Talking Points

At least 550 million trips will help soothe a battered economy. PHOTO: AP
  1. China celebrated the start of Golden Week after a year of adversity
  2. Meanwhile, Hong Kong cracked down on National Day protests
  3. A technical glitch halted trading on the $5tr Tokyo Stock Exchange
  4. Annual stubble burning ended New Delhi's rare run of blue skies
  5. The EU sued Britain over its (unlawful) internal markets bill
  6. Uber won back its license to operate in a London court
  7. Macron shamed Lebanese elites over the leadership vacuum
  8. America slashed its refugee intake to just 15,000 per year
  9. California enshrined the legal basis for slavery reparations
  10. Donald and Melania Trump tested positive for Covid-19

Deep Dive

Global biodiversity: hanging on for dear life. PHOTO: Reuters

Biodiversity loss is, alongside climate change, the greatest threat facing our species. So why aren't we making any meaningful progress in protecting the natural world?

Another lost decade

The year is 2010. Our planet is suffering the worst loss of life since the extinction of the dinosaurs . Humans, of course, are to blame. Deforestation, over-extraction, and pollution have wiped out countless species of flora and fauna. In Nagoya, Japan, the United Nations gathers for its decennial summit on biodiversity. The scale of the problem is immense; the pace accelerating. Working late into the night, world leaders eke out a plan – a new vision for our planet. 20 targets are set for the next decade, including halving the rate of habitat loss, and expanding the share of nature reserves from 10% to 17% of the Earth's land area. Maybe it's the typhoon menacing outside. Or perhaps it's unbridled hope for a better world. Whatever the cause, the room bursts into cheers as the gavel comes down to confirm the new goals.

It's now 2020. The decade is up. And the United Nations has released its scorecard on those 20 targets. How many do you think were fully met? If your answer is zero, you can give yourself a sad pat on the back now. None, nada, zilch. Six of the targets were partially met , and if that consoles you, don't expect the sentiment to be shared by future generations. Inger Andersen of the UN environmental program described it as a "global failure" . And there is really not much else you can add to that sentiment. So why has the international community failed so comprehensively? That's primarily because the targets were not legally-binding. In other words, an agreement that isn't legally-binding is not worth the paper it's written on.

What have we failed to protect, you ask? The very biodiversity of this planet that keeps our species alive. And not just failed to protect – but actively destroyed. It was two weeks ago that the World Wide Fund for Nature released its detailed findings on the "freefall" of global wildlife populations. Of the 4,400 species tracked in the report, populations had declined by 68% since 1970. These are not just species that are directly consumed by humans, but also those that keep our natural world in balance, whether by regulating food chains or pollinating our food. As we encroach further upon nature we are revealing the soft underbelly of the global food supply chain: 75% of our food crop types are pollinated by animals.

The next decade

An informal group of nations met early in the week to sign a new pledge on safeguarding the environment. 70 countries joined with the European Union to place 30% of their land and sea under protection by 2030. It's a laudable announcement that included major countries like Britain, Canada, and Mexico. It will be harder for some than others – 26% of British land is already under protection, compared to just 15% in the EU. Notably, t he world's two largest carbon emitters ( America and China ) and two of the worst culprits of habitat destruction (Australia and Brazil) declined to join the pact. Nonetheless, there was at least some positive action on the horizon before the UN biodiversity summit.

Given that the coronavirus has delayed the UN's 2020 meeting in Kunming, China by a year, a digital meeting was held on Wednesday. France's Emmanuel Macron told the virtual summit that nature is humanity's insurance policy . China's Xi Jinping, still enjoying the afterglow of his announcement on China's carbon neutrality plan, said, "the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the ecosystem pose a major risk to human survival and development". Everyone was in furious agreement (as captured by one particularly dry headline from Bloomberg, "Save Nature or Risk Economic Disaster, Global Leaders Tell Each Other").

Well, maybe not everyone.The participants learnt that 40% of the world's plants are now at risk of extinction, a fact which might be of interest to the leader of the country with a full fifth of the world's biodiversity. But that's not the case, as Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro lied profusely about his record of environmental protection and railed incoherently against "international greed". It was a shocking look for the summit. Indeed, while it's taken us five decades to destroy two-thirds of the wildlife on this planet, the next decade might just seal the deal. And if we permit our leaders to trumpet biodiversity protections without legislating them – we've already lost.

