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The Wrap-Up: 16 November 2021

Our fortnightly dose of news is here! Join Josh and Hugh as they unpack: 

  • The good, the bad and the ugly from COP26

  • Why Belarus is flying migrants to the EU border

  • The latest attempt to silence Thailand's student activists

  • A potential boycott of the Winter Olympics as China/US tensions rise

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Topic #1 - COP26 Recap 

Josh: It was billed as humanity’s ‘last best hope’ -- the final chance for the world to stop the worst impacts of climate change. 

And now, after more than two weeks of meetings between nearly 40,000 delegates, COP26 has wrapped up. And it was quite a nail-biting finish.  

The conference had to be extended by a day, after delegates failed to agree on the conference’s final resolution. 

Some last minute changes to the draft were made, and finally, all 197 countries signed on. While it is great news that an agreement was reached:

It doesn’t have any 2030 emissions reduction targets; the parts about phasing out coal were significantly watered down; and rich countries refused to increase climate aid given to vulnerable nations. 

And that raises the question: how should we view COP26?  Was it a success or a failure?  

Hugh: And what’s the consensus? 

Josh: Sadly, it’s a mixed bag. There is no doubt that significant commitments were made during COP26. But it’s likely they’ll fall far short of what was needed.

Hugh: That is not the news we wanted to hear.  Let’s focus on the positives first though. What were the major promises to come out of COP26? 

Josh: So 5 key agreements were made during COP26. 

The first major agreement was a pledge by 110 countries to end deforestation by 2030. And that’s important because deforestation is responsible for 15% of global warming. What’s more, the signatories control 85% of the world’s forests, so it’s a significant outcome. 

The second major deal was a promise by 40 countries to phase out coal-fired power. But, there’s a caveat.  China, India, the US and Australia -- which together are responsible for more than 50% of emissions -- didn’t sign on.

The third agreement was also related to fossil fuels. 25 countries agreed to stop funding overseas oil, gas and coal projects by 2023. But in yet another sign that countries are prioritising their own interests, the biggest funders -- China, Japan and South Korea -- refused to take part.

Fourth, there was the rather stinky issue of methane: All up, 105 world leaders signed onto the pledge to cut methane emissions. This is crucial because methane is 82x more destructive than carbon dioxide. It’s thought to be responsible for about half of global warming to date.  

The plan targets the main sources of methane: uncovered landfills, leaks in oil wells and the meat industry.

Last, there was a surprise announcement from the world’s two biggest polluters, the US and China: The agreement was actually the result of over 30 meetings between the two countries over the past 10 months.

Hugh: Okay, there’s some steps in the right direction there!  

But where will they get us? 

I mean, will they be able to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and avoid the worst impacts of climate change?

Josh: The short answer is no.  A study released a few days ago shows that even if all the COP26 agreements are implemented -- and that’s a big if -- the world could still warm by up to 2.4 degrees. 

And that’s led activists like Greta Thunberg to call COP26 a failure. And she has some points: Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro -- leaders of three of the world’s biggest polluters -- didn’t even show up.

What’s more, the biggest delegation at the conference was from the fossil fuel industry.  It had 503 members. Compare that to the host nation, the UK, which only had 230 members. 

As a result, hundreds of indigenous leaders and NGO representatives walked out of the conference, saying their voices weren’t being heard. So, I think COP26 is going to have a mixed legacy. 

It's estimated to have averted about 0.3 degrees of warming, but the world is still on track for significant, irreversible and deadly changes to our climate.  

That puts pressure on organisers of next year’s COP27 in Egypt, because scientists say the decisions we make this decade will determine what the next century looks like.

Topic #2 - Belarus/Poland crisis 

Hugh: Well Joshua, over the last two weeks we’ve seen some really significant tensions in the border region between Belarus and EU member states Poland and Lithuania. 

And as you would have just heard in that report, thousands of irregular migrants from the Middle East have travelled to Belarus in Eastern Europe with the hope of gaining entry into the European Union. 

Now as I’m sure our listeners would be aware, Europe has faced some major challenges with regards to migration over the last few years so this latest crisis is a real concern for countries across the EU.

Josh: Yeah, we’ve talked about some of them on The Wrap Up previously.  But traditionally, most migrants try to gain entry to the EU through the Mediterranean or Turkey, so why are so many people gathering in Belarus this time? 

Hugh: You’re certainly right to suggest that Belarus isn’t a traditional route for migrants seeking entry into the EU and normally it would be quite difficult for Middle Eastern migrants to get to. 

By way of example, Belarus is closer to Scandinavia than it is to the main Mediterranean migration routes. 

