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The clean hydrogen future has already begun

Noé van Hulst

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There is a growing international consensus that clean hydrogen will play a key role in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future. It is crucial to help reduce carbon emissions from industry and heavy transport, and also to provide long-term energy storage at scale.

Hydrogen is a versatile energy carrier that can be produced from a wide range of sources and used in many ways across the entire energy sector. It could become a game-changer in its low-carbon form, but its widespread adoption faces challenges.

The International Energy Agency is preparing a major new study to assess the state of play for hydrogen, its economics and potential. Due to be published in mid-June, the report will be a key contribution to Japan’s 2019 Presidency of the G20.

Researchers have found that clean hydrogen still costs too much to enable it to be widely deployed. Prices may not come down sufficiently until the 2030s, according to some estimates. But despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of clean hydrogen, there are promising signs that it could become more affordable sooner than expected.

Where the hydrogen comes from is important. At the moment, it’s mainly produced industrially from natural gas, which generates significant carbon emissions. That type is known as “grey” hydrogen.

A cleaner version is “blue” hydrogen, for which the carbon emissions are captured and stored, or reused. The cleanest one of all is “green” hydrogen, which is generated by renewable energy sources without producing carbon emissions in the first place.

CO2 emissions may make grey hydrogen more costly

At the moment, grey hydrogen is cheaper than the other two. Its price is estimated to be around €1.50 per kilo. The main driver is the price of natural gas, which varies around the world.

Too often, people assume that the price of grey hydrogen will remain at this relatively low level for the foreseeable future. That ignores the IEA’s projection of a structural rise in natural gas prices due to market forces. And more important, it fails to take into account the potential volatility of gas prices, as demonstrated in Europe, where they have become more linked to spot markets.

What’s more, grey hydrogen’s CO2 emissions carry a cost in an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world. In the European Union’s emissions trading system, the price of CO2is in the range of €20 to €25 per ton.

A growing number of European Union countries want to establish a minimum CO2 price that will gradually increase to around €30 to €40 per ton over the next 10 years. That means the cost of CO2 could eventually add almost €0.50 to the price of a kilo of grey hydrogen in Europe, bringing the total price to around €2.

In an increasingly carbon-constrained world, we should also not lose sight of the diminishing social acceptability of continuing to emit CO2 while producing and using grey hydrogen in industry.

Blue hydrogen can narrow the gap

The price of blue hydrogen is also mainly influenced by natural gas prices. But its second-most important driver is the cost of capturing and reusing or storing the carbon emissions.

Current estimates put the price of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) in the range of €50 to €70 per ton of CO2. The price is lower in specific cases like ammonia production .

This puts the current price of blue hydrogen in Europe a bit above the price of grey hydrogen, but that gap will shrink if the price of CO2 emissions increases further in the coming years.

Once the process of CCUS in blue hydrogen plants is scaled up and standardized, the cost is likely to come down.

Innovation should eventually open up more opportunities for utilization of CO2 in industry, which may further push down the cost of CCUS. Those developments could bring the price of blue hydrogen closer to that of grey hydrogen sooner than is often assumed.

Green hydrogen’s price depends on renewables

Different factors come into play for the priceof green hydrogen, which is estimated to be between €3.50 and €5 per kilo at the moment.

The first one is the cost of electrolysis, the process through which hydrogen is produced from water using renewable energy. Total global electrolysis capacity is limited and costly at the moment. Most industry experts expect that a significant increase of electrolysis capacity will reduce costs by roughly 70% in the next 10 years.

The most critical factor for the cost of green hydrogen, however, is the price of the green electricityused in the electrolysis process.

The cost of generating solar and wind energy has come down spectacularly in the past decade. That should prompt caution about what will happen to the cost of green hydrogen in the future. Similarly to wind and solar, it may come down a lot faster than experts now expect.

In countries and regions blessed with abundant sunshine and wind power – such as the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America – green electricity prices have come down to around 2 euro cents per KWh.

