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Energy crisis looms over South Africa’s state-of-nation speech

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Ramaphosa's image has been badly damaged by the state of South Africa's economy and a crippling electricity crisis
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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will seek to lift the mood of a country encumbered by energy shortages and a sickly economy when he delivers his state-of-the-nation address Thursday.

The worst electricity crisis in decades will loom large over his speech, in which he will enumerate his government’s plans for the next 12 months.

South Africans are despondent at the state of a country battered by a stagnant economy, mounting crime, dizzying unemployment rates, worsening inflation and water and electricity shortages.

The list of grievances is topped by the electricity crisis, which has forced the country’s 60 million people to endure up outages of up to 12 hours a day.

Scheduled blackouts, known here as loadshedding, have been imposed to help the country’s creaking coal-generated power system survive in the face of overwhelming demand.

The rationing is “the biggest problem in the country,” said Muhammad Awais, 40, sitting in the dark in the corner of his cellphone repair store in Cape Town.

“It’s affecting my business a lot,” he told AFP. 

But analysts caution against prospects of a quick fix.

“It’s an entire energy system that is crashing and probably impossible to solve in the short term,” said Erwin Schwella, a public affairs expert.

– Anger –

The president will deliver his annual speech from 7pm (1700 GMT) before legislators, judges and cabinet ministers.

The speech will take place in Cape Town city hall, as the parliament building — gutted during in an arson attack 13 months ago — is yet to be repaired.

Oppposition parties have vowed to disrupt its delivery, which is being broadcast live.

Hours before the speech, several hundred protesters from several organisations, including the ruling African National Congress (ANC)’s political allies, the South African Communist Party (SACP), picketed outside city hall in fierce heat.

Waving a South African multi-coloured flag, unemployed Noloyiso Mathupa, 39, who lives in a one-room shack with her six children, said she was fed up.  

She said she had voted for the ANC all her life, “but I haven’t seen any change,” she told AFP. “I’m very disappointed.”

Ramaphosa, 70, came into office five years ago as a reformer promising a “new dawn” after the graft- and scandal-stained tenure of former president Jacob Zuma.

But the record outages, wreaking havoc on the economy which is now expected to grow by a dismal 0.3 percent this year from 2.5 percent last year, have dented his reputation.

A government minister estimated earlier this week that the power cuts are costing the economy a billion rand ($57 million) a day.

The crisis is chipping away at Ramaphosa’s chances of securing a second term after next year’s elections.

Ann Bernstein of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, a South African think-tank’s said “sadly, the notion of the current president as a reformer is no longer credible, in fact it is a mirage.”

On a personal level, Ramaphosa also finds himself under investigation for allegedly concealing the theft of huge stashes of US banknotes at his upmarket farm.

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The countries phasing out internal combustion engines

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Internal combustion engines are running on borrowed time
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The European Union approved on Monday a deal that will lead to the phaseout of sales of new fossil fuel cars by 2035, with a final green light by energy ministers due on Tuesday.

The 27-nation bloc joins more than a dozen other nations which have set deadlines for ending sales of new cars with internal combustion engines (ICE) which emit toxic gasses that are a major driver of climate change.

– 2025 in Norway –

Norway is the trailblazer in ending the reign of ICE vehicles, with only zero-emission new vehicles — either battery electric or hydrogen — to be sold from 2025. 

Norway is both Western Europe’s largest producer of fossil fuels and the leading adopter of electric vehicles: just under 80 percent of new cars sold in 2022 were electric.

– 2030 in Britain, Israel and Singapore –

Britain, Israel and Singapore plan to ban the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines in 2030.

In Britain, the measure is part of an effort to create a “green industrial revolution” that aims to create thousands of jobs.

– China drives forward –

China has taken a lead in the manufacturing of battery electric vehicles, with hundreds of companies making cars and generous public subsidies available.

Chinese firms also dominate the production of the raw materials used in electric batteries and their manufacture. 

The world’s top polluter with the world’s largest auto market, China has set waypoints towards eliminating new fossil fuel cars. It aims for battery electric, hybrid and fuel cell vehicles to account for 20 percent of sales in 2025. It aims for them to account for a majority by 2035. 

Local initiatives have also sprung up: several cities now ban the sale of fossil fuel scooters, subside zero-emission vehicles or have put low-emission zones into place.

– 2030 for US to get halfway –

According to President Joe Biden’s climate plan, half of new cars sold in the United States should be zero-emissions in 2030. Large subsidies are being used to protect local manufacturers and attract battery production.

Plug-in hybrids are included in that goal, however. While these vehicles have fossil fuel motors, they can run several dozen kilometres on their batteries. 

Despite being the home of Tesla, the United States has a long way to go. Sales of purely electric vehicles represented only 5.8 percent of the market in 2022. 

The states of California and New York plan to ban the sale of new fossil fuel cars, except for plug-in hybrids, from 2035. Canada has fixed the same objective.

– 2035 for the EU –

The Monday deal ends three weeks of drama following a last-minute roadblock put up by Germany and maintains an end of the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles from 2035, a key element of the bloc’s climate plans.

With vehicles required to be zero emission, even hybrids will fail to make the cut. Only new battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be able to be sold in the bloc, unless they are designed to use carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.

In order to satisfy Germany’s liberals, a carve-out was made for synthetic fuels, which are still in development but which are hoped can be made from CO2 using green energy, thus making their use neutral for emissions purposes.

Low-emission zones which limit access by older vehicles to city centres have also multiplied across Europe.

Fully-electric vehicles represented 12.1 percent of new car sales in the EU in 2022.

