Brexit with brie? Common Market 2.0 proposal explained – through the import and export of cheese

Brexit with brie? Common Market 2.0 proposal explained – through the import and export of cheese

Stuart MacLennan, Coventry University

Amid the ongoing Brexit standoff, one proposal that has been gaining traction and which MPs will now vote on in a series of indicative votes in parliament, has been the cross-party plan for a “Common Market 2.0”.

Superficially, the plan resolves a number of the challenges posed by Brexit, including the thorny issue of the Irish border and the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. But the plan – also known as Norway+ because it has similarities with the EU’s relationship with Norway – involves the UK compromising on a number of its current red lines, while at the same time requiring a fundamental revision of one of the EU’s existing free trade agreements.

One way to understand how a Common Market 2.0 might work – and how it would differ to other options on the table – is to look at one type of good that might move between countries. Say, cheese.

First, it’s important to establish the difference between a free trade agreement and a customs union. As a rule, tariffs are applied on the basis of where goods originate from. The EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, for example, means that you can import Canadian Avonlea cheese into the EU free from tariffs. However, the EU’s lack of an free trade agreement with the US means that American Monterey Jack cheese is charged at €221.20/100kg. If you first export Monterey Jack to Canada, and then from Canada to the EU it will still be chargeable, as the goods originated in the US. Under a free trade agreement, checks on where good originated – known as “rules of origin” checks – are still required.

A customs union is a more advanced form of trading relationship, where you agree not only to remove any tariffs on each other’s goods, but also to apply the same tariffs on goods originating from third countries. This means, for the purposes of the EU customs union, that Monterey Jack will be treated the same whether it is imported to Belgium or Bulgaria. Within a customs union it’s unnecessary to check from where goods originate when they cross a border as they will already have received the appropriate customs treatment.

Back to the 1990s

The Common Market 2.0 idea is an attempt to reverse engineer the previous 25 years of EU integration, reverting the UK’s participation in the EU to the position before the Maastricht Treaty was agreed in 1992.

Under the plan, the UK would rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of which it was a founding member prior to joining the European Economic Community. The UK would also accede to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement with the EU. This is a two-pillared agreement between the EU, as well as three of the four EFTA members: Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, but not Switzerland. This is often known as the “Norway model”.

Under Common Market 2.0, the UK would be the only state outside of the EU to participate in both the EU customs union and the single market. The lack of a red line bisecting Ireland is the reason why a customs union is so attractive.
Dr Stuart MacLennan

Such an approach would result in the UK adopting EU-EEA measures relating to the internal market, including the free movement of goods and services, and competition law. But the UK would no longer be subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU, which would be replaced by the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court.

Under this approach, regulatory alignment is all but guaranteed, as standards would ultimately be agreed by the EU and EEA (of which the UK would be a member) – meaning that all cheese capable of being sold in the EU, be that French brie or Dutch edam, ought to be capable of being sold in the UK and vice versa.

What moves the Common Market 2.0 proposal beyond simply replicating the Norway model, however, is that it also involves the UK entering a customs union directly with the EU, thereby removing the need for rules of origin checks on the Irish border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Checks on cheese moving between Norway and Sweden are rare – but they do happen. By entering into a customs union with the EU such checks along the Northern Irish border would never be necessary.




Read more:
Brexit: why was the Irish border ‘backstop’ so crucial to Brexit deal defeat?


The major stumbling block with Common Market 2.0, however, is that under the EFTA agreement it’s not currently possible for member states to enter into a customs union with other states – whether the EU or otherwise. So Norway cannot enter into a customs union directly with the EU, or the US, for example. If the UK were to seek this, it would require special treatment not only by the EU, but by EFTA as well – the political difficulties of which have been largely overlooked.

Free movement question

The Common Market 2.0 arrangement would also, controversially for many, involve the UK continuing with the free movement of persons. The key piece of legislation providing free movement rights for EU and EEA citizens – directive 2004/38 – was incorporated into EEA law in 2007.

One saving grace for the UK might be the joint declaration attached to that 2007 EEA decision that it cannot be the basis for the creation of political rights, and that the directive does not impinge upon immigration policy. This reflects the fact that the primary focus of EEA law is on economically active migrants, rather than EU citizens.



Read more:
Brexit: a Norwegian view on the Norway-plus model and why it wouldn’t be easy for the UK


The Common Market 2.0 approach is therefore unlikely to be viable. Not only would it enrage the right wing of the Conservative Party, it would require agreement from the EU, the EEA and Switzerland. Given the difficulties the UK has had agreeing a deal with one trading bloc, trying to win over three – the EU, the EEA, and EFTA, as well a domestic audience – looks near-impossible.The Conversation

Stuart MacLennan, Senior Lecturer in Law, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license..

