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This weekend, world leaders will open the COP26 climate summit, the UN's annual climate change conference, in Glasgow. Some insist this event is crucial to the multinational fight to limit the effects of climate change; others dismiss it as a circus that will feature politicos, protesters and celebrities competing for attention – one that's long on lofty promises and short on substance.
What's on the agenda?
Political leaders and negotiators from more than 120 countries will gather to talk about two big subjects. First, how to reduce the heat-trapping carbon emissions that scientists warn can inflict catastrophic damage on millions of people. This is where they'll offer their "nationally determined contributions," diplomatic jargon for their updated promises on their climate goals. Second, how to help poorer countries pay for adaptation to the climate damage that's already unavoidable.
The stakes rose this week with the release of a UN report that says the world is on track for a rise of 2.7 degree Celsius in average global temperature above pre-industrial levels over this century. The planet has already warmed by about one degree Celsius. In 2015, leaders agreed to limit that rise to 1.5 degrees.
But COP26 also brings together scientists, political activists and others to plot innovative strategies they hope can pressure both political and business leaders to show more progress in both these areas.
There are many reasons why climate progress is difficult.
Reducing emissions will demand economic sacrifices that no one is eager to make. To meet the targets agreed to in the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, all countries need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero, putting no more carbon into the atmosphere than they cut, by 2050. That requires an historic financial investment in new forms of energy that reduce or eliminate carbon emissions.
It's not easy to agree on how burdens should be shared. "Why should we make big sacrifices," ask emerging powers China and India? "The industrial revolutions in America and Europe created these problems. Why should we stunt our growth to clean up your mess?" "True enough," Europeans and Americans respond, "but you're both emitting so much carbon these days that we can't solve the problem without you."
Poorer countries ask, "What about us? We didn't create or exacerbate this problem, but rising sea levels and dangerously erratic weather patterns threaten our future. Who's going to pay for that?
The climate change challenge is global, but the politics that limit solutions remain mainly national, and politicians tend to prioritize the need to boost growth and win elections over long-term, global commitments.
As a result, summit promises must be taken with a mountain of salt. These annual summits began in the early 1990s, but there was no major agreement until the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and that deal fell apart after the US Senate refused to ratify the treaty.
Soaring economic growth in China and India have multiplied the carbon emissions pumped into the atmosphere.
In 2015, the Paris Climate Accord brought new pledges for emissions reductions to reach the net-zero target, but newly elected US president Donald Trump immediately withdrew the US from the commitments it made in that agreement. Though Biden pledges that America and its climate ambitions are back, no one knows what will happen after the next US election.
In addition, world leaders pledge only to meet specified targets. They don't have to explain exactly how they'll hit them. And they know that future leaders will be seated at the table when the bill arrives for payment. Their pledges are referred to as legally binding, but no one can force powerful polluting nations to honor their commitments.
So, why should we care about COP26? There will be no single historic breakthrough at this gathering, for all the reasons above. But the global scientific consensus is that climate change cannot be ignored, and progress matters, even if promises are only partly kept. These are annual meetings (the pandemic postponed the 2020 gathering until now) and any step in the right direction is far better than no progress at all.
COP26 is especially important because negotiators will be working to hash out details for the so-called Paris Rulebook, a new set of rules on how progress is reported and how carbon markets can be created that allow the buying and selling of emissions reductions among countries.
Over the two weeks of this summit, we'll write in more detail about what is and isn't happening, and we'll assess the conference's final statement to judge just how many incremental steps forward have actually been taken.
What pandemic result will have the largest and longest-lasting impact on women? Is the world really building back better for half the global population? How can we ensure that the post-pandemic recovery is fair to women? And how does this all play into a wider GZERO world? A group of global experts debated these and other questions during a livestream conversation hosted by GZERO Media in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, moderated by eNCA senior news anchor Tumelo Mothotoane.
Dr. Okito Vanessa Wedi, founder and CEO of Creative Development, discussed the terrible impact that COVID misinformation had on women of child-bearing age, how pandemic-related lockdowns and school closures have created a perfect storm for violence against women, and the need to come up with new metrics to value caregiving.