Experts expect them to decrease even more in the near future. Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently suggested the prices could soon go as low as 1.5 US cents (1.3 euro cents) per KWh.

In those countries and regions, there is a real prospect of mass producing green electricity for domestic use – and also green hydrogen for both domestic applications and export markets.

Towards a global clean hydrogen market?

Green hydrogen can in principle be shipped around the world to places that are less well endowed with cheap renewable energy sources.

Japan has several important pilot projects underway – with countries including Australia, Saudi Arabia and Brunei – to determine the best way to transport green or blue hydrogen over large distances by ship.

It is too early to tell how the cost of transport will develop and how fast this global hydrogen market may develop. Depending on technological advancements, a market similar to that of liquefied natural gas may see the light of day in the decades to come.

What does all this mean for the cost of green hydrogen in Europe?

First, that it may indeed take more time for the cost of green hydrogen to come down to levels near those of grey and blue hydrogen. The scale-up of electrolysis needs to drive down the cost. Even more critically, mass production will require large volumes of cheap green electricity.

The projected scale-up in offshore wind production in Northwest Europe is expected to kick in over the next 10 to 15 years. By the early 2030s, mass deployment of green hydrogen may have begun in that part of the world.

Some big industrial players, like Engie, have set an explicit cost target for green hydrogen to reach grid parity with grey hydrogen by 2030. The Japanese government has also formulated stringent cost targets for clean hydrogen by 2040.

Those ambitions are long term, but they don’t preclude significant use of green hydrogen in the next few years. It’s already happening locally across Europe, where on-site wind or solar power units generate green hydrogen for applications in industry, transport or energy storage.

In a number of cases, creative companies have figured out sustainable business cases. Swedish power company Vattenfall has calculated that producing a €20,000 car from CO2-free steel (using green hydrogen) rather than regular steel would add just €200 to the price. That suggests premium markets could be developed for consumers willing to pay 1% to 3% more for products manufactured using green hydrogen.

Danish power company Orsted recently announced that its bid in an offshore wind auction in the Netherlands includes the production of green hydrogen for industrial use. That shows that new business models are being invented as we speak, raising the possibility of positive surprises ahead.

Shaping hydrogen’s future through policies

Energy policy can clearly make a big difference through measures such as minimum CO2 prices. Another important factor is the way in which the authorities can foster the energy transition.

The Dutch government has announced the broadening of its low-carbon program. At the moment, it’s restricted to subsidies for producing renewable energy, but it will soon be expanded to include all possible cost-effective ways to reduce CO2, including CCUS. This will help the market-driven activation of blue hydrogen projects and, depending on how costs evolve, hopefully that of green hydrogen projects in the near future.

France’s hydrogen strategy includes indicative targets for greening the current use of grey hydrogen in industry. The French government has set a target of 10% green hydrogen use in industry for 2022 and 20% to 40% for 2027.

A proposal from some industry players in Germany (Shell, Siemens, Tennet) aims to organise combined auctions of offshore wind fields for electrolysis, which would imply connecting the value chain in one single tender.

Zero emission standards for vehicles are increasingly popular in many cities and countries. They are a powerful driver of clean hydrogen applications in transport, where diesel and petrol are rapidly becoming less acceptable. This may help bring down the cost of electrolysis even faster.

Many current discussions in Europe also involve proposals such as an obligation to blend clean gas (including hydrogen) into the gas grids. This would help kick-start the clean hydrogen market in Europe, even if we begin at low levels.

Other important policy instruments include the doubling of R&D in clean hydrogen, as agreed in the Mission Innovation initiative; removing fossil fuel subsidies; guarantees of origin for blue and green hydrogen; favourable implementation of the European Renewable Energy Directive (REDII); common quality and safety standards; and aligned regulatory approaches on what roles different market participants can play in this new market.

We can expect to hear much more about policies to stimulate the creation of a single clean hydrogen market in Europe in the months to come. The clean hydrogen future has already begun.

