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Update  December, 2019

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Science & Technology

AP Explains: How Madrid talks fell short on climate ambition

In this March 19, 2019 file photo, the blades of wind turbines catch the breeze at the Saddleback Ridge wind farm in Carthage, Maine. Scientists say emissions worldwide need to start falling sharply from next year if there is to be any hope of achieving the Paris climate accord’s goal of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit). (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Aritz Parra & Frank Jordans

Madrid (AP) — This year’s U.N. climate negotiations in Madrid, the longest in 25 nearly annual such gatherings, ended Sunday with major polluters resisting calls to ramp up efforts to keep global warming at bay.

Faced with the tough task of reconciling the demands of scientists, protesters on the streets and governments back home, the negotiators ended up disappointing many and leaving for next year’s talks in Glasgow, Scotland, key issues such as the regulation of global carbon markets.

Here is a look at the main issues resolved, and the sticking points for future negotiations.

Are bolder targets needed?

While it wasn’t officially on the agenda, most participants and observers agreed that the U.N. talks needed to send a strong signal that countries were willing to set bolder targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

That was far more ambitious than the goal ultimately set by the so-called “Chile-Madrid Time for Action” declaration, which merely calls for the “urgent need” to cut planet-heating greenhouse gases in line with the goals of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord.

Scientists say global emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants have to start falling rapidly as soon as possible to meet the Paris goal of keeping global warming by the end of the century well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), and ideally 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F).

That accord allowed countries to set their own emissions-reduction targets — known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs — which would be regularly reviewed and increased if necessary. With current emissions targets putting the world on course for a 3- to 4-degree Celsius temperature rise by 2100, scientists say sharper cuts are necessary and should be announced in advance of next year’s climate conference in Glasgow.

“The global emissions’ curve needs to bend in 2020, emissions need to be cut in half by 2030, and net zero emissions need to be a reality by 2050,” said Johan Rockstrom, head of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“Achieving this is possible — with existing technologies and within our current economy,” said the revered climate scientist. “The window of opportunity is open, but barely.”

How to regulate global carbon markets?

Economists say market mechanisms can speed up the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. One way to do this is by putting a price on carbon dioxide, the most abundant man-made greenhouse gas, and gradually reducing the amount countries and companies are allowed to emit.

The European Union and some other jurisdictions around the world already have limited emissions trading systems for buying and selling carbon credits.

The Paris accord was meant to establish the rules for carbon trading on a global scale.

But setting the rules for a robust and environmentally sound market and linking up existing systems is difficult. So, too, is the question of allocating a percentage of the revenue to help countries adapt to the effects of warming temperatures.

The main point of resistance lies in the existence of old carbon credits left over from a now-discredited system established under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries such as Brazil insisted during the past two weeks in Madrid on keeping those emissions credits, while also resisting strict accounting of future trades.

The argument that carbon markets that are not transparent enough and leave loopholes for double counting can undermine efforts to reduce emissions won at the end, postponing the decision on the issue for Glasgow.

Aid for the poor

In summit lingo the issue is known as “loss and damage.” In essence, it was recognized several years ago that developing nations are much more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, even though they contribute least to the problem.

A tentative agreement was reached in 2013 that rich countries would help them foot the bill.

But attributing specific weather disasters such as hurricanes and floods, or slow but irreversible changes like sea level rise and desertification, to climate change remains a delicate issue given the potential costs involved.

The United States, in particular, had opposed any references to possible liability in the summit’s conclusions, and scored a victory when a decision on it was also postponed for another year.

Developing countries also demand that compensation be kept a separate issue from funds to help the countries adapt and mitigate the effects of a warming planet. The Green Climate Fund, which was established to that end, is currently far from reaching the target of $100 billion a year in contributions.

Heat on the street

Chile, which chaired the conference, chose to give it the slogan “Time for Action.”

That echoed the blunt demands from protesters, who have been staging mass rallies around the world for the past year demanding leaders take what they call the “climate emergency” seriously.

European Union countries responded to public pressure this week by agreeing to a long-term goal of cutting the bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, meaning any that remain will be offset with carbon reduction measures.

Some observers and EU ministers had hoped this signal from Brussels would boost the talks in Madrid. If anything, it revealed the vast gap between what countries can agree at the regional level and what the U.N. process is capable of.