Both Lithuania and Poland have declared a state of emergency on their borders and they’ve deployed thousands of troops to the region, in addition to setting up barbed wire fencing. 

So with potentially four thousand migrants stuck on the border without a route into Europe, we’re at a real crisis moment. 

Josh: Wait, why is the Belarussian Government actively flying migrants from other countries to its border with the EU?

Hugh: Look, I wish there was a less depressing answer but it would seem Belarus is using the EU’s vulnerability to irregular migration against it. 

So to put it more simply, Belarus is using migrants as human pawns, and that’s quite significant given that temperatures often drop below freezing at this time of the year in Belarus, so tragically we’re actually seeing some migrants dying on the border due to the conditions.

Now obviously it’s a very big call on Belarus’ part to use migration as a political tool but there’s a reason behind what they’re doing. 

Back in August of last year, the EU placed a number of sanctions on Belarussian officials after Brussels accused Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying election results and ruling illegitimately. 

Tensions only got worse from there after Poland and Lithuania gave refuge to opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who had to flee the country after the elections.

And then... tensions got worse after Belarussian authorities intercepted a plane over their airspace, forcing it to land so they could arrest a dissident on board. That particular move led the EU to block Belarussian airlines from European airspace.

So clearly, the relationship between Belarus and the EU is at rock bottom and that’s why Belarus feels justified in hitting the EU on migration.

Josh: Yeah, but to use migrants as political weapons is just insane.  What is Belarus hoping to get out of doing this?

Hugh: Well, Belarus wants the EU to cancel its sanctions and the reason is that frankly, it isn’t a very well-off country and it’s not done any better in the last year by being cut off from half the European continent. 

Before the election crisis last year, Belarus was actually getting somewhat close to the EU, but now that these tensions have kicked off, Belarus has been forced to run back towards Russia. 

So it would seem Lukashenko is trying to force Europe to go back to treating Belarus somewhat normally. 

Now, there’s clearly a problem with that logic given that Belarus has only made Europe more angry. At one stage, Belarus even threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe just as winter is setting in.

And all of this had led to Europe actually plan out putting more sanctions on Belarus, so it would seem all Belarus has done is aggravate the situation.

Josh: Why do I feel so many of these crises come back to Russia in some shape or form? What’s it’s role in the crisis.

Hugh: EU officials including Merkel have actually asked Russia to intervene and stop Lukashenko from continuing to push migrants towards the border. 

But it would seem Moscow is very happy to let Belarus create some chaos in Eastern Europe, especially if it means punishing Lithuania and Poland, who are some of the countries which are the most opposed to Russia within the EU. 

In fact, Russia’s gone as far as to do joint military drills with Belarus to show its support and it's also flown nuclear-capable bombers over Belarussian airspace in a rare show of force. And that’s obviously got certain EU members worried that military action might be on the cards. 

So with Moscow happy to let Belarus hurt the EU, all while Lukashenko is forced to draw closer to Russia’s sphere of influence, Europe has had to take matters into its own hands.

We’ve seen European pressure lead Iraq to cancel all direct flights to Belarus and Turkey to stop Syrian, Yemeni and Iraqi citizens from getting on planes as well, but ultimately, unless Europe can find a way to block every air routes into Belarus, it would seem Lukashenko is going to keep the pressure going for as long as possible.

Topic #3 - Thai protest ruling 

Josh: Hugh, our third story takes place in Thailand, where there’s been a major political development that has big consequences for the country’s pro-democracy movement.  

Last week, Thailand’s top court ruled that calls for reform to the country’s monarchy are unconstitutional. That decision could pave the way for pro-democracy leaders to be charged with treason, which carries the death penalty. 

Hugh: Wow, that’s a pretty serious development. Why did the court decide that?

Josh: To make sense of the court’s ruling, there are two things you need to know about Thailand: 

First, the country has been ruled by the military since a coup in 2014. Since then, it has squashed opposition movements and democratic reforms. 

Second, the military is politically aligned with the country’s king.  

He is the world’s  richest monarch, with a net worth of roughly $40 billion (which is 80x the wealth of Queen Elizabeth). He is heavily protected not only by his allies in the military, but also by lese majeste laws thatmake criticising him punishable by up to 15 years jail. 

These repressive laws have caused growing resentment among Thailand’s youth. And you might remember that, in September 2020, that frustration boiled over into unprecedented protests.

Despite the pandemic, tens of thousands of students gathered on Bangkok’s streets. They clashed with the military in protests that lasted over three months. 

Overall, the students had three demands: that the prime minister resign; that the constitution to be re-written to become more democratic; and that the king’s powers be limited by the constitution. 

