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World leaders band together to combat deforestation, methane emissions

Pledges win broad praise, but some past promises have fallen short. ‘Signing the declaration is the easy part,’ U.N. Secretary General António Guterres tweeted.

World leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 for the 26th annual United Nations conference on climate change. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

GLASGOW, Scotland — Scores of world leaders on Tuesday promised to tackle two major contributors to global warming — deforestation and emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas — using the spotlight of a United Nations climate summit to show their resolve to act with urgency.

More than 100 leaders, representing over 85 percent of the world’s forests, pledged to halt deforestation over the next decade and help restore a natural resource that has the potential to absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, more than 100 countries also signed on to the newly formed Global Methane Pledge, which aims to cut emissions 30 percent by the end of the decade.

President Biden told delegates in Glasgow, Scotland, that cutting methane is essential to keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.

“One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade — to keep 1.5 degrees in reach — is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,” Biden said on a day when the U.S. government unveiled long-awaited new rules to curb the gas, which is more than 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide during its first years in the atmosphere. “This isn’t just something we have to do to protect the environment and future. It’s an enormous opportunity.”

As major U.N. climate talks open, pleas for action to back up big promises

Both initiatives won widespread praise from environmental advocates and scientific groups, particularly during a global climate summit that, at least so far, has been short on the kind of major emissions-cutting pledges from nations that many had hoped.

Still, living up to promises on both deforestation and methane will take serious work, and key details about how many countries plan to follow their rhetoric with action remain uncertain.

Other efforts have fallen short in the past. In 2014, for instance, more than 200 governments, companies and civil society organizations signed the New York Declaration on Forests, which called for halving the rate of deforestation by 2020 and halting it by 2030. Instead, deforestation remains rampant. A satellite-based survey by Global Forest Watch found that, in 2020, the world lost nearly 100,00 square miles of tree cover — an area about the size of Colorado.

Meanwhile, concentrations of methane in the atmosphere have continued to rise, and fast. Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that levels of methane showed a “significant jump” in 2020, marking “the largest annual increase recorded since systematic measurements began in 1983.”

Methane, which is a main component of natural gas but also comes from sources such as landfills, agricultural operations and natural wetlands, is the world’s second-most-abundant greenhouse gas. A U.N. assessment earlier this year found that a robust effort to cut methane emissions this decade could avert nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming, helping move the world closer to meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Voices from around the world on what’s at stake at COP26

That makes Tuesday’s push in Glasgow significant.

Participants in the pledge, which the United States and Europe launched in September, represent nearly half of human-caused methane emissions. Top emitters that joined the pact include Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam and Canada. But critical methane-emitting nations such as China and Russia have yet to sign on.

“The fact that there’s now a large proportion of the global community signing on, that’s the real key,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Washington Post near a pavilion emblazoned with the words, “The Methane Moment.”

Hamburg said reducing methane and carbon dioxide emissions represent the “two big levers” to slowing climate change, “and we need to push down on both of them, which we have not historically done.”

Biden was among those trying to push that lever on Tuesday in Glasgow, using the moment to announce a far-reaching set of domestic policies to slash methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas operations. They include a range of new proposals by the Environmental Protection Agency to halt leaks from aging oil and gas wells and to better monitor and capture the planet-heating gas before it escapes into the atmosphere. A separate rule that the Transportation Department finalized Tuesday targets ruptures in gas pipelines.

David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, said nations can cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030 with energy efficiency and changes to agriculture and other sectors. But he added, “It’s important not to understate the challenge, in that it will require serious action by governments.”

Pierre Friedlingstein, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter in England, said that although the methane pledge is a great step, a continued focus on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide remains the only way to combat long-term warming.

“We shouldn’t use one for an excuse of not doing the other,” he said.

The world needs to cut its emissions seven times as fast to hit climate goals, U.N. report finds

Earlier Tuesday, a litany of nations also signed on to a renewed effort to cease deforestation around the planet.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the agreement unprecedented, adding, “We will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror, and instead become its custodian.”

