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Death by surburban sprawl

Published in collaboration with The Conversation, a website that features commentary, research and analysis from Australian universities and the CSIRO.

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Non-communicable diseases – Billie Giles-Corti looks at how the built environment impacts the development of NCDs.

Never before in human history have so many people been able to be so sedentary in the course of daily life.

Since World War II, technological advances have transformed the design and development of buildings and communities, the way populations are mobilized and fed, the nature of work, and methods of communication.

Industrial and home labour-saving devices – from the remote control of garage doors to televisions and everything in between – maximise convenience and minimise effort.

So compared with our parents and grandparents, feeding and clothing ourselves has never been so effortless.

But while offering convenience, our use of motor vehicles – even for short trips to the local shop – or a blower to “sweep” garden leaves, appears to be having a profound impact on the health of human populations.

SITTING TO DEATH

Diseases previously associated with affluence – cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses and diabetes – are now prevalent in disadvantaged populations.

The problem is so big that an emergency long-term response is required – not just by the health sector but by everyone.

The United Nations declaration calling for action on the prevention and control of non-communicable disease highlighted the need for a “whole of society effort” to tackle this enormous global problem, which is crippling already overburdened health systems.

This is a call for all hands on deck: no one sector – and certainly not the health sector – can solve this problem. Fixing up people when they are ill is not the solution.

The number of people with non-communicable diseases are growing exponentially not because we have changed genetically, but because we have changed our lifestyles in response to a rapidly changing environment.

We now sit too much, move too little and over consume energy dense food – just because we can.

BUILT ENVIRONMENT

The UN call for action specifically mentions the role of urban planning in the development of non-communicable diseases.

Research consistently shows that people are more likely to walk if they live in compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods characterised by connected street networks, access to mixed-use planning, with presence of local destinations and higher density housing.

And that time and distance influences walking and cycling as preferred modes of transport.

Heavily trafficked roads are contributing to the decline of active modes of travel. Peter Blanchard

Neighbourhood design has a powerful effect on active travel options of all residents, particularly young people.

Children’s independent mobility is influenced by traffic exposure and parental concerns (real or perceived) about safety, as well as access to local destinations including schools.

Locating schools in neighborhoods with disconnected street networks and heavily trafficked roads is contributing to the rapid decline in children and young people using active modes of travel.

In fact, parents chauffering their children to school are themselves contributing to the traffic congestion that makes roads unsafe for children to walk or cycle.

The power of planners

In the course of their professional lives, urban planners, transport planners, urban designers, civil engineers, property developers and architects make decisions with long-term impacts on the health and well-being of generations of residents.

They make design decisions that determine whether neighborhoods have connected street networks and footpaths so that residents – including children – can easily and safely walk to local destinations.

They decide whether shops and services are part of communities and in places where people can walk to them.

And whether communities have well-designed parks that meet the needs of a range of users from sporting groups, children, dog walkers through to our ageing population.

These planners decide whether streets are wide enough to allow access by public transport.

And underpinning all these decisions are land use and regional transport system planning policies made by state and local government and politicians.

Networking for a healthier society

So there’s an urgent need for policies that encompass social, economic, sustainability, and health policies to create more vibrant, pedestrian-friendly communities serviced by public transport.

Multiple sectors now promote active transport because of concerns about the health, social, environmental, and economic impacts of a range of agendas.

These include rising levels of obesity and inactivity, climate change, population growth, declining oil supplies and rising fuel prices.

Active transport can achieve outcomes for all of them, from improved health and traffic management through to environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

As Australian cities expand rapidly with continued growth on the urban fringe, the challenge is to adopt joined-up approaches involving creative ways of producing supportive land use and transportation planning that ensures compact pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

But a plan is one thing and a “populated plan” is another – new communities can take decades to build.

To ensure people on the fringes of cities are not deprived for decades, we need to move from planning to populating the plan.

New business development models that ensure access to local employment and alternative government service delivery models that provide access to local health and public transport are needed.

Without joined-up approaches, we can stick on band aid after band aid but the true nature of what ails us will remain unheeded.

This is the eighth part of The Conversation’s non-communicable diseases series.

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Tropical forests ‘managed poorly or not at all’

All but seven percent of the world’s tropical forests are “managed poorly or not at all” despite efforts to boost sustainability, according to a major report released Tuesday.

