Mar 6 2014

Simple metal belt could save lives in earthquakes

The earthquake belt is cheap, easy to apply and widely available

The earthquake belt is cheap, easy to apply and widely available

Every year, between 1,000 and 2,000 people die in earthquakes around the world. The vast majority are killed inside collapsing building in developing countries where there’s little investment in earthquake resistant architecture. So creating a cheap, fast and easy way to earthquake-proof those buildings could make an enormous difference. Well, researchers and the University of Sheffield in the UK believe they’ve found a way to do just that. Here’s my report for Spectrum on Deutsche Welle:


Feb 7 2014

Debunking the “debunked myths” about Scandinavia

Norway: not what it's cracked up to be?

Norway: not what it’s cracked up to be?

 

British journalist Michael Booth has stirred emotions in the Nordic countries this week with an article in the Guardian based on his recent book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”. In it he aims to debunk many of what he calls myths about the Nordic “miracle” which people in the UK have come to believe and admire. So how much of what he writes rings true? Deutsche Welle’s Inside Europe decided to find out more – first by talking to Michael Booth and then hearing from me and London-based Danish journalist Ellen Otzen:


Jan 30 2014

Hunting for Norway’s new national dish

Food for thought: Fårikål has apparently fallen out of fashion

Food for thought: Fårikål has apparently fallen out of fashion

Norway’s new minister for agriculture has decided more than forty years of the same national dish is enough, and has asked people to come up with a new one. Here’s me talking to The Briefing on Monocle 24 about what this could mean for future culinary adventures in my home country:


Jan 21 2014

A house for a pound and a promise

Boarded up houseWould you like to buy a house for just over one euro? That’s the radical new plan launched in the English city of Stoke-on-Trent. Local authorities there want fill empty properties and re-build a local community which has all but fallen apart as people no longer can afford UK’s high property prices. I went to the city’s Cobridge area to find out more and made this report for Inside Europe on Deutsche Welle Radio.


Dec 19 2013

Eating or heating: the stark choice for many Brits as energy prices soar

In the UK thousands are struggling with rising energy costs. After last winter’s record number of deaths from cold weather, pressure is mounting on the government to force energy companies to help the most vulnerable.

A gas ring burns with a blue flame

An estimated 31,000 people died from the effects of cold weather last winter, many of them elderly people living in poorly insulated homes and faced with skyrocketing gas and electricity costs.

People have seen their energy bills soar by 150 percent over the past ten years, and some now say they must make a choice between buying food or keeping their homes warm.

“I’d sooner starve to death than freeze to death if it should come to that. Thank God at the moment we’re not there yet,” 76 year old Cath Dixon told DW. Her flat in Longsight, one of Manchester’s poorer areas, is poorly insulated and very expensive to heat.

“I have to keep it on all day every day, because I have arthritis very bad. I can’t be cold, I have no choice in the matter.”

But with energy prices rising seven times faster than the average household income, people like Cath Dixon are really starting to feel the strain.

“If it keeps going up at the rate it is then we’re going to find ourselves struggling very, very hard indeed,” she said.

 76 year old Cath Dixon keeping warm in a knitted white hat and scarf.
Like 76 year old Cath Dixon, a fifth of Brits have started wearing hats and scarves indoors to keep warm.

Hats and scarves inside

UK energy prices are not above the EU average, but one in five homes are brick houses from the early 1900s which retain very little heat. Because of this, people living in these kinds of houses will quickly notice every increase in energy prices on their household budget.

The latest price hike came last month, when most of the UK’s six largest energy providers turned up prices by 9 percent, taking the average family’s gas and electricity bill to a record €1,573 a year.

A recent poll showed a third of UK homes are now cutting back on their power consumption, and that more than one in five families have begun wearing scarves and hats to keep warm inside. Nearly one in four of the 2,000 people polled said they had been rationing food to be able to pay energy bills. One in 10 said they wouldn’t be able to buy Christmas gifts for their family this year.

“In all fairness, it’s pretty grim,” said Joe Malinowski from theeneregyshop.com - a website helping people choose the cheapest energy provider.

A lightbulb shines dimly in the dark
A quarter of those surveyed said they are eating less to be able to pay energy bills.

“What we have is a market largely controlled by six big corporations. There’s very little difference in the pricing between the energy companies, and those bills have been rising year in year out. Lots of people are suffering because of that.”

