An agreement between Darwin’s city council and an overseas municipal counterpart normally wouldn’t attract much attention. Local government officials love signing such deals. Darwin already has no less than six “sister city” arrangements, including with the Chinese city of Haikou.
But attention has been drawn to Darwin’s newly minted “friendship” deal with Yuexiu District, in Guangzhou, due to Chinese media describing it as part of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.
This suggests Chinese authorities regard Darwin as having strategic significance.
It invites reflection on the wisdom, three years ago, of the Northern Territory government deciding to lease the Port of Darwin (now known as Darwin Port) to a Chinese company for 99 years – and of the federal government going along with it.
At the time the new owner, billionaire Ye Cheng, claimed the Darwin port deal was “our involvement in One Belt, One Road”. This was discounted by some commentators as hyperbole, an attempt to curry favour with the Chinese government.
But now, by design or not, the Darwin port deal increasingly looks like a blueprint for how Chinese interests can take control of foreign ports – as it is doing by various means around the world – without arousing local opposition. Quite the reverse. All levels of Australian government have encouraged it.
It makes Darwin an interesting case study – a point of contest between the strategies of the US and China. Darwin’s port is under Chinese control, while thousands of US marines are based in the city, as part of the US “Pacific pivot” seen by many as an effort to contain China’s influence in the region.
How the port deal was done
The deal to lease parts of the port followed successive federal governments refusing to fund necessary upgrading of the port’s infrastructure to meet growing demand.
Infrastucture Australia advised privatisation. Rather than sell outright, the territory government decided to lease the port, and sell a controlling stake in the port’s operator.
Landbridge Australia, a subsidiary of Shandong Landbridge, won the 99-year lease with its bid of A$506 million in November 2015.
Shandong Landbridge has substantial and varied interests including port logistics and petrochemicals. Though privately owned, like many Chinese companies it has strong ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The company knows how to cultivate political connections. In Australia it gave influential Liberal Party figure and former trade minister Andrew Robb an $880,000 job just months after he retired from parliament.
The bid for the port was examined and approved by the Foreign Investments Review Board, the Defence Department and ASIO.
But the deal put Darwin directly in the crossfire between US and Chinese interests. Then US president Barack Obama expressed concern about the lack of consultation. Former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said he was “stunned” that Australia had “blind-sided” its ally.
While the centre of US-Chinese tensions is the South China Sea – where China has militarised reefs in disputed waters – Darwin is important because it is the southern flank of US operations in the Pacific.
Managing the tensions
Zhang Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in 2015 about the concept of “first civilian, later military” – in which commercial ports are to be built with the goal of slowly being developed into “strategic support points” – to assist China defending maritime channel security and control key waterways.
Military-civilian integration was among the goals China set in its 13th five-year plan for 2016-20. President Xi subsequently established an integration committee to oversee civilian and military investment in technology.
As with other Chinese port acquisitions, such as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Greece and Djibouti, Landbridge is interested in acquiring and developing not only Darwin’s port facilities but nearby waterfront property.
But the Darwin port deal differs in significant ways to other port acquisitions.
It is a far cry from the “debt-trap colonialism” China stands accused of using to gain leverage over other foreign governments, such as Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Landbridge has bought the lease, rather than a Chinese bank lending funds to the Northern Territory government to develop the port. If Landbridge was to default, it would lose its money. Any attempt by Landbridge to use the port as security to borrow money from a Chinese bank would trigger renegotiation of the lease.
The territory government retains a 20% stake in the port operator and has a say in key appointments such as the chief executive and chief financial officer. But it will not share any profit that Landbridge may eventually make.
That potential is a long way off. Landbridge Australia reported a loss of A$31 million for the 2017 financial year, with its total borrowings rising to A$463 million. If the deal falls over, the government will need to seek new equity partners. But its immediate commercial risks are relatively contained.
Yet risk exposure may take other forms. China’s strategy is very long-term. Darwin is now on the front line in managing tensions between Australia’s most important strategic ally and partner and its major trading partner. Balancing between powerful friends with competing interests may not prove easy.
There are indications of some recognition of this at the federal level. Australia’s foreign investment review processes have been tightened. A Critical Infrastructure Centre has been created to give extra national security advice. There has been some tweaking of rules about political parties accepting foreign donations.
But others may have learnt valuable lessons too.
Weaknesses in Australian governments at all levels have been revealed. They have been reactive, readily accepting the lure of pearls cast on our shores without considering longer-term currents. Foreign and strategic policy has effectively been left to the local level. While the federal government now seeks to shore up its interests in the Pacific with cash for infrastructure, similar commitments to investing in local infrastructure are essential.
Clumsiness and indecision do not serve Australian interests well.
The purpose of our social, economic and political systems is to enable all Australians to lead good lives. Australia is doing well on some fronts. It ranks third out of 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index, which takes into account life expectancy, education and national income per capita. We also rank 19th on national income per capita.
This suggests Australia is rather good at converting national income into social well-being. But a key question is whether we are using our income in a way that will continue to enable all Australians to lead materially, socially and environmentally enriching lives. That is, are we acting in a way that is both fair and sustainable?
A report released by the National Sustainable Development Council, in collaboration with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, provides robust data on many of the specific indicators related to environmental, social and economic well-being. These indicators give us a clear idea how well we are doing in the important goal of “leaving no one behind” and providing the same opportunities for future generations.
Inequality remains high despite economic growth
A remarkable feature of Australia’s economy is that, with some fluctuations, real income per capita rose by over 40% from 2000 to 2012, but has not increased at all since. This has left many people feeling stressed and disgruntled about living costs.
