Sunday, February 28, 2021

Climate change: leaders call for urgent action to save humanity


Since taking over the presidency of the Council of the European Union from Germany at the start of this year, Portugal has emphasised that climate change is “an existential threat to humanity” and has given the subject top priority in the run-up to November’s crucial United Nations COP-26 summit in Glasgow.

At a meeting entitled Climate Change – New Economic Models organised by the EU Council last Friday, the Portuguese minister for the environment and climate action, João Pedro Matos Fernandes, told participants that “Portugal was the first country in the world to commit itself to carbon neutrality and it firmly believes that we can only create value and grow the economy within the limits of the natural system.”

The minister went on to say that “Europe underscored just this with the EU Green Deal. The investment in sustainability is essential to an improvement in the conditions of the planet and to economic growth.”

Frans Timmermans, the executive vice-president of the European Union, said at Friday’s conference: “the climate and biodiversity crises threaten – without any exaggeration – our very survival”.

In a recorded statement, Timmermans said that “even though the pandemic still dominates our daily lives, Europeans still strongly – and increasingly – support climate and environmental action”.

On the current situation, Timmermans emphasised that “the pandemic has taught us a harsh lesson about how our own health and wellbeing are depend on that of the planet.”

He said he fully agreed with a statement by the former Portuguese prime minister and now secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century,” adding that “we have just a limited number of years left to avoid causing ecocide”.

Portugal’s current prime minister, António Costa, noted last week that Europe had made a commitment to be the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, and that this is the “core aspect of the vision enshrined in the European Green Deal, which establishes a new development strategy for Europe and a roadmap for making Europe sustainable.”

The EU Council is aiming to pass an EU 2030 climate target into law by June this year. This would include the bloc’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

On Wednesday last week, the renowned ecologist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough said in an impassioned address to the United Nations Security Council: “please make no mistake, climate change is the biggest threat to security modern humans have ever faced.”

In Sir David’s words, “if we continue on our current path we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature, and ocean food chains. And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then most of the rest of civilisation will quickly break down.”

There were, however, some grounds for hope, said Sir David. “While it’s true we can never go back to the stable, benign climate that enabled us to flourish for the past 10,000 years, I do believe that if we do act fast enough, we can reach a new stable state.”

As Sir David pointed out, there are obvious signs that global warming is already causing events with disastrous consequences: “Continents are on fire. Glaciers are melting. Coral reefs are dying. Fish are disappearing from our oceans. The list goes on and on.”

The United States climate envoy, John Kerry, told the Security Council that the United Nations COP-26 summit would be, “our last best hope to get on track and get this right.”

John Kerry continued: “we are now compelled to do more than talk about climate-related security risks. We have to work together to understand them before they wreak havoc; we have to develop stronger early-warning systems; we have to mainstream the climate crisis into every aspect of our public and private sector and decision-making. And in the face of climate-fuelled challenges, we have to make certain that cooperation, not conflict, is the response of first resort.”

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and billionaire philanthropist, said in a recent BBC interview that solving the Corvid-19 pandemic would be “very, very easy” compared to solving climate change, which, if successful, would be “the most amazing thing humanity has ever done.”

The challenge of avoiding a global warming disaster should not be underestimated, he said. “We've never made a transition like we're talking about doing in the next 30 years. There is no precedent for this.”

Climate activists agree that one essential reform to be made by the nations of the world is to stop dumping 56 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. Net zero is where we need to get to. So far we have some, but not all, the ways of doing that.

The biggest polluters are China, which annually releases more than 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, followed by the United States (5.4 billion tons) and India (2.6 billion tons). The biggest CO2 polluter in the European Union is Germany with about 760 million tons.

Serious steps to tackle climate change only really began with a treaty signed in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro organised by the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This was followed in 1997 by the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005.

The biggest step taken by the UNFCCC so far has been the Paris Agreement signed by 196 countries in 2016. Its main goal remains the same today: to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels, and if possible to limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F).  

The Paris Agreement broadly rests on the understanding that keeping long-term temperature in check and reducing greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible will substantially reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. Each signatory to the Paris Agreement is expected to determine, plan, and regularly report on its contribution.  

The next major UNFCCC gathering, scheduled for November in Glasgow, may well be absolutely pivotal. It’s an event Portugal and the European Council are very much preparing for.