IEA

Chairman of the IEA Governing Board and Hydrogen Envoy for the Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate Policy, The Netherlands

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Energy

Fossil fuel consumption subsidies bounced back strongly in 2018

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Authors: Wataru Matsumura and Zakia Adam*

Higher average oil prices in 2018 pushed up the value of global fossil fuel consumption subsidies back up toward levels last seen in 2014, underscoring the incomplete nature of the pricing reforms undertaken in recent years, according to new data from the IEA.

The new data for 2018 show a one-third increase in the estimated value of these subsidies, to more than $400 billion. The estimates for oil, gas and fossil-fuelled electricity have all increased significantly, reflecting the higher price for fuels (which, in the presence of an artificially low end-user price, increases the estimated value of the subsidy). The continued prevalence of these subsidies – more than double the estimated subsidies to renewables – greatly complicates the task of achieving an early peak in global emissions.

The 2018 data sees oil return as the most heavily subsidised energy carrier, expanding its share in the total to more than 40%. In 2016, electricity briefly became the sector with the largest subsidy bill.

Fossil fuel consumption subsidies are in place across a range of countries. These subsidies lower the price of fossil fuels, or of fossil-fuel based electricity, to end-consumers, often as a way of pursuing social policy objectives.

There can be good reasons for governments to make energy more affordable, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable groups. But many subsidies are poorly targeted, disproportionally benefiting wealthier segments of the population that use much more of the subsidised fuel. Such untargeted subsidy policies encourage wasteful consumption, pushing up emissions and straining government budgets.

Recent years have seen multiple examples of pricing reforms, underpinned by lower oil prices that created a political opportunity among oil-importing countries and a fiscal necessity among exporters. Reforms typically focused on gasoline and diesel pricing, and in some cases also on LPG, natural gas and electricity tariffs. IEA price data (shown below for gasoline) show clearly the wide range of end-user prices across countries – the lowest prices found among countries that subsidise consumption.

The nature of pricing reforms undertaken in recent years differ depending on the sector and on national circumstances, but fall into three broad categories:

  • Complete price liberalisation, typically for the main transport fuels, as for example in India, Mexico, Thailand and Tunisia.
  • Introduction of a mechanism for regular, automatic adjustment of prices in line with international prices. China has such a system for oil prices, and similar mechanisms were also introduced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Cote d’Ivoire and Oman.
  • A schedule of reforms to regulated prices, often with a view to aligning them with cost-recovery or market-based prices. This was the most common type of reform in the Middle East and North Africa, where prices for oil products, natural gas, water and/or electricity were raised in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. There were also increases in regulated electricity prices elsewhere, as for example in Indonesia.

These price reforms were often accompanied by the introduction of more targeted programmes of support for vulnerable groups. They also brought significant financial savings to the governments concerned, allowing these resources to be deployed to other development or policy priorities.

However, in 2018 the oil price trended higher for much of the year before falling back in the last quarter. This became a major source of strain in countries where consumers were newly exposed to rising retail prices, particularly where national currencies were losing value against the US dollar at the same time.

The rise in retail prices created broader pressure to revisit some of the pricing reforms.

  • Some countries with fully liberalised prices sought ways to dampen the effects on consumers, for example via reductions in other taxes and duties (as in India) or via implicit price interventions through state-owned oil and gas companies.
  • Upward fuel price adjustments were postponed in some countries that had committed to follow international price movements but retained some administrative discretion over the level and timing of any changes. This was the case in Indonesia, Malaysia and Jordan.
  • In fully regulated price environments, the reform schedule was in some cases pushed back or watered down.

Shielding consumers from short-term changes in international fossil fuel prices comes at a fiscal and environmental cost. It also diminishes the potential for higher prices to curb demand and bring the market into balance.

The different reform pathways since 2015 can be separated out into the various components of the change in subsidy values. Pricing reforms over the last three years brought substantial dividends, estimated at 36 billion dollars in total. This represents either a direct easing of the strain on public finances (via reduced public expenditures on subsidies) or additional revenue accruing to resource-rich countries (by reclaiming more of the value that was previously being foregone because of under-pricing).

