The Daily Visionary: Tuesday, December 4, 2018

President Macron bails on the upcoming climate summit as protests against high fuel taxes continue


French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe canceled plans to attend a climate change summit in Poland, the follow-up to the Paris Accord of 2015.


France gets 75 percent of its energy from oil and gas. Since President Macron enacted the fuel tax in January 2018, the price of gas has risen by 7.6 cents per litre and by 3.84 cents per litre for diesel. The average price for gas in November was €1.50 per litre, which converts to approximately USD $1.70 per litre. The next fuel tax increase is set for January 2019.


Though many of the demonstrations until now have largely been peaceful protests, groups such as Antifa are now using the crowds to create riots and cause destruction. The “yellow vest” movement, whose supporters cut across age, job profile, and geographical region, began online as an impromptu rebellion against higher fuel prices but has morphed into a broader outpouring of anger over the squeeze that living costs are putting on middle-class household budgets. The movement’s members come principally from the hard-pressed middle class and blue-collar workers living outside the big cities.


Public support for the “yellow vests” remains high, with the support of seven in ten people a Harris Interactive opinion poll conducted after Saturday’s unrest suggested. The protestor’s core demand is a freeze on further planned fuel tax increases and measures to bolster spending power. Many have also called for President Macron to resign.


Saturday and Sunday’s protests drew roughly 136,000 people, slightly down from the 166,000 who gathered in late November, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Riot police were overrun on Saturday as protesters wrought havoc in Paris’s fanciest neighborhoods, torching dozens of cars, looting boutiques, and smashing up luxury private homes and cafes in the capitol’s worst riots since a student uprising in 1968. The Arc de Triomphe, a unifying national monument that houses the tomb of the unknown soldier, was defaced, and a bust of national symbol Marianne was smashed. Economically, hotel reservations are down, retailers are suffering, and investors are nervous.


Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the government would not rule out the President’s declaring a state of emergency. President Macron has emergency powers that were expanded after the 2015 terrorist attacks across the country.


Photo Credit: S. Borisov

Photo Credit: S. Borisov

Hatchet-wielding man arrested after shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ in a German Christmas Market


A 38-year-old foreign-born man was arrested Saturday after wielding a hatchet and shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) several times at a Christmas market in Witzenhausen, Germany. Police say the man was a heavily intoxicated foreign-born citizen from the German town of Bornhagen. He allegedly waved the hatchet around and “addressed women inappropriately,” according to HNA. The man eventually left the Christmas market on a bicycle and was later apprehended by police. No one was injured in the incident.


Germany is known for its traditional Christmas markets held in cities across the country, which have recently become targets for terrorists. On December 19, 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, killing twelve people and injuring more than seventy. The perpetrator was Anis Amri, a failed asylum seeker from Tunisia, who was killed in a shootout with police near Milan in Italy four days after the attack. The event was designated as a terrorist attack, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) released a video of Mr. Amri pledging allegiance to the terror group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claiming they had given Mr. Amri his instructions for the attack.


Now, the whole of the square in front of the landmark Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church has been cordoned off with heavy steel barriers. Pedestrian passages and other access points have been blocked to vehicles with bollards and concrete plinths. The barriers are intended to provide protection against trucks weighing up to 40 tons.


Dresden's Striezelmarkt, which claims to be Germany's oldest, opened last week for the 584th time. Though traditional Christmas markets are once again drawing the crowds with gingerbread, mulled wine and arts and crafts, security has increased drastically since the Berlin attack two years ago. At the Striezelmarkt, police have set up a mobile police station on the market, and security officials from the city authorities and a private company will also be on hand. New measures include two mobile barriers at entrances to the market and large foldable containers with water, as well as mobile vehicle barriers. As in previous years, there will be concrete obstacles in place.


At Nuremberg's famous Christkindlesmarkt, by contrast, the solution is trees not bollards. The northern Bavarian city is putting up mobile Christmas trees to block the smaller access routes. "In our case, erecting concrete bollards would only be possible with a lot of effort. The entire old town center would have to be shut down for the work," Christine Schuessler from the mayor's press office said. The streets of Nuremberg's old town are predominately twisty, making it difficult to get close to the market at any speed. Where necessary, police will position large vehicles to block the way.


Frankfurt additionally relies on modern technologies, including the spreading of information via apps and camera surveillance to secure the Christmas market. "In recent years, we have improved our equipment and measures to such an extent that nothing more is possible," says organizer Kurt Stroscher, adding that further security improvements could simply mean cancelling the whole thing or relocating the market to a military compound.


Mysterious sound illness that affected diplomats in Cuba and China has returned


Over the past two years, more than four dozen Canadian and American diplomats and their family members have been affected by a mysterious “Havana syndrome” illness in their homes, hotels, and temporary residences. Symptoms including ringing and pulsing in the ears, headaches, and difficulty concentrating and recalling basic words. Now, the illness has afflicted another Canadian government employee, and experts who initially attributed the buzzing and ringing symptoms to a possible sonic attack are now considering microwaves as the potential source of the affliction.


Dr. Douglas Smith was the lead author of a March JAMA journal report on twenty-of of the affected diplomats from Cuba, saying, “Everybody was relatively skeptical at first. [But] everyone now agrees there’s something there.” He believes the diplomats may have sustained brain injuries.