Algorithms have already taken over human decision making

Algorithms have already taken over human decision making

Dionysios Demetis, University of Hull

I can still recall my surprise when a book by evolutionary biologist Peter Lawrence entitled “The making of a fly” came to be priced on Amazon at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). While my colleagues around the world must have become rather depressed that an academic book could achieve such a feat, the steep price was actually the result of algorithms feeding off each other and spiralling out of control. It turns out, it wasn’t just sales staff being creative: algorithms were calling the shots.

This eye-catching example was spotted and corrected. But what if such algorithmic interference happens all the time, including in ways we don’t even notice? If our reality is becoming increasingly constructed by algorithms, where does this leave us humans?

Inspired by such examples, my colleague Prof Allen Lee and I recently set out to explore the deeper effects of algorithmic technology in a paper in the Journal of the Association for Information Systems. Our exploration led us to the conclusion that, over time, the roles of information technology and humans have been reversed. In the past, we humans used technology as a tool. Now, technology has advanced to the point where it is using and even controlling us.

We humans are not merely cut off from the decisions that machines are making for us but deeply affected by them in unpredictable ways. Instead of being central to the system of decisions that affects us, we are cast out in to its environment. We have progressively restricted our own decision-making capacity and allowed algorithms to take over. We have become artificial humans, or human artefacts, that are created, shaped and used by the technology.

Examples abound. In law, legal analysts are gradually being replaced by artificial intelligence, meaning the successful defence or prosecution of a case can rely partly on algorithms. Software has even been allowed to predict future criminals, ultimately controlling human freedom by shaping how parole is denied or granted to prisoners. In this way, the minds of judges are being shaped by decision-making mechanisms they cannot understand because of how complex the process is and how much data it involves.

In the job market, excessive reliance on technology has led some of the world’s biggest companies to filter CVs through software, meaning human recruiters will never even glance at some potential candidates’ details. Not only does this put people’s livelihoods at the mercy of machines, it can also build in hiring biases that the company had no desire to implement, as happened with Amazon.

In news, what’s known as automated sentiment analysis analyses positive and negative opinions about companies based on different web sources. In turn, these are being used by trading algorithms that make automated financial decisions, without humans having to actually read the news.

Unintended consequences

In fact, algorithms operating without human intervention now play a significant role in financial markets. For example, 85% of all trading in the foreign exchange markets is conducted by algorithms alone. The growing algorithmic arms race to develop ever more complex systems to compete in these markets means huge sums of money are being allocated according to the decisions of machines.

On a small scale, the people and companies that create these algorithms are able to affect what they do and how they do it. But because much of artificial intelligence involves programming software to figure out how to complete a task by itself, we often don’t know exactly what is behind the decision-making. As with all technology, this can lead to unintended consequences that may go far beyond anything the designers ever envisaged.

Take the 2010 “Flash Crash” of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Index. The action of algorithms helped create the index’s single biggest decline in its history, wiping nearly 9% off its value in minutes (although it regained most of this by the end of the day). A five-month investigation could only suggest what sparked the downturn (and various other theories have been proposed).

But the algorithms that amplified the initial problems didn’t make a mistake. There wasn’t a bug in the programming. The behaviour emerged from the interaction of millions of algorithmic decisions playing off each other in unpredictable ways, following their own logic in a way that created a downward spiral for the market.

The conditions that made this possible occurred because, over the years, the people running the trading system had come to see human decisions as an obstacle to market efficiency. Back in 1987 when the US stock market fell by 22.61%, some Wall Street brokers simply stopped picking up their phones to avoid receiving their customers’ orders to sell stocks. This started a process that, as author Michael Lewis put it in his book Flash Boys, “has ended with computers entirely replacing the people”.

The financial world has invested millions in superfast cables and microwave communications to shave just milliseconds off the rate at which algorithms can transmit their instructions. When speed is so important, a human being that requires a massive 215 milliseconds to click a button is almost completely redundant. Our only remaining purpose is to reconfigure the algorithms each time the system of technological decisions fails.

As new boundaries are carved between humans and technology, we need to think carefully about where our extreme reliance on software is taking us. As human decisions are substituted by algorithmic ones, and we become tools whose lives are shaped by machines and their unintended consequences, we are setting ourselves up for technological domination. We need to decide, while we still can, what this means for us both as individuals and as a society.The Conversation

Dionysios Demetis, Lecturer in Management Systems, University of Hull

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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Facebook’s plan to protect the European elections comes up short

Facebook’s plan to protect the European elections comes up short

William Dance, Lancaster University

Intentionally false news stories were shared more than 35m times during the 2016 US presidential election, with Facebook playing a significant role in their spread. Shortly after, the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that 50m Facebook profiles had been harvested without authorisation and used to target political ads and fake news for the election and later during the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum.

