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World saved . . . planet doomed

Green activists are seeing the global economic crisis as an opportunity, but the truth remains: high

You could call it the see-saw effect: it has long been an article of political faith that as worries about the economy go up, interest in the environment must go down. It stands to reason: people who are concerned today about their jobs have more immediate matters of alarm than whether or not there may be more storms in 2055. Environmental concerns are a luxury of the rich, something we can no longer afford once the economy turns sour and recession looms. “I’m nervous,” wrote Jonathon Porritt in June – after Northern Rock and Bear Stearns but be-fore Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and Iceland. “Climate change is still tough for politicians to sell. This all feels very much like one of those periodic crunch moments for the sustainability agenda.”

In that same month, as the financial crisis deepened, the Oxford economist Professor Dieter Helm worried that we seemed to be seeing a "shift back to the safe territory of concrete and jobs". Certainly, David Cameron - having established his reputation with the "Vote Blue, Go Green" pledge - seemed scarcely to mention climate change any more. Alarmed, major environmental groups wrote an open letter to party leaders warning them not to drop the environmental ball, as it were. And news on the high street seemed to confirm the worst fears: sales of organic produce began to slow as worried consumers tightened their belts, while supermarkets such as Tesco dropped their environmental messages and began to focus once again on price.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the gloom hasn't lasted. Even as the news has worsened - as stock markets crashed and the jobless figures began to rise - environmental issues have stayed resolutely at the top of the agenda. In Britain the passing of the Climate Change Bill, which cleared the Commons late last month, was a major triumph for the green lobby, committing the government to much stronger targets than originally envisaged, and with loopholes on aviation and shipping firmly closed. (The bill is due to receive Royal Assent by the end of this month.) Instead of slamming the door shut on environmental issues, the crisis of confidence in conventional economics seems to have led to a surge of interest in green measures to address the crisis.

If trillions of dollars can be spent on propping up the world's banks, why cannot a similar amount be spent on shifting the world on to a greener track? Neither is a charity case: banks will eventually repay their loans and environmental investments, too, will generate a substantial return. (Indeed, US lawmakers seemed to recognise this implicitly when they attached a proviso extending clean energy subsidies to October's $700bn bank bailout.)

The election of Barack Obama is perhaps the biggest new endorsement of green issues. Can we solve climate change? Yes, we can

In the past few weeks, green economists and campaigners have noticed the emergence of an unexpected credit-crunch dividend. As Cam eron Hepburn, senior research fellow at Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, told me: "The economic crisis softens people up to the scale of the numbers - $700bn doesn't seem impossible any more. In fact, the incremental cost of completely greening the world's energy system is certainly less than that per annum."

Sarah Best, a climate-change policy adviser for Oxfam, is also strikingly optimistic: "The good news is that climate and economic solutions can support rather than compete with each other," she says. "Developing a green economy offers us a way out of the present crisis. Investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, green buildings and public transport will bring huge job-creation and enterprise opportunities."

Stressing that people in poorer countries affected by climate change should not be forgotten, Oxfam is asking for a proportion of carbon market cash to be allocated to financing climate adaptation in the developing world. The annual amount Oxfam estimates is needed for this from the UK is about £1.6bn annually. That would once have seemed like an inconceivably large bill. Now, in the present crisis, it seems small.

Even heads of state are beginning to repeat this hopeful message. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, joined the president of Indonesia and the prime ministers of Poland and Denmark this month to write a lead comment article in the International Herald Tribune which argued that "the answer" to the financial crisis and climate change "is the green economy". The authors described renewable energy as the "hottest growth industry in the world . . . where jobs of the future are already being created, and where much of the technological innovation is taking place that will usher in our next era of economic transformation".

The United Nations Environment Programme is capitalising on this sudden massing of political will by starting a Green Economy initiative, due to launch in Geneva on 1-2 December, which aims to help policymakers "recognise environmental investment's contributions to economic growth, decent jobs creation and poverty reduction", and reflect this in "their policy responses to the prevailing economic crisis".

Perhaps the biggest new endorsement of green issues has come with the election of Barack Obama, who made the word “hope” a central theme of his campaign. Can we solve climate change? Yes, we can. According to an interview he gave to Time magazine just over a week before the election, Obama sees the “new energy economy” as potentially the main “new driver” of the economy as a whole. His language leaves no room for doubt. “That’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming obviously that we have done enough to stabilise the immediate economic situation.” Obama’s climate credentials are unequivocal: he supports a US target of 80 per cent carbon-emission reductions by 2050, with a European-style cap-and-trade system as the centrepiece of his plan. In fact, the president-elect’s proposals are even stronger than Europe’s: rather than give emissions permits to industry for free, as the EU at present does, Obama proposes a system of 100 per cent auctioning, with the revenue going to fund clean energy investments and to help low-income Americans adjust to higher fuel prices. He also promises to put $150bn towards renewables investments, with the aim of creating five million new “green-collar” jobs.

According to David Roberts, a writer for Grist.org, the US-based online environmental magazine, energy and climate will be one of the Obama presidency's "three biggies" (the others being getting out of Iraq and passing health-care reform). However, he warns not to expect headline-catching announcements: "The key is the long game. Obama worked carefully, diligently and adeptly to get elected on a clean energy agenda" and will aim to secure success with his green economy plan in a similar way. Obama's response to the crisis in the US car industry gives an inkling of his pragmatism as well as his commitment: instead of offering simply to throw money at Detroit to prop up the ailing giants Ford and General Motors (which between them made a staggering $7.2bn loss in the last quarter), the president-elect has made it clear that any government support will be pegged to the industry developing higher-mileage and electric cars. For GM, which has built its entire corporate strategy over the past five years around gas- guzzling sports utility vehicles, this represents the ultimate humiliation.

