US Trade Panel Recommends Varying Solar Panel Import Restrictions

Members of the U.S. International Trade Commission on Tuesday made three different recommendations for restricting solar cell and panel imports on Tuesday, giving President Donald Trump a range of choices to address injury to domestic producers.

The recommendations range from an immediate 35 percent tariff on all imported panels to a four-year quota system that allows the import of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year. The president’s ultimate decision could have a major impact on the price of U.S. power generated by the sun.

Both supporters and critics of import curbs on solar products were disappointed by the proposals, which were unveiled at a public meeting in Washington.

Trade remedies were requested in a petition earlier this year by two small U.S. manufacturers that said they were unable to compete with cheap panels made overseas, mainly in Asia. The companies, Suniva Inc and the U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG, said Tuesday’s recommendations did not go far enough to protect domestic producers.

“The ITC’s remedy simply will not fix the problem the ITC itself identified,” Suniva said in a statement. The company, which is majority owned by Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, filed the rare Section 201 petition nine days after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April. It had sought a minimum price on panels of 74 cents a watt, nearly double their current cost.

One analyst said the stiffest remedy recommended, a 35 percent tariff on solar panels, would add about 10 percent to the cost of a utility-scale project but would have a negligible impact on the price of residential systems because panels themselves make up a small portion of their overall cost.

“It’s not nearly the doomsday impact we were potentially expecting,” said Camron Barati, a solar analyst with market research firm IHS Markit Technology.

But the top U.S. solar trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that any tariffs would be “intensely harmful” to the industry. The group has lobbied heavily against import restrictions on the grounds that they would undermine a 70 percent drop in the cost of solar since 2010 that has made the technology competitive with fossil fuels.

Recommendations

The ITC will deliver its report to Trump by Nov. 13. He will have broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all. Since only two members agreed on the same restrictions, there was no majority recommendation from the four-member commission.

“There is still plenty to be worried about,” said MJ Shiao, who follows the U.S. solar market for GTM Research.

Trump has vowed to protect U.S. manufacturers from low-priced imports, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has talked about tariff-rate quotas as a flexible way to protect some industries, allowing imports in as needed, but only up to a certain level before high tariffs kick in.

Commissioners David Johanson and Irving Williamson urged the president to impose an immediate 30 percent tariff on completed solar modules, to be lowered in subsequent years, and a tariff-rate quota on solar cells. Imports of cells in excess of one gigawatt would be subject to a 30 percent tariff that would decline after the first year.

ITC Chair Rhonda Schmidtlein recommended an immediate 35 percent four-year tariff on imported solar modules, with a four-year tariff rate quota on solar cells. This would impose a 30 percent tariff on imports exceeding 0.5 gigawatts and 10 percent on imports below that level. These tariffs would decline over a four-year period.

In the most lenient recommendation, Commissioner Meredith Broadbent said the president should impose a four-year quota system that allows for imports of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year.

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California Wildfire Insurance Claims Top $3.3B

Property damage claims from a series of deadly October wildfires now exceed $3.3 billion, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Tuesday.

The figure represented claims for homes and businesses insured by 15 companies and was more than triple the previous estimate of $1 billion. Jones said the number would continue to rise as more claims were reported.

The amount of claims now reported means that the fires caused more damage than California’s 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which was previously the state’s costliest, with $2.7 billion in damage in 2015 dollars, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Forty-three people were killed in the October blazes that tore through Northern California, including the state’s renowned winemaking regions in Napa and Sonoma counties. They destroyed at least 8,900 buildings as more than 100,000 people were forced to evacuate. It was the deadliest series of fires in California history.

Several dozen buildings were also damaged or destroyed in fires in Southern California’s Orange County.

“Behind each and every one of these claims … are ordinary people, Californians who lost their homes, lost their vehicles, in some cases whose family members lost their lives,” said Jones, a Democrat who is running for attorney general.

Jones said there were just over 10,000 claims for partial home losses, more than 4,700 total losses and about 700 for business property. There were 3,200 claims for damaged or destroyed personal vehicles, 91 for commercial vehicles, 153 for farm equipment and 111 for watercraft.

The figures do not reflect uninsured losses, including public infrastructure and the property of people who were uninsured or underinsured.

Arson suspect’s warning

Meanwhile, a man facing arson charges for a wildfire that destroyed two homes south of the San Francisco Bay Area had an ominous message for a prosecutor during a court hearing Tuesday: “You’re next.”