Sir David Attenborough

Bill Gates video:

Sunday, February 21, 2021

New Luanda Leaks revelations


More information has emerged about the business activities of Isabel dos Santos, this time claiming that despite her corrupt reputation she was able to count on advice from three of the world’s largest consulting firms.

The extent of Isabel dos Santos’ reported corruption is astounding and it continues to be examined by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as well as government authorities.

With new evidence from its Portuguese partners at the Expresso newspaper and SIC television, ISIJ has reported that the Boston Consulting Group, PwC, and McKinsey & Company each pocketed tens of millions of dollars for advising Ms dos Santos on running her business empire.

ICIJ has been on top of the whole story since releasing its Luanda Leaks revelations in January last year. The BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times were among 37 media outlets that reported on the contents of the leaked documents back then. The leaks gave an insight into how Ms dos Santos made a fortune at the expense of the people of Angola, a country ravaged by both corruption and poverty.

Ms dos Santos used to be celebrated as Africa’s wealthiest woman who had amassed a net worth of more than two billion US dollars from her business enterprises. She is now looking more like a broken billionaire.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an independent network based in Washington DC, says it’s not just interested in corrupt figures, but also the systems and industries that serve and profit from them.

According to ICIJ, its Luanda Leaks was not just the story of how Angola’s former ruling family made a fortune by draining public coffers. Its investigations have also shown how Western firms played a key role in moving tainted billions through a vast network of shell companies.

The Boston Consulting Group, founded in 1963, says online that it “partners with leaders in business and society to tackle their most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities.”

 PwC, present in Portugal for more than 50 years, describes itself on its website as one of the world’s leaders in providing professional services in auditing, tax and management. 

McKinsey & Company, an American worldwide management consulting firm founded in 1926 by a University of Chicago professor, publicizes itself as an advisor on strategic management to corporations, governments, and other organizations.

Long after many banks had broken ties with Ms dos Santos over questions about the source of her wealth, these consulting firms retained their close relationship with the billionaire despite telltale signs of corruption, according to ICIJ’s latest report.

Each received tens of millions routed through an obscure Dubai shell company owned by a personal friend of do Santos, according to documents seen by Expresso and Sic.

“In this case, the owner was not only a close associate of a senior public official, but that official had a clear ability to influence the business in question, creating a conflict of interest,” Alexandra Gillies, an expert with the Natural Resources Governance Institute, told ICIJ. “Those are some pretty major red flags for firms of this calibre to ignore,” she added.

Ms dos Santos is said to have been receiving help from these international consulting firms while managing the Angolan state oil company in 2017. Now aged 47, she has lived internationally from the very start of her life. 

Born in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, she was the eldest child of Angola’s long-term autocratic president, José Eduardo dos Santos, and his first wife, Tatiana Kukanova, whom he met as a young man in Azerbaijan while studying there.

Isabel attended an all-girls school in Kent, England, and later studied electrical engineering at King’s College, London. She married Sindika Dokolo, the son of a millionaire in Zaire, who was raised in Belgium and France.  

Isabel’s father ruled the former Portuguese territory of Angola from 1979 to 2017 and she is believed to have acquired control in Angolan companies and her vast wealth almost entirely from her family's power and connections. She has denied becoming a billionaire through nepotism or corruption and said it’s all a political vendetta promulgated after her father retired and handed over Angola’s presidency.

Usually photographed smiling, looking relaxed and charming, she came to live in exile in Portugal when Angola’s new leadership started focusing on the corruption that was rife in the land. She invested heavily in major Portuguese companies until her assets were frozen in this country as well as in Angola and the Netherlands. 

Naturally, all this angered her. She used the word “abusive” to describe the seizure last year of her share capital in Nos, the Portuguese telecommunications operator.

In January this year, Forbes magazine dropped her from its rich list. Forbes said it was unable to accurately evaluate her current wealth, but reckoned her alleged corruption crimes may have led to Angola's ongoing recession crisis.

The freezing of assets and the advance in formal investigations urged Ms dos Santos to leave Portugal and become a resident in the United Arab Emirates.

As ICIJ has pointed out, a Dutch court has been asked to seize, on Angola’s behalf, a valuable stake in an energy company obtained by Ms dos Santos’ late husband, Sindika Dokolo. This is Angola’s latest attempt to recoup assets it says the family siphoned off to their personal holdings. 

Mr Dokolo died in a scuba diving accident in Dubai last October. He was being investigated along with his wife, but he too denied all wrong-doing.