Though the social network admitted it had been slow to react to the issue, it developed tools for the 2018 US midterm elections that enabled Facebook users to see who was behind the political ads they were shown. Facebook defines ads as any form of financially sponsored content. This can be traditional product adverts or fake news articles that are targeted at certain demographics for maximum impact.

Now the focus is shifting to the 2019 European parliament elections, which will take place from May 23, and the company has introduced a public record of all political ads and sweeping new transparency rules designed to stop them being placed anonymously. This move follows Facebook’s expansion of its fact-checking operations, for example by teaming up with British fact-checking charity FullFact.

Facebook told us that it has taken an industry-leading position on political ad transparency in the UK, with new tools that go beyond what the law currently requires and that it has invested significantly to prevent the spread of disinformation and bolster high-quality journalism and news literacy. The transparency tools show exactly which page is running ads, and all the ads that they are running. It then houses those ads in its “ad library” for seven years. It claims it doesn’t want misleading content on its site and is cracking down on it using a combination of technology and human review.

While these measures will go some way towards addressing the problem, several flaws have already emerged. And it remains difficult to see how Facebook can tackle fake news in particular with its existing measures.

In 2018, journalists at Business Insider successfully placed fake ads they listed as paid for by the now-defunct company Cambridge Analytica. It is this kind of fraud that Facebook is aiming to stamp out with its news transparency rules, which require political advertisers to prove their identity. However, it’s worth noting that none of Business Insider’s “test adverts” appear to be listed in Facebook’s new ad library, raising questions about its effectiveness as a full public record.

The problem is that listing which person or organisation paid the bill for an ad isn’t the same as revealing the ultimate source of its funding. For example, it was recently reported that Britain’s biggest political spender on Facebook was Britain’s Future, a group that has spent almost £350,000 on ads. The group can be traced back to a single individual: 30-year-old freelance writer Tim Dawson. But exactly who funds the group is unclear.

While the group does allow donations, it is not a registered company, nor does it appear in the database of the UK’s Electoral Commission or the Information Commissioner. This highlights a key flaw in the UK’s political advertising regime that isn’t addressed by Facebook’s measures, and shows that transparency at the ad-buying level isn’t enough to reveal potential improper influence.

The new measures also rely on advertisers classifying their ads as political, or using overtly political language. This means advertisers could still send coded messages that Facebook’s algorithms may not detect.

Facebook recently had more success when it identified and removed its first UK-based fake news network, which comprised 137 groups spreading “divisive comments on both sides of the political debate in the UK”. But the discovery came as part of an investigation into hate speech towards the home secretary, Sajid Javid. This suggests that Facebook’s dedicated methods for tackling fake news aren’t working as effectively as they could.

Facebook has had plenty of time to get to grips with the modern issue of fake news being used for political purposes. As early as 2008, Russia began disseminating online misinformation to influence proceedings in Ukraine, which became a testing ground for the Kremlin’s tactics of cyberwarfare and online disinformation. Isolated fake news stories then began to surface in the US in the early 2010s, targeting politicians and divisive topics such as gun control. These then evolved into sophisticated fake news networks operating at a global level.

But the way Facebook works means it has played a key role in helping fake news become so powerful and effective. The burden of proof for a news story has been lowered to one aspect: popularity. With enough likes, shares and comments – no matter whether they come from real users, click farms or bots – a story gains legitimacy no matter the source.

Safeguarding democracy

As a result, some countries have already decided that Facebook’s self-regulation isn’t enough. In 2018, in a bid to “safeguard democracy”, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, introduced a controversial law banning online fake news during elections that gives judges the power to remove and obtain information about who published the content.

Meanwhile, Germany has introduced fines of up to €50m on social networks that host illegal content, including fake news and hate speech. Incidentally, while Germans make up only 2% of Facebook users, Germans now comprise more than 15% of Facebook’s global moderator workforce. In a similar move in late December 2018, Irish lawmakers introduced a bill to criminalise political adverts on Facebook and Twitter that contain intentionally false information.

The real-life impact these policies have is unclear. Fake news still appears on Facebook in these countries, while the laws give politicians the ability to restrict freedom of speech and the press, something that has sparked a mass of criticism in both Germany and France.

