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Government must back UK train travel or risk long-term retreat to cars

Until train use recovers, a new approach to rail funding is needed.

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There’s no doubt that the UK’s railways have been hit hard by the pandemic. Recent figures from the Office of Rail and Road show a huge drop in passenger numbers, from April 2020 to March 2021. Over that period numbers fell at some previously busy stations like London Waterloo, by 86%. While numbers at Stratford, in east London, (the UK’s busiest station) fell by 67%.

Passenger numbers did rise over the summer of 2021 but the latest government statistics show rail use overall was at about 65-70% of pre-pandemic levels. This overall drop contrasts with the steady growth in rail use seen before COVID, with journeys doubling from 1994-2018. Now, with the announcement of the omicron variant, some people may shift away from public transport again.

Until train use recovers, a new approach to rail funding is needed. The UK government and devolved administrations must provide more funding and support for rail services and investment, or see long-term increased car use, increased carbon emissions and increased congestion.

Other countries are already revising their rail policies – for example the new German government coalition is committed to investing more on rail than road, and the Austrian government has introduced a “climate ticket”, giving access to all public transport.

Post-pandemic travel

The problem for the UK is that commuters are not coming back – at least not five days a week. Working from home, or hybrid working, is now established. One study showed that nearly 90% of those who worked at home during lockdowns wanted to continue to do so, at least some of the time. These people were concentrated in London and the south east and in more highly paid office jobs in city centres – precisely the people who have been the backbone of rail commuting in the past.

One global estimate suggests a 20% reduction in business travel while other research highlights people being worried about travelling on crowded trains and buses with others and have switching to cars (government statistics show that car traffic is almost back to pre-pandemic levels).

A traffic jam.
If train services are cut it’s likely that traffic jams will continue to rise. MagicBones/Shutterstock

Even before COVID, the British model of running and funding the railways was under pressure. Privatisation has been highly controversial – critics have commented on the extra costs and poor service, and argued for reform. Stung by poor timetabling and other problems in 2018, the UK government accepted the need for reform. The Williams-Shapps plan for rail proposed major restructuring, with a new “Great British Railways” contracting companies to run services, managing the infrastructure and conducting long-term planning.

This restructuring may cut the costs of running the railways, but it is unlikely to make up lost revenue.


Read more: HS2 Leeds branch cancelled: what will this mean for the north of England? – expert Q&A


There are various choices the government might make. One is cuts in services, from pre-pandemic levels. For example, there has been a consultation on the future of services for South Western Railways, which says demand is not coming back so services must be slimmed down. This resulted in a furious backlash from passengers. Some immediate cuts have been announced for the Bristol to London Waterloo service via Salisbury.

Another recent government decision is to trim back the plan for more high speed rail in the north of England, again with major public opposition. The government has abandoned one leg of its high-speed rail link (HS2).

Even the promised £96bn of rail investment is subject to “individual schemes proceeding subject to future approval at key gateways to ensure ongoing control of costs and value for money”. The lines which have already been scrapped would have created extra capacity for passengers and freight. It is as yet unclear whether the new plans will provide any extra capacity to allow growth.

Increased rail fares are also on the horizon - the government has continued with above-inflation fare increases (RPI+1%), with more to come. This contrasts with continued freezing of fuel duty for road transport and cutting air passenger duty on domestic flights.

Climate change risk

Transport is the biggest source of UK carbon emissions. Researchers argue that what is needed is to cut the miles people drive as well as a transition to zero emission vehicles. So reducing demand for road transport is critical.

While a lot of travel is short distance, the small number of longer journeys account for a large proportion of carbon emissions from surface transport. Rail can play an important role in providing an alternative to car use for these longer journeys – pre-pandemic it accounted for 16% of journeys over 50 miles and 25% of journeys between 250 and 350 miles.

But this will require the UK government – especially the treasury – to take a new approach, supporting railways, and public transport generally, as the backbone for a zero carbon transport network. Current policies, with reduced rail services, increased fares and investment uncertainty will clearly be bad for the environment, as well as the economy.