Notable reductions in oil-related consumption subsidies over this period were observed in many countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as in Colombia and Pakistan. Ukraine saw the largest fall in subsidies for natural gas. Subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity consumption were substantially lower over this period in Russia, Argentina, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and in parts of the Middle East.

However, these falls were outweighed by two other factors: a widening gap between prevailing prices and market-based pricing in many countries (exacerbated in some cases by depreciation of the domestic currencies against the dollar); and increased consumption of subsidised energy.

The largest increases in consumption subsidies for oil products were in Indonesia, Iran, Egypt and Venezuela. In the latter case, a collapsing currency meant that gasoline and diesel sales (where available) were essentially free in dollar terms. Iran also saw the largest increase in natural gas subsidies, and – together with Venezuela, Mexico, Egypt and China – was among those seeing the most significant increase in subsidies to fossil fuel-based electricity.

Committing political capital to subsidy reform remains tough, especially if international prices are volatile. But phasing out fossil fuel consumption subsidies remains a pillar of sound energy policy. Especially when part of a broader suite of supportive policy measures, pricing reform is pivotal for a more robust, secure and sustainable energy sector over the long term.

Industries and households are more likely to opt for energy-efficient equipment, vehicles and appliances. Investors in a range of energy technologies, especially clean technologies, see a better case to commit their capital. That is why the IEA continues to be a strong supporter of efforts to phase out inefficient fossil fuel consumption subsidies.

*Zakia Adam, WEO Energy Analyst

IEA

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France Shows How Energy and Society Are Intertwined

Todd Royal

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What should be asked about energy is what Plato’s The Republic through Socrates asked: “What is justice?” If energy has a moral, economic, environmental, and life-saving component then energy in all forms is certainly just.

This is where facts need to be realized, and find out if a carbon-free society run on renewable energy is even remotely possible? Over 6,000 everyday, products come from a barrel of crude oil.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released The World Energy Outlook 2018 – the self-proclaimed “gold standard of energy analysis,’ – admitting a damning conclusion. That amidst the overwhelming amount of graphs, charts, tables and prognostications, “the percentage of total global primary energy demand provided by wind and solar is 1.1%.”

The world runs off fossil fuels, and no time in the coming decades will clean energy, a carbon-free society, or zero emission energy to electricity or electric vehicles sustain trillion-dollar economies. More alarming is the world’s largest authoritarian, communist government, China, controls 90 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals – “a group of 17 elements with similar qualities that are used in electric car batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.”  

 Nations, companies, and individuals care about national security, their own “self-interest rightly understood” while meeting the basics of food, clothing and shelter (Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs) – exactly what fossil fuels provide – on an affordable, scalable, reliable and flexible basis for energy to be delivered to billions of people starving for their modern way of life to continue.

We are witnessing an energy clash globally, and nowhere was that better defined than France’s “Yellow Vest” protests that began in late November 2018 and are ongoing. These protests brought a convergence of domestic concerns triggered over a proposed fuel tax hike that hit lower educated, ordinary voters more than educated urban dwellers.

France’s, politicized carbon tax – the theory goes – should be an efficient way to disseminate the monetary consequences of carbon onto the French and global economies; however, that isn’t necessarily the case. This regulatory heavy-handedness by the state has resulted in:

Decades of global conferences, forest of reports, dire television documentaries, celebrity appeals, school-curriculum overhauls and media bludgeoning,” without examining the facts.

France is a good test case for energy policy moving forward, because if humanity overwhelmingly using fossil fuels are killing plants, animals, the ecosphere and crushing human life than a tax is fair, just and equitable, correct? But that isn’t the case. The earth and human progress have never done better in recorded history. Economic growth and technology are saving us from such historic plagues like poverty, illness and deforestation.