Which isn't to say that change isn't possible. Despite the staggering costs required – the world needs to spend well over half a trillion dollars every year for the next decade to stem the current extinction event – it's clear that the returns are even more significant. One paper revealed that each dollar spent on expanding areas under conservation yields $5.


Worldlywise

Madrid returns to lockdown. PHOTO: The Independent

How will we manage the second wave?

The world is slowly coming to terms with the second wave of coronavirus. Europe, which remained blissfully open and crowded during the northern summer, is discovering the delayed costs of doing so. France's infection rate is rising steadily and Madrid has become the first capital to return to a state of lockdown . In Canada, Justin Trudeau has conceded that the second wave has arrived. America, which ought not be counted because it is still in its first wave, continues to debate the pros and cons of wearing a mask. Hope for a vaccine in 2020 appears to be subsiding. Moderna CEO Stephané Bancel told reporters that their vaccine would not be ready for mass deployment until early 2021. And Pfizer boss Albert Bourla stated plainly that they are "moving at the speed of science" – a rebuke to any suggestions of a deadline.

Given that Covid-19 is here to stay, and that there is little widespread appeal in replicating the kind of severe lockdowns that characterised the first wave, what can we do about it? Germany, which enjoyed considerable success during the first wave thanks to a competent test-and-trace regime, has vowed to avoid any disruptive national changes. In fact, it will apply a localised 'hotspot' strategy to shift up and down the size restrictions for social gatherings based on the local infection numbers. No doubt many other countries will be keen to follow Germany's practice of targeted and adaptable restrictions, but not everyone has Berlin's healthcare authorities.

It goes without saying that in the absence of a vaccine, the most important tool at our disposal is quality testing and tracing. Which is why the announcement of a 15-minute coronavirus test garnered significant attention this week. The antigen (antibody-generator) test is triggered by proteins on the surface of the virus. One such test, developed by Becton Dickinson and Co. was approved by European regulators this week. Another, from Abbott Labs, has been heralded as (yet another) silver bullet by the Trump administration . However, different trials have shown antigen tests to be between 84-93.5% sensitive (that's how often it correctly identifies the virus). Similarly, they are most effective early-on when a carrier's viral load is high. For all the mad hype about the 15-minute test, negative results will still have to be double-checked with the standard PCR test .

Azerbaijani tanks destroyed in an Armenian strike. PHOTO: Evening Standard

A new old Caucasian war

Last weekend the dormant conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted in a flash of artillery fire and drone strikes. The fighting centred around Nargorno-Karabakh, a sizeable independent mountainous enclave within Azerbaijan that is only recognised by Armenia. When the latter fought a war of secession from the former in the violent days after the demise of the Soviet Union, the status of the breakaway state was left unresolved . Several border conflicts have failed to meaningfully shift the facts on the ground. Five days of intense clashes have left scores of soldiers dead on either side – observers have noted a significant increase in the sophistication (deadliness) of the weapons being used by Azerbaijan.

So why has this narrow territorial dispute stolen the attention away from larger, more pressing humanitarian concerns? The answer lies in who is backing the belligerents. The Caucasus falls within the sphere of influence of both Russia and Turkey. Unfortunately for the future of the countries involved, the two regional rivals have adopted a familiar stance of aggression (the Ottoman and Russian empires fought a dozen wars over several centuries). While Vladimir Putin is purportedly quite chummy with Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev, Russia has a security pact with Armenia – a dynamic which cannot be ignored given Moscow's interventions in both Syria and Libya. The Turkish, who've yet to display an iota of contrition over the Armenian Genocide, have unsurprisingly fallen in behind the Azerbaijanis.

Ankara, no doubt keen to get one over Moscow given the embarrassment they've suffered in western Syria, has gone as far as airlifting allied Syrian militias into Azerbaijan. Among the dozens of dead reported mid-week (possibly hundreds) there were three dead Syrians. Worse still, Armenia reported that one of its warplanes was shot down by a Turkish jet in Azerbaijan! This rather brazen attempt to put a thumb on the scales roused international ire, as did the injury of French journalists in an artillery barrage. But the call for a ceasefire was flatly rejected by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. That leaves Russia with the delicate task of extinguishing the conflict while its primary regional rival pours on accelerant. Given the results of previous negotiations with Turkey, we don't like the odds of a successful resolution.