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Forces driving forest destruction across four continents — including rising food and fuel prices, and growing demand for timber — threaten to overwhelm future conservation efforts, warned the 420-page study by the Japan-based International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO), an intergovernmental agency group that promotes sustainable use of forests.

“Less than 10 percent of all forests are sustainably managed, and we expect deforestation to continue,” said Steven Johnson, ITTO’s communications director.

“The economic rationale is just so compelling. Revenue streams coming from standing forests just can’t compete against conversion to agriculture or biofuel crops, pasture land for livestock, or palm oil plantation,” he said by phone.

Tropical forests play an essential role in Earth’s carbon cycle, absorbing about a quarter of CO2 emissions generated by human activity.

Deforestation, which releases stored carbon, accounts for 10 to 20 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally.

Forests are also a lifeline for nearly a billion people around the world living at or close to subsistence.

The report, “Status of Tropical Forest Management 2011,” covers 33 countries and about 90 percent of global trade in tropical timber, and presents itself as the most comprehensive assessment of its kind ever conducted.

So-called “natural permanent tropical forest” currently stand at 761 million hectares (1,880 million acres) worldwide, it estimates, with just over half “production forest,” and the rest “protection forest.”

The good news is that the area under sustainable management has grown by 50 percent in five years to 53 million hectares (134 million acres), equivalent to the surface of Thailand or Spain.

But these gains must be stacked against the millions of hectares (acres) of tropical forests cleared each year for crops, pastures or development, the report cautioned.

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Dispute over European IMF leadership

The world’s largest emerging economies on Tuesday slammed Europe’s push to lock up the International Monetary Fund’s top job, calling its hold on the position “obsolete.

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One day after nominations opened to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn as managing director, IMF directors from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the so-called BRICS economies — said Europe’s longstanding exclusive deal to lead the IMF “undermines the legitimacy of the Fund.”

They strongly objected to the aggressive push by Europeans since last week to have one of their own to replace Strauss-Kahn, who resigned Wednesday after being arrested in New York on sexual assault allegations, which he denies.

“We are concerned with public statements made recently by high-level European officials to the effect that the position of managing director should continue to be occupied by a European,” they said.

The 2008-2009 financial crisis in the United States and Europe showed the need to reform institutions like the IMF “to reflect the growing role of developing countries in the world economy,” they said.

“This requires abandoning the obsolete unwritten convention that requires that the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe.”

Last week the IMF said it want to make a choice by the end of June, based on consensus among the 24 executive board directors, or possibly by a vote.

No formal nominations have been revealed but Mexico’s government said it would propose Agustin Carstens, the respected Mexican central bank governor who has extensive experience at the IMF.

However, within days of Strauss-Kahn’s May 14 arrest, European officials were already promoting French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde for the job.

In recent days she garnered strong endorsements from the German, British and Dutch finance ministers as well as New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

Moreover, earlier Tuesday the chief French government spokesman Francois Baroin said even China was ready to back her.

“The Chinese are favorable to the candidacy of Christine Lagarde,” Baroin, who is also France’s budget minister, told Europe 1 radio.

“What is being drawn up is a European consensus,” Baroin said, adding that France did not want “to make any gesture that could be interpreted as a form of contempt for emerging countries nor any sign of arrogance.”

Many European leaders believe the deep problems of the European Union, with Greece, Portugal and Ireland in financial crisis, require an IMF chief current on the region’s issues.

Developing country officials accuse the Europeans of trying to ramrod Lagarde through and scare off possible challengers.

For years developing countries have complained about the “gentlemen’s agreement” dating to the founding of the IMF at the end of World War II that keeps a European running the Fund while an American leads its sister institution, the World Bank.

The five BRICS directors said that for credibility and legitimacy, the managing director should be selected “after broad consultation with the membership” and decided based on “the most competent person… regardless of his or her nationality.”

They recalled then-Eurogroup president Jean-Claude Juncker pledging, at the time of French politician Strauss-Kahn’s selection in 2007, that “the next managing director will certainly not be a European.”

But they did not name any possible candidates, and so far, developing countries have not coalesced around any one person.

“It’s a sign of the times that five directors are issuing a statement like this,” said Daniel Bradlow, a law profesor and expert in international financial institutions at American University in Washington.