ICIJ says that investigating Ms dos Santos’ ill-gotten wealth in their Luanda Leaks revelations has given their team new insights into who and how corruption and offshore finance works across borders.

“There's a lot of change happening around the globe at the moment, and, as with any great upheaval, there are those lying in wait to exploit,” says the ICIJ team.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Prospects for tourism in 2021?

There is so much uncertainty about Covid-19 that it’s impossible to predict how tourism will pan out in Portugal or anywhere else this year, but there are pieces of positive information that give rise for some optimism.

All sections of the Portuguese tourist industry, which is of huge economic importance to the country, have been deeply impacted. Resorts, hotels, B&Bs and rental holiday homes, as well as food and drink services, entertainment and cultural facilities, were shattered by the absence of holidaymakers in 2020.

“It’s not too early to think about travel in 2021,” according to a recent report by the Brussels-based European Travel Commission representing travel organisations in 33 countries. The report continued: “The coronavirus pandemic won’t last forever.  Once enough people have been vaccinated, the spread of Covid-19 could ease, and you’ll be in a better position to make plans." 

The Commission, led by an elected Portuguese member Luís Araújo, expects to see “a cascade of travel bargains late this year as airlines, hotels, rental firms like Airbnb, tour companies, cruise lines and destinations try to make up for a disastrous 2020.”

Southern Europe is seeing stronger domestic demand, which will offset some, but not all, of the hit to revenue, according to Bloomberg news. They quote Portugal’s Pestana Hotel Group chief executive officer José Theotonio as saying rooms in his January sales this year were snapped up by locals, as ongoing fear of travel bans and quarantines deterred foreign visitors.

In 2019, Portugal welcomed nearly 13 million visitors from abroad, mainly from the United Kingdom, Spain, France and Germany. The most popular mainland destinations were Lisbon, the Algarve and Northern Portugal. About 1.6 million visited the island of Madeira and 383,000 the other Atlantic autonomous region of the Azores archipelago.

The UK has meanwhile advanced far more quickly than any of the countries in the European Union in administering Covid vaccines and the numbers of infections and deaths are now falling significantly. This raises hopes that its strict lockdown measures can be eased, allowing foreign travel, possibly as early as Easter but more likely in summer.

Among those expressing optimism in recent days has been Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He said he thought easing the hospitality sector in the UK could “prudently and cautiously” follow the opening of schools on March 8 and then the reopening of non-essential retail businesses. 

It’s currently illegal for UK citizens to travel abroad on holidays or for other leisure purposes, but the government has announced it may lift its red alert travel ban to certain countries, including Portugal, at very short notice. 

The Azores international airline SANTA has announced the resumption of direct flights from 3rd June between Stansted in London and Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. These flights will be three times a week  -  Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays  -   with plans for onward links to Madeira, Boston, Montreal and Toronto. Discounts are being offered to those booking before March 14.

While the European Travel Commission is expecting a slow return towards normality this year, it is not anticipating a full recovery until 2023.

Under pre-Covid conditions, Portugal could expect about two million visitors from Spain this year, much the same as from the UK. However, January was the worst month in Spain for Covid infections and deaths since last summer. Emergency restrictions remain in place and the border between Spain and Portugal is still closed to almost all traffic by mutual government agreement. The closure of the eight border crossing points was extended from February 10 to the first day of March. 

In France and Germany, where the vaccination programmes got off to a slow start, travel associations say customers would very much like to book holidays, but are reluctant to do so. For most of their would-be holidaymakers, things are only expected to start improving in late May. Encouraging for the Algarve and other parts of the mainland and islands rich in biodiversity, are the numbers of potential French and German visitors keen on ecotourism.

While few summer holidays abroad have been sold so far in the UK, Spain, France, Germany or anywhere else in Europe, the tedious lockdowns are stoking desires to get away. This may mean holidays limited to domestic destinations. Realising desires to travel abroad will depend not only on restrictions being lifted in home countries, but also restrictions in planned foreign destinations.

Many of those who would like to get away this year cannot afford to because of job cuts or business closures. On the other hand, many will be able to get away because of money saved that they have been unable to spend in closed non-essential shops and services.

The severe national restrictions in Portugal are impacting on many businesses while aimed at getting high infection and death rates down so that it is safer to reopen those very businesses again for tourists as well as local citizens. How that strategy works remains to be seen.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

More Covid vaccines available: Alternatives to AstraZeneca

Doubts remain about the effectiveness of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19, but far more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are currently available in Portugal.