Ultimately, there remains a considerable mismatch between Facebook’s promises to make protecting elections a top priority, and its ability to actually do the job. If unresolved, it will leave the European parliament and many other democratic bodies vulnerable to vast and damaging attempts to influence them.The Conversation

William Dance, Associate Lecturer in Linguistics, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Privacy, GDPR and Ireland as a one stop shop

THE VIEW FROM GOOGLE: PRIVACY, GDPR AND IRELAND AS A ONE STOP SHOP

In his address, Mr Enright, Google’s Chief Privacy Officer, shares his perspectives on Google’s experiences of GDPR, almost one year on. He discusses lessons learned along the way, as well as sharing perspectives on how Google approaches privacy and data protection, and the importance of Ireland as a One Stop Shop.

About the Speaker:

Mr Enright was appointed as Google’s Chief Privacy Officer last year. He joined Google in March 2011, with nearly 20 years of experience in creating and implementing programs for privacy, data stewardship and information risk management. Prior to joining Google, Mr Enright served as the most senior privacy executive at two Fortune 500 online and offline retail enterprises.

The IIEA is Ireland’s leading European & International Affairs think tank. We are an independent, not-for-profit organisation with charitable status.

Our role is to identify key European and international policy trends, which will inform the work of Ireland’s decision makers and business leaders, and enrich the public debate on Ireland’s role in the EU and on the global stage.

Social media doesn’t need new regulations to make the internet safer – GDPR can do the job

Social media doesn’t need new regulations to make the internet safer – GDPR can do the job

Eerke Boiten, De Montfort University

From concerns about data sharing to the hosting of harmful content, every week seems to bring more clamour for new laws to regulate the technology giants and make the internet “safer”. But what if our existing data protection laws, at least in Europe, could achieve most of the job?

Germany has already started introducing new legislation, enacting a law in 2018 that forces social media firms to remove hateful content. In the UK, the government has proposed a code of practice for social media companies to tackle “abusive content”. And health secretary Matt Hancock has now demanded laws regulating the removal of such content. Meanwhile, deputy opposition leader Tom Watson has suggested a legal duty of care for technology companies, in line with recent proposals by Carnegie UK Trust.

What’s notable about many of these proposals is how much they reference and recall the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Hancock, who led the UK’s introduction of this legislation (though he has also been accused of a limited understanding of it) referred to the control it gives people over the use of their data. Watson recalled the level of fines imposed by GDPR, hinting that similar penalties might apply for those who breach his proposed duty of care.

The Carnegie proposals, developed by former civil servant William Perrin and academic Lorna Woods, were inspired by GDPR’s approach of working out what protective measures are needed on an case-by-case basis. When a process involving data is likely to pose a high risk to people’s rights and freedoms, whoever’s in charge of the process must carry out what’s known as a data protection impact assessment (DPIA). This involves assessing the risks and working out what can be done to mitigate them.

The important thing to note here is that, while earlier data protection laws largely focused on people’s privacy, GDPR is concerned with their broader rights and freedoms. This includes things related to “social protection, public health and humanitarian purposes”. It also applies to anyone whose rights are threatened, not just the people whose data is being processed.

Existing rights and freedoms

Many of the problems we are worried about social media causing can be seen as infringements of rights and freedoms. And that means social media firms could arguably be forced to address these issues by completing data protection impact assessments under the existing GDPR legislation. This includes taking measures to mitigate the risks, such as making the data more secure.

For example, there is evidence that social media may increase the risk of suicide among vulnerable people, and that means social media may pose a risk to those people’s right to life, the first right protected by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). If social networks use personal data to show people content that could increase this risk to their lives then, under GDPR, the network should reconsider its impact assessment and take appropriate steps to mitigate the risk.

GDPR provides an existing remedy.
Shinonome Production/Shutterstock

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook was found to have failed to protect data that was later used to target users in political campaigns, can also be viewed in terms of risk to rights. For example, Protocol 1, Article 3 of the ECHR protects the right to “free elections”.

As part of its investigation into the scandal, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has asked political parties to carry out impact assessments, based on the concern that profiling people by their political views could violate their rights. But given Facebook’s role in processing the data involved, the company could arguably be asked to do the same to see what risks to free elections its practices pose.

Think about what you might break

From Facebook’s ongoing history of surprise and apology, you might think that the adverse effects of any new feature in social media are entirely unpredictable. But given that the firm’s motto was once “move fast and break things”, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to ask Facebook and the other tech giants to try to anticipate the problems their attempts to break things might cause.