“They’re not endorsing anyone, nor are they agreeing on a single candidate, which is unfortunate, but they have strong words against Europe.

Carstens, the most prominent developing country candidate with his hat in the ring, told Bloomberg television that he would only have a chance for the job if the process is transparent, allowing the IMF’s 187 members “to compare resumes, compare experiences, hear the candidates and make up their minds.”

“If the process is done in that way, I have a chance,” he said.

On Wednesday attention will turn to Lagarde, expected to give a press conference ahead of the Thursday-Friday summit of the G-8 countries in Deauville, France.

On Friday an EU insider told AFP that her name would be advanced during the G-8 meeting, calling her a “shoo-in” as Europe’s candidate.

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Top 10: Assange and gay marriage

Most industries have their awards nights, but most people from outside the industry would find them utterly boring – even with free booze.

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For example, doctors are unlikely to turn up to the Australian Engineering Excellence awards, or the Chartered Accounts awards, and the feeling’s probably mutual on the engineers’ and accountants’ sides.

Which is why it’s always a surprise that our viewers – presumably from a very wide range of non-media-related occupations – take so much interest in the Walkley Awards.

Sure, it’s on TV, but so’s a whole lot of stuff about the Kardashians. Doesn’t mean you have to watch it – especially since there’s NO booze that way anyway. But watch it you do, and you clicked it into top spot in our list of popular stories this week, and that pleases and flatters us over here in the business of journalism.

At first glance, one might think the popularity of THIS year’s Walkley broadcast and related online stories may be owed to the fact that the top honour was handed to Wikileaks’ Julian Assange.

But the very next story on the list – hot on its heels – was a whole gallery of photos from the Walkley awards presentation night, which says to us that not only are you interested in seeing who wins what, but you also want to see us having dinner all dressed up!

In an industry where ego is abundant and arguably necessary, that kind of flattery will get you everywhere, dear readers.

In third spot, you were hunting for serious news, and you clicked on our interview with members of maritime activists Sea Shepherd as they prepared to tackle Japanese whalers.

In fourth, this blog about how Twitter helped arrest a woman for a tirade against migrants on a UK tram stirred debate about what one should and shouldn’t say about people of different backgrounds and the way in which one can or can’t say it. A warning about that one – if you click on the links to the videos, be prepared for some potentially offensive remarks and foul language.

Fifth spot went to the passing of rugby league legend Arthur Beetson. He died of a massive heart attack as he rode his bike a few hours before he was to attend a function for 400 young indigenous rugby players whom he’d helped to achieve their dreams.

In sixth, the much lighter story of a stolen Superman comic expected to sell for squillions of dollars.

Then, with the news that Queensland was the latest state to legalise same sex civil unions, readers flocked to our discussion board to have their say on whether Australia should legalise same-sex marriage. It’s worth a click to get a sense of where Aussies stand on that question, with over 700 responses so far.

There was a collective gulp from all those with an interest in the Middle East as reports emerged that four Katyusha rockets (they’re the big, nasty kind) had been fired from south Lebanon into Israel, drawing return firefrom the Israel Defence Forces and creating a worrying sense of deja vu from 2006.

And to finish, a timely warning for Christmas shoppers, with news that a US shopping centre (oh, all right – “mall”) opening its doors for the traditional Black Friday sales found its staff pulling shoppers off each other as the spree turned violent.

And with that, we wish you a relaxing weekend and may all of your non-denominational holiday season shopping excursions be safe and free of pepper-spray.

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British referendum puts strain on Coalition

British voters handed the Liberal Democrats a double blow, rejecting their electoral reform bid in a referendum and punishing them in local elections for their role in coalition spending cuts.

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Final results released on Saturday showed almost 68 percent of voters had spurned the new system supported by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems.

The Lib Dems also suffered their worst results for a quarter of a century in elections for local councils, even as Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, which lead the year-old coalition, were left largely unscathed.

The separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) meanwhile secured a historic majority in the devolved national assembly in Thursday’s elections and vowed to hold a referendum on independence within the next four years.

Clegg described the voting reform referendum result as a “bitter blow”.

He said his party had taken the brunt of the blame for the swingeing public spending cuts introduced by the coalition to rein in Britain’s record deficit but insisted the Lib Dems would soldier on in the coalition.

