucolic Alpine scenery, chocolate and banking secrets. But they’re sometimes overshadowed by the country’s traditional policy of neutrality.

Now the controversial tendency to avoid alliances is raising eyebrows again as the Swiss prepare for a national vote on Sunday over compelling the national bank to hoard gold instead of foreign currency.

In one of the country's frequent exercises in direct democracy, voters will have the chance to walk back the country's growing ties with Europe by supporting a “Save Our Swiss Gold” initiative by the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party, the SVP.

Critics believe a yes vote could spell more trouble for the euro zone along with a spike in gold prices.

The proposal would force the central bank to increase its gold stocks to a minimum of a fifth of its total assets. It would also bar future sales, effectively handcuffing the country's monetary policy for better or worse, currency experts say.

It may not come to that, however. Support for the measure has fallen from 44 percent in favor in October to 38 percent early this month, according to a recent poll.

If it succeeds, however, the referendum could hold political implications across the Alps.

On one side of the coin, currency experts like Axel Merk of Merk Investments argue that the move would cut the strings that all but made Switzerland part of the euro zone when the Swiss National Bank vowed to intervene to keep the franc below 1.20 euros in 2011.

By buying large amounts of euro- and dollar-denominated assets, the bank is going beyond its mandate by speculating in the currency markets, Merk says.

“This initiative would not have come up if the Swiss National Bank had not veered away from its traditional way of conducting policy,” he said. “The backlash comes because the Swiss don't want to join the euro.”

On the other, Swiss National Bank chairman has called the initiative “dangerous” because it would make it prohibitively expensive for the bank to protect the franc by forcing it to match any acquisition of euros with a purchase of gold to maintain the required asset ratio.

"The connection between a minimum share [of gold] and a ban on selling which it embraces would very greatly restrict our monetary policy room for maneuver," SNB chairman Thomas Jordan said last week.

The implications go beyond the gold and currency markets.

Coming after a February vote to introduce curbs on immigration despite Switzerland's membership in the visa-free Schengen Area, the referendum is essentially about the country's present and future role in the European Union, says Patrick Emmenegger, a professor of political science at the University of St. Gallen.

“It is a reflection of the mindset that we would be better off on our own and being more isolated from our neighboring countries,” he says.

A yes vote could also boost euro-sceptics in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, where the anti-euro Alternative for Germany Party has already drawn fire forinstituting an online gold shop that skirts the borders of the country's campaign financing laws.

Specifically, a yes vote could increase opposition to European Central Bank Chairman Mario Draghi's commitment to do “whatever it takes” to increase the bank's balance sheet and protect the euro, Merk says.

“It doesn't have practical implications for the rest of the world, but the debate could heat up in other places,” he says.

After the Swiss voted to curb immigration, Britain's UK Independence Party, or UKIP, leveraged the news to open a discussion about leaving the EU.

“This is wonderful news for national sovereignty and freedom lovers throughout Europe,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage said at the time. “A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.”

This time, the Swiss banking referendum is likely to inspire critics of the European Central Bank's efforts to stave off deflation through negative interest rates, prompting banks in savings-obsessed Germany to start charging depositors to hold onto their cash.

Across Europe, the economic crisis has raised the stakes in debates about such sovereignty-related issues. Meanwhile, mainstream parties’ reluctance to take up such issues has greatly encouraged the rise of right-wing populism, Emmenegger says.

“These parties come from unpleasant corners, but they articulate things that are very clearly on people's minds,” he says.

Two more measures on the Swiss ballot reflect similar isolationist sentiments from the left, although they’re even less likely to pass. One sponsored by the environmental group Ecopop would introduce a more severe limit to immigration at 0.2 percent of the resident population. Another would scrap tax breaks for wealthy foreigners.

Switzerland's low threshold for putting such measures to a vote is yet another way the mountainous country differs from the rest of Europe.

The gold market is already jittery about the prospect that the Swiss bank may be compelled to buy as much as 1500 metric tons over the next five years, equal to nearly three-quarters of all gold mined around the world in a year.

By some estimates, prices could spike 18 percent next week if the initiative goes through.


The 'Grand Budapest Hotel' and other great day trips from Berlin

By Jason Overdorf
CNN Travel (November 2014)

(CNN) -- Europe's hottest destination for tourists, Berlin offers more than bargain-priced nightclubs and Cold War nostalgia.

Some of the most interesting sights in Germany are just a few hours away -- and with the deregulation of the intercity bus system, getting around is cheaper than ever.

Here's a shortlist of three great day trips from Berlin.


The site of the famous "Potsdam Conference" that negotiated the end of World War II and a series of opulent Hohenzollern palaces, Potsdam lies only about an hour from the center of Berlin, with all the major attractions easily reachable by public transport.

It's a day trip not because of the travel time, but because there's so much to see.

Highlights include the breathtaking Sanssouci Palace (Maulbeerallee, Potsdam; +49 331 9694200), the former summer residence of Frederick the Great -- who ruled the Prussian Empire from 1740 to 1786.

A pale and beautiful Rococo villa, its name means "without a care" and reflects the idyllic atmosphere of tranquil reflection Frederick sought to create with a grand, terraced vineyard to the south and sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

An audio tour covers the palace interior, where most of the original furnishings remain just as the Prussian king preferred them, and on a fine day the huge gardens are perfect for an impromptu picnic.

