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Environmentalism: A Slippery Slope of Ignorance and Hypocrisy

Saurabh Malkar

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Perusing through my morning news digest, I came across an article from The Daily Mail featuring a story on the employment of child labor in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

While I can be chillingly apathetic to social plight, especially, when it doesn’t concern my loved ones: something I impute to my upbringing in a third world country; I was deeply moved by this story, which shed light on the horrors of artisanal cobalt mining, employing children, working in dangerous conditions, with no safety measures, and being paid a pittance.

The kicker, though, of this story was that much of this cobalt would go into battery packs that would be installed in electric cars marketed to gullible, do-gooders around the world.

But, why would one want to buy cars that take hours to refuel and can only be refueled at specific points, thus, imposing a massive time cost on their usage? These contraptions don’t match in utility to gasoline-powered cars, let alone surpassing them. No wonder governments around the world are trying to get consumers to buy electric cars through purchase subsidies and tax exemptions of all sorts.

Ever heard of an iPhone or a Mac being subsidized or tax exempted by the government to boost sales? You won’t because products that offer value sell like hotcakes; it’s only products that don’t offer any that need government interventions to hard sell them.

Another way of hard selling electric vehicles is through ‘virtue signaling.’ The sales pitch involves promises of reducing users’ carbon footprint, stemming the tide of climate change, and protecting the environment. But most importantly, it involves washing your hands off of gasoline, a product bloodstained due to the endless wars fought over it, one of the major promulgators of environmental and social injustice and displacement of indigenous folks.

Buying electric cars is thus, a route to salvation, accumulating good Karma, penitence, and all other moral goods. More importantly, it is also a way of segregating oneself from the ranks of the ignorant, irredeemable, hopeless, uneducated folks who drive around in gasoline powered vehicles polluting the environment, melting the ice caps, perpetuating wars and injustice, and pushing the world one step closer to Armageddon. Electric cars make the do-gooders feel good about themselves.

But are electric cars the solution to environmental problems and a way to jack up one’s moral credit score?

Most electric cars run on Lithium-ion batteries because of their energy holding capacity and low-weight characteristics. As environmentalism garners mainstream acceptance and more and more people buy into its narrative, the market for these vehicles is exploding and so is the demand for Lithium-ion batteries.

Contrary to the name, Lithium-ion batteries contain not just lithium, but also cobalt, nickel, manganese, aluminum, and graphite. While nickel, manganese, and aluminum have a relatively stable supply, it is cobalt, lithium, and graphite that present predicaments that are incompatible with the narrative of environmentalism.

Most of the lithium used in electric car batteries is mined in the Lithium triangle of Latin America: an area embedded in the salt flats of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Several mining companies from around the world have started operations in this region, but the news for the indigenous people isn’t good. Lithium is so valuable that it has been dubbed ‘white gold,’ but the local residents bemoan that they haven’t seen any returns from the mining operations flowing their way; despite the fact that the prized mineral comes from lands that are under their possession.

A lack of formal process to negotiate property rights between the indigenous peoples and the mining companies, compounded by lack of accountability and communication gaps has left the communities short-changed. Many indigenous representatives, who excitedly agreed to the mining operations, now regret as they grapple with reality.

One of the companies – Exar – that will begin operations in 2019 is projected to reap $250 million (in 2016 dollars) annually. The contract also requires Exar to make annual payments to the local communities – a clause that the official leader of these communities wasn’t aware of, until one of the reporters investigating the issue, enlightened him.

More worrisome than missing out on the windfall is the fear of water depletion from sources that the local communities depend upon for their survival. Scientists seem divided on this contentious issue. Regardless, locals are justified in their concerns over water, as lithium mining is a water intensive process and the region has faced persistent drought over several years.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an impoverished country in sub-Saharan Africa, contributes to around 60% of the global supply of cobalt, an essential element in the Lithium-ion battery.

The state of affairs of the artisanal cobalt mines of DRC was the subject of an extensive article in The Washington Post. Miners, of whom children make a significant portion (about 40,000 according to UNICEF in 2012), work in unforgiving and dangerous conditions with hand tools, no safety measures, and very little oversight. Mining accidents and related deaths are common and so are the long-term health effects of coming in contact with heavy metals.

While the DRC has both industrial and artisanal mines, suppliers prefer cobalt from the latter due to the lower cost, especially when global cobalt demand is on the uptick. A major hurdle in disincentivizing artisanal operations is the inability of cobalt to be designated as ‘conflict-mineral,’ as it doesn’t fuel a war or internal conflict.

