Don’t call it a comeback

Yahoo's showing signs of motion after a long period in the morgue. But is it reborn, or just undead?

A conference call discussing fourth quarter earnings at Yahoo appears to have ignited a surge of optimism for the veteran web company’s prospects – just google “yahoo comeback” to find out – but are commentators getting carried away?

Yahoo reported a 14 percent rise in earnings during 2012’s final quarter, supported largely by growth in search advertising revenue, and pleasantly surprised investors: share price immediately jumped 5 percent, topping off a 25 percent six month rally.

Most encouragingly, in a call to analysts discussing the result, newly installed CEO Marissa Mayer said the company’s next investments would go towards the entrenchment of Yahoo services in users’ “core daily habits” – the most core of these (if you don’t mind the term ‘core’ being used as an adjective) being its search function.

The FT headlines this as Yahoo “taking on google in the search wars”, but I don’t know if I’d go that far.

To put things plainly, despite overall revenue growing 4 percent, Yahoo’s actual net income fell 8 percent year-on-year, a fact that seems to appear at the bottom of most reports on the results if it appears at all.

More to the point, even with search advertising revenues healthy, the company only presides over a small and shrinking slice of the search advertising market - 6.2 per cent in 2012 compared to 17.8 per cent in 2008 according to one research firm.

So why the sudden optimism?

Because, at the heart of it, everyone likes an underdog story. And this has all the ingredients of a great one.

Google, having dominated the search market since the advent of its PageRank function in the early 2000s, is an obvious Goliath, and has fallen prey to the same erosion of public trust that has afflicted other web giants – see also Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

Furthermore, Yahoo has a young and charismatic CEO who has obviously captured the imagination of analysts and investors alike. And let’s not forget she’s ex-Google – not only does this fact make the narrative more pleasing, it adds serious credibility to the idea of the near-forgotten nineties relic clawing back ground from a complacent rival.

Yahoo’s long-term prospects in the ‘wars’ for users’ everyday web activity remain dubious. At the very least, however, the current burst of media excitement has awarded it an early marketing victory.

Yahoo's Marissa Mayer in Davos this year. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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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.