“We’ve clearly had bad results overnight and we now need to learn the lessons, get up, dust ourselves down and move on,” he said.

The Lib Dems insisted on having the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system for electing lawmakers — in which voters rank candidates by preference — as a condition of joining the coalition after elections in May last year.

Final results from the referendum showed that a total of 67.9 percent of voters — 13,013,123 — had rejected a move to AV, while just 32.1 percent had supported the idea. Turnout was 42 percent.

Cameron said he remained confident about the future of the coalition despite the results of Clegg’s party and added that he would “pay tribute to the work that the Liberal Democrats have done.

“I am absolutely committed to make this coalition government, which I believe is good for Britain, work for the full five years of this term,” he said.

The Conservatives backed retaining the current first-past-the-post system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and opposed the introduction of AV which would benefit smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats.

Senior Lib Dem figures said trust between the two parties had been badly damaged by a vitriolic referendum campaign in which the Lib Dems accused the Tories of making unfounded claims about the cost of introducing AV.

“There is no doubt that the relationships have been frayed in this campaign,” said Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne.

The referendum and the local elections in England on Thursday were held alongside elections for the devolved national assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, nationalist leader Alex Salmond’s hopes of holding a referendum on independence were boosted after his governing SNP pulled off what he called a “stunning victory”.

In the first overall majority for any party since the parliament opened in 1999, the SNP battered the once dominant Labour party to win 69 seats in the devolved 129-seat Holyrood assembly.

First Minister-elect Salmond pledged to hold a referendum on Scottish independence within the next four years, something he could not deliver in his first term as the SNP were outnumbered by unionists.

“Just as the people have bestowed trust in us, we must trust the people as well, and that is why in this term of the parliament we shall bring forward a referendum and trust the people with Scotland’s own constitutional future,” he said.

In Northern Ireland, results were still coming in early Saturday but the two major parties that share power in the devolved assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party and republican group Sinn Fein, were set for a resounding victory.

Their triumph, which came after an upsurge in violence by dissident republicans in the run-up to polling day, was slightly marred by a record low voter turnout, predicted to drop to as low as 55 percent.

In Wales, Labour fell just short of an overall majority in the national assembly, having spent the past four years in government with the left-wing nationalists Plaid Cymru.

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Lotus target fourth place with Raikkonen

JEREZ, Spain (Reuters) –

Champions Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes all finished above former champions Renault last year but Lotus team co-owner Gerard Lopez said beating one of them was a realistic aim.

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“The hopes are to have a strong car, strong drivers, of which one of them is obviously an ex-world champion,” he declared in a factory presentation of the new Renault-powered E20 car on the Lotus website (www.lotusf1.com).

“Then you have to bring the car up to the front of the pack, probably trying to aim for fourth as a reasonable goal for this season.”

Raikkonen has not raced in Formula One since 2009, when he left Ferrari to make way for double champion Fernando Alonso and embark on a new life in rallying.

The Finn, triumphant in 18 grands prix with McLaren and Ferrari and 2007 title winner with the Italian team, is one of an unprecedented six champions together on the starting grid this year.

His team mate is French driver Romain Grosjean, the GP2 champion who started seven races for Renault in 2009 without scoring a point.

PRETTY NORMAL

“I am happy to be back,” Raikkonen, never the most loquacious soul in the paddock, said when reminded how difficult seven-times champion Michael Schumacher had found coming back with Mercedes.

“It will be something slightly different than it used to be when I was in Formula One with a different team. A little bit different regulations but everybody’s different. Some people have more difficulties in getting used to new stuff.

“It depends a lot on the car. If you have a good car it makes life much easier than if you have an average one. I was pretty happy after the first test we did a few weeks ago and it felt pretty normal already,” added Raikkonen, who drove a two-year-old car at Valencia last month.

The new black and gold E20 is named after the team’s Enstone factory as the 20th car the workforce have built there going back to the days of Toleman, Benetton and Renault.

Both Benetton and Renault won titles, the latter in 2005 and 2006 with Alonso.

The first chassis from Enstone made under the Lotus name had the distinctive stepped nose seen on all the cars launched so far, with the exception of McLaren. There was also new sponsorship from Unilever brands Rexona and Clear.

