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Ireland warns UK against threats to Brexit protocol

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Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the UK risks breaking international law if it takes unilateral action over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland
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Ireland’s foreign minister on Wednesday said the UK risked a breach of international law if it scraps the trade rules it signed with the EU for Northern Ireland.

Simon Coveney said the UK’s latest threats to pull the Northern Ireland Protocol had caused consternation in Brussels, as he met leaders in the British province.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said late on Thursday that the government “will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found” to key sticking points.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said his government needed to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland.

“That is crucial for the stability of our country of the UK, of Northern Ireland,” he said, adding that new arrangements needed to “command across community support”.

“Plainly the Northern Ireland Protocol fails to do that and we need to sort it out.”

Coveney said Truss’ comments had “gone down really badly across the European Union” and rejected London’s claims that Brussels was being inflexible over its implementation.

“The (European) Commission has been showing a willingness to compromise,” he told reporters.

“What they are hearing and seeing from London is a rejection of that approach, towards a breach of international law.”

The protocol was signed separately from the Brexit trade deal between London and Brussels because Northern Ireland has the country’s only land border with the EU.

It keeps the province largely in the European single market and customs union but mandates checks on goods coming to the province from Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.

The checks are designed to prevent a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, which was a flashpoint in the years of violence.

But the pro-UK Democratic Unionists Party say by creating a de facto border in the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland risks being cut adrift from the rest of the UK.

It is refusing to join a new power-sharing government in Belfast until the protocol is scrapped or overhauled.

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, who is set to be Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister after elections last week, said after meeting Coveney: “The protocol is here to stay.

“There are ways to smooth its implementation, and we are certainly up for that, but the rhetoric from the British government in the last number of days is serving only to pander to the DUP,” she said.

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Climate: Africa’s energy future on a knife’s edge

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Sun-rich Namibia is seeking funds for plans to become a green-energy giant. Solar farms would harvest hydrogen from water via electrolysis -- the gas would then be liquefied and exported
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With more than half its population lacking mains electricity and still using charcoal and other damaging sources for cooking, Africa’s energy future –- torn between fossil fuels and renewables — is up for grabs.

As nations discuss the climate crisis at the UN’s mid-year negotiations in Bonn, AFP spoke to Mohamed Adow, founder of think tank Power Shift Africa, about the forces pulling the continent in opposing directions. 

The stakes, he warns, are global.

Q. You have said rich nations owe the rest of the world a climate debt

“The prosperity they enjoy was, in effect, subsidised by the rest of the world because they polluted without paying the cost for doing so.

“Africa is home to 17 percent of Earth’s population but accounts for less than four percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and only half-a-percent of historic emissions. The continent emits less than 1 tonne of CO2 per person, compared to seven in Europe or China, and more than 15 in the United States.

“If the least-developed continent on our planet is going to leapfrog fossil fuels to renewables, rich nations must pay the climate debt they owe.”

Q. How will Africa’s energy choices impact the rest of the world?

“My continent is at a crossroads with two possible futures. Africa can become a clean energy leader with decentralised renewables powering a more inclusive society and a greener economy, or it can become a large polluter that is burdened with stranded assets and economic instability. 

“We have the opportunity to make a difference for Africa and for the world.”

Q. US envoy John Kerry says climate change in Africa could see “hundreds of millions of people looking for a place to live.” Is he right?

“Absolutely. It is important to acknowledge that climate-induced migration is a threat. As climate impacts increase, people in Africa — where almost all agriculture is rain-fed — will be forcefully displaced from their land. 

“In wealthy nations, that is seen mostly as a security issue. But this is a humanitarian disaster in which people are already losing lives, homes and livelihoods.

“The only way to prevent climate-induced migration in the long-run is to reduce carbon pollution at the scale needed.”

Q. Is the war in Ukraine affecting energy development in Africa?

“To attain energy security after Russia’s invasion, Europe is effectively pushing Africa to pour its limited financial resources into developing its fossil gas extraction and export industry, primarily for consumers in Europe.”

“Last month German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, during a three-day tour of Senegal, said his country wants to ‘intensively pursue’ projects to develop and import Senegal’s huge gas reserves. Germany, of course, has been especially dependent on Russian gas.

“So now Europe wants to shackle Africa with new fossil fuel infrastructure that we know will be redundant within a few years, not to mention self-harming for the continent. And lest we forget: gas from Africa will emit the same amount of emissions as gas from Russia.”

Q. What is the balance of power in Africa between fossil-fuel interests and those striving to leapfrog to renewables?

“Last month, the Sustainable Energy for All summit in (Rwandan capital) Kigali issued a communique supporting ‘Africa in the deployment of gas as a transition fuel’.  But only 10 out of 54 African countries signed that statement. 

“I think the majority of African nations recognise the tremendous opportunity that renewables present for job creation, innovation, reduced air pollution and sustainable industrialisation. But this majority is a silent majority — they have not yet leveraged their moral voice to make a case for a cleaner, sustainable Africa.

“There are some leaders. My country, Kenya, is currently powered by 90-percent renewable energy and has set a target of 100 percent by 2030.”

Q. The trillions needed to engineer a rapid transition to renewables will not come from public sources alone. How do you mobilise private capital?

“We need to think about long-term investment security in Africa. This is the most expensive continent for securing loans or credit. We need to introduce payment guarantee schemes that are backed by international finance to facilitate safe investment in renewable energy.