China’s record on air quality hasn’t been lustrous, with widely circulating reports of smog engulfing its major cities. But the residents of some towns in north-eastern China, much to their despair, literally get to see a special kind of luster in the air at night, when faint light hits graphite particles floating in the air.

Graphite is an indispensible element in Lithium-ion batteries and its growing global demand has lead to China’s rise as the top supplier in the market.

The Washington Post, about a year ago, published a detailed report on the effects of Chinese graphite plants on nearby villages. The presence of graphite dust on crops and in the air presents the likelihood of this toxic substance being ingested or inhaled leading to heart and lung diseases. Locals have also complained of graphite plants releasing industrial waste into nearby rivers, polluting the local water supply. This has significant effects, not only on the human population, but also on the flora that grows around these water bodies.

According to The Post, their efforts to get major firms in the consumer electronics and electric vehicles business to comment on these revelations in their supply chains were met with generic responses of appeasement or refusal to disclose suppliers or complete silence.

But, investigative reports aside, there are two big elephants in the room. First, electric cars can deliver on their claim of reducing carbon footprint, only if they are run on electricity generated from renewable energy. That seems unlikely given that only around 15% of total US electricity generation is from renewable sources (2016); the picture does look brighter across the Atlantic in the EU-28, where renewable sources produced around 29% of total electricity (2015).

The second problem is slightly complex and involves a weighing of the total fossil-fuel based energy and products that go into producing electric cars (from mining to assembly line), including individual components, against the purported energy savings and environmental benefits. In the grand scheme of things, it’s highly unlikely that electric cars will produce a net good or that they will fare any better than regular cars.

Another embarrassing problem for the Church of Environmentalism is the hypocrisy of its clergy. Al Gore, the patron saint of the green movement, according to a recent report, lives in a house that in the past year burned enough energy to power a typical American household for 21 years. Just the outdoor heated swimming pool ended up consuming energy that could power 6 typical homes. This was revealed after the release of his new documentary film, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” which has him fly over melting icebergs in an aircraft running on petroleum-derivative fuel.

But Gore claims that his donations to Green Power Switch, a scheme to separate green-minded folks from their money, purge him of his sins towards Mother Nature.

Actor-turned-environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio made headlines when he made a round trip from France to New York to accept a ‘green award.’ The close to 8000-mile long journey, completed on a private jet, didn’t please the environmental laity. But worry not because his charitable foundation, in 2016, pledged £10 million to various green initiatives.

Environmentalism, thus, is nothing but a way to feel good about yourself, to wash off the supposed sins of driving around in a gasoline powered car and using incandescent light bulbs. It’s also a great way to make bucket loads of money and undertake lucrative career transitions.

I don’t mean to suggest that oil drilling and petroleum products are good for the environment and don’t bear any social costs. They might, but they don’t push a holier-than-thou narrative and actually have to undergo strict environmental and health and safety audits, something that is lacking in the supply chain of green products.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

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Air Transport: Connecting the Caribbean

Tahseen Sayed

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Living in the time of COVID-19 has underscored how difficult it is to maintain our distance. Many of us are longing for a time when we can feel comfortable to reconnect with our family and friends and restart regular economic activity. Here in the Caribbean, with connections and relations spread across the region, intra-island travel is frequent. Travel serves to deepen relationships, enhance trade, and leads to a deeper regional connection. Whether it’s travelling to carnivals or to watch a cricket match or exploring business opportunities on another island, air travel brings the Caribbean people together. 

Airports make such travel fast and frequent and are the portal for the rest of the world to experience the Caribbean. Nearly 9.1 million tourists visited the Caribbean in 2019, and a large number of those pass through airports. No doubt, those numbers will be different for 2020 with border closures and the halt in tourism. However, while the borders are closed now, it is an opportune time to prepare for when we are travelling again.

In addition to passenger travel, air transport is also essential for facilitating trade for island nations. The volume of freight attributed to air transport in the Caribbean small states increased over 50% between 2016 and 2018. While you may not see cargo moving through airports, some of what you will be purchasing – including food – travels by air. This is not only true for imports but exports as well.

Recently, the World Bank worked with the Governments of Dominica, Grenada and Saint Lucia to develop a series of projects to improve their airports and air transport sectors. US$75 million will be used to improve safety and resilience of the air transport sector in these countries, and another $84m project was also approved for Haiti. Airport improvements will directly provide more safety and comfort to travelers. The new projects will help these airports comply with international safety standards and will improve connectivity in the Caribbean.