There is a sense that a high income is not enough to lead a good life – a continuously rising income is needed. Coupled with the high inequality in society and a worsening environmental footprint, it all points to threats to the sustainability of our current standard of living.
The large rise in income in recent years was accompanied by a decrease in the rates of poverty and material disadvantage, especially before 2013. The increase in the value of the age pension made a material contribution to this. In contrast, the falling relative value of Newstart has had the opposite effect.
Overall, inequality remains high by Australian and international standards. The government continues to play a very important role in offsetting at least some of this inequality. However, this is sustainable only if people remain willing to pay the necessary taxes and support transfer payments to help those with lower incomes.
Australia is also doing well in the health of the population. Life expectancy is among the highest in the world, reflecting comparatively low rates of illness and injury. Good health is supported by a well-resourced, universal healthcare system, substantial gains in reducing deaths from road accidents, and world-leading tobacco control policies.
However, our good health and well-being is challenged by high rates of obesity and alcohol consumption. Further, the proportion of the population experiencing high to very high levels of psychological distress has not fallen. Between 15% and 20% of young and middle-aged women now report having high to very high levels of distress.
Australia is performing well in some areas of education: we have high rates of post-secondary school education, our students consistently perform well in collaborative problem solving, and Australian adults rate well above the OECD average in technological problem solving.
But, again, we’re performing poorly on sustainability. Student performance in literacy, maths and science on the international PISA tests has fallen and the percentage of children aged five who are developing normally in overall learning, health and psycho-social well-being has remained stagnant.
Australia is also a laggard among OECD countries in its public support of early childhood learning and development. The only improvement has been in language skills for children aged five.
In other societal issues, the Monash report showed that Australians are increasingly fearful of violent crime, despite low crime rates. Tougher laws have been introduced in response to this fear of crime, and imprisonment rates have risen significantly in recent years. This fear undermines social trust, which is very hard to recover and is a threat to the sustainability of our social cohesion.
Australia is also lagging on gender equality. Women continue to face far greater economic insecurity than men. This is particularly evident at retirement, when women’s superannuation balances are 42% below that of men’s, reflecting their substantially lower lifetime earnings.
Australia has done remarkably well on some of its UN Sustainability Development Goals. But there is definitely room for improvement, particularly in the way we are degrading our natural world and key areas of health, education and social inequality. We need to address these threats to sustainability if we’re going to ensure our people enjoy good lives now – and in the future.
This article is part of a series looking at Australia’s progress toward meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, based on a report published by the Monash University Sustainable Development Institute.
Renewables are stealing the march over coal in Australia, and the international outlook is for lower coal demand. Today the international Coal Transitions project released its findings, based on global coal scenarios and detailed case studies by teams in China, India, South Africa, Australia, Poland and Germany.
Our research on Australian coal transition – based on contributions by researchers at the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne – looks into the prospects for coal use in Australia and for exports, and the experiences with local transition in the case of the Hazelwood power station closure.
Coal production in Australia is likely to be on a long term declining trajectory. Almost all coking coal (coal used for making steel) mined in Australia is exported, as is around 70% of steam coal (for electricity generation). Australia supplies about a fifth of the global steam coal trade.
A question mark hangs over the future of steam coal exports. Economic, technological and policy developments in other countries all point to likely falling coal use over time. The international coal transitions synthesis report expects that global coal consumption will go into reverse by the early 2020s.
In most industrialising countries, there are big concerns about local air pollution, and renewable power alternatives are becoming cost-competitive with coal. Add to that the pressure to meet Paris emissions targets.
China and India, on which much of the hopes of Australia’s coal export industry are pinned, mine coal themselves. When overall coal use in these countries falls, imports may be curbed, if only because of pressures to prop up domestic coal mining.
This change now reflects market economics. New wind farms and solar parks can now provide energy at much lower cost than any new fossil fuel powered generators. A new coal fired power plant would need subsidies, take a long time to build, and suffer exposure to future carbon policy.
The competition is now between renewables and existing coal fired power stations. Wind and solar power cost next to nothing to run once built, so they are dispatched first on the grid and tend to bring wholesale market prices down. In turn, the economics of coal power plants deteriorates. They will not be able to sell as much power, and get lower prices on average for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced. New wind and solar is now contracted at prices close to the operating cost of some existing coal plants, and renewables costs are falling further.
Coal plants will be less and less profitable. They will tend to be shut down earlier, typically when major repairs or overhauls are due. Major refurbishments will tend to become unattractive. And the system does not need coal plants to run reliably. A combination of regionally dispersed renewables, pumped hydro and battery storage, gas plants and demand response will do the job.
It is difficult to predict just when coal plants will shut down. The following graphic illustrates the difference between a flat 50-year retirement pattern (as used for example by the Australian Energy Market Operator), with plants retiring at 40 years of age, in line with the average retirement age of plants over the past decade, and two illustrative scenarios that capture the fact that coal plants will come under increasing economic pressure.
In our “moderate” scenario, remaining coal plants retire at 55 years in 2017 and progressively retire younger until they exit at age 30 by 2050. In our “faster” scenario, plants exit at 50 years now, then progressively younger until they exit at age 30 by 2030.
Even more rapid closure scenarios are plausible if the cost of renewables and storage continue on their recent trends. We do not present them here, instead opting for relatively conservative assumptions.
The pace of closure makes a big difference to emissions. In the “moderate” scenario, cumulative emissions from coal use are around 2.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO₂) during 2020-50, and in the “faster” scenario around 1.8 GtCO₂.