Asking “what could possibly go wrong?” should prompt serious answers instead of being a flippant expression of optimism. It should involve looking not just at how technology is intended to work, but also how it could be abused, how it could go too far, and what might happen if it falls victim to a security breach. This is exactly what the social media companies have been doing too little of.

I would argue that the existing provisions of GDPR, if properly enforced, should be enough to compel tech firms to take action to address much of what’s wrong with the current situation. Using the existing, carefully planned and highly praised legislation is better and more efficient than trying to design, enact and enforce new laws that are likely to have their own problems or create the potential for abuse.

Applying impact assessments in this way would share the risk-based approach of enshrining technology firms with a duty of care. And in practice, it may not be too different but without some of the potential problems, which are many and complex. Using the law in this way would send a clear message: social media companies should own the internet safety risks they help create, and manage them in coordination with regulators.The Conversation

Eerke Boiten, Professor of Cybersecurity, School of Computer Science and Informatics, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Venezuela: region’s infectious crisis is a disaster of hemispheric proportions

Venezuela: region’s infectious crisis is a disaster of hemispheric proportions

Martin Llewellyn, University of Glasgow

Over the last two decades, Venezuela has entered a deep socioeconomic and political crisis. Once recognised as a regional leader for public health and disease control, Venezuela’s healthcare and health research infrastructure has fallen into a state of collapse, creating a severe humanitarian crisis and a major outbreak of infectious disease.

This week, we published the first comprehensive assessment of the vector-borne disease outbreak that is assailing the country. Vector-borne diseases are those spread by insects – mosquitos, sand flies, kissing bugs and others. The “we” is a global consortium of authors, many of whom are Venezuelan doctors and academics working in the country under exceptionally difficult conditions. Others include Colombian, Brazilian and Ecuadorian academics who are witnessing the crisis unfold: Venezuelan refugees on the streets of their cities, diseases (malaria, Chagas disease, measles, diphtheria) spreading through porous land borders, and regional disease outbreaks of unprecedented proportions.

I first travelled to Venezuela in the early 2000s to study Chagas disease, a single-celled parasite spread by the kissing bug, a blood-sucking insect that infests the walls of adobe houses. Chagas disease is a silent killer. Once infected, the parasite can lie dormant for decades in its human host before causing fatal heart disease in middle age.

Kissing bug: spreader of Chagas disease.
schlyx/Shutterstock

You can’t travel to Venezuela, including to the communities where I worked in the Llanos (plains) of the west, without being entranced by the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of its people. From the laboratory in the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Caracas, where I was taken under the wing of Professor Hernan Carrasco and his team, dancing salsa between the benches on a Friday night, to the villages where we slept under the stars in hammocks while the inhabitants sang joropo music, it is a thoroughly welcoming place.

Venezuela is also a place of extreme inequality. You only have to look up from the glitzy streets of downtown Caracas to the mud and brick ranchos clustered on the hillsides above to appreciate that. It is this inequality that drove the socialist revolution, and while times were good – and oil prices high – much of Venezuela’s wealth found its way into the hands of those who needed it most. Declining oil prices, corruption and mismanagement have changed all that. Alongside economic collapse has come a collapse in basic healthcare, an exodus of medical professionals, and a massive upsurge in disease.

Fragmented information

At the core of the infectious disease crisis in Venezuela is the lack of reliable data. Either through denial, a lack of resource, or both, the Venezuelan state is reneging on its responsibility to report on the extent of current outbreaks. The purpose of our recent review was to draw together fragmented information from Venezuelan civil societies, researchers, international organisations and neighbouring countries to get the best estimate of what is actually going on. Over 400,000 cases of malaria in 2017, 15% of the rural population infected with Chagas disease, surging dengue, Chikungunya and Zika infections. The picture is grim.

Health is highly politicised in Venezuela and working as a researcher is not without risk. My collaborators have been threatened with jail and having their medical licenses suspended simply for reporting outbreaks in the scientific literature. The Institute of Tropical Medicine where I worked has been raided by colectivos (community organisations that supports the Venezuelan government), microscopes smashed, medical records destroyed, hard drives ripped out of computers.

The centre of the current malaria epidemic in southeastern Bolivar state is also the centre of state-sponsored illegal gold mining in Venezuela. The tonnes of gold recently shipped by the Maduro regime to Russia and Turkey is soaked in the sweat and blood of poor Venezuelans, sleeping with their families beside mosquito-infested mining pits. Drawing attention to this malaria epidemic is drawing attention to the ecological and humanitarian disaster in this region where mercury is polluting pristine rivers and thousands are dying for want of antimalarial drugs that the government will not or, more likely, cannot supply.