Marlon Coy, 54, uttered the words while glaring at Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosell while he explained four of the felony charges Coy is facing, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

Coy pleaded not guilty to charges of arson of a nondwelling, arson causing bodily injury and being a felon in possession of a firearm, the newspaper reported.

Witnesses saw Coy start the fire on October 16 near a property in Santa Cruz County connected to someone with whom he had a dispute, sheriff’s officials said.

Coy was arrested in possession of jewelry and a bicycle taken from a home that had been burglarized while under evacuation, according to sheriff’s officials.

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Pruitt to Put New Members on EPA Science Panels

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday he intends to replace the outside experts that advise him on science and public health issues with new board members holding more diverse views.

 

In announcing the changes, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suggested many previously appointed to the panels were potentially biased because they had received federal research grants. The 22 boards advise EPA on a wide range of issues, including drinking water standards and pesticide safety.

 

“Whatever science comes out of EPA shouldn’t be political science,” said Pruitt, a Republican lawyer who previously served as the attorney general of Oklahoma. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency.”

 

Pruitt has expressed skepticism about the consensus of climate scientists that man-made carbon emissions are the primary cause of global warming. He also overruled experts that had recommended pulling a top-selling pesticide from the market after peer-reviewed studies showed it damaged children’s brains.

 

Pruitt said he will name new leadership and members to three key EPA advisory boards soon — the Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Board of Scientific Counselors.

 

It was not clear from the EPA’s media release if all current board members serving out their appointed terms were immediately dismissed. EPA’s press office did not respond to messages seeking clarification on Tuesday.

 

As part of his directive, Pruitt said he will bar appointees who currently in receipt of EPA grants or who is in a position to benefit such grants. He exempted people who work at state, local or tribal agencies, saying he wants to introduce more “geographic diversity” to the panels.

 

The five-page policy Pruitt issued Tuesday makes no mention of other potential conflicts of interest, such as accepting research funding from corporate interests regulated by EPA.

 

Tuesday announcement comes after Pruitt in May said he would not reappoint nine of the 18 members of the Board of Scientific Counselors to serve a second three-year term, as had been customary.

 

Current board chairwoman Deborah Swackhamer said the members were already required to follow rules intended to prevent conflicts of interests.

 

“It obviously stacks the deck against scientists who do not represent corporate special interests,” said Swackhamer, a retired professor who taught environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota. “It speaks volumes that people funded by special interests are OK to be advisers, but not those who have received federal grants.”

 

Senate Environment Committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who shares Pruitt’s skepticism of mainstream climate science, cheered the move. He said EPA’s science boards would now better reflect the views of rural states like his own.

 

But environmentalists worried that Pruitt will now select board members with financial ties to the fossil fuel and chemical industries.

 

“The Trump EPA’s continued attack on science will likely be one of the most lasting and damaging legacies of this administration,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that approves EPA’s funding. “Pruitt is purging expert scientists from his science boards — and replacing them with mouthpieces for big polluters.”

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US Social Media Giants Pledge to Combat Foreign Disinformation

Attorneys for Twitter, Facebook and Google on Tuesday told U.S. lawmakers that Russian entities used their platforms to sow discord and disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but downplayed the magnitude of those efforts.

“Foreign actors used fake accounts to place ads in Facebook and Instagram that reached millions of Americans over a two-year period,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said, testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. “Many of these ads and posts are inflammatory. Some are downright offensive.”

Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, said the company studied all tweets posted from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016, and found that election-related content posted by automated Russian troll accounts “was comparatively small.” He said the Russian troll accounts made up “around 1/100th of a percent of total Twitter accounts” during the time studied.

“Twitter believes that any activity of that kind — regardless of magnitude — is unacceptable and we agree we must do better to prevent it,” he said.

Twitter has taken action against the suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts and implementing new dedicated teams “to enhance the quality of the information our users see,” Edgett said.

Facebook, meanwhile, said it would hire more people to vet and, when necessary, remove content, and verify and publish the identities of election advertisers.

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the Senate requiring some of the very steps technology giants say they are implementing on their own.

“These platforms are being used by people who wish us harm and wish to undercut our way of life,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Russia interfered in the election,” said California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. “What is really staggering and hard to fully comprehend is how easily and successfully they turned modern technologies to their advantage.”

The social media attorneys said Russian trolling campaigns consistently sought to rile up Americans, first in a way damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. After the election, they said, Russian efforts appeared aimed at sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Republican Donald Trump’s victory at the polls — a point seized upon by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

“Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States; their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy,” Grassley said.

Representatives from the same social media companies testify Wednesday before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

VOA’s Joshua Fatzick contributed to this report.