As a reference point, a “2 degree compatible” emissions budget for Australia proposed by Australia’s Climate Change Authority has a total national emissions budget of around 5.8 GtCO₂ from 2020-50. Our “moderate” scenario has coal emissions take up around 44% of that cumulative emissions budget, while the “faster” scenario takes up around 32%. By comparison, coal currently makes up around 30% of Australia’s annual net emissions.
It is no longer true that reducing emissions in the electricity sector necessarily means higher prices. These days, and in the future, having policy to guide the replacement of ageing coal capacity with cheap renewables is a win-win for consumers and the environment.
We had better get ready
We better put our efforts in preparing for the transition, rather than trying to stem the tide. That includes a meaningful policy treatment of carbon emissions, and mechanisms to allow more predictable exit pathways. The relatively sudden closures of the Hazelwood power station is an example of how not to manage the transition.
Wholesale prices jumped up because the replacement investment takes time, and governments scrambled to provide support to the local community after the fact.
We can do much better. Australia is well placed for a future built on renewable energy. The change can be painful if it’s not well managed, but the future looks bright.
The latest military strikes by the US, France and Britain in Syria highlight the Trump administration’s uncertainty on its role in the conflict. With a near triumphant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad firmly under the control of Moscow and Tehran, the strikes against military bases suspected of facilitating the chemical weapons attacks will be nothing more than a footnote in the wider battle for influence in the region.
Trump must look towards the future and focus on influencing the reconstruction of Syria.
Without an active United States, Turkey, Iran and Russia will push international aid agencies and influential Western donor governments onto the sidelines. Instead, they will take the lead in rebuilding Syria in their images, an outcome that will hurt the Syrian people and further destabilise the region.
Not since Dresden has devastation been so extensive. The four-year siege of Sarajevo, where regular bombardment from the surrounding mountains ravaged the city and reduced many areas to rubble, is a comparable yardstick repeated across Syria in Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama.
And then there is the human cost. More than 6 million people are internally displaced. Another 5 million are living as refugees.
Each person fled a home, a job and a community that will have to be re-established. This won’t be easy, given those who have migrated to Europe are estimated to represent between one-third and one-half of all Syrians with university-level education.
Even if it is theoretically possible to overcome these challenges, the most basic level of reconstruction has been estimated at US$100 billion, and possibly as high as US$350 billion. This far exceeds the estimated US$60 billion reconstruction cost of rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
What to expect
Some reconstruction experts have advocated sidelining Assad’s Syria, and only providing support to rump areas under the control of US allies. NGOs are advocating conditioning international support on a political solution being agreed, respect for human rights, and protection of an independent civil society.
The Western-led international aid community faces a conundrum as it sits on the sidelines watching others prepare for the post-conflict reconstruction. Should the international aid community adapt and compromise or stand firm with their demands and principles?
Without the West driving the development agenda, Syrian authorities will eschew aid focused on human rights, gender equality, market liberalisation, and democracy. They will have little patience for the Western allegory of aid as salvation, in which the original sin of colonialism drives an effort to save people from poverty by recreating their societies in our image.
Instead, akin to Chinese aid to African countries, major infrastructure projects that serve government interests will top the agenda at the expense of assistance to the other pillars of successful modern countries.
These projects will be funded, managed and implemented on a quid-pro-quo basis. Syrian elites and foreign governments will secure most of the benefits.
For an aid industry weaned on Western donors and their gender mainstreaming, community consultation, and pro-poor development, adjusting to taking direction from a Syrian government dismissive of the Western conscience and liberal democratic values will pose a substantial challenge. It will lead to serious ethical questions being asked.
Such questions will revolve around whether:
aid agencies participate in donor co-ordination led by an illiberal Russia, an ostracised Iran, or an Islamist Turkey;
collaboration with the Assad government irrevocably compromises NGOs’ work; and
aid agencies can contribute to sustainable development if they are prevented from strengthening civil society.
There is no right answer to these questions. Some will take the pragmatic path; others, the high road.
For many aid workers – particularly those associated with advocacy NGOs – staying true to their worldview will mean being sidelined. They will be forced to operate in neighbouring countries, as Syrian authorities refuse to tolerate what they will perceive as social engineering disguised as humanitarian assistance.
This will leave UN agencies flying the flag of the development consensus in word only; they will be bereft of many of their implementing partners. Without these partners, they too will have to reconsider their modus operandi: partner with local sectarian NGOs with questionable affiliations, or undertake more direct implementation.
The benefits of a new approach
Under these circumstances, new approaches to implementing humanitarian and development programs will be need to be sought.
One opportunity is to harness Syria’s rich tradition of religious institutions playing a leading role in society. But even such a pivot will pose a conundrum: engaging with these groups will require the international aid community to reconsider its secular agenda.
How the international aid community responds to these challenges will shape outcomes not only in Syria but for future humanitarian crises.
Trying to force the Western development agenda onto Syrians will be counterproductive, leading to the strengthening of non-Western aid organisations that operate outside the decades-old development consensus.
With new-found experience and cashed-up from the largest reconstruction effort since the second world war, these agencies will begin to set the agenda not only for Syria, but in other countries whose leadership will prefer respectful collaboration over what’s seen as Western condescension.
Alternatively, Western aid organisations can acknowledge this emerging dynamic and find ways to work with the regime, its sponsors in Russia and Turkey, and the young, emerging aid organisations.
This will require compromising some of the ideals that have been at the heart of the sector and adopting new ways of working. But doing so will lead in the long run to a wider buy-in to the development consensus by the next generation of global aid actors.