Stephen Joseph is visiting professor at the Smart Mobility Unit at the University of Hertfordshire; hee is also a trustee of the Fooundation foor Integrated Transport and chairs the Smart Transport programme at Bauer Media

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Graphite Outlook 2022: Demand from Battery Segment to Remain High

Click here to read the previous graphite outlook. Graphite is an essential raw material used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and as sales of EVs grow, market watchers believe demand for the metal will surge. Despite discussions about battery chemistry

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Click here to read the previous graphite outlook.

Graphite is an essential raw material used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and as sales of EVs grow, market watchers believe demand for the metal will surge.

Despite discussions about battery chemistry changes, many experts think graphite will remain a dominant element in EV batteries for at least the next decade. Both synthetic graphite and natural graphite, in the form of the intermediate product spherical graphite, are used in the anodes of lithium-ion batteries.

Here the Investing News Network (INN) looks at the key trends in the graphite market in 2021 and what the graphite outlook is for 2022.


Graphite trends 2021: Shipping and power cost challenges


After a tumultuous 2020 in which supply chains were put to the test as economies shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, graphite kicked off 2021 on a bright note.

In early 2021, prices for natural flake graphite were slightly higher than expected as a result of unexpectedly strict environmental investigations and closures in China, Suzanne Shaw of Wood Mackenzie told INN back in July.

“There was also considerable shipping disruption early on in the year with containers and vessels not where they should be as routes reopened post-COVID,” she said. “Limited availability was prioritized for higher-value cargos, with lower-value raw materials flows disrupted. This situation subsided through Q2.”

Pricing was relatively flat during the first six months of 2021, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence data.

“Prices for +100 mesh flake concentrate, across all purities, have moved upward by around 5 to 10 percent year-to-date, while pricing for all other grades has moved less than 5 percent so far this year due to continued structural oversupply in the graphite market,” Miller told INN at the end of H1. “Moreover, the global shipping situation at the moment is hindering upward price pressure.”

Prices took a turn in August, jumping on the back of the energy crisis, which hit producers and disrupted output. Battery grades were particularly hit by rising power costs as both the manufacture of synthetic graphite and the processing of spherical graphite from natural flake are known for their high levels of energy consumption.

In terms of supply, Chinese production was expected to ramp up to meet rising domestic battery demand, as there is still a lot of overcapacity in China.

“However, the overall trend is that China is showing less appetite on the raw material side and investing in higher-value downstream industries rather than exploration/mining across most mineral sectors,” Shaw said at the end of H1. “It will continue to increase its own imports of flake graphite.”

Meanwhile, on the synthetic graphite front, the market could be driven into a deficit as a result of increasing demand from the lithium-ion battery and downstream EV sectors worldwide, Roskill, which was acquired by Wood Mackenzie, reported back in August.

“From a performance perspective, EV automakers prefer synthetic graphite, citing its superior fast charge turnaround and battery longevity,” a November Fastmarkets report reads. “Synthetic graphite, however, is costly, power intensive and environmentally unfriendly, with supply centered in China at odds with North American and European automakers’ desire for more localized supply.”

Graphite outlook 2022: What’s ahead


At the end of last year, analysts were expecting demand from the battery segment to continue to grow on the back of increased EV sales, with growth opportunities for both synthetic and natural graphite.

According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence data, demand for natural graphite from the battery segment amounted to 400,000 tonnes in 2021, with that number expected to scale up to 3 million tonnes by 2030. Meanwhile, demand for synthetic graphite reached about 300,000 tonnes in 2021 and it’s expected to increase to 1.5 million tonnes by 2030.

“We do expect recycling to plug some of these gaps, but this isn't really likely to reach the necessary scale until post 2030,” Miller said in a December webinar. “So at the moment, the focus is really on synthesizing and mining this material as quickly as possible to meet the demand that we might see into the future.”

By volume, graphite is one of the most important elements in any electric vehicle battery ― there is between 50 and 100 kilograms of graphite, whether synthetic or natural, present within each vehicle.