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Britain Accelerates Brexit Plans; Talks Also to Speed Up

Britain is accelerating preparations for “all eventualities” when it leaves the European Union, but both sides are hopeful an agreement on stepping up talks to unravel more than 40 years of partnership will be sealed soon.

With only 17 months remaining until Britain’s expected departure, the slow pace of talks has increased the possibility that London will leave without a deal, alarming business leaders who say time is running out for them to make investment decisions.

British and EU negotiators met in Brussels on Tuesday to try to agree a schedule for further divorce talks, with an initial proposal from the bloc to hold three more rounds before the end of the year not winning instant approval from London.

The pressure has spurred the British government to step up its Brexit plans, employing thousands more workers and spending millions to make sure customs posts, laws and systems work on day one of Brexit, even without a deal on a future relationship.

At a meeting with her ministers Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May was updated on plans for the tax and customs authority to add 3,000 to 5,000 workers next year and for spending of 500 million pounds ($660.45 million) for Brexit.

Domestic preparations

“Alongside the negotiations in Brussels, it is crucial that we are putting our own domestic preparations in place so that we are ready at the point that we leave the EU,” May’s spokesman told reporters.

“The preparatory work has seen a significant acceleration in recent months. Departments are preparing detailed delivery plans for each of the around 300 programs underway across government.”

May wants to silence critics in her ruling Conservative Party who are pressing her to walk away from talks, which have faltered over how much Britain should pay to leave the bloc.

Brexit campaigners are demanding that Britain leave with no deal if the talks do not move on beyond a discussion of the divorce settlement on a so-called Brexit bill, EU citizens rights and the border with EU member Ireland by December.

Brexit minister David Davis said Tuesday that he thought Britain would agree on some kind of basic deal with the European Union, even in the “very improbable” eventuality that they failed to agree on a trade deal.

Better tone

In a sign that an improved tone between the two sides, struck at a summit earlier this month, was continuing, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reaffirmed his message in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, that he was ready to “speed up negotiations.”

May’s government has also long said it would welcome an acceleration in the talks. But the sides have yet to agree on how to do that following a top-level meeting in Brussels on October 19-20.

Barnier has proposed three rounds — one that did not take place last week, and two more in the weeks starting November 16 and December 4. London prefers continuous talks.

“We are ready to accelerate, but we must have something to talk about,” said an EU official.

This was what Britain’s Oliver Robbins and Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, were seeking to agree on in Brussels on Tuesday.

Before leaving the EU, May faces a struggle to get parliamentary support for a law to sever political, financial and legal ties with the bloc — the EU Withdrawal Bill, for which lawmakers have proposed hundreds of amendments.

Asked whether May was preparing to offer a concession over a final vote on any deal struck with the EU, her spokesman said there was “lots of speculation in relation to Brexit.”

“We’ve always said that we’ll do whatever is necessary,” he said.

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You Can Stymie the iPhone X Face ID – but it Takes Some Work

Apple is offering a nifty way to unlock its new iPhone X — just stare at it.

Face ID, Apple’s name for its facial-recognition technology, replaces the fingerprint sensor found on other models.

How well does it work — not just technically, but in everyday use? After all, it’s much easier to align your finger with the sensor than to align your face with the phone.

The iPhone X costs about $1,000 — $300 more than the iPhone 8. Advance orders began this past Friday, and Apple is now giving delivery times of five to six weeks. Apple says it will have limited supplies at stores for same-day pickup on Friday, but you’ll have to get there early.

Better face detection

Many rival Android phones already use facial-recognition technology. Samsung also has an unlock feature that scans your iris. But the systems can be tripped with something as simple as eyeglasses.

While Android largely bases its match on a two-dimensional camera shot of you, the iPhone X goes 3-D. During setup, the iPhone guides you to rotate your head so it gets a more complete picture of you — analyzing some 30,000 points on your face, to be specific. So if you’re wearing glasses, the iPhone can still recognize you using other parts of your face. Same goes for wearing a hat.

And Apple’s system continually learns. Each time you use your face to unlock the phone, it automatically keeps tabs on small changes, such as growing a mustache or simply getting older. With Android, you have to go into the settings to teach the phone’s face recognition to get better.

There are limits. If you shave your beard, it’s too big of a change for the iPhone X to be sure it’s you. You’ll need a passcode, but the phone should remember you the next time .