“But you still need public money to leverage international investment and finance. We also have to unlock Africa’s domestic sources — public funds, sovereign wealth funds. And then there’s debt. If we could swap some foreign debt for the kinds of investment Africa needs, it could make a big difference.”

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Italy’s Pompeii tests new guard dog — a robot named Spot

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Spot's current mission at Pompeii is to monitor hard-to-access areas of the sprawling ruins
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Under the amused gaze of many tourists, a robot dog wanders the ancient stone alleys of Pompeii’s famous archaeological park.

Meet Spot, a friendly, yellow-and-black remote-controlled creature with a gangly gait who looks like a dog crossed with an insect — all wrapped up in a robot’s body. 

Spot’s current mission at Pompeii is to inspect hard-to-access areas of the sprawling ruins, to collect data and alert his handlers to safety and structural problems. 

“Particularly underground structures where safety conditions won’t allow (staff) to enter, such as in the park’s many very narrow and dangerous tunnels,” Pompeii’s general director, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, told AFP. 

His purvey includes surveying tunnels dug out in clandestine excavations, which Zuchtriegel said “unfortunately still take place in the area”. 

With its excavated ruins spread out over 44 hectares (109 acres), the archaeological site preserves the remains of the ancient wealthy city south of Naples, buried by ash after the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. 

Spot — who weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds) and is about the size of a Golden Retriever — is controlled remotely with a tablet and better equipped than people to survey certain areas of the park.  

The robot is made by US company Boston Dynamics, which specialises in robotics, including for the military. The company’s website says Spot can be used in industries such as construction, mining and manufacturing, among others, carrying out inspections and capturing data.   

Controlling Spot this week in Pompeii was Valerio Brunelli, business developer for Leica Geosystem, which makes a 3D flying scanner, resembling a drone, that accompanies the robot in its rounds.

Brunelli made Spot bow and wiggle for the crowd.

“Spot is an amalgamation of technology that makes it a robot capable of exploring very complicated places, such as those found here,” said Brunelli.

“It’s a leap into the future for a thousand-year-old park”.

The robot is being used on a trial basis and comes with a $75,000 price tag.

Director Zuchtriegel said a decision on whether or not to buy Spot had not yet been made, but that rapid changes in the technology sector made choosing expensive, high-tech purchases difficult. 

“People are always needed, so there will never be a robot dog to be the guardian inside the Pompeii site. That is not the goal.” 

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US inflation skyrockets, prolonging pain for consumers

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US President Joe Biden is struggling to help ease surging prices hurting American familes and damaging his popularity
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US inflation resurged in May, defying hopes price pressures would slow, and posting the largest increase since December 1981 as Americans continue to shell out ever more for food and gas, according to data released Friday.

Consumer prices in the world’s largest economy have soared by the fastest pace in more than four decades, with gas prices at the pump hitting new records daily amid the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as ongoing supply chain challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

US President Joe Biden, whose popularity has taken a hit as prices surge, has made fighting inflation his top domestic priority, but is finding he has few tools to directly impact prices.

Biden has tried to hammer home his optimistic message about the economic progress in the wake of the pandemic, including rapid GDP growth and record job creation, while pressing Congress to take action to lower costs on specific products.

But the latest inflation data dealt a crushing blow, as the consumer price index (CPI) jumped 8.6 percent compared to May 2021, up from 8.3 percent in the 12 months ending in April and topping what most economists thought was the peak of 8.5 percent in March.

Prices continued to rise last month for a range of goods, including housing, groceries, airline fares and used and new vehicles, with annual gains setting new records in multiple categories, according to the Labor Department report.

“The headline inflation numbers are dreadful. Strip away some special factors & they’re merely bad,” Harvard economist and former White House advisor Jason Furman said on Twitter.

Some economists expected the easing of pandemic restrictions to cause shift of US consumer demand towards services and away from goods, which they said would ease inflation pressures, but prices for services increased as well.

“This report tells a pessimistic story of a broader rise in prices, and the shift in price pressures from goods (which reflects many pandemic-related pressures) to services (where inflation was yet to really emerge),” said Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, on Twitter.

– Soaring energy –

CPI rose one percent compared to April, after the modest 0.3 percent gain in the prior month, the Labor Department reported, far higher than expected by analysts who were looking for inflation pressures to ebb slightly.

Energy has soared 34.6 percent over the past year, the fastest since September 2005, while food jumped 10.1 percent — the first increase of more than 10 percent since March 1981, the report said.

Fuel oil in particular more than doubled, jumping 106.7 percent, the largest increase in the history of CPI, which dates to 1935, according to the report.

Food and fuel prices have accelerated in recent weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent global oil and grain prices up, and American drivers are facing daily record gas prices, with the national average hitting $4.99 a gallon on Friday, according to AAA.

The United States has come roaring back from the economic damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic, helped by bargain borrowing costs and massive government stimulus measures.

But with the pandemic still gripping other parts of the world, global supply chain snarls have caused demand to far outstrip resources. Meanwhile, the conflict in Ukraine has sent global oil prices above $100 a barrel.

The Federal Reserve has begun raising interest rates aggressively, with another big hike expected next week, as policymakers attempt to combat inflationary pressures without triggering a recession.

“This report kills any last vestiges of hope that the Fed could pivot to 25bp in July,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Economics, referring to a quarter-point rate hike. “But we remain hopeful” to see such a shift in September.

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