Connecting the region is a priority for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In his final address for 2019, CARICOM’s Secretary General, Ambassador Irwin Larocque said that an increase in air travel can boost growth and employment. Air travel can play an important role in stimulating economic activity throughout the region and in supporting continued regional integration and cooperation.

Countries in the Eastern Caribbean are at high risk from natural disasters.  The new projects will provide critical infrastructure and equipment to support increased resilience of the airports and the air transport sector. As we are learning, air travel is also vulnerable not only to climate related disasters, but also to other crises, like the current pandemic. When speed is essential, supplies, equipment and personnel are rapidly flown in to provide support where it is most needed. 

Notwithstanding risks, airports are the gateway to opportunities. Airports can become a catalyst to regenerate economic activity as the small island states begin to reopen.  Improvements in the air transportation sector will help meet the future flow of travelers, whether visiting family, coming for business, or to enjoy the sun, sea and sand of the Caribbean. Looking ahead, the Caribbean is preparing to welcome these travelers

World Bank

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Rohingya Influx and its Economic Significance for Bangladesh

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Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

Authors:Shuva Das & Sherajul Mustajib Sharif*

It is generally perceived that refugees are curse for host countries though the former often play positive roles for the latter. The context of Bangladesh over hosting Rohingya refugees is portrayed in such a way that demonstrates they are solely an obvious danger for the country in the areas of its economy, politics, environment, health, and security. The above argument is true but it is a one-sided view which is enough to make hospitable Bangladeshis hostile against the Rohingya. Thus, it is crucial to explore in which areas the Rohingya have made positive contributions in Bangladesh. In this article, we intend to elucidate the economic benefits offered by the displaced Rohingya for the host country.

Brief Overview of the Rohingya Crisis

The Rohingya crisis is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the modern world. The degree of violence and persecution taken against the Rohingya by the military of Myanmar has reached in an extremely horrendous extent in which an UN fact finding team in 2018 found genocidal elements. The Rohingya are an ethno-religious Muslim minority group of Myanmar. Though they have lived in Rakhine state of the country for centuries, to the Burmese government and Buddhists they are illegal Bengali immigrants who came from the present Bangladesh to Rakhine State for works during British colonial rule. The Burmese government withdrew their citizenship status through the “1982 Citizenship Act”, rendering them stateless. Since 1978, they have experienced several brutal military crackdowns and every time they have taken shelter in Bangladesh. In particular, since 2017 when the military of Myanmar launched “clearance operation” against the Rohingya in retaliation of an insurgent attack allegedly carried out by a Rohingya rebel group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on several police posts, a significant number of Rohingya, over 740,000, have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. This number with the previously remaining Rohingya refugees has exceeded the one-million mark in the host country, intensifying the level of strain on it.

Economic Advantages Offered by the Rohingya Refugees

Bangladesh is a small developing country and with a population of about 16.7 million, it is the world’s eighth most populous country. In these circumstances, over one additional million Rohingya refugees are competing with cheaper labor against many local people for jobs in the Rohingya-hosted areas in the Cox’s Bazar district of the nation, and they have put extreme pressure on its limited resources. Nonetheless, to graduate from the pool of the UN’s Least Developed Countries, with the massive refugee burden Bangladesh successfully accomplished all three required criteria in 2018 and is on track to be graduated by 2024. On an average, the real GDP growth of the country from 2017 to the running 2020 has also remained stable at around 7.70. The Rohingya influx has immense significance on the thriving economy of Bangladesh.

To begin with, Rohingya refugees have created numerous job opportunities for many Bangladeshi people who are working as volunteers, relief specialists, researchers, health workers and so on in almost 150 national and international aid groups and non-governmental organizations currently operating in Rohingya camps. In the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for instance, more than 200 Bangladeshis have been employed to enhance its operational efficiency on the refugee crisis. Through working in humanitarian organizations, they are earning not only handsome salaries but quality skills. Besides, a good number of local people of the Rohingya-hosted areas in Bangladesh are doing transportation jobs to convey goods in the Rohingya camps.

Another vital point is that an entrepreneurial spark is currently seen among local host population. International donor agencies provide relief goods to Rohingya refugees who sell these to local traders to bring diversity in their daily meals. Local entrepreneurs purchase the relief products from Rohingya refugees at very low rate and sell these to their fellow Bangladeshis in a profitable price. Apart from this, the UNHCR took an ambitious project in 2019, under which 250 poor women of Cox’s Bazar along with equal number of Rohingya women have been given training in cloth crafting. And it has the will to train more women. Backward female population of Bangladesh can, in this manner, be empowered to be entrepreneurs, and effectively integrated into its booming economy.