The announcement included Brazil, home to the sprawling Amazon rainforest, as well as Canada, Russia, Norway, Colombia and Indonesia. The United States also joined the agreement, which was backed by $12 billion in public funds and $7.2 billion in private money.

Biden in remarks Tuesday pledged a “whole of government” approach to restore forest loss, saying he plans to work with Congress to set aside $9 billion through 2030 for conservation. “We need to approach this issue with the same seriousness of purpose as decarbonizing our economy,” he said.

The destruction of forests is a major factor driving up global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with about 23 percent of total emissions stemming from agriculture, forestry and other land uses.

Trees play a critical role in absorbing carbon dioxide as they grow, slowing global warming by offsetting significant amounts of human-caused emissions. When trees are cut, and are either burned or decay, they release this carbon into the atmosphere.

In addition to the deforestation pledge, 28 countries also vowed to work to remove deforestation from the global supply chain for goods such as palm oil, soy and cocoa. And 30 financial institutions covering more than $8.7 trillion in assets agreed to eliminate investment in commodity-driven deforestation.

“As consumers, we’ll all be able to enjoy guilt-free chocolate,” Johnson said. “I mean, I suppose that’s carbon-guilt-free, not calorie-guilt-free chocolate.”

The collective pledge to safeguard the world’s forests generated hope among activists, but also a measure of skepticism.

Luciana Téllez Chávez, a Human Rights Watch researcher, wrote that the deforestation agreement “should commit to goals that are more ambitious, rather than simply duplicate past pledges.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres tweeted: “Signing the declaration is the easy part. It is essential that it is implemented now for people & planet.”

Outside the new global framework, several countries have undertaken their own efforts to safeguard trees. Pakistan, for instance, is in the midst of a “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami” reforestation campaign. In Costa Rica, the government has been paying farmers to protect forests near their farms. The project was among the five inaugural winners of Prince William’s Earthshot prize, which highlights creative climate solutions and comes with a prize of 1 million pounds.

The deforestation and methane agreements were part of a day in Glasgow marked by a flurry of promises from government and the private sector, some lacking specifics on how they will be executed.

One of them came from the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, John F. Kerry, who pledged that the United States would achieve sustainable management of all of its ocean areas by 2025, joining 14 other countries committed to making shipping, fishing and other seafaring industries more environmentally sound. He offered few details into the particulars of what the U.S. involvement in the effort would eventually look like.

Speaking to reporters, Kerry sounded upbeat about progress so far at COP26, as the global summit is widely known. “We’re a day and a half into this, and I’ve seen more energy and more commitment and more urgency than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And I’ve been doing this since 1988.”

Biden projected similar optimism at a news conference Tuesday evening, where he criticized the presidents of China and Russia for not attending the summit, praised young people for reminding leaders of the “moral obligation to future generations,” and again declared climate change a top U.S. priority.

“By showing up, we’ve had a profound impact on the way I think the rest of the world is looking at the United States and its leadership role,” he said.

As Biden and other heads of state begin to depart Scotland, the difficult job of hammering out a global road map is only beginning.

In coming days, negotiators from nearly 200 countries will continue to deliberate on a range of thorny issues, including emissions goals, the complicated rules governing carbon markets, and the ways in which rich nations responsible for fueling climate change plan to help poor countries adapt to its devastating impacts.

Johnson told reporters Tuesday that he feels confident progress is happening, but that hard work lies ahead. “We must take care to guard against false hope. We have still a very long way to go,” the British prime minister said.

He added that the doomsday clock on climate change is still ticking, but that in Glasgow over the next week and a half, “we have a bomb disposal team on-site and they are starting to snip some of the wires — some of the right wires, I hope.”

Grandoni and Dennis reported from Washington. Steven Mufson, Tik Root and Sarah Kaplan in Washington, and Michael Birnbaum, William Booth and Annie Linskey in Glasgow, Scotland, contributed to this report.

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