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The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

Archive for December, 2012

2012: 12 Highlights

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

This is my last blog of the year. Many thanks to all of you for taking the time to read my ramblings. Herewith twelve personal highlights from a fascinating, fun and fast-moving year in Sweden:

  • January saw the first of many Ministerial visits this year. Lord Green, our Business Minister came for a big meeting on smart grids and renewable energy, one of many trade and investment sectors linking the UK and Sweden;
  • February involved a two-day visit by Prime Minister David Cameron, here to attend the second Northern Future Forum, bringing together PMs and policy experts from the UK and the Nordic-Baltic countries, this year looking at the challenges and opportunities of an ageing society and how to get more women into the workforce.
  • March was a particular highlight, with Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, spending three days in and around Stockholm, looking at social integration, education, architecture, climate change, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.  All areas where our governments, businesses and societies are working together.
  • April saw me in Gothenburg for a great event with British and Swedish business leaders and sportspeople marking 100 days to go the London Olympics.
  • May’s highlight was my first visit to Malmö, an opportunity to meet local politicians, journalists and business people and to talk to students at the university of Lund about the UK and Europe.
  • In June, we hosted two big receptions, one in partnership with the BBC and one with Brunswick, to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, including a concert of English music from across the centuries. And it was a privilege to attend the centenary events for the Stockholm 1912 Olympics and to receive Stockholm’s good wishes for the London games.
  • July meant Almedalen and several days of sunshine and seminars in the glorious surroundings of Visby.
  • August included a lovely week’s break in Sandhamn, enjoying the splendours of the archipelago.
  • September was visits season again, with the Head of the UK Civil Service coming to Stockholm to see how an Embassy works. Happily, he went away impressed!
  • October saw two more excellent visits, by our Europe Minister, David Lidington and the Chief of the UK Defence Staff, Sir David Richards, talking respectively about the prosperity and security interests the UK and Sweden have in common.
  • November saw England’s footballers given the honour of inaugurating the new Friends Arena and of being spectators to an amazing display by Zlatan!
  • December saw a British winner! Sir John Gurdon received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his ground-breaking research on reprogramming of cells. Work begun 50 years ago, which has led to stem cell research and the promise of cures which will benefit our grandchildren’s generation. A forward-looking and cheerful note on which to end. Every best wish for a peaceful Christmas and prosperous New Year!

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Climate challenges after Doha – some light amidst the gloom

Monday, December 17th, 2012

The latest round of international talks on climate change ended last weekend in Doha. One of my previous postings was at the UK Mission to the UN so I have firsthand experience of how exhausting and difficult these huge international negotiations can be.

From a distance, the outcome from Doha looks like a modest step forward. In short, the Kyoto Protocol will continue past this year, and we have up until 2020 to get a new legally binding agreement for the period after 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol has expired

However, we still need countries to do more and be more ambitious about reducing their emissions if we are going to avoid irreversible climate change and prevent devastating global warming.

As things stand, the world is plainly not on track to keep the global temperature increase from climate change below two degrees centigrade, which is generally regarded as global warming’s danger threshold.

The UK, with Sweden and other EU partners, will be working over the next year to ensure the next round of discussions yields more progress and that we play our part in lowering global emissions.

There are rays of light amidst the gloom.

We have seen serious action by many countries, including some of the big emitters. Brazil has reduced deforestation by around two thirds since 2004.  Korea is spending two per cent of its GDP on the low-carbon economy.  China has embedded energy efficiency and renewables targets in its latest five-year plan, and is testing carbon markets in seven of its provinces.

In the UK, our Carbon Budgets provide a target of an 80 per cent emissions cut by 2050.  We are acting on energy efficiency and smarter infrastructure.  The UK also recently introduced an Energy Bill which will give investors and industry the framework and the certainty they need to deliver the huge infrastructure investment that the UK’s energy sector requires.

We are on track to meet the milestones set by the EU Renewables Directive and to deliver enough renewable generation capacity to source 30% of the UK’s electricity by 2020.

In the EU, the UK will also continue to argue for increasing ambition, going from a 20% emissions cut to a 30% target by 2020, with a renewed focus on the benefits the Green Economy will provide. We’re delighted that the Green economy will be a focus of the next meeting of UK, Nordic and Baltic Prime Ministers, in Riga early next year.

Our focus on the Green economy in the UK is underpinned by important changes in the real economy.   According to Bloomberg, global investment in renewables overtook that in fossil fuels for the first time last year. We are seeing new renewable energy technologies break into and compete successfully in the market place.  Solar PV has averaged 42% annual growth globally over the last decade; onshore wind has averaged 27%.

In some markets, solar technologies have come down in price by as much as 75% in three years, and are now cheaper than fossil fuels, for example, in many parts of Africa and South Asia.  Companies such as Unilever, Vodafone, Walmart and Kingfisher are setting ambitious targets to make their supply chains more sustainable.  This isn’t just a marketing ploy: rising resource scarcity and climate stress means that sustainable, resilient production makes good business sense.  As we saw in Rio earlier this year, businesses are now increasingly setting the agenda for governments.

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FAILURES, FROGS AND FINDINGS, BRITAIN’S 2012 NOBEL LAUREATE

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Today the “Diplomatic Dispatch” lives up to its name, as I post the text of the diplomatic telegram I sent back to London yesterday about Britain’s Sir John Gurdon’s Nobel prize win. I presented John with a copy of the text yesterday and he liked it, so I hope it means I’ve explained the science correctly – as a mere political scientist I am treading warily!

Summary

Sir John Gurdon honoured for ground-breaking research on reprogramming of cells, work which laid the basis for subsequent advances in stem cells and cloning.