President Emmanuel Macron and the previous administration of Francois Hollande wrongly targeted emissions unlike Germany that is a high-emitter off increased coal-fired power plant use backing up renewables. Macron’s carbon tax went after Yellow Vest protesters who are vehicle reliant. Since France heavily relies on clean, carbon-free nuclear power for their electricity, France is only“0.4% of global emissions.”

Macron is punishing French drivers via punitive tax hikes and it failed. Voters and everyday working citizens aren’t buying carbon taxes or anything that restricts energy and prosperity. Green piety in Washington State in the US was also rejected the same way it was in France.

Cutting transportation emissions are extremely hard to eliminate when the entire supply and value chain of the tailpipe’s emissions are factored into the equation. It’s why electric vehicles (EVs) aren’t as environmentally friendly as advertised.

Carbon taxation like renewables and carbon-free societies have become buzzwords that reveals the disconnect over the properties that constitute a modern society and an “aloof political class that never reasons with their concern over emissions.”

Achieving energy parity at low costs will never be accomplished by imposing solutions that consist of using expensive, unreliable, intermittent renewable energy. Then believing these policy solutions will have zero impact on economic growth and overall wellness. The impact is heavier use of coal.

The European Union (EU) has: “Eleven countries still planning to use coal-fired power in 2030 (in order of increasing installed capacity) are: Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany and Poland.”

All EU countries have been given energy transition funds to exit coal by 2030, but only France is able to withstand the use of coal through heavier use of nuclear. Geopolitical reasons are another reason you will find a transition to the clean energy economy in the coming decades, because of US shale oil and natural gas production – fracking is changing the world.

In general, US shale exploration and production (E&P) is booming like never before. As of December 2018 the United States briefly became a net exporter of crude oil and refined products; and unless voters ban fossil fuel production the US will become energy independent.

The US Department of Interior’s, United States Geological Survey announced in December 2018: “The largest estimate of technically, recoverable continuous oil that USGS has ever assessed in the United States. The Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin portion of Texas’ Permian Basin province contains an estimated mean of 20 billion barrels of oil.”

Whereas California doesn’t exploit their Monterrey Shale resources – considered one of the largest shale deposits in the US and possibly the world – since California policymakers are only pursuing clean energy resources. Why does fossil fuel and renewable energy have to be politicized when they could work together? Texas and California should be pioneering world-class energy research together. Fossil fuel could pay for research and development to build better renewable energy, globally scalable storage systems and an electrical grid that is smart, reliable and have a 50-100 year shelf life.

An honest broker of information takes energy choices and consequences of say increasing fossil fuel use by burning copious amounts of coal that China, India, Poland, Australia and the United States are doing versus emission-heavy air that cause all sorts of lung and respiratory illnesses.

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Energy and Geopolitics is Under Attack

Todd Royal

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Global warming. Climate change. Renewable energy. Carbon-free societies. All of these terms have gained status, as the balm to eliminate fossil fuels, which is supposedly causing anthropogenic, global warming. What should be noted however, is according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the United States National Climatic Data Center (NCDC):

1. The PRIMARY force is that the SUN heats the earth’s oceans and land,

2. Then, SECONDARILY, the earth’s oceans and land heats the atmosphere. The atmosphere is NOT heating the earth it’s the sun.

3. Consequently, after the above two, increasing air temperature then increases sea surface temperature.

Facts tell us the one constant on earth is that the climate is always changing. Facts also tell us that CO2 is statistically irrelevant, as a factor in determining the earth’s climate. Therefore, CO2 is a minor factor in weather determination.

Whether or not there is, or isn’t climate change, global warming, and who is, or isn’t to blame, here is why that sentiment is dangerous from noted climatologist, and true scientific consensus believer, Dr. Judith Curry:

“Climatology has become a political party with totalitarian tendencies. If you don’t support the UN consensus on human-caused global warming, if you express the slightest skepticism, you are a ‘climate-change denier,’ who must be banned from the scientific community.”

What’s alarming about Curry’s statements is the UN was created to keep another world war from breaking out while promoting integrated commerce, and human interaction instead of another global holocaust. Why the UN has gotten into climate research, and environmental, weather-interactions are grossly past its intended mandate.