London School of Economics Director Minouche Shafik explained why so much talent has been wasted by women being forced to drop out of the workforce, why we should include support for women caregivers in a new social contract, why investing in women's education is a virtuous circle for economic growth, and why it's time to reassess and come up with a fairer social system.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former head of UN Women, underscored how many women gave fallen through the tracks after being been caught in a crossfire not of their own making during the pandemic, why violence against women won't end with lifting lockdowns, and why women need digital skills to access remote jobs.
Eurasia Group and GZERO Media President Ian Bremmer pondered what the absence of US leadership means for women now in places like Afghanistan or Yemen, and how flexible work could really help women if they get the skills and support they need.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman analyzed the structural reasons behind the lack of follow-up to the 1995 Beijing Declaration to advance women's rights around the world, and offered some reasons for optimism regarding the future for women in a post-pandemic world.
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Iran to resume nuclear talks — but it might be too late. Iran's top negotiator says that his country is now ready to rejoin talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Those negotiations have been on ice since June, when a hardline new Iranian president was "elected." But hopes for a breakthrough are slim. For one thing, Iran and the US still disagree about who should do what first: Tehran wants the toughest US sanctions lifted immediately, while the Americans say no way until Iran stops steaming ahead with its nuclear programs. (For a good primer, check out this Puppet Regime.) The other big obstacle now is that since Donald Trump ditched the deal in 2018, Iran has made immense progress in enriching uranium, breaking through all the limits set by the original agreement. Reviving that pact would now entail forcing the Iranians to give that all up, which Iran's hardline leadership is very unlikely to do, while Washington certainly won't want to write up a new deal that accepts Iran's recent nuclear activity — in fact, the Biden administration is under pressure to impose fresh sanctions. Fresh talks are good, but things don't look promising.
Nous gardons ton bateau! France and the UK have spent months trading barbs over post-Brexit fishing access in the English Channel. But now the French have upped the ante by seizing a UK trawler because it didn't have the proper EU-mandated paperwork. Although details of the seizure remain murky, it's a clear shot across the bow by Paris, fed up about lack of progress in talks over post-Brexit fishing rights. (Fishing rights was one of the final sticking points of Brexit trade negotiations, an emotive political issue for many Britons who say that they got a subpar deal when the UK joined the EEC in the 1970s.) What's more, France has issued an ultimatum: its customs agents will take their time inspecting all UK goods entering the country until London grants more fishing licenses to French vessels. This comes after a massive flare-up in May, when France amassed dozens of fishing boats near the Channel Islands, threatening to block British access to their ports and cut them off from power that comes from French submarine cables (spoiler: Paris backed off.)
What We're Ignoring
Facebook goes Meta. After weeks of teasing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Thursday that the company has a new name: Meta. The company says the name change reflects its increasing focus on the metaverse, which for you lay people refers to stuff like virtual and augmented reality. But the irony is palpable. A quick Google search reveals that the etymology of meta is Greek, and means "after" or "beyond." While Zuckerberg, Sandberg and co may be hoping that a major shift in branding will usher in a new era for the tech giant that has has experienced a brutal wave of publicity in recent weeks, it'll take more than a PR exercise to recast the company's image as a suppressor of hopes, dreams… and democracy.
Less than a year after the world started putting COVID vaccines into people's arms, most regions have immunized at least half their populations, but Africa still lags behind. With industrialized nations hoarding jabs and the COVAX facility faltering, barely five percent of the African population is fully vaccinated.
Some enterprising South African scientists are now making a bold bid to change that, with an experiment that could benefit not only Africa's 54 nations and billion people, but the entire world: Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a Cape Town-based startup, has developed a plan to reverse-engineer Moderna's mRNA shot and manufacture it for priority distribution on the continent.
How are they going to do it? The ingredients in Moderna's vaccine "recipe" are mostly publicly available — the trick is to figure out what to do with them. It's like having all the ingredients and measurements to bake a cake, but only vague instructions for each step.
Given that the Moderna vaccine was developed with US taxpayer money, lawyers are still figuring out which aspects of the process belong solely to the company. But that may be moot for now: the company says it won't sue, leaving Afrigen apparently in the clear to go ahead.
Cloning an mRNA vaccine would be a huge win for South Africa. It would be the equivalent of the moon landing in terms of accomplishment and prestige for a nation that too often grabs headlines for all the wrong reasons. Moreover, the project is backed and funded by the World Health Organization, so if the code is cracked, the formula would be made available to all as a public good across the whole continent and the wider developing world.
