News & Current Affairs

January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


Have you been affected? Are you worried by the crisis?

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August 14, 2008

Around the Olympics in 800 minutes

Courtesy BBC

Beijing

If they ever do get around to trimming tennis from the Olympics, I would like to suggest a thoroughly amateur activity to take its place: competitive spectating.

The game is simple: you watch as much live, in-the-flesh sport as possible within an allotted time.

Like cricket, there are shorter and longer versions of the game, but unlike cricket there is no time for lunch or tea. I believe the one-day format would work best at an Olympics.

It requires speed, planning and a change of shirt. I know this because I have tried it and I think I’ve set a new world record.

Beijing tour map

Between 10am and 11pm on Wednesday, I rode my mate’s mountain bike (cheers Paul) to 19 different Olympic venues and saw world-class sport in 15 of them, world-class press conferences in three more and 20 Chinese volunteers pretend to be modern pentathletes in another.

I covered about 50km, drank 20 bottles of water, went through three maps and met the entire judging panel from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Perhaps the best way to tell that story, in fact, the whole story, is to start at the beginning. So I will.

Like all elite athletes I think breakfast is the most important meal, so I decided to skip the fare on offer in the media village and have a slap-up feed in a decent hotel downtown – they may now be reconsidering that all-you-can-eat deal.

Adequately fuelled and aboard my mode of transport, I set off from the Financial District and headed southwest for the softball. The thinking here was to start at my southernmost point and move around the city in a clockwise fashion.

Having meandered my way to Fengtai, I found myself at the top of the seventh inning with China pounding Venezuela 7-1.

I can’t remember much about the game mainly because I was worrying about Paul’s bike being destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Because while Katie Melua may be right about there being nine million bikes in Beijing, none of them are welcome at an Olympic venue. Not if you ask for permission first, that is. I would learn that as the day progressed.

From softball I rode north to Wukesong to taste two more slices of Americana, baseball and basketball.

Here my arrival was not particularly well received and my gestures to say, “Can I chain my bike to this please, officer?” were met by stern shakes of the head. Perhaps they didn’t understand my gesture. Strange, I thought that one was universal.

In the end I left it behind some portaloos. I’m not proud.

I got into the baseball in time to see Canada’s Stubby Clapp (honestly, look him up) pop up to right field and was looking at my map when one of his team-mates blasted a three-run homer minutes later. That made it Canada 3-0 China.

Canada's Stubby Clapp

I then went to the basketball and watched Spain’s Anna Montanana drain a jumper for two of her 20 points in the win over the Czech Republic.

From there it was northeast towards the Capital Gymnasium and a dose of clothed women’s volleyball. To be honest, even regular volleyballers don’t wear much and there was a lot of leg on display in this clash between Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Russians were winning but the highlight for me was seeing Kazakh volleyball’s answer to Peter Crouch. I didn’t catch her name but she was wearing number five and you’d know her if you saw her.

Four hours in and I was at the Institute of Technology to see some gymnastics – the hundreds of people heading the opposite direction should have told me I was too late.

I went in anyway, though, and listened to two minutes of a Chinese press conference. As I left I heard a group of volunteers singing little ditties to each other through their megaphones. One of them might have been the girl who actually sang at the Opening Ceremony.

Table tennis was next and the hardest thing here was getting in. You see the staff are only trained to deal with very specific tasks. A journalist coming in through the main entrance (and not arriving by media bus) causes the system to grind to a halt. The fact he was sweating profusely probably didn’t help either.

This would become a recurring theme but competitive spectators have got to deal with these kinds of problems so I was able to overcome all this and catch eight different games of ping-pong at once.

Too much of a good thing? Yes, probably. I tried to concentrate on Ma Lin’s tussle with Panagiotis Gionis of Greece and not the cute Spaniard playing on the other side of the room.

China's Ma Lin in action against Panagiotis Gionis of Greece

It was judo next. Not much to say here except I filled my pockets with Oreo cookies in the media lounge and saw a Colombian beat an Italian in the women’s 70kg category.

Six hours in and it was time to wrestle. To be honest, it was all starting to blur a bit now and the only real difference I can remember between the judo and the wrestling is the costume. And it’s a big difference.

I also got lost in the bowels of the venue (I’d come in the “wrong” entrance again) and ended up in a room with 20 muscular blokes in blue blazers. They were the judges.

I eventually saw Steeve (usual spelling) Guenot beat Konstantin Schneider, apparently, and he would later win gold. Good lad.

I then pedalled hard past the Olympic Village and pushed on to my northernmost point, the Olympic Green Sports Cluster – archery, hockey and tennis.

This is where my ride started to become a cyclo-cross event. Bikes really aren’t allowed this close to the heart of the “Green Olympics” so I was forced to park and proceed by foot.

The next 30 minutes saw me show my face (very briefly) at the tennis (Nadal was winning), narrowly miss Alan Wills’ last-dart victory in the archery (I saw a Korea-Qatar match-up instead) and try to gain entrance to the Great Britain changing room at the hockey (it was locked).

That was 11 venues and 10 sports in just over seven hours. I was knackered. But then I remembered Emma Pooley’s words after her silver-medal performance: “there’s no secret, you just have to make it hurt”.

So I headed south to the Water Cube for swimming, wandered around the corridors under the pool for about 15 minutes and eventually sat down to watch Malta’s Madeleine Scerri win a three-woman, 100m freestyle heat. Now that’s what the Olympics are really about, Michael.

From there it was a short trip to the National Indoor Stadium and an even shorter stay. It was locked. But the fencing venue was just across the road for me to bring up my dozen.

Fencing, by the way, is a great sport to watch. I wish I could have stayed for longer than three minutes. That was long enough, however, to see Yuki Ota of Japan win his semi-final and go absolutely bongo.

Japan's Yuki Ota on his way to a semi-final victory over Italy

I probably should have stopped now. It was dark and I was tired, hungry and smelly. But I wanted more and I really, really wanted to see some handball.

So it was south again to the Olympic Sports Center cluster for five minutes of Norway’s demolition of Kazakhstan (I think I was bad luck for the Kazakhs all day) in the women’s event.

I will definitely return if only to hear more from the American announcer who ticked off a Norwegian player for “roughhousing”.

The next 30 minutes saw me just miss the last water polo game of the day and follow my ears to the modern pentathlon stadium, where Olympic volunteers were pretending to be show-jumping ponies and the stadium announcer was practising his medal ceremony script (he thinks Cuba is going to win).

What happened next was an Olympic event of its own – the 20-minute time-trial to the Workers’ Stadium for the last 10 minutes of the Argentina v Serbia football match.

And my lung-busting, salt-staining effort was rewarded when I flopped into a commentary position to see Diego Buonanotte curl a free-kick home from 25 yards out. Good night, indeed, Diego.

This was my 18th venue, 14th sport and 12th hour. It was time for the coup de grace. Step forward, you beauty, David Price.

Now is not the time to relay all that happened in the Workers’ Gymnasium at around 2200 local time but suffice it to say Team GB’s boxing captain hit the world number one from Russia harder than he had ever been hit before and he didn’t like it.

Cue huge celebrations from Price and his loyal band of Scouse supporters. It was also great to see his team-mates James DeGale and Joe Murray jumping in the aisles too.

So that’s the challenge. Can any of you top 15 different sports in a day?

Until I hear otherwise I’m going to assume it’s a world record. I reckon it will be safe for four years at least.

August 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

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