Three key developments in 2017 led to the Turkish operation in Syria.
The first was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand in the conflict. In a major victory over the resistance, Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran captured the Syrian economic powerhouse of Aleppo – with the tacit agreement of Turkey.
Subsequently, Assad forces, and Russia, continued to expand their control over western Syria. In December 2017, they launched an intense attack on Idlib – a city neighbouring Afrin and the last stronghold of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by the Nusra Front and supported by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish government. Even though HTS launched a counteroffensive, the Assad forces continued to make advances in Idlib.
Second was the bold move for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, which accelerated after the Kurdish and central Iraqi forces recaptured the largest northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. In September 2017, northern Iraq’s Kurdish government staged a referendum for independence, with a whopping 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes”. Although the referendum backfired spectacularly, it sent a clear signal to Turkey and others on Kurdish ambitions for independence.
Third was the rise in the prominence of Syrian Kurds. In October 2017, the US launched a successful military effort to depose IS from its stronghold, the capital Raqqa, ending IS as a political force. The main proxy army on the ground was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Despite Turkey’s protests, the US supplied SDF with heavy arms, justifying the move as a necessity in deposing the common enemy, IS. Even after the fall of IS, the return of heavy weapons became the focus of a diplomatic crisis between the US and Turkey.
This move came at the same time as a break-up of the uneasy alliance between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, as well as the US, over the future of Syria. Erdogan signalled this in late December, when he accused Assad of “state terrorism”.
What America wants
For the US, Turkey’s presence in Syria complicates things, and harms its plans resting on the territory controlled by Kurdish forces. Just as there was no need for Turkey during the offensive against IS, there is no need for Turkey in the future of Syria.
The US sees the UN-led Geneva talks as the solution to the Syrian crisis and insists that Assad is not part of the solution. This goal is becoming increasingly unlikely. Realising this after Assad’s Aleppo victory, the US has shifted its objectives to eliminating IS and supporting an increased Kurdish prominence in Syria.
According to Defence Secretary James Mattis, the US will continue its presence in Syria, but as a “stabilising force”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iran and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
This is a major policy shift by the US administration and has infuriated Erdogan. It means US protection for the Kurdish enclave is permanent, and the US will try to neutralise Russian influence by controlling regions lying east of the Euphrates River. It will also use Kurdish forces and populations as a bargaining chip in any discussion of Syria’s future.
What Russia wants
Turkey’s Afrin operation would not have been possible without Russian approval, as Russia controls the air space in northwestern Syria.
Russia has allowed the operation to go ahead so that it can maintain the fragile alliance that President Vladimir Putin formed with Iran and Turkey, and continue the recent talks Russia led with Syrian factions in Sochi. Russia wants to preserve the hard-won influence it garnered over the past two years and avoid tarnishing its world power status. More importantly, Putin does not want anything to overshadow his bid to win the looming presidential elections on March 18.
Putin has seen Erdogan as an important ally in his strategy to divide the NATO alliance from within, and so would prefer he stayed in power. This is why Putin gave Erdogan a political hand in allowing the Turkish operation to go ahead. In a sense, Putin can tolerate the Afrin operation for as long as it is contained to a small region.
What Turkey wants
Erdogan’s main aim with the operation is to thwart any US and Russian plans to carve up Syria after the IS defeat.
Turkey insists on being involved in every key negotiation on the future of Syria, to prevent the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which it sees as an existential threat. Having its own 8-10 million Kurdish population in the southeast of the country, Turkey feels it is next on the list of destabilised countries and fears it is only a matter of time before its Kurdish region is excised for a greater Kurdish state.
Turkey wants to establish itself as the third major player after Russia and the US by supporting the Free Syrian Army, the least-powerful Syrian faction composed of Sunni Arab forces. In doing so, it wants to establish a Turkish-controlled corridor north of the Euphrates so that it can move 2.8 million increasingly unpopular Syrian refugees out of Turkey. The speed of the military operation suggests pre-planning rather than a reaction.
Ultimately, Erdogan is playing for internal politics. He needs the support of the nationalist elements in Turkey to win the critical 2019 presidential election, which will give him new powerspassed in the 2016 referendum.
Losing the election would mean his political opponent has those powers, and would likely resurrect serious corruption charges against him. While those charges may be forgotten in Turkey for now, they are kept alive in US courts.
This explains Erdogan’s increasing anti-US rhetoric. He is counting on the Syrian operation to increase his bargaining chips in a potential showdown with the US administration.
Turkey has made an extremely risky move, which could escalate the conflict in Syria. Over the past three decades, it has launched countless operations across the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Not only has Turkey failed to prevent developments favouring a pathway towards Kurdish independence, it has made matters worse for itself. This time may be no different.
Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University
Biomining is the kind of technique promised by science fiction: a vast tank filled with microorganisms that leach metal from ore, old mobile phones and hard drives.
It sounds futuristic, but it’s currently used to produce about 5% of the world’s gold and 20% of the world’s copper. It’s also used to a lesser extent to extract nickel, zinc, cobalt and rare earth elements. But perhaps it’s most exciting potential is extracting rare earth elements, which are crucial in everything from mobile phones to renewable energy technology.
The Mary Kathleen mine, an exhausted uranium mine in northwest Queensland, contains an estimated A$4 billion in rare earth elements. Biomining offers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for getting it out.
Biomining is so versatile that it can be used on other planetary bodies. Bioleaching studies on the international space station have shown microorganisms from extreme environments on Earth can leach a large variety of important minerals and metals from rocks when exposed to the cold, heat, radiation and vacuum of space.