The price increases have left a record number of people in the UK in so-called fuel poverty; when more than 10 percent of their income goes to pay gas and electricity in order to keep “an adequate level of warmth.”

Record profits

Meanwhile, the six major energy companies, which provide 98 percent of the UK’s domestic energy needs, saw profits leap by 75 percent last year. The companies argue they need healthy profit margins in order to keep investing in infrastructure – much of which is ageing and expensive to maintain.

An electricity meter.
Thousands of Brits are struggling to meet rapidly rising energy prices.

That is not an argument which is readily accepted by poorer customers like Cath Dixon in Manchester.

“When you see the profits they’re making and the way elderly people are struggling, I think it’s an absolute disgrace,” she told DW.

“I do think the government should step in and say enough is enough.”

The opposition Labour Party has been quick to make political capital on the situation, promising to freeze energy prices for two years if they win the next general election which must be held by 2015.

The Conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron has said it cannot interfere in the open, international energy market and regulate prices there. Labour’s promise, the PM said, would only see energy companies turn up prices even more at the end of the price freeze period.

Price cut promise

But with the political heat reaching boiling point, earlier this month Cameron pledged to cut prices by removing various schemes aimed at improving energy use, including the so-called Energy Companies Obligation (ECO).

Under ECO, energy companies have had to help vulnerable people insulate their old, leaky houses. The problem, said Joe Malinowski from theenergyshop.com, was that the cost of doing this has been passed on to other customers.

“These schemes are government schemes agreed with the energy companies, administered by the energy companies. And one of the main reasons why bills are rising this year is not largely due to the rise in gas and electricity prices – it’s largely due to social and environmental costs that are being added on to bills and spread around to everybody else,” he told DW.

An energy saving lightbulb
There is little difference in price between the UK’s six major energy companies

“So funnily enough it’s the social programs and the environmental programs which are now driving the costs for everybody else.”

People over 60 are eligible for government help to meet their energy costs. But as bills rise at record rates along with increases in other living costs like food, for many it is simply not enough. And with forecasters predicting another chilly winter, the UK’s energy costs look set to remain a thorny political issue and a real challenge to thousands of people.


Dec 3 2013

Norway’s national anthem explained

Norwegian flagDid you know Norway’s national anthem isn’t the country’s national (official) anthem at all? Or that it was largely replaced by a 1990s song in the aftermath of the 2011 terror attacks? Here’s me trying to shed a light on the lesser known facts around “Ja vi elsker” for Monocle24:


Dec 2 2013

‘Educating Yorkshire’ documentary boon for UK school

Head teacher Jonny Mitchell's school has thrived with exposure from TV documentary

Head teacher Jonny Mitchell’s school has thrived with exposure from TV documentary

They say some teachers have eyes in the back of their heads – the kind pupils simply cannot hide from. But imagine a school were your every word and action is captured by 64 cameras, and then broadcast to the entire nation. That’s what’s been happening at a school in the north of England, in a unique TV experiment which throws an unforgiving light on daily life in a British secondary school. Here’s my report from Thornhill Community Academy in Yorkshire:


Dec 2 2013

Norway’s electric car market speeds ahead

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

While the Scandinavian country of Norway may be one of the largest oil producers in Europe, it also has more electric cars per capita than any other country. State incentives have been the key to success, experts say.

Electric cars in Norway (copyright: Lars Bevanger)

Espen Andreassen is the proud owner of a new electric Nissan Leaf car, making him one of over 4,000 Norwegians who has bought an electric car so far this year. So far, nine percent of all new cars sold in Norway in 2013 have been electric.

“Cars in Norway are extremely expensive due to the way they tax cars,” Andreassen told DW. “They often cost twice of what they cost in other comparable countries. But, there is basically no tax on electric vehicles. If we were going to buy a petrol or diesel car, it would have been about the same price.”

Espen Andreassen and other electric car drivers enjoy a host of other benefits too. One of the more popular incentives is being allowed to use the bus lane. Electric cars speed past rush hour queues in and out of Norway’s larger cities, often halving commuting times.

Espen Andreassen standing next to his car  Copyright: Lars Bevanger
Espen Andreassen was happy to choose an electric car ahead of a petrol-powered option, he says

“For us it’s fantastic. Usually we drop the kids at kindergarten and my wife and I drive together. That saves us a lot of time,” said Andreassen.

Ten year battle

Norway’s electric car revolution has happened fast, with most of the growth in sales happening over the past three years. But, this is a result of years of lobbying from electric car owners and their organisations.