Anti-Fidel Castro dissidents Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez and Luis Zuniga endured ‘ultra-sonic’ torture for more than twenty years while confined in regime prisons, the former prisoners recounted in a November 2016 hearing organized by Freedom House and the Justice Cuba International Commission. “The sounds oscillated from high-pitch to very high-pitch that almost pieced the eardrums,” Zuniga recalled, describing the torture he endured in 1979. Thinking clearly became difficult, according to Zuniga, and he grew increasingly uneasy. He said a prisoner committed suicide after enduring the torture. Diplomatic personnel plagued by the “Havana syndrome” describe many of the physical and mental effects that afflicted Zuniga and his cohorts, causing experts and government officials to wonder if the same Cold War tactics are currently in play.


The Canadian government will allow all its employees residing at Cuba’s embassy to return home if they choose. Government officials residing in China have also been affected by the illness. Doctors sent fifteen American officials in Guangzhou home for testing after displaying symptoms of the illness. Foreign Service officer Mark Lenzi described the noise as “rolling marbles with static” and said he and his wife began hearing the sounds in April 2017. He later began suffering terrible headaches.


There is speculation that China and Russia may be perpetrating the attacks, but currently no evidence backs the theory. Cuba’s government has continually denied involvement with the attacks.

Photo Credit: Paolo Viela

Photo Credit: Paolo Viela


Brazilian sugar companies bet on ethanol in increased demand for biofuel


Brazilian sugar companies are increasing their capacity to produce ethanol in the face of depressed global sugar prices and government policies expected to boost demand for the biofuel.  A shift to ethanol in the 2018-19 season slashed Brazil’s sugar output by 9 million tonnes to a twelve-year low and more switching to the biofuel next season could help to wipe out a global surplus weighing on sugar prices.


Brazil could also lose its crown as the world’s biggest sugar producer to India for the first time in sixteen years, according to the United States (U.S.) Department of Agriculture. For Brazilian sugar cane processors, switching to ethanol has proved an attractive trade-off as the increased focus on the biofuel partly shielded mills from a plunge in global sugar prices in September to their lowest since 2008.


Executives at major Brazilian sugar firms Biosev and Usina Coruripe, as well as smaller producers such as Usina Batatais and Usina Cerradao, said they were now investing in more ethanol capacity ahead of next season. Biosev, for example, Brazil’s second largest cane processor, said it was installing distillation columns at two plants in the Mato Grosso do Sul cluster to give the mills the option of using 90 percent of their cane for ethanol, up from 50 percent now.


Brazil first rolled out policies to use more biofuels in 1975 after OPEC’s supply embargo drove up oil prices. So-called flex-fuel cars that run on pure ethanol or a gasoline-ethanol blend now make up 80 percent of Brazil’s light vehicle fleet.


In a new push, the government this year approved a program called RenovaBio that mandates fuel distributors to gradually increase the amount of biofuels they sell from 2020. Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy expects RenovaBio to push demand to 47.1 billion liters in 2028 from 26.7 billion in 2018, helping Brazil’s ethanol industry recover from years of competition with subsidized gasoline prices.


The global market could also offer opportunities for Brazilian ethanol producers as countries look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, including China, which is rolling out the use of ethanol in fuel nationwide by 2020. Outside Brazil, the ethanol market looks set to expand as well thanks to policies designed to lower emissions. Ethanol and sugar consultancy F.O. Licht expects global demand to rise at least 2 percent a year over the next decade.


Qatar will exit OPEC to focus on gas, and a swipe at Saudi influence


Qatar, one of the smallest oil producers but the world’s biggest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter will quit the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after fifty-seven years of membership to focus on petroleum gas. There are fifteen members of OPEC, with Saudi Arabia as de facto leader of the oil exporting group.


Qatar is at odds with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and said its decision to leave OPEC in January was not driven by politics and though they did not name Saudi Arabia, the Minister of State for Energy Affairs Saad al-Kaabi said, “We are not saying we are going to get out of the oil business, but it is controlled by an organization managed by a country.”


Qatar will attend an OPEC meeting scheduled for Thursday and Friday this week in Vienna and will abide by its commitments, as the country focuses on its gas potential, Minister al-Kaabi said. This was because it was not practical “to put efforts and resources and time in an organization that we are a very small player in and I don’t have a say in what happens,” he added.


Qatar’s former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said on Twitter that OPEC “is only used for purposes that hurt our national interests”. Once close partners with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. on trade and security, Qatar has struck many new trade deals with other countries while investing heavily to scale up local food production and ramp up military power.


OPEC’s loss of a long-standing member undermines a bid to show a united front before the Vienna meeting, which is expected to back a supply cut to shore up prices. “They are not a big producer but have played a big part in (OPEC’s) history,” one OPEC source said of Qatar.


The exit highlights the growing dominance over policy making in the oil market of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States, the world’s top three oil producers which together account for more than a third of global output. Riyadh and Moscow have been increasingly deciding output policies together, under pressure from American President Donald Trump on OPEC to bring down prices.


“It could signal a historic turning point of the organization towards Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States,” said Algeria’s former energy minister and OPEC Chairman, Chakib Khelil, commenting on Qatar’s decision.  He said Qatar’s exit would have a “psychological impact” because of the discord with Saudi Arabia and could prove “an example to be followed by other members in the wake of unilateral decisions of Saudi Arabia in the recent past.”

If you liked these news stories please consider becoming a patron of The Visionable