Biomining takes place within large, closed, stirred-tank reactors (bioreactors). These devices generally contain water, microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, or fungi), ore material, and a source of energy for the microbes.
The source of energy required depends on the specific microbe necessary for the job. For example, gold and copper are biologically “leached” from sulfidic ores using microorganisms that can derive energy from inorganic sources, via the oxidation of sulfur and iron.
However, rare earth elements are bioleached from non-sulfidic ores using microorganisms that require an organic carbon source, because these ores do not contain a usable energy source. In this case, sugars are added to allow the microbes to grow.
All living organisms need metals to carry out basic enzyme reactions. Humans get their metals from the trace concentrations in their food. Microbes, however, obtain metals by dissolving them from the minerals in their environment. They do this by producing organic acids and metal-binding compounds. Scientists exploit these traits by mixing microbes in solution with ores and collecting the metal as it floats to the top.
The temperature, sugars, the rate at which the tank is stirred, acidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels all need to be monitored and fine-tuned to provide optimal working conditions
The benefits of biomining
Traditional mining methods require harsh chemicals, lots of energy and produce many pollutants. In contrast, biomining uses little energy and produces few microbial by-products such as organic acids and gases.
Because it’s cheap and simple, biomining can effectively exploit low grade sources of metals (such as mine tailings) that would otherwise be uneconomical using traditional methods.
Countries are increasingly turning to biomining such as Finland, Chile and Uganda. Chile has exhausted much of its copper rich ores and now utilises biomining, while Uganda has been extracting cobalt from copper mine tailings for over a decade.
The rare earth elements include the group of 15 lanthanides near the bottom of the periodic table, plus scandium and yttrium. They are widely used in just about all electronics and are increasingly sought after by the electric vehicle and renewable energy industries.
The unique atomic properties of these elements make them useful as magnets and phosphors. They’re used as strong lightweight magnets in electric vehicles, wind turbines, hard disc drives, medical equipment and as phosphors in energy efficiency lighting and in the LEDs of mobile phones, televisions and laptops.
Despite their name, rare earth elements are not rare and some are in fact more abundant than copper, nickel and lead in the Earth’s crust. However, unlike these primary metals which form ores (a naturally occurring mineral or rock from which a useful substance can be easily extracted), rare earth elements are widely dispersed. Thus to be economically feasible they are generally mined as secondary products alongside primary metals such as iron and copper.
Over 90% of the world’s rare earth elements come from China where production monopolies, trade restrictions and illegal mining have caused prices to fluctuate dramatically over the years.
These reports encourage research and development into alternative mining methods such as biomining as a potential mitigation strategy.
Heeding these calls, laboratories in Curtin, and Berkeley Universities have used microorganisms to dissolve common rare-earth-element-bearing minerals. These pilot scale studies have shown promising results, with extraction rates growing closer to those of conventional mining methods.
Because most electronics have a notoriously short lifespan and poor recyclability, laboratories are experimenting with “urban” biomining. For example, bioleaching studies have seen success in extracting rare earth elements from the phosphor powder lining fluorescent globes, and the use of microorganisms to recycle rare earth elements from electronic wastes such as hard drive magnets.
The rare earth elements are critical for the future of our technology. Biomining offers a way to obtain these valuable resources in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and economically feasible.
When we talk about rental housing in Australia, we often make comparisons with renting overseas. Faced with insecure tenancies and unaffordable home ownership, we sometimes try to envisage European-style tenancies being imported here.
Our review of the private rental sectors of ten countries in Australasia, Europe and North America identified innovations in rental housing policies and markets Australia might try to emulate – and avoid. International comparisons also give a different perspective on aspects of Australia’s own rental housing institutions that might otherwise be taken for granted.
In nine of the ten countries we reviewed, private rental is the second-largest tenure after owner-occupation. Only in Germany do more households rent privately than own their housing. Most of the European countries we reviewed have higher rates of home ownership than Australia.
In most of the European and North American countries in our study, single people and lower-income households and apartments are heavily represented in the private rental sector. Higher-income households, families with kids, and detached houses are represented much more in owner-occupation. It’s less uneven in Australia: more houses, kids and higher-income households are in private rental.
Two key potential implications follow from this.
First, it suggests a high degree of integration between the Australian private rental and owner-occupier sectors, and that policy settings and market conditions applying to one will be transmitted readily to the other.
So, policies that give preferential treatment to owner-occupied housing will also induce purchase of housing for rental, and rental housing investor activity will directly affect prices and accessibility in the owner-occupied sector.
It also heightens the prospect of investment in both sectors falling simultaneously, with little established institutional capacity for countercyclical investment that makes necessary increases in ongoing supply.
A second implication relates to equality. Australian households of similar composition and similar incomes differ in their housing tenure – and, considering the traditional value placed on owner-occupation, this may not be by choice.
This suggests housing tenure may figure strongly in the subjective experience of inequality. It raises the question of whether housing is a primary driver of inequality, and not the outcome of difference or inequality in other aspects of life.
The rise of large corporate landlords
In almost all of the countries we reviewed, the ownership of private rental housing is dominated by individuals with relatively small holdings. Only in Sweden are housing companies the dominant type of landlord.
However, most countries also have a sector of large corporate landlords. In some countries, these landlords are very large. For example, America’s five largest corporate landlords own about 420,000 properties in total. Germany’s largest landlord, Vonovia, has more than 330,000 properties alone.
These landlords’ origins vary. Germany’s arose from massive sell-offs of municipal housing and industry-related housing in the early 2000s.