Meet the scholar who diagnosed ‘surveillance capitalism’


Author Shoshana Zuboff.
(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Frank Bajak, AP

A year ago, Shoshana Zuboff dropped an intellectual bomb on the technology industry. She hasn’t stood still since.

In a 700-page book, the Harvard scholar skewered tech giants like Facebook and Google with a damning phrase: “surveillance capitalism.” The unflattering term evokes how these companies vacuum up the details of our lives, make billions from that data and use what they’ve learned to glue our attention more firmly to their platforms.

A bestseller in Canada and Britain, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” was published in the U.S. in January, is being translated into 17 languages and has inspired two small theater productions. Zuboff, meanwhile, has been counseling politicians, crisscrossing the Atlantic for public forums from Los Angeles to Rome and hitting the podcast circuit.

She offered input on several pending U.S. privacy bills and wrote a 34-page policy paper for the House Judiciary Committee, whose antitrust panel is studying Big Tech’s potential abuse of its market dominance.

Zuboff has “put the language of economics around the experience that we all know we’re having,” says Beeban Kidron, a film director and U.K. House of Lords member who spearheaded child-protection rules limiting how apps gather data and tempt kids to linger online. “She’s a rock star.”

Early on, Zuboff realized researchers had missed the importance of the ambient data that digital services collect — where we use them, for how long, what we like, what we linger on and with whom we associate.

They were calling it “digital exhaust.”

But Zuboff saw that this data wasn’t just an unexpected byproduct, says Chris Hoofnagle, a University of California-Berkeley privacy expert. “It is the product.”

Tech industry allies denounce Zuboff’s thesis as conspiracy-minded hyperbole. Consumers willingly trade their personal data for access to valuable services that don’t cost them a cent, they argue. Google and Facebook declined to discuss Zuboff or her book.

But after more than a year of tech-related privacy scandals, malign election-interference and online platform-fueled extremism, investigations opened by state attorneys general and the U.S. government’s first tentative steps toward reining in its technology titans, it’s become clear that Zuboff helped crystallize previously vague apprehensions about the tech industry.

Zuboff’s indictment is straightforward: Tech companies suck up our data trails then use those insights to steer us toward commercial interactions, develop their next addictive apps and predict our future behavior — effectively molding individual behavior.

Worse, she says, these invasive business practices are spreading. “By now this is a virus that has infected every economic sector,” Zuboff told a meeting of international parliamentarians in May.

Zuboff traces the origin of surveillance capitalism to 2001 as Google, then little more than a search engine, considered going public. Faced with the need to generate revenue, its founders decided to mine the data Google amasses when people make searches.

That helped Google improve search results but also informed it about users’ family lives, religious beliefs, ethnicity, political or sexual persuasion and more. Google fed those clues into a personalized advertising machine and became a global juggernaut.

Following Google’s example, Facebook and other tech companies offered an irresistible bargain. People could connect to long-lost friends, search the world’s information and watch endless streams of video at no cost. Before long, smartphones launched an explosion of “free” apps with a hearty appetite for your data.

Nowadays, your movements, conversations, facial expressions and more are snatched by smart TVs, thermostats, refrigerators, doorbell cameras and connected cars. Dossiers are compiled on each of us.

Among the first women to earn tenure at Harvard Business School, Zuboff won plaudits for her early grasp of how digital technology would transform the business world with her 1988 book In the Age of the Smart Machine Her next book, “The Support Economy” — co-written with her late husband James Maxmin — predicted that out-of-touch corporations would give way to rivals responsive to the feedback of technology-empowered consumers.

To Zuboff, surveillance capitalism poses an existential threat whose hidden costs are intentionally obscured by its practitioners. It is an “antidemocratic and antiegalitarian juggernaut,” she writes.

In the name of personalization, she says, “it defiles, ignores, overrides and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.”

Not everyone agrees, to put it mildly.

Vice President Carl Szabo of the e-commerce trade group NetChoice, whose members include Facebook and Google, said her book “paints a typical dystopian picture of technology, dismissing the remarkable benefits of online platforms and data analysis.”

In response, Zuboff cites consumer surveys that indicate increasing unease with the prevailing, invasive business model.

She has no illusions about how difficult it will be to turn things around. Breaking up technology giants, says Zuboff, would do little to prevent their smaller progeny from continuing their work.