“We can really see the sector growing progressively to around 15 times the demand we see today by 2030, outpacing moderate growth and demand from industrial applications,” Miller said.

That said, it's important to note that only certain types of natural graphite supply are relevant to and able to be qualified for the lithium-ion supply chain.

“This is really the biggest challenge in using natural graphite as a battery input,” Miller said. “This has the potential to exclude further capacity from projects in development.”

The expert explained that if all planned supply reached the market, it would have the potential to balance out demand up to 2029 to 2030, but with these limitations on which material can be qualified, the story takes a different direction.

“The primary limitation here is the mesh size inputs for the battery supply chain must be fine to medium flake,” Miller said, adding that consistency and high purity, somewhere around 94 to 95 percent carbon, is also key. “Flake graphite for the lithium ion supply chain must have low levels of impurity in order to avoid compromising the quality and longevity of the end product.”

According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, today, synthetic graphite anodes make up the majority of market share and approximately 57 percent of the anode market.

“Going forward, we do expect this to shift in the direction of natural graphite anodes to around a 50-50 balance for a multitude of reasons,” Miller said. His reasons include tight graphitization capacity, higher costs for synthetic graphite anode material and also the environmental shortcomings of the synthetic graphite supply chain at the moment.

Graphitization is the process of producing synthetic graphite from carbon-rich, oil-derived feedstock raw materials, and this process is energy intensive.

“In China, graphitization capacity has been mainly located in Inner Mongolia, a province which has some of the lowest energy costs in the country and where other high-energy metal producers, such as ferro-chrome smelters, are based,” Fastmarket reports. “But Inner Mongolia was the first in the firing line when the 2021 energy crisis unfolded.”

This resulted in reduced production and unpredictable cost increases for synthetic graphite, and the reason why many battery manufacturers in China could turn to natural graphite instead.

Looking ahead at how overall demand for graphite will perform, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence expects the battery segment to challenge industrial applications as the leading end-market for graphite demand. Over the next decade, anode demand will grow at an average of 27 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

“Unlike some of the other critical mineral markets, there is still time for both the natural and synthetic graphite market deficits to be redressed — so long as adequate funding is provided for junior miners in the near term,” Miller said.

Commenting on price performance, Fastmarkets maintains the view that both flake and spherical graphite prices will trend stable to higher in the near term.

“The only potential reprieve we see for graphite prices would be if the power constraints diminish EV lithium-ion battery production, and in turn reduce demand for graphite anodes sufficiently to stem the upward pressure on graphite prices,” analysts said.

Another key trend for graphite investors to watch in the new year is how western automakers keep up with China, which has become the dominant player in all steps of the anode supply chain.

Interestingly, before 2021 came to an end, US-based Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) made a move to secure graphite supply from top graphite producer Syrah Resources (ASX:SYR).

The ASX-listed company will process graphite from its Balama mine in Mozambique in its Louisiana plant, and will supply the EV maker with anode graphite material for an initial four year period. Tesla also has an option to offtake additional volume subject to Syrah expanding its capacity beyond 10,000 tonnes per year.

Don’t forget to follow us @INN_Resource for real-time updates!

Securities Disclosure: I, Priscila Barrera, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.

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Zinc Outlook 2022: Small Refined Zinc Deficit Ahead

Click here to read the previous zinc outlook. Following an uncertain 2020, zinc prices steadily rose throughout 2021 to hit a 14 year high in the second half of the year.The power crisis and an increasing demand for the base metal as the strict lockdown..

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Click here to read the previous zinc outlook.

Following an uncertain 2020, zinc prices steadily rose throughout 2021 to hit a 14 year high in the second half of the year.

The power crisis and an increasing demand for the base metal as the strict lockdown restrictions were lifted supported prices during the 12 month period.

As the new year begins, the Investing News Network (INN) caught up with analysts to find out what’s ahead for zinc supply, demand and prices.