“It took a long time to get the benefits,” said Snorre Sletvold, President of Norway’s Electric Vehicle Association.

“It started with no import tax and no first time registration tax. Now we also get free parking and free passing through the toll roads, exemption from VAT and access to use the bus lane. It took 10 years to get all these benefits in Norway,” he said.

The rapid increase in electric car sales has had a noticeable environmental impact too. The average carbon dioxide (CO2) emission from all cars in Norway is currently 118 grams per kilometer, down from 125 grams per kilometer last year. That easily beats the EU target.

Massive oil producer

Yet critics say this is a drop in the ocean when it comes to Norway’s global responsibilities for climate change. The country is the world’s eighth largest crude oil exporter and third largest exporter of natural gas.

“Even though Norway is the country with the most electric cars per person, it’s not going to save the world,” says Lars Haltbrekken, chairperson of the Norwegian division of Friends of the Earth.

“The largest environmental footprint in Norway comes from our huge oil and gas production,” he told DW.

Haltbrekken says that when emissions from Norway’s most recently-discovered oil and gas field are calculated, they would total CO2 levels equivalent to that of 40 million cars.

Lars Haltbrekken points out recent oil finds off Norway Copyright: Lars Bevanger
Lars Haltbrekken points out recent oil discoveries off of Norway’s coastline on a map

Others argue that electric cars don’t necessarily produce much less CO2 than modern fossil fuel cars. The production and disposal of batteries and the oil and gas needed for electricity production all adds up to give an electric vehicle a much larger CO2 footprint than many believe.

Although a massive fossil fuels exporter, domestically, nearly all electricity in Norway comes from renewable hydro electric power plants, helping reduce CO2 emissions further.

The incentives dilemma

The Norwegian Parliament in Oslo has guaranteed generous incentives for electric cars until 2017. If the current growth in sales of these vehicles continues, those incentives will have to be reconsidered.

“Of course the bus lane will have to be closed for electric cars one day. Then we have to find another way. Maybe we will have to raise the tax in the toll fee for petrol cars,” said Snorre Sletvold from the Electric Vehicle Association.

Not surprisingly, electric car manufacturers have taken a special interest in Norway, and despite the possible rolling back of some government incentives they remain optimistic about the future Norwegian market.

Free charging for electric cars in Norwegian cities Copyright: Lars Bevanger
An electric car charging station in the Norwegian capital of Oslo

“Norway is by far our biggest market in Europe, and actually it’s the second biggest market for us globally,” said Esben Pedersen from Tesla Motors, a US company making luxury electric cars.

Despite a price tag starting at 71,400 euro ($96,430), the Tesla Model S was the best selling car in Norway in September this year, beating the trusty VW Golf into second place.

“Whereas politicians elsewhere in Europe do a lot of talking, in Norway they actually act and they have a national electric vehicle policy as the only country in Europe,” said Pedersen. The government’s willingness to invest in electric car use helped Tesla make the decision to invest in a Norwegian network of super-chargers, electric hook-up points which can charge an electric car battery in less than one hour.

The chicken and the egg

The number of electric cars globally is still very small, and even if the rest of the world caught up with Norway, the energy needed to charge them all would still be coming mainly from fossil fuel sources.

To some it is a chicken and egg issue: do we wait until most energy production is sustainable before turning to electric cars, or do we go electric and hope this will help speed up the growth of alternative energy production? Electric car owner Espen Andreassen in Oslo believes in the latter.

“We can’t wait until all power sources are renewable before we start developing and driving and buying electric cars. The amount of renewable energy in the EU mix is increasing, so it will get better all the time. At least we have to try and see if it works out,” he said.

Meanwhile Norway’s love affair with the electric car shows no signs of abating. According to a recent survey, more than half of Norwegians would consider an electric or hybrid for their next car.


Oct 12 2013

A peak behind the doors of secretive Nobel Committee

Lundestad: “I’d like to keep my job for one more year” and won’t reveal a thing

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Norwegian Nobel Committee which awards the annual prize operates behind closed doors and in greatest secrecy. Their deliberations are kept secret for 50 years – and then you won’t even find any minutes, because there aren’t any. I got a sneak peak behind the scenes in this interview with the Committee’s permanent secretary Geir Lundestad, who will retire next year after 24 years in the job. My interview was broadcast on Monocle 24:


Sep 10 2013

Norway shifts right in first post-Breivik election

Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has conceded defeat in parliamentary elections to a center-right coalition alternative including the anti-immigration Progress Party.