She does think the EU’s year-old data protection rule and California’s new data privacy law, which takes effect in January, are a good start.

And she’s heartened by a recent flurry of regulatory energy in Washington, D.C.

“I think it’s the very early stages of a sea change.”

Still on top: Cyber Monday sales on track to hit record


In this Feb. 9, 2018, file photo packages move down a conveyor system were they are directed to the proper shipping area at the new Amazon Fulfillment Center in Sacramento, Calif. “Cyber Monday” is still holding up as the biggest online shopping day of the year, even though the same deals have been available online for weeks and the name harks back to the days of dial-up modems. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Joseph Pisani

New York (AP) — Cyber Monday is still holding up as the biggest online shopping day of the year, even though many of the same deals have been available online for weeks and the name harks back to the days of dial-up modems.

Shoppers are expected to spend a record $9.4 billion on purchases made on their phones and computers Monday, up about 19% from last year’s Cyber Monday, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks transactions at 80 of the top 100 U.S. online stores.

The busiest time is expected to be in the hour before midnight, as people race to take advantage of discounts before they disappear.

Cyber Monday was created by retailers in 2005 to get people to shop online at a time when high-speed internet was rare and the iPhone didn’t exist. The idea was to encourage people to shop at work, where faster connections made it easier to browse, when they returned from the Thanksgiving break.

“It’s somewhat antiquated,” said Rob Graf, vice president of strategy and insights at cloud computing company Salesforce, which tracks shopping behavior of the online stores that use its platform. “But retailers are still using it as a big milestone and driving heavy discounts.”

At least one brand played up Cyber Monday’s origins: Bonobos, the men’s clothing seller owned by Walmart Inc., photographed models posing with clunky computers and black-and-white TVs for its site.

“Boot up the dial-up,” one of its Cyber Monday ads said.

On average, retailers offered 30% off on Monday, the steepest discounts of the year, according to Salesforce.

Some have been offering deals for days. Amazon started offering Cyber Monday deals on Saturday, calling the three-day extravaganza “Cyber Monday Weekend.”

Walmart kicked off online discounts for the holidays a week before Halloween. It was a way to combat the shortened holiday shopping season.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. This year, that was Nov. 28, cutting the typical time between Thanksgiving and Christmas by nearly a week, making it the shortest stretch between the two holidays since 2013.

Adobe said the bestselling toys on Cyber Monday were those related to the “Frozen 2” movie, “Paw Patrol” show and the LOL Surprise brand. TVs from Samsung and laptops by Apple were also hot sellers. And Amazon’s devices, such as its voice activated Echo, did well, too.

Not all online shopping ended with a box being delivered. Despite frightful weather in parts of the U.S. this weekend, buying online and picking up in a store has become a popular option, growing 43% so far from last year.

“These services are breathing new life into physical stores,” Adobe said. “And we expect growth to climb as we get closer to Christmas.”

Facebook tests tool to move photos to Google, other rivals

(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

London (AP) — Facebook started testing a tool on Monday that lets users move their images more easily to other online services, as it faces pressure from regulators to loosen its grip on data.

The social network’s new tool will allow people to transfer their photos and videos directly to competing platforms, starting with Google Photos.

The company said it will first be available to people in Ireland and will be refined based on user feedback.

The tool will then be rolled out worldwide in the first half of 2020.

U.S. and European regulators have been examining Facebook’s control of personal data such as images as they look into whether the tech giant’s dominance is stifling competition and limiting choice for consumers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has reacted by calling for new rules to address “data portability” and other issues.

Facebook said that as it worked on a new set of data portability tools, it had discussions with policymakers, regulators, and academics in the U.K., Germany, Brazil and Singapore to learn about which data should be portable and how to protect privacy.

The company is developing products that “take into account the feedback we’ve received and will help drive data portability policies forward by giving people and experts a tool to assess,” Steve Satterfield, director of privacy and public policy, said in a blog post.

China tests Mars lander in international cooperation push

A lander is lifted during a test of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities at a facility in Huailai in China’s Hebei province, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Samuel McNeil

Huailai, China (AP) — China showed off its Mars spacecraft during a landing test Thursday as the country pushes for inclusion in more global space projects.

The demonstration of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities was conducted at a site outside Beijing simulating conditions on the red planet, where the pull of gravity is about one-third that of Earth.