Scientific research according to Karl Popper “should be based on skepticism, on the constant reconsideration of accepted ideas.”

When it comes to energy and climate we should be considering what promotes human longevity and flourishing. What makes energy and electricity affordable, scalable, abundant, reliable, and flexible? Now the global warming, climate change debate is only about made-for-profit power.

Renewables are sure-fire, taxpayer-funded, profit centers when:

“In 2016, renewables received 94 times more in U.S. federal subsidies than nuclear and 46 times more than fossil fuels per unit of energy generated.”

Weather and climate are under attack, but so is the science of energy, from believing a “Green New Deal” will work for labor to thinking all energy issues are solved from electricity. Electricity is a static proposition that needs to be generated from some source; whether oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar panels, wind turbines or damned water through turbines to produce energy to electricity.

But nothing energizes environmentalists and citizens like renewable energy. Every single place renewables have been implemented they are a disaster.

In Germany, Denmark, Spain, Britain, South Australia, Vermont, Minnesota, New Mexico (in the beginning stages of maligning fossil fuels), Arkansas, California, Austin, Texas, and Georgetown, Texas, solar and wind farms have been valiantly attempted, and failed every single time. Renewables will never work under current technological and scientific constraints; and energy battery storage systems only have 8-12 maximum capacity according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The science behind renewable energy also makes electricity more expensive. For example:

“Solar panels with storage deliver just 1.6 times as much energy as is invested as compared to the 75 times more energy delivered with nuclear.”

There is no battery revolution for energy storage systems, and renewables under current technological constraints. Economics factually show that renewables will always constrain electricity, causing price hikes and degrading infrastructure improvements. Only fossil fuels at this time have the science, engineering, technology, and economics that make sense for human flourishing and longevity.

Over six thousand products come from a barrel of crude oil. Meaning, the conversation should stop about de-carbonizing, searching for clean energy, and eliminating oil from our daily lives. There is positive correlation even causation between energy and environmentalism. Clean environments only happen, “as people consume higher levels of energy the overall environmental impact is overwhelmingly positive, not negative.”

Fossil fuels have been used safely for centuries, and billions have left poverty. Oil, natural gas, and coal reduce the amount of land needed for energy, compared to solar and wind farms. If the earth is warming:

“Then aerial fertilization by CO2 has increased food supplies by 25%, weather is less extreme in a warming world, and historically conflicts increase during periods of cooling, and decrease during warmer periods.”

Our growing understanding of energy, science, engineering, and markets yields important geopolitical lessons. The science, and use of natural gas, makes its conversion to liquid natural gas (LNG) more important to energy, geopolitics and diplomacy than anything outside of strong militaries. Natural gas is the soft power, weapon-of-choice for nation states like Russia.

Natural gas spending will jump five-fold in 2019, according to Wood Mackenzie. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says:“Natural gas demand to rise 10 percent over the next 5 years, and roughly 40 percent of that will come from China.”

The Trump administration is pushing for Eastern Mediterranean natural gas, and “sees the promotion of natural gas production and related infrastructure in the region as a key effort in tying countries together and promoting peace.” This continues “an Obama-era foreign policy objective.”

French, energy firm, Total, is partnering with Russia on a LNG project in the Arctic to protect French energy needs. Even smaller, geopolitical players like Mexico, are seeking ways to boost natural gas production 50 percent through government-owned, Petroleo Mexicanos (PEMEX).

Fossil fuels – particularly natural gas – will be the leader for decades ahead when it comes to soft power, national security and robust economic growth for mature and emerging markets. Political moves, similar to Michael Bloomberg donating $500 million to kill coal use in the US, could slow natural gas’ growth, but if they do, they will also devastate the country and its western allies geopolitically. China, Russia, India, Africa, Iran, and North Korea will never let a billionaire stop their economies or geopolitical power. Yes, energy and geopolitics is under attack from within, from national and from competing energy interests.

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