It will be fired up Monday before the first pre-season test starts at the Jerez circuit in southern Spain Tuesday.

“The people (here) know how to build a good car and even the biggest teams cannot produce every year the winning car…they are very capable people and have a good feeling of things and are pushing hard so hopefully we get good results,” said Raikkonen.

Renault were just four points ahead of sixth-placed Force India last year, with Russian Vitaly Petrov as main driver and Brazilian Bruno Senna replacing Germany’s Nick Heidfeld for the latter half of the championship.

(Editing by Mark Meadows)

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Pakistan indicts seven over Bhutto murder

Nobody has been convicted or jailed for Bhutto’s murder in Rawalpindi in a gun and suicide attack after she addressed an election rally on December 27 that year.

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Police say that three other suspects in the high-profile case have been killed – including the chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud – and two remain at large.

“Seven accused including two police officers have been indicted,” public prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar told AFP on Saturday.

The police were arrested a year ago while the suspected militants have been in custody for nearly four years.

The police officers were Saud Aziz, who was the Rawalpindi police chief at the time of the killing, and Khurram Shahzad, another senior policeman.

The seven were indicted at the court in a high-security prison in Rawalpindi.

The five alleged militants are accused of “criminal conspiracy” for bringing the suicide bomber from the tribal belt in the northwest and keeping him at a house in Rawalpindi.

“(All) the accused denied the charges and demanded for trial,” Azhar said, adding that the police officers were accused of a security breach and for their “failure” to protect Bhutto.

At the time of her death, then president Pervez Musharraf blamed Mehsud for the killing.

Musharraf, who lives in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, is also wanted over Bhutto’s death. Prosecutors issued an arrest warrant in February over what they said was his failure to provide her with enough security.

The former president and military ruler is alleged to have been part of a “broad conspiracy” to have his political rival killed before elections. He denies the allegation.

The anti-terrorism court in August ordered the confiscation of Musharraf’s property and the freezing of his bank accounts in Pakistan, the prosecutor said.

Mehsud was killed in a US drone attack in August 2009, one of the most high-profile casualties of the covert American campaign targeting al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border.

Bhutto, who served two terms as prime minister, had returned from exile two months before she was killed to stand for election.

Her widower Asif Ali Zardari led her Pakistan People’s Party to election victory in February 2008 and is now president.

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2011 an ‘annus mirabilis’ for Britain’s royals

After the world watched Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton, the celebrations in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee should put the icing on an “annus mirabilis” for the British royals.

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When they gather for Christmas at the queen’s Sandringham estate, the Windsors can reflect on a spectacular year — and look forward to one which is likely to cement their status as the world’s most popular royal family.

William and Catherine, as she is now known, tied the knot on April 29, in a glittering ceremony that breathed new life into Britain’s monarchy, as two billion viewers worldwide were swept up in the royal magic.

And another four-day feast of regal proportions is planned when the country marks the queen’s 60 years on the throne, the month before it welcomes the world to London for the 2012 Olympics.

The extremely rare diamond jubilee will witness an extended four-day weekend in Britain from June 2-5, featuring street parties, a concert at Buckingham Palace, a gigantic pageant on the River Thames, and a carriage procession.

“What they’re doing is tapping into the mood they were able to capture with the royal wedding,” said Katie Nicholl, The Mail on Sunday newspaper’s royal editor.

“It’s been a fantastic year for the royal family. The wedding really lifted not just the royals but the whole country,” she told AFP.

“It has been a perfect year for the queen and everything has gone her way. It’s quite miraculous. It has been one great occasion after another. Every time we’ve seen her she’s looked so happy.”

Besides the royal wedding, 2011 saw the 85-year-old sovereign undertake two successful tours.

She made a groundbreaking visit to the Republic of Ireland in May, healing old wounds, while her trip to Australia in October started out being called a farewell tour for its head of state, and ended up reviving royal fervour and melting republican sentiment.

The queen saw her husband Prince Philip turn 90 in June with a typical lack of fuss, and a second royal wedding when eventing world champion Zara Philips, her oldest granddaughter, married England rugby star Mike Tindall in July.

William’s brother Prince Harry meanwhile did his Apache attack helicopter training.

It is all a far cry from 1992, when the monarchy hit a low ebb in what Queen Elizabeth called her “annus horribilis”. Windsor Castle was wrecked in a fire, while three of her children’s marriages fell apart.