China plans to launch a lander and rover to Mars next year to explore parts of the planet, one of four scheduled missions. The U.S. and Europe are also sending rovers to Mars next year, and the United Arab Emirates plans to launch an orbiter.

China’s burgeoning space program achieved a lunar milestone earlier this year by landing a spacecraft on the mysterious far side of the moon.

It has developed rapidly, especially since it conducted its first crewed mission in 2003, and has sought cooperation with space agencies from Europe and elsewhere.

The U.S., however, has banned most space cooperation with China out of national security concerns, keeping China from participating in the International Space Station.

Despite that, China’s ambitions continue to grow as it seeks to rival the U.S., Russia and Europe in space and cement its position as a regional and global power. It is gradually constructing its own larger, more permanent space station in which it has invited foreign participation.

The lander on Thursday successfully avoided ground obstacles during a simulated low-gravity descent, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the Chinese space program’s main contractor.

The refrigerator-sized craft was lowered gently on 36 cables through the air for about a minute and used onboard jets spraying rust-colored fumes to alter its downward course.

“After the probe is launched, it will take about seven months to reach Mars, and the final procedure of landing will only last about seven minutes, which is the most difficult and the most risky part of the whole mission,” said the Mars mission’s chief designer, Zhang Rongqiao, standing before the 140-meter (460-foot) -tall testing facility.

Many Mars-bound spacecraft launched by the U.S., Russia and other countries have been lost or destroyed over the years. Only the U.S. has pulled it off and has made eight successful landings.

The remote test site lies an hour north of the Great Wall from Beijing.

Guests at Thursday’s event came from 19 countries and included the ambassadors of Brazil, France and Italy.

“This event is the first public appearance of China’s Mars exploration mission, also an important measure for China to pragmatically carry out space international exchanges and cooperation,” the China National Space Administration said in a statement.

Yahoo Japan, Line to merge business to form online giant

(Shinji Kita/Kyodo News via AP)

Yuri Kageyama

Tokyo (AP) — Online services Yahoo Japan and Line Corp. have announced they are merging.

Z Holdings Corp., which owns SoftBank Corp. that operates Yahoo Japan, and Naver Corp. of South Korea, which owns a majority stake in Line, said Monday they are aiming for a final agreement by next month.

The combination in a joint venture through a tender offer will form an online giant with retail services, advertising and other mobile services such as messaging.

The combined sales would be the largest among Japanese online business operators, surpassing Rakuten Inc., according to Kyodo News service.

The companies said combining forces will allow them to stay competitive in a drastically changing market, including expansions into robotics and other new areas.

The integration will be carried out equally, according to the companies, but the price is expected to be decided in December.

Discussions had been ongoing between Naver and Z Holdings since June, they said. After a deal is completed, Line will get delisted.

The new company will primarily focus on the Japanese market, seeking to answer to Japan’s social needs such as a shrinking worker population and natural disasters, SoftBank said in a statement.

“Social and industrial conditions surrounding us are changing drastically and daily on a global basis,” it said, adding that Japan needs to catch up, and coming together might help.

“Particularly in the internet market, overseas companies, especially those based in the United States and China, are overwhelmingly dominant.”

The chief executives of both companies later appeared together at a Tokyo hotel, wearing ties with the other company’s colors — green for Line and red for Yahoo.

They said the companies not only shared similar values but also the same sense of crisis of being dwarfed by American and Chinese rivals, even after the two companies come together, by size in terms of sales, research investment amount and number of employees.

“We both felt we needed to act now to prepare for the future,” said Line Chief Executive Takeshi Idezawa.

The merger is planned to be completed by October next year, with the new entity having 10 board members, three from each company and four outside members, they said.

They said the companies are a good match because they both operate online content and financial services, but can complement each other. Line, for instance, is stronger in messaging and Yahoo in online commerce, they said.

“Yahoo values surprising its users, and Line values wowing its users, and so by coming together we hope to excite our users around the world,” said Kentaro Kawabe, chief executive of Z Holdings..


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

AP Explains: How Madrid talks fell short on climate ambition

Meet the scholar who diagnosed ‘surveillance capitalism’

Still on top: Cyber Monday sales on track to hit record

Facebook tests tool to move photos to Google, other rivals

China tests Mars lander in international cooperation push

Yahoo Japan, Line to merge business to form online giant