Zinc outlook 2022: 2021 in review


Prices kicked off the year above the US$2,800 per tonne mark after rallying for most of the second half of 2020. The recovery in the steel sector helped the base metal throughout the first half of 2021 as COVID-19 lockdown measures eased, supporting demand for zinc.

Commenting on the main trends seen in the market in 2021, Helen O’Cleary of CRU Group told INN zinc’s demand recovery was stronger than expected in the US and Europe but lagged in Asia excluding China.

In October, zinc prices hit their highest level in 14 years, hovering around the US$3,800 mark on the back of the power crisis and cost associated with carbon emissions.

“Zinc’s price outperformed expectations in 2021 on the back of strong demand and smelter disruption, particularly in Q4 when European smelters started to cut back due to record high energy prices,” O’Cleary said.

One of the world’s top zinc smelters, Nyrstar (EBR:NYR), said in October it was planning to cut production at its European smelter operations. Mining giant Glencore (LSE:GLEN) also said it was adjusting production to reduce exposure to peak power pricing periods during the day.

Speaking with INN about zinc’s performance, Carlos Sanchez of CPM Group said zinc has been in recovery since prices bottomed out in 2020, helped in part by vaccination globally and also by supply disruptions around the world.

“The most recent issue is the concern about high energy input costs into smelters in Europe — that's been pushing prices higher recently,” he said.

Even though prices could not sustain that level until the end of the year, prices remained above US$3,500 on the last trading day of 2021.

Zinc outlook 2022: Supply and demand


As mentioned, demand for base metals saw an upward turn in 2021 as the world economy recovered on the back of stimulus plans and as vaccination rollouts took place in many parts of the world.

Looking at what’s ahead for demand in 2022, CRU is expecting Chinese demand growth to slow to 1.1 percent year-on-year as the effects of stimulus wane.

“In the world ex. China we expect demand to grow by 2.4 percent, with the ongoing auto sector recovery partially offsetting the construction sector slowdown in Europe and the US,” O’Cleary said.

CPM is also expecting demand to remain healthy in 2022, both in China and outside of China, including demand from developing countries.

“One thing that remains uncertain is what will happen with COVID,” Sanchez said.

Moving onto the supply side of the picture, the analyst expects that if everything remains status quo, disruptions are unlikely to happen.

“There are going to be some blips here and there, but there have been some labor issues in Peru, yes, there's been some energy problems in Europe and China, but that's a fact in zinc output and in demand to an extent,” Sanchez said. “But really the catalysts that we don't know, and how it can affect prices is how COVID will impact industries.”

For her part, O’Cleary is expecting most disruptions in Q1, with CRU currently having a disruption allowance of 55,000 tonnes for that period.

“But this may well tip over into Q2,” she said. CRU is expecting mine supply to grow by 5.10 percent year-on-year in 2022 and for the concentrates market to register a 190,000 tonnes surplus.

Meanwhile, smelter output is forecast to grow by less than 1 percent year-on-year in 2022, according to the firm, which is currently forecasting a small refined zinc deficit in 2022.

“Should smelter disruption exceed our 55,000 t allowance the deficit could grow,” O’Cleary said. “But high prices and a tight Chinese market could lead to further releases of refined zinc from the State Reserves Bureau stockpile, which could push the market towards balance or even a small surplus.”

Similarly, CPM Group is also expecting the market to shift into a deficit in 2022.

“That's due to the strong demand, recovering economies of COVID and its financial economic effects,” Sanchez said.

Zinc outlook 2022: What’s ahead


Commenting on how prices might perform next year, O’Cleary said prices are likely to remain high in Q1 due to the threat of further energy-related cutbacks in Europe during the winter heating season.

O’Cleary suggested investors to keep an eye on high prices and inflation, as these factors could hamper zinc demand growth.

Similarly, CPM Group is expecting prices to remain above current levels and to average around US$3,400 for the year.

“I wouldn't be surprised to see zinc top US$4,000,” Sanchez said. “But at the same time, I don't think it holds above there; you'd have to have really strong fundamentals for that to happen, stronger than what's happening now.”

