Reducing Deforestation and Methane Emissions Take Center Stage at Glasgow

Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Doug Peters / UK Government via Flickr

If at first you don’t succeed, try another declaration. Tuesday’s highlight at the Glasgow climate summit was the Declaration on Forest and Land Use, under which more than 100 leaders — from Russia to Brazil to Canada to Indonesia — pledged to end deforestation and land degradation by 2030. It brought a sense of déjà vu.

Seven years ago, most of the same nations signed up to the same target by the same date in a New York Declaration on Forests agreed at a climate summit held by then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon. Sadly, the promises didn’t amount to much. The latest official assessment found that in the subsequent five years, the world’s annual loss of primary forests actually increased — by 43 percent.

Will they do better this time? Several things have changed. First, the new target is weaker, and so easier to reach. The 2014 promise was to end “natural forest loss,” while the new one only commits to end net deforestation, so allowing new forests for old.

But, more hopefully, some of the signatories are also promising to tackle the biggest cause of deforestation — the booming global trade in commodity crops such as palm oil, cocoa, and soya. Their Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade Statement aims to “deliver sustainable trade and reduce pressure on forests.”

And finally, there is money: $12 billion of public funds and $7 billion of private investment promised to halt deforestation — including more than a billion dollars from the blue-chip LEAF Coalition, previewed on Yale Environment 360 a few days ago. Money always helps, though critics point out that there is no detail on how it will be spent. Will it fight fires? Empower forest communities? Plant trees? Police logging bans? Improve farm productivity? And who gets to decide? “Big checks will not save the forests if the money does not go into the right hands,” said Carlos Rittl of the Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Speaking at the launch of the forest declaration, President Biden promised that “at every step, we will work in partnership with the people most impacted by deforestation and most experienced in sustainable land management — local communities, Indigenous peoples, local governments, civil societies — to make sure our approaches are effective and focused on the needs of vulnerable populations.” But in international politics, donors cannot always be choosers.

A second major announcement Tuesday, the pledge by 80 nations to join an initiative of the European Union and the United States to cut methane emissions by 30 percent during this decade, looks more auspicious. The job of plugging methane leaks from oil wells, natural-gas pipelines, and landfills is relatively cheap, quick, and delivers big climate returns.

Molecule-for-molecule, methane is many times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and with fast-rising atmospheric concentrations, is responsible for up to a quarter of current warming. While CO2 hangs around in the atmosphere for centuries, methane has a half-life of about a decade. So cutting emissions would have an immediate impact on global temperatures. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called an assault on methane “the lowest hanging fruit.” It could keep shave 0.3 degrees C off warming by 2040, says the UN Environment Programme, making time for harder measures to eliminate CO2 to kick in.

Still, for most delegates, the stringency of national targets for CO2 emissions remains the touchstone for progress in Glasgow. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on Monday that India would become the last of the big emitters to set a date for net-zero emissions was a big deal.

Some cried foul because the promise was for 2070. That is 10 years later than China and Russia, and 20 years later than most industrialized nations. But for others, it was a breakthrough.

Coal-dependent India has a case for being a bit behind, they said. The country’s per-capita emissions are still extremely low, at 1.9 tons, compared to China’s 8.1 tons and the U.S.’s 15.5 tons. And Modi set early benchmarks of his good faith, such as meeting half the country’s energy requirements from renewables by 2030. (As we reported Monday, India is already installing solar panels faster than any other nation on the planet.)

Modi’s new pledge goes well beyond India’s existing Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), as filed at the UN. So the pressure will now increase on others to do the same before the conference closes.

China believes its previous promise to peak emissions by 2030 and get to net zero by 2060 is a generous offer, and with President Xi Jinping staying away from Glasgow, it is unlikely to be changed. The promise has been skeptically received by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and others. But the country’s supporters say it usually under-promises and over-delivers. Its largely forgotten 2009 Copenhagen pledge to cut the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 percent in a decade was met with no fuss or fanfare, for instance.

Russia’s intentions are more opaque. It can claim big emissions reductions in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But its NDC says that to go further and achieve net zero by 2060, it will “use maximum possible absorptive capacity of forests and other ecosystems.”

Russia — the world’s fifth-largest CO2 emitter after China, the U.S., the EU, and India — has more forests than any other nation. Speaking before the conference, its minister of natural resources and ecology, Alexander Kozlov, said that by eliminating forest fires and reducing logging, Russia could increase its forests’ “absorptive capacity” by 600 million tons.

Other large industrial nations, including the U.S. and China, intend to claim carbon capture by their forests to help meet their targets. But none as much as Russia. With national net emissions currently at 1.6 billion tons, Kozlov’s calculation suggests that Russia may claim to cut future emissions by a third simply through better forest management. Proving that would be hard, however, and critics say the numbers are wide open to dubious accounting.

Meanwhile, from the country with the second-biggest area of forests, Brazil, there is unequivocally bad news. Soaring rates of deforestation under President Jair Bolsonaro resulted in a 9.5 percent increase in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions last year, according to the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian think tank. This makes the promise this week by the country’s environment minister, Joaquim Leite, to cut emissions between 2005 and 2030 by 50 percent currently unlikely.

Also under a cloud are the promises of major fossil-fuel exporters Saudi Arabia and Australia. In the run-up to Glasgow, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised domestic net-zero emissions by 2050. The Saudis offered the same in 2060. But critics say that while they continue to flood the world with their coal and oil, such pledges are little more than greenwash.

By comparison, the pledges of the U.S. and the European Union appear relatively straightforward. Both say they will halve emissions by 2030 from historical peaks in 2005 and 1990 respectively, and will reach net-zero by 2050. But in the U.S., much still hangs on Biden’s trillion-dollar spending plans for clean energy making it through Congress in the coming days. As ever in the world of fixing climate change, politics keeps getting in the way.

Follow all of e360’s daily coverage of the UN climate summit in Glasgow.