Recognizing you

I tested the iPhone X against Samsung’s iris scanner on the Galaxy Note 8 and face systems on Google’s Pixel 2 and LG’s V30 phones. V30 improves upon the standard Android technology in asking you to turn your head slightly during the setup, though in practice the Pixel was far better at recognition.

Only the iPhone and the Pixel recognized me with standard eyeglasses — important, as I expect the same performance with or without spectacles. That said, Face ID unlocked with just one of the two sunglasses I tried; the other was too big.

Costumes and disguises also challenged Face ID. A Santa hat was OK, but a Santa beard wasn’t. Nor did it like funny glasses and a fake nose. Winter clothing was fine, as long as the scarf wasn’t covering too much of my face.

Face ID worked better than expected in bright sunlight — not every time, but enough to be satisfying. It also worked in the dark, thanks to the use of infrared sensors rather than just the standard camera. That’s important when you wake up in the middle of the night and must absolutely check Facebook or Tinder. For those keeping score, the Pixel worked in sunlight, but not in the dark; it’s the reverse for Samsung. Samsung also worked with the Santa beard, as it’s focused on your eyes.

The iPhone also unlocked after getting a haircut.

I didn’t try to fool the iPhone into unlocking with someone else’s face. I’m sure hackers will spend the coming weeks trying. Apple says Face ID could be unreliable with twins and other siblings who look like you, as well as for children under 13 — though young children don’t really need a $1,000 phone. Give them a $200 iPod Touch — or better yet, a book to read.

No more fingerprint

The home button is gone to increase screen space. Others that have done this have moved the fingerprint scanner to the back. Apple ditches it completely, so Face ID is the only alternative to a passcode. The Olsen twins, among others, will face a hardship.

It’s also tougher to check Facebook during a meeting without getting busted by the boss. You can casually unlock a phone with your fingerprint under the table. It’s much more conspicuous to stare at a screen, especially because your face should ideally be 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 centimeters) away.

Besides unlocking the phone, you can use Face ID to confirm app purchases and log into banking apps. You can also confirm Apple Pay transactions. You don’t have to twist your head awkwardly for facial authorization while the phone is laying sideways on a payment terminal, either. With the iPhone X, you authorize Apple Pay before tapping. It was much faster than fingerprint when paying for lunch.

Bottom line is Face ID works fairly well — though keeping the fingerprint option would have been nice.

 

 

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Slow Flow of Human Migration May Have Doomed Neanderthals

What killed off the Neanderthals? It’s a big debate, and now a study says that no matter what the answer, they were doomed anyway.

 

Our close evolutionary cousins enjoyed a long run in Europe and Asia, but they disappeared about 40,000 years ago after modern humans showed up from Africa.

 

The search for an explanation has produced many theories including climate change, epidemics, or inability to compete with the modern humans, who may have had some mental or cultural edge.

 

The new study isn’t intended to argue against those factors, but just to show that they’re not needed to explain the extinction, says Oren Kolodny of Stanford University.

 

He and colleague Marcus Feldman present their approach in a paper released Tuesday by the journal Nature Communications.   

 

They based their conclusion on a computer simulation that represented small bands of Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe and Asia. These local populations were randomly chosen to go extinct, and then be replaced by another randomly chosen population, with no regard for whether it represented the same species.

 

Neither species was assumed to have any inherent advantage, but there was one crucial difference: Unlike the Neanderthals, the modern humans were supplemented by reinforcements coming in from Africa. It wasn’t a huge wave, but rather “a tiny, tiny trickle of small bands,” Kolodny said.

 

Still, that was enough to tip the balance against the Neanderthals. They generally went extinct when the simulation was run more than a million times under a variety of assumptions.

 

If survival was a game of chance, “it was rigged by the fact that there’s recurring migration,” Kolodny said. “The game was doomed to end with the Neanderthals losing.”

 

Kolodny said the evidence that such migrations actually occurred is suggestive rather than conclusive. Such migrations would not be expected to leave much of an archaeological trace, he said.

 

Experts in human origins said the paper could help scientists pin down the various factors that led to the Neanderthals’ demise. It fits in with other recent attempts to explain the extinction without assuming behavioral differences between Neanderthals and our ancestors, said Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The notion of such differences is largely disproven, he said.

 

Katerina Harvati of the University of Tuebingen in Germany said while the new work could be useful in solving the extinction mystery, it doesn’t address the question of why modern humans dispersed from Africa into Europe and Asia. It’s important to figure out what was behind that, she said in an email.