In the US, multi-family (apartment) landlords have been around for decades. And in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, they have been joined by a new sector of single-family (detached house) landlords that have rapidly acquired large portfolios from bulk purchases of foreclosed, formerly owner-occupied homes.
In these countries and elsewhere, the rise of largest corporate landlords has been controversial. Germany’s have a poor record of relations with tenants – to the extent of being the subject of popular protests in the 2000s – and their practice of characterising repairs as improvements to justify rent increases.
American housing advocates have voiced concern about “the rise of the corporate landlord” – especially in the single-family sector, where there’s some evidence that they more readily terminate tenancies.
These landlords also don’t build much housing. They are most active in renovating (for higher rents), merging with one another, and – especially in the US – developing innovative financial instruments such as “rental-backed securities”.
“Institutional landlords” are now a standing item on the Australian housing policy agenda. Considering the activities of large corporate landlords internationally, we should get specific about the sort of institutional landlords we really want, how we will get them, and how we will ensure they deliver desired housing outcomes.
Policymakers and housing advocates have, for years, looked to the community housing sector as the prime candidate for this role. They envisage its transformation into an affordable housing industry that works across the sector toward a wide range of policy outcomes in housing supply, affordability, security, social housing renewal and community development.
With interest in the prospect of build-to-rent and multifamily housing rising in the property development and finance sectors, there is a risk that affordable housing policy may be colonised by for-profit interests.
The development of a for-profit large corporate landlord sector may be desirable for greater professionalisation and efficiencies in the management of tenancies and properties. However, this should not come at the expense of a mission-oriented affordable housing industry that makes a distinctive contribution to housing outcomes.
Bringing it home
Looking at the policy settings in the ten countries, we found some surprising results and strange bedfellows.
For example, Germany – which has had a remarkably long period of stable house prices – has negative gearing provisions and tax exemptions for capital gains, much like Australia. But, in Australia, these policies are blamed for driving speculation and booming prices.
And while the UK taxes landlords more heavily than most other countries, it has the fastest-growing private rental sector of the countries we reviewed.
However, these challenging findings should not be taken to diminish the explanatory power or effectiveness of these settings in each country’s housing policy. Rather, they show the necessity of considering taxation and other policy settings in interaction with each other and in wider systemic contexts.
So, for example, Germany’s conservative housing finance practices, and regulation of rents, may mean the speculative potential of negative gearing and tax-free capital gains isn’t activated there.
Strategy in Australia for its private rental sector should join consideration of finance, taxation, supply and demand-side subsidies and regulation with the objective of making private rental housing outcomes competitive with other sectors.
In the early years of the 20th century a Russian scientist – now known as the father of astronautics and rocketry – wrote a fable exploring what life in space might be like in the future.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) suggested that, by 2017, war and conflict would be eliminated by a world government. He also proposed this as the year humanity would acquire the technology to travel beyond the Earth.
That’s 60 years after this happened in reality. So now that 2017 has been and gone, just how accurate were his other predictions?
What makes Tsiolkovsky’s story – later published in English in 1960 as Outside the Earth – so intriguing is that he assembled a fictional dream team of the finest scientific minds from the 16th to 20th centuries to build a rocket capable of reaching orbit.
The scientists included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Tsiolkovsky himself (under the pseudonym of Ivanov).
Using the voice of these legends of science, Tsiolkovsky described not only the practical aspects, but also the sensations and emotions of living in space. It’s an extraordinary feat of the imagination.
Let’s look at how Tsiolkovsky’s thought experiment shapes up against reality.
A rocket’s eye view
Seen from orbit, space travellers are often struck by the beauty and fragility of the Earth and experience a cognitive shift of awareness. This is known as the Overview Effect and has been reported by astronauts and cosmonauts since the 1960s.
Tsiolkovsky anticipated this. In Outside the Earth, Newton warns the rocket crew that they may find the sight of the Earth overwhelming; and indeed there are mixed reactions:
The men were stunned by the sight, some felt exhausted and moved away from the portholes […] Others, however, darted excitedly from porthole to porthole with cries of surprise and delight.
What they don’t experience, however, is another aspect of the Overview Effect: the realisation that national borders and terrestrial conflicts are ultimately meaningless.
Perhaps this is because our fictional cosmonauts are already living in a unified, peaceful world, something very far from where we are today.
In space, everyone is equal
Tsiolkovsky believed that the absence of gravity would erase social classes and promote equality.
In orbit, energy from the Sun is abundant and free. Little effort is needed to move heavy masses, so construction is cheap. Clothing is unnecessary because temperature can be easily regulated to a balmy 30 to 35 degrees Celsius. Beds and quilts are a thing of the past.
There’s no longer any difference between the resources available to rich and poor – everyone can live in a fancy microgravity palace if they want.
As appealing as this vision is, in reality space travel is still the preserve of the very wealthy, whether individuals or nations. If anything, we risk differential access to space resources increasing, rather than eroding, inequality on Earth.
The orbital diaspora
Once our fictional explorers have successfully tested their rocket, they share the technology with anyone who wants to migrate to space.
Thousands of rockets are launched into geostationary orbit – the place where most of our telecommunications satellites are today, about 35,000km above the Earth.
The colonists build orbital greenhouse habitats. Each is a cylinder 1,000×10m, housing 100 people. A soil-filled pipe runs through the centre, supporting a luxuriant ecosystem of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Without seasons, weeds or pests, there’s abundant food for our vegetarian colonists all year round.
In reality, people started living in orbit far earlier than Tsiolkovsky predicted. The first space station, Salyut 1, was launched in 1971.
