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COP25: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Madrid

16 December, 2019
Simon Evans and Josh Gabbatiss, Carbon Brief

This year’s annual UN climate conference, COP25 in Madrid, became the longest on record when it concluded after lunch on Sunday, following more than two weeks of fraught negotiations. It had been scheduled to wrap up on Friday.

Nearly 27,000 delegates arrived in the Spanish capital in early December aiming to finalise the “rulebook” of the Paris Agreement – the operating manual needed when it takes effect in 2020 – by settling on rules for carbon markets and other forms of international cooperation under “Article 6” of the deal. They also hoped to send a message of intent, signalling to the wider world that the UN climate process remains relevant – and that it recognises the yawning gap between current progress and global goals to limit warming. This disconnect was highlighted by a huge protest march through the heart of the Spanish capital and by the presence of climate activist Greta Thunberg, who arrived from her transatlantic journey by sail just in time to make several high-profile appearances in the COP25 conference halls.

Ultimately, however, the talks were unable to reach consensus in many areas, pushing decisions into next year under “Rule 16” of the UN climate process. Matters including Article 6, reporting requirements for transparency and “common timeframes” for climate pledges were all punted into 2020, when countries are also due to raise the ambition of their efforts. UN secretary general António Guterres said he was “disappointed” with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”

The meeting was finally gavelled to a close at 1:55pm on Sunday. At nearly 44 hours after its scheduled end of 6pm on Friday, this means COP25 became the latest-ever finish by beating COP17 in Durban, which had finished at 6.22am on the Sunday. Here, Carbon Brief provides in-depth analysis of all the key outcomes in Madrid – both inside and outside the COP…

Around the COP

This year’s COP got off to a difficult start, when Chile’s president Sebastian Piñera announced at the end of October that his country could no longer host the event. Piñera blamed “difficult circumstances”, referring to violent anti-government protests in the capital of Santiago. With barely a month to go, Spain stepped in and agreed to take on the event in Madrid, a considerable task that the German government had said “would not have been logistically possible” at the UNFCCC’s headquarters in Bonn, where the COP was held in 2017. Nevertheless, Chile retained the presidency, with the event rebranded as “COP25 Chile Madrid”.

Despite this last-minute venue change, the event proceeded in much the same manner as previous COPs, characterised by drawn-out debates and all-night sessions in which negotiators and then ministers discussed jargon-filled texts. At the start of the meeting, COP25 president and Chilean environment secretary Carolina Schmidt said the conference “must change the course of climate action and ambition”. The UN secretary-general António Guterres, in the first of several interventions, asked attendees: “Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand?”

Although the world’s major emitters were never expected to announce fresh climate pledges at COP25, there was still hope that they might collectively send a strong message of intent for next year. However, talks quickly became bogged down in technical issues, such as the rules for carbon market mechanisms, which have eluded completion for years. There was a growing sense among many attendees of a disconnect between these slow, impenetrable UN processes and the action being demanded by protesters around the world. This was summarised by the executive director of Greenpeace Jennifer Morgan, who told assembled journalists that despite the “fresh momentum” provided by the growing global climate movement, it was yet to penetrate the “halls of power”:

“In the 25 years that I have been at every COP, I have never seen the gap bigger between the inside and the outside.”

When Greta Thunberg arrived in those halls of power, fresh from a transatlantic voyage by sail, she instantly found herself at the centre of the COP’s media circus. At the end of the first week, the young Swedish activist joined a march through central Madrid that organisers said drew half a million people (although local police offered, without explanation, a far more modest estimate of 15,000). In her final speech at the conference, Thunberg captured the mood when she told those assembled in the main plenary hall that the COP “seems to have turned into some kind of opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes”. Shortly after her appearance, she was announced as Time Magazine’s “person of the year”. Later that day, around 200 climate campaigners and indigenous rights activists – expressing frustration at the lack of progress – were ejected from the venue, following a protest outside the same plenary room where Thunberg had spoken just hours before.

A common refrain from protesters and observers was the discrepancy between the slow pace of the talks and the urgency suggested by the latest science. The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) own emissions gap report, released just prior to the COP, showed the stretch 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement is “slipping out of reach”. Even if existing climate pledges – countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs – are met, emissions in 2030 will be 38% higher than required to meet that target, the report concluded.

This point was hammered home by a new Global Carbon Project report a few days later, which showed emissions from fossil fuels and industry are expected to continue rising in 2019 and 2020. This apparent disconnect was highlighted further by the language used to describe the latest reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the first of which covered land, and the second oceans and cryosphere. Both of these reports were only “noted”, as opposed to “welcomed”, by the final text, though it also “expressed its appreciation and gratitude” to the scientists behind the work. (At last year’s COP24 summit, the refusal by the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait to language “welcoming” the IPCC 1.5C report was a source of significant tension.)

There were moves to raise ambition by some non-state actors at the COP with, for example, 177 companies pledging to cut emissions in line with the 1.5C target as part of the Climate Ambition Alliance. This came after a group of 477 investors, controlling $34tn in assets, called on world leaders to update their NDCs and step up ambition. Finally, owing to its original location in Chile – a nation with around 4,000 miles of coastline – the leadership dubbed this year’s event the “blue COP”, laying out its intention to focus on oceans.

A report released in the first week of the COP by the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, a group of 14 heads of government, brought “a stark reminder of the serious economic consequences of our changing climate for ocean industries”. While most attention at the COP was focused on the tense negotiations and need to send a clear signal to countries on raising their climate ambition, the president did announce in the second week that 39 countries had committed to including oceans in their future NDCs.

