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The appropriate arms trade: the UK’s most unsustainable market



Conflict has always been a lucrative business, as battles tend to use and destroy a lot of things that need to be replaced. But as the human cost of these conflicts becomes increasingly obvious with 24-hour rolling and online news, now more than ever we can assess the role our nation plays in supplying the world’s conflicts.

Britain is currently in the process of reviewing its £8 billion sales of weapons and equipment to Israel, in the light of the currently suspended military campaign in Gaza.

The review, argues Downing Street, is to ensure that export licenses to Israel granted to British weapons and equipment manufacturers were “appropriate”.

Appropriate is defined by the use of weapons and equipment, ensuring in particular that they were not used for internal repression or to provoke further escalations of conflict.

The contracts in question primarily involve the trade of cryptographic software and military communications, but also weapon parts, too.

However, the identity of the primary recipients of UK arms last year suggests that the government is not enforcing sufficient scrutiny of appropriateness, on a market worth billions.

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two nations whose governments use a militarised police or other forms of internal oppression, have been highlighted as the two largest markets for UK arms sales.

Last year, Saudi Arabia received £1.6 billion worth of military exports from the UK, including explosive charges, equipment for the assembling of machine guns, CS hand grenades, equipment for water cannon, tear gas and other forms of crowd control kit.

Saudi Arabia is a country of profound human rights violations. Some of these include the persecution of women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people, but also has a track record of using numerous anti-terror laws to imprison human rights activists and journalists.

Saudi Arabia is also one of the few remaining countries left on the planet that still retains legislature against the practice of witchcraft, alongside Cameroon, which it still uses to burn accused women alive.

Egypt, which received £51 million worth of UK arms, including small arms like machine guns and pistols, also received equipment for military vehicles and aircraft.

The North African nation has just survived a civil war and military coup, which has now led to the state-sanctioned execution of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members whom the military blame for the origins of the crisis.

The same military has just imprisoned three journalists from al-Jazeera English for ten years, for apparently conspiring with the brotherhood – a court case that has been internationally condemned and led to a global outcry.

Both of these countries, and others such as Libya, whose regimes are all on the Foreign Offices ‘at concern’ list, send representatives to British arms events, like the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) fair.

The fair is backed by the UK Trade and Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), which supports the event both politically and financially, sometimes offering British Army personnel to demonstrate the weapons.

It is quite obvious that the difference between what is ‘appropriate’ and what is not is in the eye of the beholder. Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which has recently led to the resignation of Cameron’s cabinet minister Baroness Warsi, has highlighted the UK’s hesitance to condemn the Israeli government for its use of deadly force in highly populated areas.

On Twitter, the minister said, “With deep regret I have this morning written to the prime minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support government policy on Gaza”.

The UK government still remains steadfast in blaming Hamas for initiating the conflict, by firing rockets into Israeli territory, which is defended by the world’s most advanced anti-missile system – the Iron Dome.

However, the conflict between these two states has been a long and complex affair, with clearly divided sides that defend strong positions. Israel accuse Hamas of using human shields by placing rocket launchers within schools and hospitals – while Israel fails to limit the cost of civilian lives, including hundreds of innocent children.

Regardless, supplying a country with arms or equipment that is being used to sustain or provoke further escalations of conflict goes against the UK’s defining measures of what is or is not “appropriate.

Non-governmental organisations like the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), have expressed particular concern with the UK’s supplying of Israel with components for the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) Hermes drone, as well as one UK company selling components for Israel’s main battle tank.

CAAT, who uncovered the information regarding UK arms sales to Israel, has called for an end to the “embarrassing” nature of the UK arms export industry.

Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for CAAT, said, “For far too long the UK foreign policy has been one of arms control by embarrassment.

“Why should it take a humanitarian crisis before the government stops promoting and supporting arms sales to tyrants?” 

The UK government also recently came under increased pressure by MPs criticising arms sales to Russia in light of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, by pro-Russian separatists.

Russia has allegedly been supplying the rebels in their fight against government troops for independence and is now facing an EU and US trade embargo, regardless of them being customers of both UK/EU weapons.

Britain has also been criticized over the sale of sarin gas ingredients to Syria, with civilians feeling the consequences of its use as Syrian leader Assad approved its use in cities. His government, in an attempt to retain control as the country fell into devastating civil war, has been accused of breaking a multitude of human rights laws – both before and during the conflict.

The UK claims to uphold a rigorous and robust arms control policy that sets it apart from the rest of the world, but this does not seem to be the case.

It is, however, absurd to expect anything different, as conflict is the primary need in an arms industry. Moreover, defining the sales of weapons that are fundamentally used to kill as “appropriate” is intellectually dishonest.

Encouraging divestment from the arms trade from all British institutions is a step in the right direction, and reusing those engineering skills for something positive, a worthy result.

The casualties in Gaza, which was highlighted by Jon Snow’s emotional appeal on Channel 4 after his return from the strip, demonstrate why. The violence has primarily affected children, as a large portion of the population is “unbelievably young.”

The current death toll stands at over 1,800 people, primarily civilians. 400 of which are child casualties, with over 8,000 people injured. Israeli military have confirmed that over 65 of its soldiers have died, although Hamas dispute this, suggesting the figure is nearer to 150. Three civilians have died in Israeli territory since the conflict began.

More often than not it is the innocent who suffer from this highly inappropriate trade.

Photo source: IDF via Flickr 

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Further Reading:

£8bn arms sales to Israel under review by UK government

Investors urged to divest from firms involved in Israeli occupation, as Gaza violence escalates

Soros Fund Management divests from Israel-based SodaStream as Gaza conflict continues

Bill Gates divests philanthropic foundation from G4S

Triodos Bank divests from Google over arms link



Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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