Last but not least, International Organization for Migration, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2018 provided micro gardening kits to 25,000 Rohingya and 25,000 host households. This has opened a new economic window in South Eastern Bangladesh. To feed their gardens, the Rohingya purchase compost from Bangladeshi women. In addition to eating, they sell their produce in the host community market thereby generating a number of local vegetable dealers. The combined production of the Rohingya refugee and host families by micro gardening are enormously contributing to alleviate an estimated 50,000 metric ton yearly food deficit in Cox’s Bazar.

Concluding Remarks

Rohingya refugees have brought an economic boon for Bangladesh in multidimensional aspects. Because of them, many skilled and unskilled Bangladeshi people, especially women, have found their income sources. Positive contributions of the Rohingya should not be underestimated though these are less worthy if weighed against the overall drawbacks they have caused for the host nation. Since the Rohingya crisis is a protracted one having no possible certainty to be resolved soon, the government of Bangladesh needs not only to continue their diplomatic pressure against Myanmar but to focus on how effectively they can benefit from the displaced population in economic aspects.

*Sherajul Mustajib Sharif holds his BSS and MSS degrees from the Department of International Relations, University of Chittagong, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

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WTO’s ‘Crown Jewel’ Under Existential Crisis: Problem Explained

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World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international body that acts as a watchdog keeping an eye on the rules of trade between nations. WTO came into operation in 1995 and was founded as a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was incorporated in 1948. It acts as a forum where WTO members discuss and negotiate trade issues. Moreover, it works in the form of different multilateral as well as plurilateral WTO agreements. These agreements live at the heart of WTO as they deal with different aspects of trade policy.  Agreements like General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs; General Agreement on Trade in Services; The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights etc. forms the centerpiece of WTO.  Through these agreements, one WTO member enters into obligations and formulates the relation of reciprocity with the other WTO member.

Undeniably, the Dispute Settlement System (DSS) that works under the WTO is considered to be the ‘crown jewel’. No matter how stringent the laws are, unless they couldn’t be enforced, they are of not much worth. DSS functions as an effective mechanism to settle disputes and to enforce obligations in case of violation by any WTO member.  The ration d’etre of giving birth to DSS was to ensure settlement of disputes in a timely and structured manner.  DSS is committed to impede and further mitigate trade imbalances between stronger and weaker players by having their disputes to be settled on the verge of rules and not power. Since the day it came into force in 1995, 595 disputes have been brought before the DSS and out of which 350+ disputes are settled.

DSS is governed by the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) through the rules incorporated in Disputes Settlement Understanding (DSU).  The DSS works as a two-tier redressal forum and is the most important and busiest international tribunal having a binding authority on the parties to the dispute once they adopt the report of findings. On the first level comes the Consultation as per Article 4 of the DSU rules. Article 4 states that “each WTO member undertakes to accord sympathetic consideration to and afford adequate opportunity for consultation regarding any representations made by another Member concerning measures affecting the operation of any covered agreement taken within the territory of the former.” Therefore, Consultation is mandatory before any dispute is addressed to DSB. Once the consultation is failed, the complaining party can request the DSB under Article 6 for the establishment of a panel body that shall aim to settle the disputes between the parties.

On the top of the hierarchy comes the appellate body which shall hear the appeal from panel cases. Any party to the dispute can formally notify DSB of its decision to appeal. Under Article 17 of the DSU rules, DSB shall establish a standing appellate body. Unlike the Panel body, the appellate body is a permanent body composed of seven persons out of which three shall serve on any one case. These members are appointed for a term of four years. It is the duty of DSB to ensure that the vacancies shall be filled as they arise so as to confirm the smooth and timely functioning of the hierarchical mechanism of dispute redressal. Principally, the decision under DSB is taken through consensus methodology. Article 2.4 of DSU explains this method stating that “the consensus is said to be achieved when no WTO member, present at the meeting, formally opposes to the proposed decision”.