Illegal gold mining in Bolivar state.
Author provided

Venezuelans are resilient and resourceful people. The Venezuelan researchers still living and working in the country are a testament to that, as is the support they receive from the diaspora of Venezuelans forced to live abroad. In recognising the regional aspect to the crisis, the spillover of disease in the region and the millions of refugees, we hope our review will galvanise international organisations to act. I’m optimistic that we are reaching a turning point in a crisis ten years in the making. I fervently hope the spirit of Venezuelans will break through. I hope that scientists will dance salsa again – and soon.The Conversation

Martin Llewellyn, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health & Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Climate change: obsession with plastic pollution distracts attention from bigger environmental challenges

Climate change: obsession with plastic pollution distracts attention from bigger environmental challenges

File 20190220 148520 1tcw1vo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
When temperatures rise and ice melts, more water flows to the seas and ocean water warms and expands in volume.
Shutterstock

Rick Stafford, Bournemouth University and Peter JS Jones, UCL

By now, most of us have heard that the use of plastics is a big issue for the environment. Partly fuelled by the success of the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, people are more aware than ever before about the dangers to wildlife caused by plastic pollution – as well as the impact it can have on human health – with industries promising money to tackle the issue.

Single use plastics are now high on the agenda – with many people trying to do their bit to reduce usage. But what if all of this just provides a convenient distraction from some of the more serious environmental issues? In our new article in the journal Marine Policy we argue plastic pollution – or more accurately the response of governments and industry to addressing plastic pollution – provides a “convenient truth” that distracts from addressing the real environmental threats such as climate change.

Yes, we know plastic can entangle birds, fish and marine mammals – which can starve after filling their stomachs with plastics, and yet there are no conclusive studies on population level effects of plastic pollution. Studies on the toxicity effects, especially to humans are often overplayed. Research shows for example, that plastic is not as great a threat to oceans as climate change or over-fishing.




Read more:
Plastics in oceans are mounting, but evidence on harm is surprisingly weak


More easily fixed?

Taking a stand against plastic – by carrying reusable coffee cups, or eating in restaurant chains where only paper straws are provided – is the classic neoliberal response. Consumers drive markets, and consumer choices will therefore create change in the industry.

Alternative products can often have different, but equally severe environmental problems. And the benefits of these small-scale consumer driven changes are often minor. Take, for example, energy-efficient light bulbs – in practice, using these has been shown to have very little effect on a person’s overall carbon footprint.

But by making these small changes, plastic still appears to be an issue we can address. The Ocean Cleanup of plastic pollution – which aims to sieve plastic out of the sea – is a classic example. Despite many scientists’ misgivings about the project and its recent failed attempts to collect plastic the project is still attractive to many as it allows us to tackle the issue without having to make any major lifestyle changes.

Scientists first became aware of a potentially warming world as far back as the 1970s.
Pexels

The real issue

That’s not to say plastic pollution isn’t a problem, rather there are much bigger problems facing the world we live in – specifically climate change.

In October last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a report detailing drastic action needed to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. Much of the news focused on what individuals could do to reduce their carbon footprint – although some articles did also indicate the need for collective action.

Despite the importance of this message, environmental news has been dominated by the issues of plastic pollution. So it’s not surprising that so many people think ocean plastics are the most serious environmental threat to the planet. But this is not the case. In 2009 the concept of planetary boundaries was introduced to indicate safe operating limits for the Earth from a number of environmental threats.

Planetary boundaries. The green circle indicates a safe operating space. Three boundaries have been greatly exceeded.
Felix Mueller/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Three boundaries were shown to be exceeded: biodiversity loss, nitrogen flows and climate change. Climate change and biodiversity loss are also considered core planetary boundaries meaning if they are exceeded for a prolonged time, they can shift the planet into new, less hospitable, stable states.

These “clear and present dangers” of climate change and biodiversity loss could undermine the capacity of our planet to support over seven billion people – with the loss of homes, food sources and livelihoods. It could lead to major disruptions of our ways of life – by making many areas uninhabitable due increased temperatures and rising sea levels. These changes could start to happen within the current century.

Lifestyle overhaul

This is not to distract from the fact that some significant steps have been taken to help the planet environmentally by reducing plastic waste. But it is important not to forget the need for large-scale systemic changes needed internationally to tackle all environmental concerns. This includes longer-term and more effective solutions to the plastic problem – but also extending to more radical large-scale initiatives to reduce consumption, decarbonise economies and move beyond materialism as the basis for our well-being.

The focus needs to be on making the way we live more sustainable by questioning our overly consumerist lifestyles that are at the root of major challenges such as climate change, rather than a narrower focus on sustainable consumer choices – such as buying our takeaway coffee in a reusable cup. We must reform the way we live rather than tweak the choices we make.