Detail

1.     Sir John Gurdon, famously condemned by his Eton science master as a hopeless student, received his profession’s ultimate accolade last night when the King of Sweden presented him with the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine.

2.     Gurdon’s most important research, completed 50 years ago on a special species of African frog, demonstrated that the evolution of cells is not a one-way process. Gurdon replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell of a tadpole. This modified egg cell developed into a normal tadpole. The DNA of the mature cell still had all the information needed to develop all cells in the frog. He thus carried out the first cloning of a vertebrate. The cloning of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, followed the principle that Gurdon had used in his frog experiments.

3.     Subsequent research, particularly by Gurdon’s fellow 2012 laureate, Shinya Yamanaka, proved that mature cells could be returned to the stem cell stage. This research, now advancing rapidly, allows human skin cells to be reprogrammed into stem cells, giving science access to new tools for better understanding disease and for developing diagnostics and therapies. Commending John Gurdon at the award ceremony, the Nobel jury said that his research had “fundamentally changed our view of human development and cell specialisation.”

4.     Sir John set his discoveries in context in a lecture on the battle for supremacy between the egg and the nucleus, at the Karolinska Institute on 7 December.

5.     In his speech at the Nobel Banquet, he noted that frogs had figured prominently in the world of literature, from Aristophanes to Toad of Toad Hall. Quoting Belloc, he said “no animal will more repay treatment that is kind and fair.”   He explained that his work had raised the possibility of giving people new cells of their own genetic kind, and hence, without immuno-suppression, to replace cells worn out by age or disease, a hope of the new field of regenerative medicine.

Comment

6.     It’s fitting that ground-breaking research, which has paved the way for advances in treatment of illness should be celebrated on the day the UK Government committed £100m of new investment in science.

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The UK in the EU: 40 years on; assessing impact

Monday, December 10th, 2012

Britain joined the EU (or the EEC as it then was) on 1 January 1972.

To say the least the EU (and the UK) has changed a lot since then. For most of that period there’s been a lively debate on what the impact of EU membership is on the UK.

Our government is clear that EU membership is in the UK’s national interest. It is central to how we create jobs, expand trade and protect our interests around the world.

But Europe is changing. We don’t know what the EU will end up looking like at the end of this crisis.

This year the Government decided to launch a detailed review to examine what impact the EU has on the UK in more detail than ever before.

The review will look at the scope of the EU’s competences (the power to act in particular areas conferred by the EU Treaties) as they affect the UK, how they are used, and what that means for Britain and our national interests. The review will examine about 30 areas of EU competence between now and the end of 2014.  It will be divided into four ‘semesters’, each containing a number of individual reports.  Reports will be published at the end of that semester.

The first semester will run from autumn 2012 to summer 2013. In the first semester Departments will produce reports on: taxation; animal health and welfare and food safety; health; development; and foreign policy. The first semester will also include an overview on the single market. The reports will be analytical in nature. They will draw on relevant evidence received in response to a ‘call for evidence’ which Departments will issue to prepare each report shortly after the start of each semester.  Departments will seek evidence from a wide range of interested parties including Parliament, business, civil society, the public, the Devolved Administrations, foreign governments and EU Institutions.

The review is intended to provide evidence to inform the debate in the UK, not least in the run-up to the next election, rather to lead immediately to any specific policy recommendations. This is by far the most serious and extensive analysis of what the EU means for the UK – or probably for any Member State – ever undertaken.

We hope it will also be of interest to other countries, including Sweden, given the big issues Europe needs to face about remaining competitive and effective in a rapidly changing continent and world.

The FCO website will contain up-to-date information on the progress of the review, including which reports are currently in train and details of how to contribute evidence. Please do take a look!

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Facing up to the economic chill: Britain’s response

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

As winter sets in here, the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered what’s called the Autumn Statement to Parliament in London on 5 December.

The Government’s economic strategy is focussed on reducing the deficit, restoring stability, rebalancing the economy and equipping the UK to compete in the global race.

The government’s new decisions relate to three key priorities:

Protecting the economy

Slow growth in the eurozone and other factors are leading to a more subdued and uneven recovery than expected with growth weaker and inflation higher than forecast. So the government plans::

•    funding £5.5 billion of additional infrastructure investment and support for businesses;
•    Tax measures that support growth, reward work, help with the cost of living and ensure that those with the most contribute the most.

Growth

To enable the UK to compete with emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, the Government is taking action to rebalance and strengthen the economy while supporting those who want to work hard and get on, including:

•    A further one per cent cut in the main rate of corporation tax from April 2014, to 21 per cent;
•    Creation of a £1 billion Business Bank to help smaller businesses access finance and support;
•    Enabling UK Export Finance to provide up to £1.5 billion in loans to finance small firms’ exports;
•    Increased funding for UK Trade and Investments and extra support for the GREAT campaign to showcase Britain’s capabilities.

Fairness

Fairness is a fundamental aspect of our plans to reduce the deficit and protect the economy.  The Government will help to ensure that it pays to work, supporting pensioners and those most in need, by:

•    Supporting those on low and middle incomes by increasing the personal allowance:
•    Increasing the basic State Pension by 2.5 per cent;
•    Targeting the promoters of aggressive tax avoidance schemes and the closure of loopholes;
•    Tackling offshore tax evasion by the creation of a dedicated HMRC unit, maintaining the momentum from the Government’s recent agreements with Switzerland and the US.

The government has also launched a major exercise to evaluate the impact of the EU on the UK. I’ll write about that in my next blog….

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