The genesis of the crisis is attributable to the U.S. who through its non-consensus has blocked the selection procedure to fill the vacancies alarming in the Appellate Body. The minimum requirement for Appellate Body to function is at least three persons out of total strength of seven. However, on 11th December 2019, the term of two of the remaining three members came to an end. At present, the Appellate Body has only one member and thus, it is dysfunctional and the resolution mechanism has brought to a grinding halt. The political façade started long back in 2017 when the U.S. cleared its intention of not allowing the selection procedure to taken place in order to fill the vacancies in the Appellate Body. Nonetheless, the Appellate Body continued its function as the compositional requirement was manageable due to the tenure of three of its members remaining but ultimately the crisis knocked the doors of WTO in the last month of 2019.

Although, at present, the composition of the Panel Body has not been interjected and the process of addressing disputes through Panel Body is still in continuance. However, the problem is as per the trends, in 67 percent of the cases, one of the parties to the dispute appeals the finding of the panel body and thus; when the Appellate Body is itself dysfunctional, the order remains non-binding and the whole mechanism of the dispute resolution is disrupted severing the gravity of the political disaster. The reasons for the U.S. to block the normal functioning of the Appellate Body have been shared with other countries as well. Fortunately, no other country has repelled in the way the U.S. is exclaiming to address the loopholes. The dissatisfaction of the U.S. administration with the WTO is not a secret anymore when Mr. Donald Trump labeled the WTO as ‘disaster’ for their nation.

The reason for the U.S. to express dissatisfaction is because of the overreaching power that Appellate Body enjoys. To combat that, on a lighter note, the U.S. has shown a preference of going back to the non-binding dispute settlement system that was prevalent at the time of GATT, 1948. Ironically, it was the U.S. who during the Uruguay round of negotiations (1986-1994) pressured and voted for creating a dispute redressal system that is binding and enforceable, however as the tables have turned now and the Appellate Body has become an irksome affair for the U.S.

The central issue of the U.S. to cordon the appointment revolves around the problem ofjudicial overreach.  To elaborate the claim, the U.S. believes that the dispute settlement system interprets the WTO rules in such a way that instead of simplifying, it rather creates new obligations for the WTO members. What the U.S. believes is that the Appellate Body drifts away from its original mandate due to its practice of issuing decisions that either burden the WTO members with new obligations or diminishes the right they enjoyed earlier.

Further, the U.S. has raised the objections against the procedural irregularities by the Appellate Body. Entangling the issues of the procedure, firstly, the U.S.has pointed out the contradiction of the DSU rules adopted by the WTO members and the Appellate Body Working procedure which are drawn up by the Appellate Body itself. As per the Rule 15 of the latter, it allows the Appellate Body members to remain on board and to continue to serve on appeals which are pending during their terms; however, as per Article 17.9 of the former, a member enjoys the position for a fixed four-year term. Thus, the Appellate Body working procedures violate the provisional requirement as laid down in DSU rules.

The second procedural issue raised by the U.S. deals with the violation of completing the report by Appellate Body within the time frame of 90 days as prescribed by the DSU rules. The US has pointed out that the extraordinary delay violates the mandate of a speedy trial and further it negates the right of the complaining party as well as the party brought to dispute due to the hauling of their economies to a hiatus. It is the belief of the U.S. that the prospective incapacitation of the Appellate Body is undoubtedly a menace for the WTO and its members because once the report of panel body is appealed, it cannot be made enforceable unless the appellate body decides and thus, it holds the country for the indefinite timeframe not authorizing the party to retaliate on whose favour the panel body decided the dispute.

It is indisputable that the DSS need to undergo a series of reform in order to gain the lost confidence. Unfortunately, the step taken by the U.S. has been termed as harsh and politically motivated. One move of the U.S. has paralyzed the ability of the ‘crown jewel’ to resolve international trade disputes. Even going against the decision of the U.S. and outcasting the consensus power it holds won’t serve the purpose as the U.S. is an important player of WTO and if the U.S. is not a party to it; the WTO would be synonymous to a toothless tiger. 

Nevertheless, arbitration under Article 25 of the DSU rules can act as an alternative to the hierarchal redressal system, as well as, solving disputes through bilateral agreements can be another alternative during the time of this existential crisis. The proposed idea of forming a Multi-party Interim Appellate arrangement will not succumb for long because the U.S. will not be its part and as it is certain, U.S. forms a considerable part of international trade, thus, there will again be a situation of deadlock. Moreover, choosing such interim mechanisms for the long run can raise a threat to the uniformity of rulings that WTO embraces. All in all, WTO is currently under jeopardy and it can be the beginning of the end if a solution to the crisis is not found in a timely manner. As of now, the Supreme Court of the international Trade ceases to exist and is in a life or death moment.

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