The International Space Station has been permanently occupied in low Earth orbit for the past 17 years. But there’s no orbiting ring of habitats where people can escape the hardships of life on Earth.
We now know that microgravity has serious effects on the human body, including loss of bone density and impaired vision. Living in space also means exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. In any case, the cost of space travel is prohibitive for all but a tiny portion of the Earth’s population.
Mining the solar system
Of course, resources are needed to maintain the orbital life described by Tsiolkovsky. Newton and his rocket crew learn how to capture meteors and find that they contain an abundance of useful minerals: iron, nickel, silica, alumina, feldspar, various oxides, graphite and much more.
From these minerals, Newton says, building materials, oxygen for breathing, soil for plants and even water can be extracted.
While the orbital colonists are building their habitats, the rocket heads to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A quick survey shows:
[… ] a rich and inexhaustible source of material for establishing colonies beyond the Earth’s orbit.
Tsiolkovsky was right about the importance of off-Earth mining for future space economies. Here his prediction and real life are more aligned.
But while governments, private enterprises and researchers are pursuing the riches promised by the Moon and asteroids, there’s a long way to go before the technology is equal to the task.
Leaving the cradle of Earth
A hundred years ago, Tsiolkovsky imagined that life in space would create an idyllic egalitarian society where people basked in orbiting greenhouses, drinking in the limitless energy of the Sun.
As space-for-profit competes with space as the common heritage of humanity, it’s worth remembering that there are alternative visions of the future of human society, other worlds that we can aspire to.
In one thing we have far surpassed Tsiolkovsky’s vision. At the conclusion of Outside the Earth, his cosmonaut-scientists talk of journeying from Mercury to the Rings of Saturn.
Could he have imagined that, by 2018, the Voyager spacecraft would not only be travelling outside the Earth, but outside the Solar System?
Consider Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of state-sanctioned murder and Hungary’s drift towards a new authoritarianism.
“Democracy is dead,” say the disheartened. “It’s time to bury democracy,” pounds one Tunisian pro-Sharia party. “Democracy has fallen, we need a new game in town,” argue Vladimir Putin’s populist and Xi Jinping’s neo-authoritarian allies.
These mantras, circulated widely through social media, have ricocheted around the world and were felt perhaps most viscerally in 2017. It was a year full of political events that, in hindsight, look like a string of assaults against democratic ways of living.
Is democracy dying, or perhaps already dead? Is it really time to eulogise democracy, or are we rather on the cusp of a new phase in its long and varied life? – Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra
Anguish about democracy attests to its value
Alice el-Wakil, University of Zurich
It has become common that under half of the citizenry votes in most Western democracies, that anti-democratic politicians get elected, and that elected authorities are accused of failing to protect citizens’ interests.
Corruption and nepotism are making comebacks and inequalities of all sorts are on the rise. At this time it is legitimate to ask whether democracy is breaking apart.
However, this worrisome situation should not transform us into sceptics about democracy. The outcry against the problems mentioned above shows that the public notices and criticises political shortcomings to realise democratic ideals – that there is something about democracy worth mobilising for.
Hence, as certain existing democratic regimes risk being perverted, we should use this critical moment to reinvent and expand democracy.
In most parts of the world, democracy has so far only taken the form of a specific kind of institutional arrangement, namely electoral representative democracy. It relies on a valuable but limited set of institutions, which preserves an exclusionary bias and a fundamental suspicion of citizens’ capacity to make political decisions.
The current challenges to this specific set of institutions should encourage us to acknowledge alternative, emerging practices of democratic participation and to create and experiment with complementary institutions.
Referendum procedures, new forms of representation, or assemblies of citizens are examples of the innovations we should consider to revivify democratic systems. Be it only because democracy enables us to publicly, legitimately and continuously question its value and to peacefully propose new ways of realising it.
Don’t look to the powerful for answers
Anna Szolucha, University of Bergen
The democratic impulse rarely originates in the corridors of power. Certain political elites may have a knack for exploiting right-wing populist and nationalist narratives to rewrite history and give a semblance of democratic legitimacy to the “corporate state”, but they are hardly effective when it comes to promoting popular concerns about freedom, justice, equality and social dialogue.
During the wave of pro-democratic protests that recently swept through the world, protesters in the West were critical of the liberal representative model of democracy, growing inequalities, and the influence of business on politics.
It’s clear there is a need to rethink democracy. The solution, however, is not to revamp the old model but to defend and simultaneously revisit the idea of democracy. We need to do so in such a way that it fosters equality, freedom and a sense that ordinary citizens have a greater influence on politics – virtues that the liberal representative version has failed to deliver.
The task of rethinking democracy is pressing because we are witnessing arrogant and aggressive attempts by political elites to appropriate democratic language to expand their own powers.
Despite massive protests and opposition to their policies, they call on “The People” to offer more undemocratic solutions to real or imagined problems. They curtail freedom, centralise control, divide society, destroy the climate and institutionalise their privilege in the process.
The rethinking and remaking of democracy is going to take effort and perseverance, but the continuing resistance shows that now is definitely not the time to announce the death of democracy because it never belonged to those who seem to be killing it in the first place.
Three keys to democratic values
Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University
Authoritarian power grabs – those grim assaults on constitutional democracy – demand political and legal resistance. Illiberal populism – those episodic rejections of the terms of political representation – demand the rehabilitation of hollowed-out parties.
Authoritarianism is the business of predators: the cynical exploitation of the democratic weaknesses of the moment. Populism is expressive anger: a reaction against conditions of the moment felt to be threatening and out of control. Both are caused by democracy’s own political demons.