Within the EU, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden have set a more ambitious target of shifting to zero-emission vehicles in 2030. 

– Japan –

Also a major car manufacturer, Japan plans to take its time to shift to electric vehicles and is favouring hybrids, of which Toyota is the world champion. Electric vehicles accounted for just 1.7 percent of new car sales in 2022.

The government plans to ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles except for hybrids in the 2030s.

– Other pioneers – 

India, which expects car ownership to boom but is already suffering from severe air pollution, has targeted electric vehicles accounting 30 percent of sales in 2030.

Chile, a major producer of lithium used in batteries, aims for 2035.

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Biden bans US govt use of malicious commercial spyware

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US President Joe Biden has signed a bill banning government use of commercial spyware, citing its use for political oppression in countries around the world
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US President Joe Biden signed a ban Monday on government use of commercial spyware technology like the controversial Pegasus program, citing its use for political oppression in countries around the world.

The White House said commercial spyware poses a distinct intelligence threat to the United States and has been found on the phones of 50 US officials overseas.

In addition, a number of foreign governments have used it “to facilitate repression and enable human rights abuses.”

“Misuse of these powerful surveillance tools has not been limited to authoritarian regimes,” the White House said in a statement.

“Democratic governments also have confronted revelations that actors within their systems have used commercial spyware to target their citizens without proper legal authorization, safeguards, and oversight.”

Biden’s order was not a full ban on commercial spyware, but would apply to any program deemed a US security risk, or that is used for political abuse by other governments.

It also did not restrict spyware developed by US government agencies themselves, like the CIA or National Security Agency, the leading electronic  intelligence body.

The most threatening software can scrape up all data from targeted devices with remote direction and control, according to a senior Biden administration official.

Last year the administration warned that it was planning tight restrictions on privately developed surveillance software after numerous cases surfaced of its use for political purposes in numerous countries around the world.

No specific names were cited in Monday’s announcement, but the US government has already taken action to prevent the use of several programs and companies seen as threatening.

In November the Commerce Department placed four spyware developers on its blacklist: Israeli firms NRO Group and Candiru, Positive Technologies of Russia, and Singapore’s Computer Security Initiative Consultancy.

Pegasus, created by NRO Group, was used by governments and other entities in Mexico, Poland, Spain, Hungary, Bahrain, India and elsewhere.

“There was an effort by commercial spyware vendors, like in other countries, to try to make inroads across the US federal government, and to market and to sell their tools across the federal government,” the senior official told reporters.

“So we purposely announced publicly that we would be pursuing this sort of ban.”

The ban was announced one day before Biden hosts his second Summit for Democracy, with leaders from 121 countries invited to join the three-day event.

The White House called the commercial spyware ban a “cornerstone” initiative for the summit.

The order “demonstrates the United States’ leadership in, and commitment to, advancing technology for democracy,” it said.

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Artist Karla Ortiz sees AI ‘identity theft’, not promise

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Illustrator and content artist Karla Ortiz poses in her studio in San Francisco, California
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For artist Karla Ortiz, the explosion in artificial intelligence that can stand in for flesh-and-blood artists is nothing more than identity theft.

A native of Puerto Rico, Ortiz is a California-based designer, a concept artist and painter who has worked for videogaming giant Ubisoft, Marvel Studios, the Wizards of the Coast fantasy game publisher and has exhibited her work in galleries.

But now her profession could be completely disrupted by generative AI, the technology behind apps such as Dall-E and ChatGPT, which in seconds can crank out original content — illustrations, poems, computer code — with only a simple prompt.

About a year ago, Ortiz discovered Disco Diffusion, an open source AI-based image generating tool, but it is not easy to use for those less tech savvy.

At first, she thought it was an interesting experiment, but quickly she realized that the program was using the work of many of her friends without them knowing it.

They asked to have their work removed, but to no avail, and they backed down. She told herself art theft is nothing new in their line of work.

“It’s weird that this is happening, but whatever,” she told herself at the time.

But months later, with the introduction of even more powerful programs such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion, which can generate images “in the style of” a chosen artist, she was brought face to face with the magnitude of the phenomenon.

Ortiz said she was shocked when she looked at how the programs were trained.

“All the training data, all the training material, it’s our work.”

In her studio, standing between her easel and her computer, Ortiz puts the final touches of oil paint on her latest work, “Musa Victoriosa,” a woman surrounded by eagles, brandishing a laurel wreath.

This muse, which will be used to illustrate a copyright protection app, embodies artists defiant against technology.

To those who argue that human artists also draw inspiration from others’ work, Ortiz says they are missing the point.

“Just because I look at a painting that I love, it doesn’t mean that I archive that influence and that it automatically becomes a part of how I paint,” she said.

“Influences can only get you so far in art,” she added.

“The rest is your training, your life, your experiences, your thoughts of the day; that extra bit of humanity that filters inspirations and experiences together and creates your own voice and work,” she said.

She worries about young artists who need the time and experience to find their style but will be squeezed out by AI.

– ‘Canary in the coalmine’ –

“How does a person break in now? And if you break in and you do develop a style, that’s wonderful, but what stops anybody from training a model on your work?”

Along with other artists, Ortiz filed a lawsuit in a California court against three generative AI companies, hoping one day to get the industry regulated.

This fight has strengthened bonds between creators, and not only designers, she said.

“I’m seeing more writers and also voice actors being very concerned because of the technology that can take your voice and mimic it perfectly,” Ortiz said.

Silicon Valley investors “want to expand to pretty much every creative endeavor,” she warned.

“Our profession was automated first so we kind of became the canary in the coal mine.”

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