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Water Up! Re-Think Your Drink

The suburbs of Washington are the setting for a pilot project to promote healthier eating habits, a partnership between leaders of the Latino community there and researchers at George Washington University. The “Water up Project” encourages the community to drink more water and reduce their consumption of sugary beverages. Faiza Elmasry reports. Faith Lapidus narrates.

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Vietnam Tech Startups Seek Next Phase

There’s a short but not-so-simple question facing Vietnam’s technology startup fans: Now, what?

The communist country was not immune to the startup craze that swept the globe, but much of the early period was spent talking about tech and all the local potential. In what could be called the next phase of the craze, Vietnam now hopes to go beyond just talking. The focus now is on getting entrepreneurs to deliver on their pitches and meet concrete benchmarks, whether that’s to turn a profit, expand overseas, or find “exits” for their businesses, such as through acquisitions.

At a basic level, Vietnam has what’s needed to be a place prime for startups. Citizens have high literacy rates and math proficiency, which eases the path to creating an army of programmers for the economy. The country also has a balance that combines, on the one hand, a large consumer market on par with those of Thailand and the Philippines, and on the other hand, a lower level of development with high growth rates on par with those of Laos and Cambodia. And the low cost of things like wages and Internet plans allows people to establish companies at minimal expense.

But these are only ingredients, not, so far, action toward a modern culture of enterprise.

“Vietnam usually does copy-paste,” said Lam Tran, CEO of the startup WisePass, adding that locals should move past the model of copying a business idea from a foreign country and pasting it into the domestic market. “We don’t know how to internationalize.”

WisePass, an app that connects monthly subscribers to bar and restaurant deals, launched in Ho Chi Minh City with plans to cover seven countries in the near future.

Taking advantage of cross-border ties is one effective, increasingly popular strategy, startup aficionados say. For one thing, Vietnam has a huge postwar diaspora, known as Viet Kieu, who help connect the Southeast Asian country to investors, advisers, and developers abroad. For another, the tech scene inside the border is more cosmopolitan than ever.

To give one example, the Vietnam Innovative Startup Accelerator (VIISA) has invested in 11 companies for the second batch of what it calls “graduates.” All have domestic links, but have partners operating in locales as disparate as Ukraine, South Korea and France.

Sangyeop Kang, investment officer at VIISA partner Hanwha Investment, said he’s “delighted about the diversity” of this sophomore batch.

“The foreign teams were able to expand their business in Vietnam, while helping Vietnamese companies with global insights,” Kang said. “This is a step forward for the ecosystem.”

In a sign of official interest, the government has a carve-out for startups in its Law on Supporting Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, which will take effect Jan. 1. The law offers young companies support with co-working spaces, technical equipment, intellectual property training, and low interest rates, among other things.

To do more than copy and paste, new businesses are contemplating how to outfit themselves for Vietnam. The startup But Chi Mau, for instance, makes games that tap into the unquenchable thirst for education, while MarketOi deploys motorbike drivers to let customers customize their food deliveries.

“The question is how to differentiate ourselves,” MarketOi founder Germain Blanchet said, before proceeding to answer that question: “This is with flexibility.”

 

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Study: Climate Change Harms Health Worldwide as Millions Swelter

Climate change has caused severe harm to human health since the year 2000 by stoking more heat waves, the spread of some mosquito-borne diseases and under-nutrition as crops fail, scientists said on Tuesday.

Scant action to slow global warming over the past 25 years has jeopardized “human life and livelihoods,” they wrote in a report published in The Lancet, a British medical journal.

“The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible,” said the report, entitled Lancet Countdown and drawn up by 24 groups, including universities, the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Many governments are now trying to cut their greenhouse gas emissions under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, though U.S. President Donald Trump has weakened the pact by saying the United States, the world’s second biggest greenhouse gas polluter after China, will pull out.

“This (report) is a huge wake-up call,” Christiana Figueres, chair of the Lancet Countdown’s high-level advisory board and the United Nations’ climate chief at the Paris summit, told Reuters. “The impacts of climate change are here and now.”

Among its findings, the report said an additional 125 million vulnerable people had been exposed to heat waves each year from 2000 to 2016, with the elderly especially at risk.

Labor productivity among farm workers fell by 5.3 percent since the year 2000, mainly because sweltering conditions sapped the strength of workers in nations from India to Brazil.

The report, based on 40 indicators of climate and health, said climate change seemed to be making it easier for mosquitoes to spread dengue fever, which infects up to 100 million people a year.

The number of undernourished people in 30 countries across Africa and Asia rose to 422 million in 2016 from 398 million in 1990, it said.

“Undernutrition is identified as the largest health impact of climate change in the 21st century,” the report added.