In the current climate of political optimism, it seems that just about everyone is thinking imaginatively. Al Gore is proposing that the entire US electricity sector be decarbonised in the next ten years, and has been running post-election TV ads titled "Now what?" (answer: "Repower America"). Even Google has a plan - "Clean Energy 2030" - and has begun to shift its own investment towards renewable technologies. In the EU, fears that a group of countries that rely heavily on coal for power generation - including Italy, Poland and Latvia - could intervene to thwart climate targets have lessened, thanks to skilful diplomacy by President Nicolas Sarkozy. And the prospect of the credit crunch derailing this year's UN climate-change talks in the Polish city of Poznan also seems to have been averted; on 14 November, Australia's top climate diplomat, Howard Bamsey, reassured journalists: "I haven't detected any change in approach as a result of the financial crisis."

But how much of this is merely rhetoric? The financial storm has already inflicted grave damage on the clean energy sector; shares in wind and solar power companies have tumbled in the last quarter, some by as much as 75 per cent, as credit funding for capital projects dries up and power companies cut back on their investment plans. “If you can’t borrow money, you can’t develop renewables,” says Kevin Book, a senior vice-president at the investment firm FBR Capital Markets.

The swingeing cuts in carbon emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are still politically and economically inconceivable

Demand for energy has slowed because of the economic crisis, pushing down the price of oil. This in turn has made solar and wind projects that looked profitable when oil was trading at $140 a barrel appear decidedly less attractive with the price of crude back down below $60. T Boone Pickens, the famous US oilman-turned-wind enthusiast, has quietly postponed his plan to build the world's biggest windfarm on the Texas panhandle, due in part to the falling price of oil. Tesla Motors, the California-based auto manufacturer whose all-electric sports car made headlines across the world in the spring, has been forced to cut jobs.

Gas prices have also fallen on international markets. "Natural gas at $6 [per thousand cubic feet] makes wind look like a questionable idea and solar power unfathomably expensive," says Kevin Book from FBR Capital Markets. Falling prices on the EU's carbon market - from ?30 in July to ?20 in November - have also made clean energy projects less competitive. (Despite this short-term blip, most analysts expect the long-term trend in oil prices to be up - the Inter national Energy Agency's executive director, Nobuo Tanaka, warned on 12 November that oil depletion rates seemed to be increasing, and that "while market imbalances will feed volatility, the era of cheap oil is over".)

Perhaps an economic collapse can save us by reducing emissions? After all, the reason the oil price is falling is that people are consuming less fossil energy. But according to Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of Manchester University's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the collapse would have to be profound indeed to be sufficient on its own to bring about the emissions decline the planet needs. They estimate that in order to have even a 50-50 chance of keeping global temperatures from rising above 2° higher than pre-industrial levels (the stated aim of EU policy, among many others), the world must see energy-related carbon emissions peak by 2015 and decline thereafter by between 6 and 8 per cent per year. Anderson and Bows remind us that while "the collapse of the former Soviet Union's economy brought about annual emissions reductions of over 5 per cent for a decade", that still isn't quite enough. The suggestion is not that we should aim for a Soviet-style economic implosion, but that the dramatic cuts in carbon emissions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change are still politically and economically inconceivable.

"Green growth" can offer a positive way forward in the short term, but the impossibility of reconciling an endlessly growing economy with the limitations of a finite planet cannot be avoided. Even though, in Cameron Hepburn's words, a "dematerialisation of the economy is feasible in a thermodynamic sense", this hasn't happened so far anywhere - rising GDP is pegged to rising material consumption, and thereby to a rising impact on the environment.

The ecological economist Herman Daly says humanity should aim for "qualitative development", not "quantitative growth". He concludes drily: "Economists have focused too much on the economy's circulatory system and have neglected . . . its digestive tract." The financial crisis is certainly a circulatory ailment, but once it is solved the bigger challenge will remain - that the biosphere has limited sources for our products, and limited sinks for our waste. And that is the ultimate question politicians, environmentalists and economists will have to focus on answering if our ecological crisis is ever to give way to true long-term sustainability in the century ahead.

Mark Lynas's latest book is "Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet" (HarperPerennial, £8.99 paperback)

The green economy: ten global facts

The London Array, planned for the Thames Estuary, could become the world's largest offshore windfarm.

A proposed tidal barrage over the River Severn could provide 5 per cent of the UK's electricity. It would cost £15bn and cut carbon emissions by 16 billion tonnes a year.

Barack Obama will invest $150bn in renewables, in the hope of creating five million new jobs in the US.

Abu Dhabi's Masdar Initiative, launched in 2006, will invest $15bn in global green energy. It will take eight years and cost $22bn to build Masdar City (model right), which will rely entirely upon renewable energy.

Qatar is investing $150m in developing green technology in the UK.

There is one large-scale commercial tidal power station in the world - in Brittany, France. It has operated for 30 years without mechanical breakdown and has recovered the initial capital costs.

Consumer goods in Japan will soon be labelled with their carbon footprints. Producing a packet of crisps emits 75 grams of CO2.

Nine out of ten new cars in Brazil use ethanol-based biofuels. Flex-fuel vehicles make up 26 per cent of the country's light vehicle fleet.

Since 2006, disposable chopsticks in China have been taxed at 5 per cent, safeguarding 1.3 million cubic metres of timber every year. Green venture capital accounts for 19 per cent of China's investments.

The Australian government has invested $10.4bn in making 1.1 million homes more energy-efficient, creating 160,000 jobs.

Samira Shackle

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.