There is a narrow window of opportunity to address the critical challenge of, in particular, climate change. And failure to do so could lead to massive systemic impacts to the Earth’s capacity to support life – particularly the human race. Now is not the time to be distracted by the convenient truth of plastic pollution, as the relatively minor threats this poses are eclipsed by the global systemic threats of climate change.The Conversation

Rick Stafford, Professor of Marine Biology and Conservation, Bournemouth University and Peter JS Jones, Reader in Environmental Governance, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Valentine’s Day: five ways to ensure your flowers are ethical

Valentine’s Day: five ways to ensure your flowers are ethical

File 20190211 174880 z6fe9h.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Anett / shutterstock

Jill Timms, Coventry University and David Bek, Coventry University

If you take an interest in ethical consumerism and plan to treat someone special this February 14, what dilemmas lie ahead? You might already be conscious of getting child labour and slave-free chocolate, a recycled card, even fair trade gold, and perhaps vintage or conflict-free diamonds if it’s a very special year. But what about your flowers?

This year one of us (Jill Timms) will spend her Valentine’s Day looking at sustainable supply chains in Lake Naivasha, Kenya, where hundreds of flower workers will be recovering from their busiest time of year.

Across the world, 250m rose stems will be produced for the day. Of those exported to the EU, 38% are from Kenya, where flower export values have trebled this decade. Governments in Ethiopia, Tanzania and more recently Uganda and Rwanda, are also pursuing expansion, with flowers now accounting for 10% of East African exports.

That part of the world has a natural abundance of heat and space, and lots of available cheap labour. Flowers could help the regional economy to “bloom”. However, there are significant social and environmental challenges, such as the massive population growth around Lake Naivasha which contributes to pollution and has helped cut the lake’s volume in half.

Our own research project on sustainable flowers focuses on stakeholders from different parts of the supply chain. But you definitely have a role to play here too, and it begins with asking questions of the flowers you buy. Here are our top five:

1. Where are the flowers from?

Geography matters. Some flowers travel by sea, some cargo plane and others in the hold of passenger jets, all with very different carbon footprints. For instance more than 90% of UK flowers are imported, mostly from the Netherlands, although Kenya and Columbia are increasingly important suppliers. Chemical sprays freeze flowers to extend life, and they often travel via the Dutch flower hub. Historically the Netherlands has been the industry powerhouse, but now works hard to retain this in the face of direct supermarket buying, growth in Chinese, East African and South American production, and criticism of the extra “flower miles” involved in transporting via Holland.

So provenance is important, but you may struggle to know this. Flowers are not always labelled, labels don’t always specify origin or may list the Netherlands if bought at auction, and bouquets include flowers from multiple sources. Even when the origin is known, things can still be unclear as sustainability issues vary widely by country and flower.

Of course, very short supply chains are possible for some varieties (the shortest being from your garden, if you have one). But this sort of localised growing does not satisfy the demand for volume, variety and year-round supply, or indeed guarantee sustainability in terms of energy, pesticide use and so on.

2. Have the flowers met any standard of practice?

In response to ethical concerns, “certification” schemes are becoming more common. Yet we find consumers, florists and even wholesalers are often unaware or misunderstand these, with Fairtrade still being the only one with wider recognition.

We are working with bodies including the British Florist Association to educate florists about standards, and wholesalers like Fleurmetz to review how certification can be more visible. You can help by asking your florist if their flowers are certified. If they don’t know, ask to see delivery boxes.

3. Who does your purchase support?

In the UK, about 60% of flowers are bought from supermarkets, with the rest mostly from florists. Supermarkets have their pros and cons. Flowers tend to be better labelled, and they are more likely to cut out the auctions and buy direct from growers, which assures provenance and means they can influence standards. However the supermarkets might not share this information, and their demands on price, volume and the short time from field to market can put inordinate pressure on farms.

In contrast, the demise of the high street, Brexit uncertainty and increased online and supermarket competition, has led to “support your local florist” campaigns. Interestingly, some florists have responded by using sustainability as a selling point.

Certifications can help you support farms that claim good practice, but could your purchase also promote development – a familiar argument for global trade? Of course it depends how it is done. For example, the Ethiopian government attracted lots of foreign investment in flower farming. However, incentives included controversial land use agreements that led to civil unrest in 2016, with several foreign-owned flower farms badly damaged or burnt to the ground.