We don’t need to relitigate democracy, but we do need a full-throated affirmation of its value, which comes in three different keys.
The aspirational key: democracy is a system of political representation rooted in the moral ground of the equal value of all the governed. No constitutional arrangement is democratic without aspirational commitment to civil and political equality in the form of civil and political rights. No bad faith “illiberal democracy” makes that commitment.
The outcome key: over time and in the face of vicissitudes and ineptitude, democracy aims at general wellbeing more consistently and competently than other forms of government. Democracy is the only self-correcting system. Democracies have recessions, depressions and fumbling responses to crises. They do not have famines.
The defence against tyranny key: civil society is the bulwark against arbitrary and total power. Only democracy cultivates freedom of association and its product: the groups, associations, networks and political parties that fuel unendingly contested democratic politics and that make trouble.
Our best check on elite tyranny
David Teegarden, University at Buffalo – State University of New York
Democratic governance provides the best practical check on elite domination. The citizenry has numerical superiority in every state. Unfortunately, elites (wealth, military, religious) know how to atomise and render them effectively powerless: thus the persistence of narrow oligarchy and autocracy throughout recorded history.
However, democratic institutions such as elections, the law and the free press, along with their ideals of political equality and individual freedom, can facilitate citizens’ efforts to co-ordinate their actions, draw upon their collective strength and force their elite competitors to agree to some sort of co-operative relationship.
In a functioning democracy, everybody – even billionaires, generals and bishops – must obey laws made by and enforced by all citizens.
It is certainly true that democratic governance often breeds contentious public discourse. It can lead to terrible, even disastrous outcomes from time to time. But it is far better to endure those things than to endure the horror of being forced to bow down publicly to an oppressive tyrant with no realistic hope of betterment either for yourself or for your children.
Solutions start with a constructive critique
Peter Wilkin, Brunel University
Representative democracy has always been regarded as problematic by those who have sought to replace it with authoritarian rule. Today many of these authoritarian trends have gained new voice and increasingly anti-democratic forces can be found.
But we can’t conflate all challenges to representative democracy as being the same. We can distinguish between those social forces that draw inspiration from the radical right – such as ethnonationalism, neo-fascism, militarism – and those that can be seen as a novel continuation of the libertarian socialist tradition – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Rojava.
The radical right is intolerant, aggressive and wants to capture the state for authoritarian ends and to nationalise capitalism.
By contrast, the libertarian socialist tradition is an attempt to extend democracy into areas like the economy (for example the citizen’s wage, universal income, worker control of industry). Libertarian socialists also attempt to reconfigure centralised state power and restore decision-making to communities.
Both movements are responding to the same conditions: the polarising impact of capitalism on social life (inequality, insecurity, poverty) and the failure of representative democracy to offer solutions to these problems.
Such solutions are simpler for the radical right, which has no commitment to democracy or civil liberties. The radical right wants to impose order upon society by any means, including violence and intimidation.
For movements inspired by the libertarian socialist aspiration to deepen, enrich and extend democracy, finding solutions is much harder. The means to be used are seen as fundamental to the society that will emerge.
As a result, violence, fear, propaganda and other powerful anti-democratic tools are eschewed in favour of education and organising communities through dialogue and negotiation.
Overcome short-termism for democratic renewal
Graham Smith, University of Westminster
In privileging the present over long-term sustainability, contemporary democracies have failed to deal effectively with climate change. But this does not mean, as some suggest, that we require a more authoritarian solution. Rather, we need to understand the sources of short-termism and think more creatively about our democratic institutions and practices.
The sources of short-termism are multiple and mutually reinforcing. These include: short electoral cycles that incentivise limited party-political horizons; vested interests that benefit from current political and economic arrangements; our psychological preference for immediate gratification; an economic system that privileges carbon-based consumption; and unborn generations who are unable to defend their interests.
These examples could be seen as a litany of despair. Or they could be recognised as a new set of challenges on which to base democratic renewal.
The potential contours for a reinvigorated long-term democracy are beginning to emerge. Imaginative and practical democratic innovation already includes: institutional experimentation such as independent offices for future generations that scrutinise the decision-making of other public bodies; new rights and forms of public participation designed to orientate citizens towards consideration of future generations; and co-operatives and other forms of collective corporate governance that prioritise sustainability over immediate economic return.
Time to get serious about citizenship education
Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University
Civil society, voluntary associations, active citizenship, social capital – these were the rosy keywords often used in discussions of radical democracy at the end of the 20th century.
Now, nearly 20 years later, we are seeing that people’s active participation can be negative, driven by emotional populist movements. Social capital is not always strong enough to empower people who are alienated and excluded from decision-making. Civil society is often uncivil.
History tells us that the so-called democratic political system does not guarantee the improvement of democratic society. Karl Mannheim, for example, who analysed mass society in the age of fascism, worried about an irrational democracy of emotions.
Mannheim was an advocate of social education (a concept similar to citizenship education today), which is meant to make the attitudes and behaviours of both common people and elites more democratic.
Although some might doubt the efficacy of such an education for the democratisation of society, it hasn’t in any serious way been tried before. As the old saying goes: we won’t know if it’ll work until we try.
For Mannheim and some of his contemporaries like John Dewey, T.S. Eliot and A.D. Lindsay, democracy is not only a political system but also a way of life. Citizenship education is not only a matter of school education but also of people’s social practice in their everyday lives.
Far from saying “democracy is dying”, we need to say that “now is the time for democracy to be lived”.