“Glimmers of hope”

But despite the overall gloom, Anthony Costello, a director at WHO and co-chair of the Lancet Countdown study, said there were “significant glimmers of hope” in the situation.

The number of weather-related disasters such as hurricanes and floods rose 46 percent since 2000, but the number of deaths remained stable, suggesting that societies were improving protection measures against environmental catastrophes.

Almost 200 nations will meet in Bonn, Germany, from Nov. 6-17 to work on a “rule book” for the 2015 Paris climate agreement for shifting from fossil fuels.

The Lancet Countdown study did not estimate the total number of deaths from climate change. The WHO has previously estimated there could be 250,000 extra deaths a year between 2030 and 2050 because of climate change.

Nick Watts, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, said there could be a few benefits from warmer temperatures, such as fewer deaths from winter cold in nations from Russia to Canada.

“But those numbers are … almost negligible,” he said compared to the overall harm from global warming.

The Lancet study also said that the air in 87 percent of all cities, home to billions of people, exceeded pollution guidelines set by the WHO. Fossil fuels release both toxins and heat-trapping carbon dioxide when burnt.

Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and who was not involved in the Lancet study, said the report could bolster efforts to limit pollution in cities from Beijing to Mexico City.

“Air pollution is in a way an old issue,” he said, referring to decades of efforts to limit smog. “But it’s potentially coming to the forefront again as the most rapid vehicle to get action on climate change.”

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Elon Musk Tweets Photo of Los Angeles-area Transport Tunnel

Billionaire Elon Musk has released a photograph of a tunnel he’s building under a Los Angeles suburb to test a novel transportation concept for a system that would move people underground in their personal cars rather than by subway trains.

 

The founder of SpaceX and Tesla tweeted during the weekend that the tunnel was 500 feet so far and should be 2 miles long in three or four months.

 

In August, the Hawthorne City Council granted a permit allowing an underground extension of approximately 2 miles from SpaceX property, crossing under a corner of the municipal airport and beneath city streets to a point about a mile east of Los Angeles International Airport.

 

Musk also tweeted that hopefully in a year or so the tunnel would stretch along the Interstate 405 corridor from LAX to U.S. Highway 101 in the San Fernando Valley, which would require approval from other governments. That span is about 17 miles.

 

Musk has complained about what he called “soul-destroying” Los Angeles traffic. He added The Boring Company to his ventures, acquired a tunnel-boring machine that had been used in a San Francisco Bay Area project and put it down a shaft in a SpaceX parking lot this year.

 

Hawthorne council document say the “Test Tunnel for Zero Emission Subterranean Transportation” has an exterior diameter of 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) and an interior diameter of approximately 12 feet (3.6 meters) and will run as deep as 44 feet (13.4 meters) beneath the surface.

 

“When the project is completed, the Test Tunnel would house a ‘skate’ system that would be tested to prove the viability for transporting pedestrians or personal vehicles. The concept is that a vehicle would be drive on to the skate, the engine would be turned off and the vehicle and its passenger would be transported from one end of the Test Tunnel to the other,” the August resolution said.

 

“The Test Tunnel project would involve SpaceX engineers repeatedly testing and experimenting with personal vehicle types suitable for placement on the skates; refinement of the design and technology; and general data collection on performance, durability, and application. No public use of the Test Tunnel would occur, and no people would be occupying vehicles located on the skates as the skates are tested within the tunnel,” it added.

 

Construction was expected to take about five months to complete, the resolution said. Musk has maintained that tunneling can be accomplished much more rapidly than occurs with current methods.

 

The plan allows the city to request that the tunnel be filled in when testing is complete.

 

Musk has also advocated another transportation concept called the “hyperloop,” a network of nearly airless tubes that would speed special capsules over long distances at up to 750 mph (1,207 kph), using a thin cushion of air, magnetism and solar power. SpaceX has recently hosted competitions by development teams on a test track built at its headquarters.

 

On Monday, SpaceX conducted its 16th Falcon 9 rocket launch of the year, carrying a South Korean satellite into space from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The rocket’s first-stage booster scored another successful landing aboard a floating platform in the Atlantic.

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Argentina’s Macri Vows to Pursue Tax, Labor, Pension Reforms

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri vowed to press ahead with reforms to the country’s tax, labor and retirement systems in a speech on Monday, a week after his “Let’s Change” coalition swept to victory at the polls in midterm elections.

The government will present a tax reform proposal this Tuesday or Wednesday, and an amnesty plan for companies that hired workers informally in the coming days, Macri said. He added that the government would convene a commission to propose changes to the retirement system in coming weeks.