4. What are your own priorities?

There is always a trade-off. Flowers grown in greenhouses in Holland use enormous amounts of energy, but travel less. Lake Naivasha roses enjoy natural heat and light, but are flown many miles and can be chemically treated to survive. So your priorities need to guide your purchase: environmental issues include carbon footprint, chemical use, ecological degradation and water use; social issues include health and safety standards, gender discrimination, precarious employment and land rights.

Accordingly you might choose locally-grown seasonal or organic flowers, or seek growers who support community development or rights for women workers.

5. What will you do with your flowers?

Eco-florists such as Wild and Wondrous are raising awareness of alternative practices. Take in your own vase to avoid cellophane packaging or ask for reusable and recycled options like StemGem. When presenting your blooms, take inspiration from the #nofloralfoam campaign. Treat your flowers well by refreshing water and trimming, keep them out of heat and sunlight, then recycle as green waste to make their journey worthwhile.

St Valentine’s is a day to express our love, so demonstrate yours for people and planet. The supply chains are complex, but our simple advice is to ask questions.The Conversation

Jill Timms, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management, Coventry University and David Bek, Reader in Sustainable Economies, Coventry University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

More British children are learning Mandarin Chinese

More British children are learning Mandarin Chinese – but an increase in qualified teachers is urgently needed

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Mandarin Chinese: coming to a school near you soon?
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Katharine Carruthers, UCL

Mandarin Chinese is seen as being of increasing strategic importance, and in recent years there’s been a growing number of students taking up the language in schools across the UK.

There were more than 3,500 GCSE entries for Mandarin Chinese in 2018. But it’s not just China’s global dominance that makes Mandarin an appealing alternative to learning a European language. For students, it’s exciting and opens up a window into other cultures and ways of thinking.

Take the character for home and family 家 – which is a pig under a roof – many students are keen to find out why. New learners of the language are also always pleased to discover that verbs don’t change – so no having to remember different endings off by heart – and there are no tenses in Mandarin Chinese.

The learning of Chinese is taking off globally, so there are many new and innovative resources for students. China is also keen to welcome guests and school students have been able to benefit from in-country learning – supported financially by Chinese host institutions during their stay. Many come back home and realise the opportunities to work in China or with Chinese companies in their future will be huge.

Chinese in schools

As a new subject in a school, Chinese teachers (whether native or non-native speaker) tend to see themselves as pioneers. And they are often under pressure to establish their departments and achieve good results. This can mean learners have plenty of extra support and are motivated by highly focused teachers.

Students are often taught in precisely the same way as they would be taught for a European language, despite the structural differences of Chinese. Teachers start with a communicative approach –- so learners have to get to grips with more complex characters early. For instance 我喜欢 are the characters for “I like”.

Given a free rein, the teacher might choose to build up simpler characters to start with eg 人 and 口 – which mean people and mouth separately. These can then be put together as a compound, meaning population 人口.

Speaking and writing

The UCL Institute of Education has been supporting schools to teach Mandarin Chinese since 2007. Students can also now take part in the Department for Education’s Mandarin Excellence Programme, which is delivered in schools with support from a team of specialists at the UCL Institute of Education. The students learn Chinese for eight hours a week –- four taught hours and four hours of self-study – from year seven onward.

Learning a different language can be fun for kids.
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The programme is already having substantial results with 64 schools and more than 3000 pupils already on track to reach high levels of proficiency during their time at school. The first cohort of students are just joining year three of the programme and already able to speak and write Chinese to a high standard.

As well as delivering the programme and helping to train more Mandarin teachers, UCL Institute of Education is running a pilot for a significant project in schools to investigate the cognitive benefits of learning Chinese. We hope to discover how the brain functions differently when learning Chinese and the benefits this can have on schoolchildren.

A growing trend

But in all the noise about Chinese learning, perspective needs to be maintained about the numbers. In some schools Chinese is thoroughly embedded into the curriculum as a language offered alongside French, Spanish and German, but according to the British Council’s most recent Language Trends survey, Chinese is only offered as a GCSE option in 8% of state schools and 32% of independent schools.

At A-level, numbers are increasing, but this may mask the fact that a good number of those being examined will be native speakers of Chinese – or those with family background in the language.

What is clear though is that given this rise in interest, many more qualified teachers of Chinese are needed – as is much more research on best practice in teaching what is a relatively new language in schools.

This is important, because it is vital there is wider access to and better provision of Mandarin Chinese, if more students are to learn this language. But for this to happen, more schools need to start taking it seriously – by placing it alongside the traditional “foreign” languages (French, German and Spanish) that are typically learnt in the classroom.The Conversation

Katharine Carruthers, Pro-Vice-Provost East Asia, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.