Hardcore palace fans may have enough energy for a gander at the Orangery and the Spielfestung, or "toy fortress" -- a miniature fort, complete with a working cannon, built for Frederick's son.

But in our opinion it makes a better write-up than it does a visit, and it's better to take the audio tour of the Cecilienhof (Im Neuen Garten 11, Potsdam; +49 331 9694 200)

This mammoth, Tudor-style mansion is where U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin negotiated the partition of post-war Germany in 1945. (As always in German museums, it's advisable to spring for the headphones unless you're a history professor).

Depending on where else you're headed, the Old Town of Potsdam itself can be underwhelming -- cluttered as it is with garden-variety shopping.

The varied architecture of the Russian and Dutch Quarters -- built in Germany's first, misguided effort to attract "desirable" immigrants in the 18th century -- is, however, worth strolling through.

Getting there

Pay an extra 2 euros over the standard charge for the Berlin WelcomeCard and get free travel and discounts for various attractions in Potsdam (not the biggies).

Otherwise, day passes for the A-B-C zones of the Berlin transit system -- which covers buses and trains within Potsdam, as well as the so-called "regional train" -- are available for 7.20 euros.


In the wake of the recent 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nearby cultural capital of Leipzig -- which was the real nerve center of the peaceful East German revolution, as well as the longtime home of Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach -- makes an especially compelling day trip.

It's two hours by bus or 70 minutes by train from Berlin.

Though it was virtually destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II, the reconstruction of Leipzig's old town is so seamless that it's difficult to recognize the Renaissance churches and old market square as reproductions.

Meanwhile, a growing community of artists and hipsters have created a mushrooming bar, dance club and arts scene that has some people calling it "the new Berlin" (or, more disparagingly, "Hypezig").

For a tribute to the movement that brought down the Wall, visit the Nikolaikirche (Nikolaikirchhof 3, Leipzig; +49 341 1245380), the church where a small, East German prayer group known as "Swords into Plowshares" grew into a protest involving thousands of people.

Founded in 1165, the church is a mash-up of Roman, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles, but its moment in history gives it an atmosphere that can't be beat.

You can get a glimpse of Hypezig at the Spinnerei (Spinnereistrasse 7, Leipzig; +49 341 4980200; guided tours by appointment) -- a 19th century cotton mill that was converted into an artists' collective in the 1990s.

Put on the map by the so-called "New Leipzig School" -- which includes the post-reunification works of Neo Rauch, Christoph Ruckhaberle, Matthias Weischer and others -- the complex now comprises artist studios, workshops and galleries.

For classical music fans, the Leipziger Notenspur -- or "Music Trail" -- links prominent sites from the city's musical history along a 5-kilometer (3-mile) walking route.

It includes the homes of the renowned 19th Century composers Felix Mendelsohn and Robert Schumann as well as museums devoted to Bach and Ludwig Beethoven.

Regardless of your take on literature -- or deals with the devil -- it's worth enjoying a meal at the Auerbachs Keller (Grimmaische Strasse 2-4, Leipzig; +49 341 216100).

One of Germany's oldest restaurants, it's where 18th century poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a frequent patron, imagined Mephistopheles downing a few with his eponymous hero, Faust.

Getting there:
Tickets on the high-speed train to Leipzig can currently be had as cheap as 29 euros (around $40) from Deutschebahn.

Luxury coaches with snacks, toilets and WiFi can get you there almost as quickly, starting at just 7 euros. Try MeinFernbus (+49 180 5 15 99 15) or Berlin Linienbus (+49 30 338 448 0).


Wee little Goerlitz, about three hours from Berlin if you time the connections right, is a bit more off the beaten track.

But the number of Hollywood productions shot here -- "The Reader," "Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Book Thief," among others -- testify to its status as perhaps the most picturesque prewar German town, even if it doesn't make many guidebooks.

In many respects, it's a place to witness Germany's moribund East -- despite thriving larger cities like Leipzig, many areas are struggling to make a comeback.

There's not a lot in the way of tourist infrastructure, so it's best visited when the weather is good.

It's the kind of place where the renovation team at the famous Goerlitz Department Store (Bismarckstrasse 21, Goerlitz) -- once an icon in the style of London's Selfridges or New York's Bloomingdales -- and more recently the setting for Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel" -- will drop what they're doing to give guided tours.

In nice weather, there are walks along the Neisse River and across the bridge into Poland -- still fun even if the days of passport stamps are long gone.

For some traditional Silesian food, such as pork cooked in plum gravy, the town has several fine sidewalk restaurants.

Other highlights include a series of late Gothic merchant houses, some of which still have interior fittings dating back to the 1500s, a stunning Schonhof, or town hall, built in 1526, as well as a street where local glassblowers still ply their trade.

The real joy of the place, though, is the feeling of discovery from exploring the streets -- which really do look like, well, a film set.

Getting there:
From Berlin, regional trains run from Alexanderplatz more or less hourly for around 40 euros (about $60). But consult the schedule to avoid a wait when transferring in Cottbus.