Japan exports tumble most in three years; Oil ‘a blessing and curse for Russia’; Plastic now pollutes every corner of earth

1 Japan exports tumble most in three years (Straits Times) Japan’s exports fell the most in more than three years in December from a year earlier, stoking fears of economic contraction in the final quarter of 2015 as a slowdown in China and emerging markets takes its toll on the export-reliant economy.

Ministry of Finance data showed exports fell 8.0 per cent in the year to December, down for the third straight month, marking the biggest drop since September 2012. An annual decline of 6.8 per cent was expected by economists in a Reuters poll.

Such weak data should keep the Bank of Japan under pressure to act as early as at its Jan 28-29 review, as the collapse in oil prices weighs on inflation expectations while worries over a China-led global slowdown and a stock market rout sap business morale.

Exports to China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, fell 8.6 per cent in December from a year earlier, down for a fifth straight month, dragged down by shipments of chemicals and electronics parts. Shipments to Asia, which accounts for more than half of Japan’s exports, declined 10.3 per cent in the year to December.

Exports to the US, another key market for Japanese goods, fell 3.4 per cent year-on-year in December, led by shipments of mining machines and steel and metal processing machinery. EU-bound shipments grew 3.1 per cent. Imports fell 18.0 per cent in the year to December, versus the median forecast for a 16.4 per cent annual decline, bringing the trade balance to a surplus of 140.2 billion yen.

Japan’s economy narrowly dodged a recession in July-September, and analysts have flagged the risk of a contraction due to weakness in private consumption and capital expenditure. The International Monetary Fund cut its global growth forecasts for the third time in less than a year last week, as Beijing estimated China’s 2015 growth at the slowest in 25 years.


2 Oil ‘a blessing and curse for Russia’ (Gulf News) Abundant oil and gas deposits have been a blessing for Russia, but they now feel like a curse as low prices propel the country into a deep economic crisis that shows no signs of abating.

The rouble fell to a record dollar low this past week as global crude prices slumped to 12-year lows, highlighting at once Russia’s vulnerability to changing oil prices and the fact President Vladimir Putin’s government has squandered opportunities to diversify the economy.

Calls to develop long-neglected sectors of the economy come as the government faces increasing pressure to react to a crippling economic crisis that has seen inflation soar and Russians’ purchasing power shrink dramatically. Booming oil prices in the 2000s when Putin came to power helped fill state coffers and ushered in an era of prosperity.

But for the past decade, the International Monetary Fund has urged Russia use its oil revenues to support revamping the economic sectors that have been overlooked since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Oil is both a blessing and a curse,” IMF mission chief to Russia Antonio Spilimbergo warned in 2012, urging Russia to improve its business climate and fight corruption to attract foreign investment.

High oil prices in fact enabled the authorities to adopt a wait-and-see policy and prop up the rouble, which in turn made Russian companies less competitive on the international stage. The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, accompanied by an oil price slump, had sounded alarm bells among Russian authorities.

Russia pumped a record 534 million tonnes of crude oil in 2015, even as it reeled from a fall in oil prices. The state has reinforced its presence in the sector, turning state oil company giant Rosneft into a global goliath and developing ambitious plans for the Arctic. But this time, authorities expect no quick rebound in oil prices, finance minister Anton Siluanov said.


3 Plastic now pollutes every corner of earth (Robin McKie in The Guardian) Humans have made enough plastic since the second world war to coat the Earth entirely in clingfilm, an international study has revealed.

The research, published in the journal Anthropocene, shows that no part of the planet is free of the scourge of plastic waste. Everywhere is polluted with the remains of water containers, supermarket bags, polystyrene lumps, compact discs, cigarette filter tips, nylons and other plastics. Some are in the form of microscopic grains, others in lumps. The impact is often highly damaging.

“The results came as a real surprise,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, of Leicester University. “We were aware that humans have been making increasing amounts of different kinds of plastic – from Bakelite to polyethylene bags to PVC – over the last 70 years, but we had no idea how far it had travelled round the planet. It turns out not just to have floated across the oceans, but has sunk to the deepest parts of the sea floor. This is not a sign that our planet is in a healthy condition either.”

The crucial point about the study’s findings is that the appearance of plastic should now be considered as a marker for a new epoch. Zalasiewicz is the chairman of a group of geologists assessing whether or not humanity’s activities have tipped the planet into a new geological epoch, called the Anthropocene, which ended the Holocene that began around 12,000 years ago.

Most members of Zalasiewicz’s committee believe the Anthropocene has begun and this month published a paper in Science in which they argued that several postwar human activities show our species is altering geology. In particular, radioactive isotopes released by atom bombs left a powerful signal in the ground that will tell future civilisations that something strange was going on.

Zalasiewicz argues that the humble plastic bag and plastic drink container play a far greater role in changing the planet than has been realised. “Just consider the fish in the sea,” he said. “A vast proportion of them now have plastic in them. They think it is food and eat it, just as seabirds feed plastic to their chicks. Then some of it is released as excrement and ends up sinking on to the seabed. The planet is slowly being covered in plastic.” In total, more than 300 million tonnes of plastic is manufactured every year, states the paper.

“In 1950, we virtually made none at all. It is an incredible rise,” added Zalasiewicz. “That annual total of 300 million tonnes is close to the weight of the entire human population of the planet. The total amount of plastic produced since the second world war is around 5 billion tonnes and is very likely to reach 30 billion by the end of the century. The impact will be colossal.”




About joesnewspicks

This blog captures interesting news items from around the world for those strained by information overload and yet need to stay updated on global events of significance. The news items displayed are not in order of merit. (The blog takes a weekly off — normally on Sundays — and does not appear when I am on vacation or busy.) I am a journalist for nearly three decades.
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