What is COP26? Azerbaijan and Armenia at war

🌿 Next year, let's agree to celebrate the small wins

Good morning! As always, a warm welcome to our 110 new subscribers.

These last weeks we've been hard at work trying to break down complex international issues into concise, easy to read stories. Just as we think we're starting to get the hang of it, enter the final boss:

Economics, housing policy, demographics, psychology, and trenchant political commentary in 17 words *chefs kiss*.

In that spirit, let's cut the small talk. This week:

  • Climate change negotiations have come a long way and next year’s COP26 meeting brings hope for 2021. But wait, what is a COP26?

  • Conflict in the Caucasus: how did it get to this and why are Russia and Turkey involved?

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1. 🌿 What is COP26? Why should you care?

By John

Thankfully, COP26 isn't Elon Musk's new AI-powered law enforcement robot. But we've said it before - whoever is in charge of branding international agreements needs to be given a stern talking to.

So first, the lingo:

➡ The Climate Convention sits above everything and is basically an agreement that current climate change is caused by humans and is bad.

➡ Every nation meets each year at the Conference of Parties (COP) to discuss what to do about climate change.

➡ Every so often, a broader agreement with practical rules and steps will arise out of a COP (eg. The Kyoto Protocol; The Paris Agreement).

The human calculators playing along at home will have noticed that the UK should have hosted the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) this year. But 2020 is gonna 2020, so COP 26 was postponed to next November, in Glasgow.

Rewind to 2015 - The Paris Agreement

We'll forgive you for not remembering exactly where you were when the 'Paris Agreement' was signed at COP21. It was a huge breakthrough because nations agreed to:

🌡 Keep global temperature increase "well below" 2C (3.6F) and try to limit it to 1.5C

⛽ Reduce their own greenhouse gases and promote renewable types of energy

🔍 Review progress and adopt more ambitious targets every five years

💵 Spend at least $100b per year in climate finance to help poorer countries

But at that time they were really just New Year's Resolutions - the hard work of not belching emissions lay ahead.

So in 2018, countries mostly agreed to a 'rulebook' on how each country would achieve those goals in practice. It includes lots of different, complicated measures, but crucially, there was no agreement on how to create a global market for trading carbon.

(Behind all this lies the concept of 'Net Zero Emissions by 2050', which means offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions. It might already be impossible in that timeframe).

Global problems can only have global solutions

We're not gonna tell you that combating climate change is vital; if you're not with us on that then might we suggest a different news source? Climate change isn't just about having a nicer environment, it's about Earth's ability to sustain life.

But what is difficult is balancing the almost infinite competing interests of the 7 billion people sharing this planet. Climate change is the best example of the famous Tragedy of the Commons:

The crucial thing to understand about this 'game' is not just that the best outcome is for everyone to coordinate and live happily ever after. It's that if we don't, the worst outcome is inevitable.

That's why these international agreements are so important

Perhaps the most important outcome of Paris was that it made people believe that we're on our way to being in the top left quadrant of our superbly crafted diagram above. It created:

Momentum: previously the world obsessed over who was at fault for climate change and who should fix it. Paris created the belief that we're all down to tackle climate change, together.

Coordination: it's a struggle to get three hours of family holiday without bickering - imagine trying to get 197 countries to all agree on solutions to climate change.

Credible threats: there will also be a few bad eggs in every bunch. That's why we need agreed rules for tackling climate change and reputational costs for countries that break them.

And the whole point of COP 26 is to build on these three factors to keep the world in that green circle.

Some questions (sort of) answered

Okay, so what will make next year's COP26 a 'success'?
Agreeing the rules for global carbon markets that we mentioned above. COP26's biggest job is to finalise the 'Paris rulebook' and while there are a few other outstanding items, carbon markets are by far the most important for tackling global emissions.

Establishing global carbon markets is really important, but is it likely?
Maybe... British Minister Alok Sharma (who is President of COP 26) says the UK has been hard at work laying the diplomatic groundwork. But former minister Amber Rudd thinks not enough focus is being put on preparation, and that Brexit and Covid-19 make a breakthrough less likely.

Subscriptions are all the rage - surely they're not relevant to reducing emissions?
Well, funny you should ask. One idea is for ‘Climate Clubs’ - groups of like-minded countries that incentivise others by giving benefits to those that 'subscribe' to their environmental rules. Exclusive benefits include preferential trade terms, market access, investment, and more. It’s really trade protectionism by another name.

The Future…

It's unlike us to be so positive, but we can't help it. Sure, you'll read countless articles saying it's already too late to hit targets and they're likely right.