The speech marked a roadmap for the second half of Macri’s four-year term, as he seeks to implement business-friendly reforms to attract investors who avoided the country during more than a decade of populist rule.

“We need lower taxes, more public works, and all this we need to achieve with fiscal balance,” Macri told a gathering of lawmakers, governors, union leaders, judges and others.

Investors have been encouraged by the reforms Macri has implemented since taking office in December 2015, including lifting foreign exchange controls, settling with holdout creditors, and lowering export taxes.

But significant investment has not arrived. Companies have demanded lower costs, while credit agencies are concerned about a deep fiscal deficit.

Macri’s coalition swept the five most populous areas in midterm elections, giving him a broader mandate to pass reforms, though it still lacks majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Macri said his government had reduced the country’s tax burden, and wanted to make the system “simpler, clearer, and fairer.”

He reiterated the government’s aim of slashing Argentina’s fiscal deficit by one percentage point of gross domestic product per year.

And he also vowed to reform the country’s retirement system, a large driver of government spending.

“We need to start a mature and honest conversation about our retirement and pension system,” Macri said. “Our retirement system hides serious inequities, and it is not sustainable.”

While Macri has said he does not plan major changes to the country’s labor code, he has said the government plans to provide incentives to companies to formalize undeclared workers and work with unions in specific sectors to lower costs.

Macri also pledged reforms to the country’s justice system to combat corruption. Cabinet Chief Marcos Pena told journalists that the resignation on Monday of chief prosecutor Alejandra Gils Carbo, appointed during the former administration of President Cristina Fernandez, was a step towards making the judiciary more independent.

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Chile’s Pinera Says Spending Plan Would Cost $14 Billion

Chile’s frontrunning center-right presidential candidate, Sebastian Pinera, on Monday unveiled a $14 billion, four-year spending plan focused on proposed reforms to the country’s tax and pension systems and new investments in infrastructure and hospitals.

The former president, who governed from 2010 to 2014, said he would pay for his proposals by cutting “unnecessary” government spending and simplifying the tax code to encourage investment and boost growth and the country’s coffers.

Recent opinion polls show Pinera, 67, with a wide lead over his seven rivals in the Nov. 19 first-round election. Pinera would also beat his two closest contenders, leftists Alejandro Guillier and Beatriz Sanchez, in a runoff if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote, according to pollster CEP last week.

Guillier, the frontrunner on the left, has yet to put a price tag on his proposals, which track the policies of outgoing center-left President Michelle Bachelet. Sanchez has proposed a $13.4 billion plan of deeper social and economic reforms, paid for in part by a tax on the “super-rich.”

The 67-year-old Pinera, a billionaire who has campaigned on a program of fiscal austerity, is benefiting from disenchantment with Bachelet, whose program of progressive reforms coincided with a downturn in the price of copper, which can account for as much as 15 percent of gross domestic product in Chile, the world’s top producer.

“Half of the financing for my program will come from reallocations drawn from ineffective government programs … and a reduction of unnecessary spending in the public sector,” Pinera said in a 124-page paper detailing his proposals.

Pinera’s plan to reform the pension system would cost about $3 billion and include new subsidies to raise pensions for women and the middle class, as well as incentives to encourage workers to retire later, Pinera said in the document.

The current retirement system, introduced in the 1980s during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was historically seen as a model by many economists, but it has been criticized in recent years on a number of fronts, including what many see as insufficient payouts.

Pinera, a businessman-turned-politician, has also called for a $2.7 billion overhaul of Bachelet’s tax reform, to provide “more certainty and incentives for saving and investment,” as well as $3 billion of investment in hospitals and infrastructure.

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Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey Launch ‘Silk Road’ Rail Link

The leaders of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia launched an 826-km (500-mile) rail link connecting the three countries on Monday, establishing a freight and passenger link between Europe and China that bypasses Russia.

The line, which includes 105 km of new track, will have the capacity to transport one million passengers and 5 million tons of freight.

The three countries are linked by the BP-led Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas line, but trade links between Turkey and the Caucasus region are limited. The new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (BTK) promises to provide an economic boost to the region.

“Baku-Tbilisi-Kars is part of a big Silk Road and it’s important that we have implemented this project using our own funds,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said at the railway’s inauguration ceremony attended by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.

Starting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, trains will stop in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, pass through gauge-changing facilities in the Georgian town of Akhalkalaki and end their journey in the Turkish town of Kars.