The Best of Times

Marco Huter has a very good idea. PHOTO: Bloomberg

The other side

Italy’s first case of community transmission, 38 year-old Mattia Maestri , ran in a 180km relay race after having recovered from Covid-19. Over the course of two days, Maestri ran from Codogno, where he was first diagnosed on February 21, to Vo Euganeo, where the country’s first coronavirus death was recorded on the same day.

Even in the worst-hit parts of the world, there is some semblance of life after the coronavirus.

Plastic fantastic

A new super-enzyme eats plastic six times faster than anything else of the kind. While natural degradation of plastic takes hundreds of years, this super-enzyme is able to do it within a few days . It was created through combining two separate enzymes from a plastic-eating bacteria found in 2016. Get chomping.


The Worst of Times

More shocking, senseless gendered violence in Uttar Pradesh. PHOTO: AFP

India's rape crisis resurfaces

Hundreds of millions of Indians enjoy privilege or bear subjugation under the suffocating Hindu caste system. Those at the bottom of the ladder, the Dalits, are the victims of structural discrimination and worse, as we've seen this week in two cases in Uttar Pradesh. In the first, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was dragged from the field she was tending, gang-raped, and violently assaulted. She succumbed to her injuries after two weeks in hospital only for the police to abduct her body and cremate it against the wishes of her family. Protests erupted in the capital and prominent politicians were among those arrested. Shockingly, late in the week news broke of the rape and murder of another Dalit woman – this time a 22-year-old.

JPMorgan chased, caught, and released

America's largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, has been found guilty of widespread market manipulation. From 2008-2016 staff in New York, Singapore, and London placed tens of thousands of 'spoofed' trades in the precious metals markets and in US Treasury futures in order to deceive other players. The Justice Department slapped JPMorgan with a $920m fine, a superficially sizeable but ultimately pitiful amount given that it will simply be absorbed by shareholders rather than by the "significant number" of staff who rigged markets for nearly a decade. Another toothless deferred prosecution agreement from a Justice Department that seems unwilling or unable to tackle white-collar crime in America.


Weekend Reading

The image

The utter devastation from California's wildfires as seen from the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel 2 satellite. Photograph supplied by The Independent.

The quote

"Will you shut up man?"

– Presidential challenger Joe Biden responded to Donald Trump's persistent interruptions during the first debate. It was a demeaning affair.

The numbers

$750

- Donald Trump paid this paltry sum in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, according to records obtained by the New York Times. The real estate mogul paid no income tax at all in 10 of the past 15 years. If he wasn't being audited before, he almost certainly will be now.

31.5%

- We now turn our attention away from a mind-bogglingly small number, to one mind-bogglingly big: a measurement of the amount of normal matter in our universe revealed 31.5% of it is normal matter . Or, to be exact, 31.5% of 66 billion trillion times the mass of our Sun is normal matter, scientists from the University of California calculated. The remaining 68.5% of the universe, consisting of dark energy, could help to reveal how fast the universe is expanding — despite never being directly observed or measured.

The headline

" Romanian village re-elects dead mayor in landslide victory " The Independent .

The special mention

The outright winners this week were a group of deep thinkers at the UK Home Office. Bureaucrats were encouraged to try "blue-sky thinking" when spitballing new ways to stop refugees from crossing the Channel. Among the resourceful suggestions were obstructing the Channel by lashing together small boats (presumably tens of thousands of them) and, we kid you not, retrofitting vessels with powerful pumps to create waves which would push refugee inflatables back into French waters. Britannia cruels the waves.

A few choice long-reads

  • October 3rd is the 30th anniversary of Germany’s reunification. The Economist details the many struggles the European superpower has faced in trying to fix itself as it forges a new reputation on the world stage.
  • A plethora of internal and external factors (and people) could invalidate the results of the upcoming US election, worrying election monitors set up to ensure clean elections. Bloomberg Businessweek explores the unprecedented challenge faced by those who seek to do exactly that in America.
  • A trial against five activists who are part of a movement against France’s colonial-era cultural theft began this week. The New York Times explains how the trial is raising questions of France’s legacy, and how the country is attempting to fix it.

Tom Wharton

@trwinwriting