Worse followed in 1997 when Diana, princess of Wales was killed in a car crash and the royals’ reaction prompted accusations they were out-of-touch and insensitive.

But since then, the House of Windsor has gradually modernised the monarchy, work which seems to have paid dividends in 2011.

William and Catherine, both 29, have settled down to married life on Anglesey in northwest Wales, where the prince is a Royal Air Force search and rescue helicopter pilot.

The couple made their first overseas tour in June and July, visiting Canada and California, where they were given an ecstatic welcome.

But they will be forced to spend six weeks apart in February and March when William will deploy to the Falkland Islands.

With an eye on William and Catherine, leaders from the 16 realms at the October Commonwealth summit in Australia agreed to scrap centuries-old laws barring first-born daughters or anyone married to a Roman Catholic from inheriting the British throne.

“Kate has brought glamour to the royal family, renewed interest and everybody is keen to see where they go from here,” Richard Palmer, the Daily Express newspaper’s royal correspondent, told AFP.

“They’ve deliberately stepped backwards in the last few months. They’ve tried to put the spotlight back on the queen.

“The jubilee is a landmark occasion to celebrate this remarkable woman who has been on the world stage now for 60 years and done an incredible job in her own special, understated way.

“2012 is going to be almost as busy as 2011. The jubilee is going to dominate the year — unless Kate gets pregnant.”

Other European monarchies made headlines in 2011 with weddings and baby announcements.

Monaco had its own royal wedding in July, when Prince Albert II married South African former Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock.

In Denmark, Crown Princess Mary gave birth to twins in January, Prince Vincent and Princess Josephine. Queen Margrethe II marks her 40 years on the throne next month.

Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria is due to give birth in March, ending a year of speculation about when she would produce the next heir to the throne.

Meanwhile Belgium’s King Albert II spent the entire year steering feuding politicians from the Flemish and Walloon communities towards finally forming a government after a record-breaking 18-month crisis which finally ended Tuesday.

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Huntsman announces White House bid

Former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has launched his 2012 White House bid, calling for the US to withdraw from conflicts to rebuild ‘our core here at home.

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“We are a nation at war and we must manage the end of these conflicts without repeating past mistakes that made our engagement longer and our sacrifices greater than they should have been,” Huntsman said.

“It’s not that we wish to disengage from the world… but rather that we believe the best national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home,” the former Utah governor declared to scores of supporters.

Emulating conservative icon Ronald Reagan, Huntsman launched his campaign in a New Jersey state park in sight of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline scarred by the September 11, 2001 attacks.

He also vowed to reverse the US decline and sharply assailed the handling of the economy by his former boss, who he is now looking to unseat, Democratic President Barack Obama.

“For the first time in history, we are passing down to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive and less confident than the one we got,” Huntsman said.

His speech came a day before Obama was due to announce the scope and pace of a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in the face of steep US public opposition to the decade-old war.

The 51-year-old expressed “respect” for Obama as well as for his fellow Republican presidential hopefuls, insisting the voters will decide “who will be the better president, not who’s the better American.”

But he savaged Obama’s handling of the economy during the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, saying “we need more than hope” in a mocking reference to the “hope and change” mantra of Obama’s historic 2008 campaign.

Huntsman, whose Mormon faith could prove an obstacle for some evangelical Christian voters, painted himself as the right candidate to “make hard decisions that are necessary to avert disaster.”

And he warned that the swelling US debt risked smothering the economy and weighing down Washington’s global leadership.

“Our influence in the world will wane. Our security will grow ever-more precarious. And the 21st century will then be known as the end of the American century. We can’t accept this, and we won’t,” said Huntsman.

He called for overhauling the US tax code and rolling back regulations that Republicans blame for stalling job growth.

But a spokesman for the 2012 Obama campaign, Ben Bolt, hit back with a swipe at Huntsman’s economic policies.

“Instead of proposing a plan that will allow middle class families to reclaim their economic security, governor Huntsman is proposing a return to the failed economic policies that led us into the recession,” Bolt said in a statement.

The former diplomat, who has just completed 20 months in Beijing and served in Reagan’s White House, possesses what are widely considered to be the best foreign policy credentials of a crowded Republican field.