These were Norway’s first general elections since Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 terror attacks on government head quarters and a summer camp for Labour Party youths.

Yet despite much praise for the way Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg led his party and the country through the aftermath of the atrocities, and despite Norway’s booming economy and record low unemployment, voters on Monday turned to the right.

Solberg thanked the Norwegian people for ‘making history’

“This is a wonderful result,” Conservative Party deputy leader Jan Tore Sanner told DW.

“Today it’s 24 years since we had a Conservative prime minister, and in the upcoming weeks I hope we will have a new one.”

The Conservative leader Erna Solberg is expected to put together and lead a center-right coalition in time for October, when Stoltenberg says he will step down after presenting his government’s last budget.

Voter fatigue

Vast North Sea oil and gas reserves have made Norway one of the world’s wealthiest countries. But consecutive governments have been careful to put most of it aside in a fund which is now worth $750 billion. Under Jens Stoltenberg’s government the fund has grown exponentially, along with the national economy.

Some find it hard to explain why voters opted for change in a country that has done better than any other in Europe during the economic downturn.

“I think the key reason is a sort of fatigue with the sitting government,” Johannes Berg, of the Institute of Social Research in Oslo, told DW.

“They’ve been in government for eight years, which is quite unique in recent history in this country. And the fact that we’re doing so well right now might be a good reason for people to change government because now we’re not in a crisis, we’re not in a difficult situation.

“So this might be a good time to try something new, to maybe even experiment with having the Progress Party in government,” Berg said.

Norway is sitting on a sovereign wealth fund worth 750 billion dollars

Anti-immigration populists

Coalition governments are the norm in Norway. Despite strong gains, the main opposition Conservative Party fell well short of an overall parliamentary majority on Monday and must now start coalition talks with other parties on the right.

For first time Conservative leader Erna Solberg – now prime minister in waiting – has said she is ready to include the populist Progress Party in a coalition government.

The Progress Party has long campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket, but it has moved away from some its anti-Islamic rhetoric after the extreme-right 2011 terror attacks.

Immigration did feature prominently in the Progress Party’s manifesto, however. Some of their MPs promise to press hard for stricter immigration policies in coalition talks.

“When we see religions like Islam coming and telling women what to wear, what to say, stay at home, how they bring up their children – I feel worried about that,” said Christian Tybring Gjedde, a Progress Party MP for Oslo.

“We need to have certain values as a standard in Norway, based on human rights from the United Nations – equality of the sexes, freedom of speech, no sharia [law]. This we have to be extremely strict on and not accept any lingering or wavering on these issues. We have to be very, very firm,” he said.

Jensen of the Progess Party is looking to enter government

Red lines

Twelve percent of Norway’s population is made up of immigrants, most coming from Poland and Sweden. Just 13 percent of new immigrants are Muslims. Conservative leader Solberg told DW she wanted to continue Norway’s existing immigration policies, and was ready to challenge the Progress Party on that in coalition talks:

“There are some of their proposals that we disagree on. We don’t think all asylum seekers should be kept in closed camps [as proposed by the Progress Party]. We have red lines, of course,” Solberg said.

With 48 seats against the Populist Party’s 29, Solberg’s Conservatives should have an easier job negotiating a government platform suited to their own manifesto.

“I think these negotiations will be difficult, but they are in no way impossible,” Frithjof Jacobsen, a political commentator on the daily VG, told DW.

He believed the Conservatives’ focus on investing in research, education and industries other than the now nearly all-encompassing oil and gas sector had won them many votes.

“We have some huge challenges in Norway; we are very dependent on our oil and gas economy. We need to make sure that our businesses are prepared for a time when this oil and gas might not be such a big source of income,” said Jacobsen.

Jens Stoltenberg, once immensely popular in Norway, has seen his approval ratings drop

Survivors running for parliament

Some 30 survivors of Breivik’s shooting spree at the Utoeya summer camp for Labour party youth ran for parliament in these elections. One of them, Stine Renate Haheim from Valdres northwest of Oslo, said democracy had become even more important to her now, regardless of the poor outcome of her party.

“You became painfully aware that our democracy is not something we are given – it is something you must fight for every day. All the political youth organizations have got more members [after the attacks] and that is a clear message from youth that they want to safeguard our democracy.”