One of the final decision texts also requested that a “dialogue” be convened at the next meeting of the UN climate process in Bonn in June 2020 “on the ocean and climate change to consider how to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action”. A similar dialogue in June 2020 was requested “on the relationship between land and climate change adaptation related matters”, after Brazil backed away from its objections at the last minute.

Need for ‘ambition’

From the outset, Chile made it clear this was to be an “ambition COP”, reflecting the significant gap between current pledges and what would be needed to meet global temperature goals. The hashtag #TimeForAction was emblazoned across the conference centre and the presidency launched a “climate ambition alliance” to accelerate progress towards the Paris goals. Guterres emphasised this in his opening address to the conference, telling parties “to step up next year”. He added: “The world’s biggest emitters need to do much more.”

Under the Paris Agreement, all parties committed to not only submitting nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for cutting emissions, but also to “[re]communicate” or “update” their pledges by the end of 2020. Furthermore, successive NDCs must “represent a progression” and “reflect [each country’s] highest possible ambition”. Along with five-yearly “stocktakes” of progress, these regular rounds of new NDCs are at the heart of the Paris “ratchet” mechanism, designed to raise ambition over time. However, for the majority of NDCs, which already cover the period to 2030, the Paris text does not explicitly require that new pledges be submitted next year – parties may simply “[re]communicate” the same offering they made in 2015 or 2016. Sue Biniaz, senior fellow for climate change at the UN Foundation and a key architect of the Paris deal in her former role as a senior US negotiator, told a COP25 side event:

“The reason we threw in ‘recommunicate’ was we didn’t want it to be easy for a country to sit back quietly and maintain its target. We thought, if you had a very unambitious target, it might be more embarrassing if you had to send in a postcard saying ‘I’m sticking to my unambitious target’, than if you just had to say nothing. We’ll see next year whether that actually worked, psychologically.”

Given that current NDCs are nowhere near enough to limit warming to 1.5C, there have been efforts at successive COPs to agree text calling for greater ambition from all parties. At COP24 in December 2018, some parties tried, but ultimately failed to insert strong language on raising ambition. With COP25 being the final summit before the clock ticks over into the deadline year of 2020, Madrid was seen by many as a last chance to secure increased ambition. Naoyuki Yamagishi, climate and energy lead for WWF Japan, told Carbon Brief that COP25 was the “last chance, the last call to make the case for raising ambition in 2020”.

UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa reminded delegates that “ambition” was not officially on the agenda for COP25, but that many saw it as essential to send a clear message to the world. In the first week, the Chilean presidency began consultations on a series of texts, which collectively were supposed to convey this message, namely “1/CP.25”, “1/CMA.2” and “1/CMP.15”. At the opening of the high-level political segment of the COP in week two, Teresa Ribera, Spain’s acting minister for the ecological transition, told delegates:

“Countries will have to announce more ambitious contributions in 2020 – and let me remind you that 2020 begins in exactly 20 days. This is also the year in which we have committed ourselves to announcing long-term cohesive strategies to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.”

As it stands, according to the World Resources Institute NDC tracker, just 80 countries – primarily, small and developing nations – have stated their intention to enhance their NDCs by 2020, representing just 10.5% of world emissions. All the biggest emitters are absent from this list. Although Chile postponed its plans to enhance its NDC at COP25, some promising signs did emerge over the course of the conference, most notably a fresh signal from the European Union.

On 12-13 December, EU heads of state met in Brussels and agreed to make the bloc “climate neutral” by 2050. Despite resistance from Poland, which has until next summer to come onboard, the European Commission revealed a “European Green Deal”, which, if it becomes law, will commit at least 25% of the EU’s long-term budget to climate action. Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, described it as Europe’s “man on the Moon” moment. The deal also includes a proposed timetable for boosting the EU’s NDC target for 2030, from its current aim of cutting emissions to at least 40% below 1990 levels, to a higher target of “at least 50% and towards 55%”.

However, there was concern expressed by NGOs at COP25 that this raised pledge must be signed off well in advance of the “crucial” EU-China summit in Leipzig next September. This is because, they argue, there needs to be enough diplomatic time and, hence, leverage to use the improved NDC to persuade the world’s largest polluter to improve its own climate pledge. To stick to this timetable, the new target must undergo a formal impact assessment by the end of the spring next year, say the NGOs. They fear that if that timing slips then there will not be enough time to use the Leipzig meeting to pressure the Chinese to up their offer. With key emitters such as the US, Australia and Brazil displaying hostility towards international climate action, a lot now hangs on China and the EU acting as one to maintain the Paris Agreement’s momentum.

Another brief moment of optimism at the COP came when the Danish parliament adopted a new climate law, setting a legally binding target to cut emissions to 70% below 1990 levels by 2030. However, a general lack of progress with negotiations led to simmering tensions in the COP25 conference centre, with the “ambition text” at the centre of the storm. In part, this tension reflected differing interpretations of the word “ambition”. Many developed countries and vulnerable states viewed “ambition” mainly as a means to increase efforts on cutting emissions after 2020, so as to close the gap to meeting climate goals.

Others, particularly India and its partners in the “Like-Minded group of Developing Countries” (LMDCs), argued for a broader interpretation that also covered the promised provision of climate finance, as well as efforts to boost adaptation and build capacity in poorer countries. These countries called for a particular focus on the failure of many developed countries to fulfil their climate pledges in the pre-2020 period, arguing that it was this failure that had left the world so far from meeting its aim of avoiding dangerous warming. 

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Climate Diplomacy

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Global Issues

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Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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