The CPM director suggested zinc investors should keep an eye on COVID developments and be quick movers, taking a position whether it's short or long.

Looking ahead, for FocusEconomics analysts, prices for zinc are seen cooling markedly next year before falling further in 2023, as output gradually improves and new mines come online.

“Moreover, fading logistical disruptions and easing energy prices will exert additional downward pressure, although solid demand for steel will continue to support prices,” they said in their December report, adding that pandemic-related uncertainty clouds the outlook.

Panelists recently polled by the firm see prices averaging US$2,827 per metric tonne in Q4 2022 and US$2,651 per metric tonne in Q4 2023.

Don’t forget to follow us @INN_Resource for real-time news updates.

Securities Disclosure: I, Priscila Barrera, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.

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Pfizer CEO Predicts Life On Earth “Will Return To Normal” In The Spring

Pfizer CEO Predicts Life On Earth "Will Return To Normal" In The Spring

Just a few days ago, Bill Gates shared some of his (revised) thoughts on the COVID pandemic and the trajectory that omicron has left us on. Several weeks after warning…

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Pfizer CEO Predicts Life On Earth "Will Return To Normal" In The Spring

Just a few days ago, Bill Gates shared some of his (revised) thoughts on the COVID pandemic and the trajectory that omicron has left us on. Several weeks after warning that omicron's heightened infectiousness might send the pandemic into overdrive, the Microsoft founder postulated instead that omicron might hasten the end of the pandemic by leaving the human population with more antibodies against the virus. As a result, SARS-CoV-2 might enter its endemic stage more quickly, Gates suggested.

This view, that the end of the pandemic might finally be at hand after two years of suffering, has become increasingly popular as of late. Take this piece from the BBC: "Endemic COVID: Is the pandemic entering its endgame?".

While the piece mostly focused on the UK, the sense is that the developed world more broadly is closer to the end because of its access to vaccines.

So, is a new Covid-era truly imminent and what will that actually mean for our lives?

"We're almost there, it is now the beginning of the end, at least in the UK," Prof Julian Hiscox, chairman in infection and global health at the University of Liverpool, tells me. "I think life in 2022 will be almost back to before the pandemic."

What's changing is our immunity. The new coronavirus first emerged two years ago in Wuhan, China, and we were vulnerable. It was a completely new virus that our immune systems had not experienced before and we had no drugs or vaccines to help.

It even came with his handy illustration depicting the difference between "pandemic" and "endemic" COVID:

Source: The BBC

Well, it appears the CEO of Pfizer has caught on to this narrative - and he approves. Speaking to the French media, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla that while he expects COVID to continue to circulate for many years to come, he expects future waves won't cause the types of restrictions that people have become used to over the last two years, and that life will return to "normal" in the spring.

Bourla told French news outlet Le Figaro in an interview published Jan. 16 that he expects a "return to normal life" at some point in spring of this year. However, he added the caveat that the mysterious dynamics of COVID's spread make accurate predictions more difficult.

"We will soon be able to resume a normal life," Albert Bourla told the French paper. "We are well positioned to get there in the spring thanks to all the tools at our disposal: tests, very effective vaccines and the first treatments that can be taken at home."

He also credited improvements in COVID testing, vaccines, and therapeutics for his optimistic outlook, telling BFM TV that he expects the current omicron-driven wave to be the "last with so many restrictions."

But given its affinity for its human hosts, COVID will likely be "very difficult to get rid of," which is why Bourla expects it to become endemic, with the occasional seasonal flareup, like the flu.

Finally, the Pfizer CEO shared details of local partnerships that he said would help France produce more of Pfizer's COVID fighting drug Paxlovid.

With his approval rating at an all-time low, President Biden better hope the likes of Bourla and Gates are right. Ending the COVID pandemic might be the only thing that could help Biden regain some support among the tired and frustrated American electorate.

Tyler Durden Mon, 01/17/2022 - 17:00

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