So far, Portugal has received 42,300 AstraZeneca doses compared to almost 390,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, but only 19,200 doses of Moderna. More batches of all three of these vaccines are expected this month. Coronavirus vaccinations are free for all in this country.

Doubts about AstraZenica began recently when South Africa halted using it because of a study suggesting it may have only limited use against new variants of coronavirus. Portugal's national health authority has advised that it is preferable to use a vaccine other than AstraZenica for those aged 65 and over.

Germany, France, Austria and Norway are now only administering AstraZeneca to those aged under 65. Poland is restricting its use to those under 60 and Italy and Spain to the under-55s.

World Health Organisation officials have offered reassurance that AstraZeneca jabs will prevent serious illness and death, even from the new South African strain of the virus.   

Meanwhile, it is argued that all vaccines seem to be less effective against mutant strains of coronavirus. There is confidence in the UK, however, that AstraZeneneca is highly effective against the dominant type of virus and it continues to be widely used in Britain.

Some 340 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine are to be shipped from the WHO-supported Covax global procurement facility to poor countries, including several in southern Africa.

A spokesman for the WHO team who recently returned from an investigative visit to Wuhan in China said they had not yet determined the precise origins of the Covid virus in December 2019, but thought it most likely to have had an animal source. They dismissed as very unlikely that it originated as a leak from a laboratory.


Saturday, February 6, 2021

Vaccination plan to speed up

 In contrast to the recent record high Covid infection and death rates in Portugal, vaccinations have been slow to start, but are now expected to accelerate.

Amid a scandal over “queue jumping” by people who were not officially prioritised, a new head of the vaccination task force has started work to ramp up the country’s needs. The goal is to have most adults to have their jabs by late summer if not earlier this year.

Minister of Health Marta Temido said last Friday that 400,000 people had been given their first vaccination and about 100,000  their second.

Last Thursday the   European Centre for Disease Control stated that Portugal had received only 387,000 vaccine doses and administered 310,00 of them.

It’s hoped that vaccinating the rest of the population will not continue to be impeded by promised quantities of vaccines not being available as in the rest of Europe. Logistical uncertainties may lie ahead, but the main concern at present is still having the ordered vaccines delivered on time rather than any difficulties in administering them.

Those registered with the national health service can expect to receive a text message, phone call or letter with a date, time and place for a vaccination.

Priority is being given to those over the age of 80. This will extend to those aged over 70 as well as those aged over 50 with any relevant health problem.

The possible side effects of the vaccines currently available are said to be mild.

It remains to be seen how effective the current vaccines are in coping with any more new mutant strains of the coronavirus.

Portugal will be keeping an eye on the Covid-19 vaccination programme in the United Kingdom, which has been far faster out of the blocks than anywhere in the European Union and has come up with an innovative plan.

Medical teams in the UK have started giving a second jab different to the first. It’s hoped this mix and match approach will counter any inefficacy or shortage in supply of one or the other.

Supply shortages have been worrying authorities all across the EU, but Portugal is moving ahead with the AstraZeneca vaccine that caused so much controversy between the EU and the Oxford-based pharmaceutical producer over AstraZeneca’s availability in Europe.  It's effectiveness is now somewhat in doubt.

About 11 million people in the UK, more than the entire population of Portugal, have already received at least their first jab and that is expected to increase rapidly in the weeks and months ahead. By the beginning of this month the 27 member states of the EU had administered as a whole just over 8 million does.

Meanwhile, Portugal’s hospitals have been under what Prime Minister António Costa has called “gigantic pressure.” Their main focus, with help from abroad, has been on treating the infected patients as the Covid death rate spiralled. It is believed to have now reached its peak. 

Very strict lockdown measures are in place and will probably remain so until it’s clear that infection rates are coming down significantly and that vaccination jabs are working as hoped. Even in the UK and elsewhere, the dilemma will probably remain for weeks to come as to whether it’s a sound strategy to lessen restrictions to boost normal daily life and businesses at the risk of causing an increase in infections.    

Of particular annoyance to the World Health Organisation is the extreme inequality of vaccine availability in the world’s richer and poorer nations. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan is especially dire. The head of the WHO has warned of “a “catastrophic moral failure” to provide adequate access to vaccines in poorer countries.