Bank of Japan announces massive asset-purchase programme

£90bn of government assets purchased each month starting in January 2014.

The Bank of Japan has made its much-foreshadowed move to attempt to end the years of deflation the country has faced. This morning, it announced that it was repositioning its inflation target from 1 per cent to 2 per cent, and that it would aim to achieve that rate "at the earliest possible time".

The plan involves more than just expectations management, as well. Until the end of this year, the bank will continue with its ¥101trn round of quantitative easing, but from January 2014 it will begin buying ¥13trn — over £90bn — of assets, mostly short-term government debt, each month. The hope is that the massive burst of asset purchases will act to spike inflation, but there are indications that the government also plans to use some of the revenue this monetary policy will accord to it for fiscal stimulus.

As well as being higher than it was before, the inflation target is also stronger, replacing a "vaguely-worded “goal” for price stability over the medium to long-term", according to the Financial Times. That goal was not thought to be symmetrical, either: it merely targeted a positive rate of inflation below 2 per cent. Non-symmetric targets tend to inspire a tendency to undershoot (because if 1.9 per cent is OK but 2.1 per cent is terrible, no bank will aim for 2 per cent inflation), compounding the problems.

The news is not likely to please Germany's chief banker, Jens Weidmann, who yesterday warned of the danger of a government intervening too strongly in the actions of a central bank. Weidmann said in a speech at a Deutsche Boerse event that:

Already alarming violations can be observed, for example in Hungary or Japan, where the new government is interfering massively in the business of the central bank with pressure for a more aggressive monetary policy and threatening an end to central bank autonomy. A consequence, whether intentional or unintentional, could moreover be an increased politicisation of exchange rates.

But Weidmann is complaining into dead air, at this point. Japan's popular nationalist new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is determined to restore the country to growth by any means possible. A recent tax bill, passed before his election, contains a (non-binding) target of 3 per cent nominal growth and 2 per cent real growth (implying a 1 per cent rate of inflation), which he is likely to adopt as a target for his own government. To achieve that, he needs some aid from the Bank of Japan — aid which he has secured. The question now is whether the bank will be allowed to return to independence when its job is done.

The Bank of Japan. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.