The project’s total cost rose to more than $1 billion from an initial estimate of about $400 million. The bulk of that financing came from Azerbaijan’s state oil fund.

The rail link between Azerbaijan and Georgia was modernized under the project, which was launched in 2007. Its completion had been postponed several times since 2011.

“Several European countries have expressed an interest in this project and Azerbaijan is in talks with them,” Aliyev said, adding Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia were interested in transporting their goods via the BTK.

The new link will reduce journey times between China and Europe to around 15 days, which is more than twice as fast as the sea route at less than half the price of flying.

Trains can depart from cities in China, cross into Kazakhstan at the Khorgos Gateway, be transported across the Caspian Sea by ferry to the New Port of Baku and then be loaded directly onto the BTK and head to Europe.

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Brazil Hopes to Reward Landowners for Preserving Amazon Forest

The best way to further reduce deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is paying owners to preserve their land, and Brazil plans to discuss how to fund such a program at a climate summit next month, the country’s environmental minister said on Monday.

Brazil wants to switch from stick to carrot in its fight against deforestation, with Minister Jose Sarney Filho telling reporters that enforcement and penalties used to decrease the clearance of forest will not be enough.

The Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest tropical one, soaks up vast amounts of carbon and its preservation is seen as vital in the fight against climate change.

Sarney Filho told reporters that payments for so-called “environmental services” to landowners who maintain a minimum percentage of their land in its natural state, is the next step.

“Command and control has already reached its limit. If we don’t immediately start to demonstrate that forest services will be fairly paid, we will have serious problems,” Sarney Filho said.

In the Amazon, landowners generally must maintain 80 percent of their land in their natural state while being allowed to develop the other 20 percent with the rate varying for different biomes.

“We need to start discussing the reward to those that preserve their land,” Sarney Filho said.

The matter of how to value and fund this preservation will be featured at next month’s U.N. climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, on guidelines related to the Paris climate accord.

It will be the first meeting of the group since U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to pull the United States out of the Paris Accord, which seeks to limit the rise in temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.

While programs like the Amazon Fund, which is sponsored by Norway and Germany, pay for efforts to stop deforestation, they do not pay these types of rewards to landowners, Sarney Filho said.

He did not offer specifics on how to pay for them.

Brazil is drawing up a national plan for implementing the Paris Accord after seeking opinions from companies, environmentalists, indigenous groups and others.

Sarney Filho said he expects carbon emissions to fall in Brazil this year, corresponding to a 16 percent drop in deforestation between August 2016 and July 2017 from the year-earlier period.

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Big and Brilliant: Complex Whale Behavior Tied to Brain Size

Cetaceans — whales and dolphins — are among the brainiest of beings. In terms of sheer brain size, the sperm whale is tops on Earth, with a brain six times larger than that of a person.

And now, scientists have identified key differences among cetaceans linked to brain size. A study of 90 cetacean species published last week found that those with larger brains exhibit greater complexity in social structures and behaviors, with species like the killer whale and sperm whale leading the way.

“Dolphin and whale societies are at least as complex as what we have observed in primates,” said evolutionary biologist Susanne Shultz of the University of Manchester in Britain.

“They are extremely playful, they learn from each other, have complex communication. One problem for understanding just how smart they are is how difficult it is to observe them and to understand their marine world. Therefore, we have only a glimpse of what they are capable of.”

The researchers created a comprehensive database of brain size, social structures and cultural behaviors across cetacean species. The group of species with the largest brain size relative to body size was the large whale-like dolphins such as the killer whale, the similar-looking false killer whale and the pilot whale, Shultz said.

“Killer whales have cultural food preferences, have matriarchs that lead and teach other group members, and cooperatively hunt,” Shultz said.

In terms of intra-species food preferences, certain killer whale populations, also known as orcas, prefer salmon whereas others prefer seals or other whales or sharks depending on their group’s culture.

Other big-brained cetaceans also demonstrate sophisticated behaviors.

Mother sperm whales organize babysitting duties using other members of their pod to protect their young while they hunt for food down deep. The distinctive vocalizations sperm whales use to communicate sometimes differ depending upon where they live, much like regional dialects in human language.

Bottlenose dolphins use sea sponges as tools to protect their beaks while foraging for food, and live in structured communities.

Some of the largest cetaceans — filter-feeding baleen whales like the blue whale, fin whale and humpback whale that eat tiny crustaceans called krill rather than fish or squid — were on the low end of relative brain size. They live fairly solitary lives, coming together only for breeding seasons and near rich food sources.

The research was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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