A highly effective yet affordable jab that can be manufactured anywhere could be a game-changer to stop more contagious COVID variants from emerging where the population is still unvaccinated. What's more, the sky's the limit when it comes to mRNA's potential to create vaccines against other diseases endemic to Africa such as Ebola, less infectious but way deadlier than COVID.
But don't get too excited just yet. The startup says it'll take up to a year to reverse-engineer Moderna's jab. Also, getting the formula right is only one piece of the puzzle. Afrigen would then need to figure out how to mass-produce, store, and deliver the vaccine around a continent with often poor infrastructure, not to mention getting raw materials at a moment when global supply chains are already stretched thin.
There's a political angle too. In the US, the Biden administration wants Moderna to sell more vaccines to COVAX at cost, and is facing growing criticism for treating the company with kid gloves after ignoring Biden's call to boost production for low-income countries despite Uncle Sam being Moderna's research sugar daddy.
Meanwhile, public health advocates are urging the National Institutes of Health to force Moderna to give up its secret sauce, and calling out the US government for paying lip service to waiving patents and global vaccine equity while not pushing the drugmakers harder to share their tech or prioritize supply for countries with low vaccination rates.
Technically, the Biden administration has some leverage because the White House bankrolled Moderna's vaccine research through the NIH and Operation Warp Speed. But twisting Moderna's arm would be a hard sell for the US government, traditionally reticent to meddle with Big Pharma and with little to gain (politically at home) from vaccinating other countries.
Moderna, for its part, says that right now it's better for the company to expand production itself than to share its tech because scaling up production in Africa will take too long. More broadly, it's also playing a longer game of aiming to dominate the post-COVID mRNA manufacturing landscape along with Pfizer.
No one knows if reverse-engineering mRNA COVID vaccines will work, but then again no one's tried before. Still, the upshot is that there's a huge opportunity despite uncertainty about the science, the business of producing the jab, and the politics behind it all.
11: Hit by a massive new COVID wave, Moscow has issued an 11-day lockdown of schools, businesses, and all "non-essential" services. Russia is now one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, having recorded 400,000 deaths by some estimates. Russia's high rate of vaccine skepticism isn't helping.
7.75: Brazil's Central Bank raised interest rates to 7.75 percent Wednesday – the highest level in twenty years – in order to clamp down on pandemic-fueled inflation. Brazil's flailing economy is just one of several big problems facing President Jair Bolsonaro as he struggles in the polls ahead of next year's presidential election.
1: Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen confirmed for the first time this week that US troops are stationed on Taiwanese soil to help protect the island from Chinese aggression. This revelation comes as relations between Taiwan and China are at their lowest point in decades after Beijing recently sent a record number of military jets into Taiwanese airspace.
2: The US economy grew by a sluggish 2 percent in the third quarter of this year compared to 6.7 percent in the previous quarter. Economists had warned that growth would contract – a lot – amid recent supply-chain disruptions and a decline in consumer spending.
Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:
Has Russian behavior in cyber changed after President Biden and President Putin's meeting earlier this year?
Well, unfortunately, we see ongoing assertiveness and aggression from the Russian side, targeting the US government, but also US tech companies. And the fact that there is so little accountability probably keeps motivating. Shortly before the Russian elections, Apple and Google removed an app built by opposition parties, to help voters identify the best candidate to challenge Putin's party. The company sided pressure on their employees in Russia, but of course, the pressure on the Russian population is constant. And after these dramatic events, the silence from Western governments was deafening.
What about US companies being targeted by attackers from Russia?
Well, it is a very inconvenient truth that the very companies whose software we all rely on is not secure enough to withstand these attacks. And again, the lack of accountability of attackers is a problem. Intelligence gathering currently does not violate international law and is rarely met with sanctions, even if the consequences of breaching systems, can be significant throughout an ecosystem. There is a legal vacuum and a political vacuum, in clarity around what is and is not acceptable. So, a combination of state accountability, and corporate liability standards are needed, to change the status quo.
No government today has the toolbox to tinker with Big Tech – that's why it's time to start thinking of the biggest tech companies as bona fide "digital nation states" with their own foreign relations, Ian Bremmer explains on GZERO World. Never has a small group of companies held such an expansive influence over humanity. And in this vast new digital territory, governments have little idea what to do.
Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Big Tech: Global sovereignty, unintended consequences