World

New Zealand eases its Covid-19 restrictions and changes strategy. European Union accuses Belarus’s Alexander Lucashenko of using asylum seekers for political purposes. Police raid cybercrime group REvil to shut down ransomware attacks. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US and China to co-operate on climate

US President Joe Biden at the White House this week.
Credit: Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Great power rivalry

Scotland: On Wednesday night, China and the United States, which together account for more than 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, unveiled a joint declaration to “raise ambition in the 2020s” and co-operate on cuts aimed at keeping temperature rises within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels.

The pact contained few details or new commitments – aside from a Chinese pledge to reduce methane emissions – but marked a surprising show of solidarity between the world’s two largest economies, just two days before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow was due to end.

Despite fierce disputes between China and the US in recent years over trade, Taiwan, human rights and the pandemic, their climate envoys, Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry, have doggedly worked together to try to find areas of agreement. The pair, veteran politicians who both came out of retirement to become envoys, spent months working on the joint declaration and met almost daily in Glasgow.

“The United States and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate, co-operation is the only way to get this job done,” said Kerry.

The surprise press conference between the pair delivered much-needed momentum to the summit.

But the pact fell short of the 2014 deal between the two countries to cut emissions that helped to pave the way for the Paris climate agreement in 2015.

During a visit to Glasgow for the summit, US President Joe Biden said the world was “falling short” and needed to accelerate a shift to clean energy. Xi Jinping, China’s president, did not attend the summit, a decision Biden said was a “big mistake”.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Tuesday, restrictions were eased in Auckland after a 12-week lockdown as New Zealand – one of the last nations committed to eliminating Covid-19 – shifted to a new strategy based on high vaccination rates.

Auckland’s lockdown was imposed in August after the city recorded a single case of Covid-19, but the outbreak has proved impossible to suppress. Case numbers have been increasing, though the outbreak has been largely contained to Auckland. On Wednesday, New Zealand recorded 147 new local cases.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, visited Auckland on Wednesday after confirming that shops, libraries and museums could reopen from Tuesday night. She said the city will soon enter a new phase, in which lockdowns are abandoned and fully vaccinated residents will have minimal restrictions.

This will occur when 90 per cent of residents aged 12 and over are vaccinated – a target that is expected to be achieved on November 29.

“It will mean all businesses can be open and operate, it means we can manage cases as safely as possible, but differently,” Ardern said.

As the country reopens, the government is requiring healthcare workers and teachers to be fully vaccinated by January 1, 2022.

On Tuesday, several thousand people across the country protested against these vaccination mandates. Police were forced to fend off about 50 protesters who tried to enter Auckland. In Wellington, about 3000 people – some waving pro-Donald Trump flags – demonstrated outside parliament.

Ardern said: “What we saw today was not representative of the vast bulk of New Zealanders.”

The opposition leader, Judith Collins, said: “We don’t really want to be seen with it [the protest].”

The government’s response to Covid-19 has largely received strong public support. As of Tuesday, about 79 per cent of New Zealand’s eligible population were fully vaccinated.

Democracy in retreat

Belarus: In the forests along the border between Poland and Belarus, up to 4000 asylum seekers have been enduring freezing temperatures this week after being pushed by Belarus towards Poland, which has refused them entry.

The crisis appears to have been deliberately orchestrated by Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s longstanding ruler. Lukashenko has been accused of inviting asylum seekers from across the Middle East to fly to Belarus with offers of safe passage to Europe and then transporting them to the border with Poland.

Earlier this year, Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, threatened to allow migrants and drugs to cross into Europe as retaliation against sanctions that were imposed after Belarus held fraudulent elections and grounded a Ryanair plane and arrested a dissident who was on board. Lukashenko is accused of arranging a separate flow of refugees towards Lithuania.

Poland sent about 12,000 border police and soldiers to the border and released footage on Monday showing its forces lined up behind barbed wire to block the asylum seekers. Some migrants who crossed the border have reportedly been beaten by Polish authorities before being forced back to Belarus.

At least eight migrants have died in the region because of exposure to the cold and a lack of food.

On Tuesday, the European Union accused Lukashenko of “playing with people’s lives for political purposes”.

Lukashenko told state media that Belarus was being “hospitable” towards the migrants. He also said that he was “not a madman”.

Spotlight: Ransomware arrests

The cybercrime group known as REvil, believed to be based in Russia, is one of the most world’s notorious ransomware outfits. It reportedly operates a profit-share scheme, in which it provides its ransomware to affiliates that then attack firms and threaten to lock up their private data and devices unless a ransom is paid. REvil, short for Ransomware Evil, then receives a portion of the payments.

According to a Russian-speaking representative, referred to as Unknown, who spoke to the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future in March, REvil often tries to target firms that are insured and more likely to pay.

“[We] hack the insurers first – to get their customer base and work in a targeted way from there,” Unknown said. “And after you go through the list, then hit the insurer themselves.”

But an international police operation appears to have severely undermined REvil and may even bring an end to the group. On Monday, Romanian police, the US Department of Justice and the European Union’s Europol revealed they had conducted raids that resulted in arrests of at least two hackers who were responsible for attempting to extort 5000 victims. The hackers were apparently affiliates of REvil. At least three other hackers have been arrested in recent months in Europe and South Korea. The US said it retrieved more than $US6 million in cryptocurrency.

It is not yet known whether REvil’s chief operators have been arrested or targeted by the raids. Europol said in a statement that decryption tools had been provided to assist targeted companies to recover their data. The tools have so far been used by more than 1400 companies.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "US and China agree to co-operate on climate".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.