And it’s that last demand that led to the court’s ruling last week. 

Hugh: How so?

Josh: Well, the case concerned three students who made speeches during the protests, calling for law reform and for the royal family to be given less taxpayer money. The king’s supporters said this breached the lese majesty laws and took them to court.

And sure enough, the country’s Constitutional Court agreed.  It ruled that any statements that “undermine or weaken” the monarchy are illegal, and said the students were guilty of trying to overthrow the king.

Hugh: That’s a big So what does this mean for the students and the wider democracy movement in Thailand? 

Josh: Well, for the three students who were the subject of the court ruling, it means they could be convicted of treason and sentenced to death. The decision is also seen as a victory for the country’s military, which will use the decision to further crack down on the country’s pro-democracy movement. 

But, analysts say there is some hope here: last year’s protests shattered cultural taboos about speaking out against the monarchy and government.  

In what would have been unthinkable a few years ago, some newspapers and political parties have also joined calls for change.  

And in the hours after the decision, the Constitutional Court’s website was hacked by activists, who’ve vowed to hit the streets again in the coming months. 

So it seems Thailand’s student-led democracy movement is anything but dead, which raises a lot of questions about the future direction of the nation’s politics.

Topic #4 - China 

Hugh: In the last few weeks we’ve seen a bi-partisan push by US Senators to boycott the upcoming Beijing winter Olympics in February of 2022. 

And with all the attention that was put on the Tokyo Olympics due to COVID, there’s been a bit of a gap in the media coverage around Beijing.  

But with the Winter Olympics now only a few months away, there has actually been some quite significant activism underway to cancel or diminish the games as retaliation for China’s human rights abuses.

Josh: Oh wow, that’s a big decision, especially given the US has won the second highest number of Winter Olympic medals in history. Surely they wouldn’t withdraw their athletes all together?

Hugh: Now crucially, what that means is that US athletes will still be able to go along. 

However, if the bill is successful in clearing both houses of congress, no officials representing the United States government will be enabled to attend. 

So it’s very specifically targeted at denying Beijing political support without punishing US sportspeople. 

Josh: Huh, is the US alone in advocating for a diplomatic boycott?

Hugh: In addition to the US Senate’s initiative, we’ve also seen a lot of grassroots activism throughout democratic countries calling for similar diplomatic boycotts or other forms of protest. 

So in September, around 200 international human rights groups which focus on China co-signed a statement calling on Western broadcasters not to showcase the games and that was really an attempt to deny Beijing a financial reward from hosting the Olympics. 

But we’ve also seen a group known as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which includes 100 MPs from 19 countries, call on Beijing to be stripped of the games entirely, while UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has already hinted that he won’t be attending. 

Now activists are citing a range of human rights abuses initiated by the Chinese Government as justification, ranging from atrocities committed in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong to policies targeting ethnic Mongolians. 

But honestly, with the games this close, it seems the focus is shifting towards simply diminishing the prestige factor rather than cancelling the Olympics entirely.  

Josh: And how has China responded to all of this?

Hugh: Well perhaps in a counter move, China’s actually expected to invite Joe Biden to attend in person. So it would seem Beijing is attempting to wedge the US and force them to either back down or escalate their boycott proposal further. 

But you know Joshua, the Olympics saga is just one aspect of a broader and growing ideological divide between China and the US.

Just in the last few days, we’ve seen the Chinese Communist Party hold a major meeting in which they approved a historical resolution praising Xi Jinping for his quote “decisive” leadership in rejuvenating the Chinese nation. 

That’s only the third time that such a resolution has been proclaimed and in the two previous instances, it was for Mao Tse Tung and Deng Xiaping, so the historical significance of Xi Jinping’s leadership is being made very clear by party officials.

Three years ago, the Chinese Communist Party actually removed its presidential term limits and so it would seem that as Western and democratic countries are really beginning to confront China on its human rights abuses, Beijing is moving towards a more entrenched form of authoritarianism under Xi Jinping. 

And with Olympic boycotts having featured during the previous Cold War, it may just be that we are heading for a new era in ideological tensions between the US and China.

Josh: And that’s all for this fortnight’s edition of The Wrap Up! Next week’s episode will be Part 4 of our In-Depth series on the Decline of Democracy. Rhiannon will be taking a look at inequality, and the way it’s challenging the status quo in democracies around the world. 

Hugh: Until then, follow our Instagram page for news updates, quizzes and bonus content. You can also get in touch with us and suggest an episode topic via our website. Links are in the episode description.

Josh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye.

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