But Huntsman trails far behind Republican front-runner and fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, and after a later rally in Exeter, New Hampshire, resident Bob Hantman, 70, said he was still “very undecided.”

“He’s got impressive credentials, he’s obviously a very bright, hard-working man — all the adjectives I would put in front of Obama,” Hantman said.

With his fluent Mandarin, Huntsman is well regarded in China, also because one of his seven children, Gracie Mei, was adopted from China. He was known for preferring his bicycle to chauffeur-driven armored limousines.

He helped Washington navigate a particularly thorny time in relations between the world’s top two economies as they battled over everything from the yuan and trade to Taiwan and Internet freedom.

Among Republicans, however, he is not well known — and sizable numbers who know his name consider his work for the Obama administration to be an unpardonable betrayal.

Huntsman, the son of a chemical billionaire, has countered that he was serving his country when he worked under the Obama administration.

But he has also praised Obama’s economic stimulus package, backed civil unions for gay couples, and supported a “cap-and-trade” plan to curb greenhouse gases blamed for global warming — all targets of Republican scorn.

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Obama warns US on debt

The International Monetary Fund warned Wednesday that the US debt burden is perilously unsustainable but advised against too-sharp fiscal adjustments that would slow the fragile economy.

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In its annual assessment of the US financial situation, the IMF said that if the United States did not hike its debt ceiling soon to accommodate spending commitments, the impact could wreak havoc on global markets.

“Fiscal policy consolidation needs to proceed as debt dynamics are unsustainable and losing fiscal credibility would be extremely damaging,” the Fund said.

“The main policy challenge is to implement a substantial and durable fiscal consolidation effort while ensuring that the still-fragile recovery remains on track.”

Despite its dangerously heavy debt burden, the United States needs to increase the $14.29 trillion cap on borrowings to avoid defaulting on its debt and sparking “a severe shock to the economy and world financial markets,” the IMF said.

The US Treasury has forecast that it could be forced to hold back payments on borrowings beginning on August 2 if the cap is not raised.

The IMF said US growth would remain slow, with the economy expanding 2.5 percent in 2011 and 2.7 percent annually over 2012-2013, with the high unemployment and the comatose housing market acting as heavy drags.

It said slow growth in the first half of this year — the first quarter registered a dull 1.9 percent pace — was in part the result of higher oil prices and “transient factors” like the disruptions to industry after the March 11 Japanese earthquake-tsunami disaster.

Weighing in to the current battle between President Barack Obama’s administration and congressional Republicans over how to address the country’s huge debt and deficits, the IMF warned that deficit cuts proposed in February’s budget could be too large and fast, given the current economic weakness.

Yet, it pointed out, the same cuts could be “insufficient to stabilize the debt by mid-decade.”

It recommended a firm, evenly-paced strategy over five years from the coming fiscal year (beginning in October) to cut the deficit and stabilize debt.

The IMF said the plan should include spending cuts, entitlement reform — a reference to the long-term burden of promised health and retirement benefits to seniors — as well as revenue increases.

That appeared to match more the White House approach to the debt negotiations; Republicans have rejected any measures that would increase taxes to individuals or companies.

“Consideration could also be given to a national VAT (value added tax) or sales tax and carbon taxes, consistent with past advice by Fund staff,” the IMF said.

Republicans are blocking an increase in the debt ceiling in order to force a settlement on spending cuts to close the deficit gap.

In a press conference not long after the IMF released its report, Obama called on his opponents to raise the ceiling — saying it relates directly to the need to generate jobs for unemployed Americans.

“If the United States government for the first time cannot pay its bills, if it defaults, then the consequences for the US economy will be significant and unpredictable and that is not a good thing,” Obama said.

The IMF warned that the risk of negative events and trends worsening the US financial situation had risen. It cited:

– continued weakness in the housing market;

– a sudden increase in interest rates, hiking the amount the US has to pay for its borrowings. This could come if the government does not reach a deal in debt negotiations with Congress, or if the debt ceiling isn’t raised soon;

– new sharp rises in oil and other commodity prices; and

– new shocks from Europe’s debt crisis.

On the positive side for the economy, the Fund said, exports have recovered markedly and financial conditions have improved, helped by the US Federal Reserve’s policy to keep interest rates near zero, which has kept the dollar weak.

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