But they miss the point: 26 years is a remarkably short time to build global consensus around anything, let alone an invisible and gradually increasing threat at some indeterminate point in the future.

If the hard work of scientists, diplomats, activists, and others can keep us going in the right direction, we might be able to keep Elon's plans to colonise Mars on ice for a while yet.


2. ⚔️ Conflict in the Caucasus: Azerbaijan-Armenia at War (Again)

By Helen

2020 has been quite the year for world events. One you might have missed in the maelstrom is the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. This last weekend sadly saw more fighting there, after a ceasefire deal that had held for weeks was broken.

A lesson in history repeating itself

At the centre of the fight is a territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s internationally-recognised as part of Azerbaijan and is home to Azerbaijani people. But it also has a big ethnic-Armenian population and has been controlled by Armenia since the last war was fought over it in 1994. Here’s a great backgrounder.

➡️ 1994: Armenia stepped in to fight for the ethnic Armenians (mainly Christian) living in Nagorno-Karabakh after the region tried to declare independence from Azerbaijan. Armenia captured territory during this fighting, and some 600,000+ Azerbaijanis (mainly Muslim) fled their homes to escape the violence. The 1994 fighting ended with a ceasefire, which largely held until… 2020, of course.   

➡️ 2020: In September, the tensions erupted again. This kicked off a six-week war which killed an estimated 5,600 people and seriously damaged major civilian infrastructure. Each side accused the other of starting the fight. On 9 November, Russia helped strike a new ceasefire which halted fighting. This deal saw Azerbaijan reclaim a lot of territory and Russian peacekeepers deployed to the region. Turkey also stepped up its support for Azerbaijan.

Wait, so why are Russia and Turkey involved?

Good question. The simple answer is that both are in it for the regional prestige, economic opportunities, power, and influence (and ideally without the pesky West).

Turkey and Russia have long been major players in the Caucasus, and have strategically backed Armenia and Azerbaijan at various points in history when it suited them.

Russia is officially neutral, but many believe it supports Armenia. Though Russia is still at the head of the negotiating table, Turkey has re-entered the fray by openly backing Azerbaijan.

Team Russia (Armenia)

⬜ Russia’s Orthodox-Christian Tsars claimed they “liberated” Armenians from Ottoman Turkey

⬜ Stalin planned to annex eastern Turkey to “expand” Soviet Armenia to reach the Mediterranean Sea

⬜ Post-Soviet Russia “protects” Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey

⬜ Russia has a large military base in Armenia and shares security ties

Team Turkey (Azerbaijan)

⬜ Ottoman Turkish army seized the Azerbaijani capital Baku in WWI

⬜ Turkey and Azerbaijan have strong ethnic, cultural, and historic links: they share a similar Turkic language and are sometimes referred to as “two states, one nation”

⬜ Turkey was the first country to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union’s collapse

⬜ Turkey and Azerbaijan share close economic ties

Zoom out

For the Azerbaijani and Armenian people, this latest round of conflict compounds their deep trauma and loss. Recent events may only worsen tensions and bring more intense fighting ahead.

The Caucasus area (like Syria) has become a power play for Russia and Turkey. Both have taken advantage of the US stepping back, and are shaping the region to better suit their needs. Oil and gas exports to Central Asia and Europe may also be disrupted.

For the rest of the world, this conflict serves as a reminder that real, gruesome wars are still happening. In fact, this war was the most intense conflict in the Caucasus region this century – a truly chilling thought.


➕ Extra Intrigue

Quick hits of foreign news to keep you extra intrigued and up to date:


🏅Un-stupid Questions

We're trialling another new feature here. Such innovation. Here we’ll explain one very jargon-y term used by academics and diplomats to keep you from understanding what’s going on, and them in a job.

What is the "rules-based order"?

This one is thrown around so much it's kind of lost its meaning, but it’s pretty simple. At some point, humans all got sick of 'kill or be killed', so most societies developed systems of rules to organise themselves. They also developed methods of making sure those rules weren’t broken (chiefs, councils, courts, etc).

The ‘rules based order’ is basically the same idea but for countries. The world should have a set of 'international rules' we all play by instead of the alternative of 'strongest army wins'.

When someone refers to the 'rules based order' they’re probably referring to the UN and its various bureaucracies. The UN developed in the aftermath of WWII to stop the world killing or being killed. Of course, it's not always been successful, mostly because it will often be in the interests of powerful countries to ignore those rules (*cough* US *cough* China).


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This week’s prompt:

  1. What’s your two-line prediction for the world in 2021? Be creative - after all, nothing can top what this past year has already delivered.

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