World leaders lined up yesterday to promise to protect the planet’s forests. Boris Johnson and Joe Biden were followed on stage by indigenous leaders and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, among others, to back the “Glasgow declaration” to save carbon by saving trees. The scale of the announcement took even committed forest-watchers by surprise, and it demonstrates momentum. Will it actually make a difference?
The context. The world’s old growth forests are being destroyed at a rate of around 42,100 square kilometres a year. An area the size of Sweden has been destroyed since 2010 and the rate of destruction of the Amazon is going up, not down.
The promise. 105 countries, including the stewards of 85 per cent of the world’s forest, signed a declaration promising to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation”.
- The declaration will be backed up by nearly $20 billion in public and private climate finance.
- $12 billion will come from 12 countries, including the UK, USA, Norway and Germany.
- That’s more money than has previously been given out to prevent deforestation through existing UN mechanisms – though it’s unclear how much of it is really new.
- 30 financial institutions covering over $8.7 trillion of global assets have also promised to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.
Why money matters. Forests can store around 30 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the nonprofit World Resources Institute. But deforestation driven largely by the growth of agriculture means some now emit more carbon than they capture. Examples include parts of the Southeastern Amazon, the Yosemite national park in the USA and the tropical rainforests of Sumatra. More forests are expected to switch from sink to source soon. Governments need financial support to oust poachers and illegal loggers, and farmers need ways to make money that mean they have to chop down trees.
Yesterday’s announcement sounds promising, but Greenpeace called it a license to keep logging for nearly a decade. Also, we’ve been close to here before. In a 2014 declaration signed in New York, 37 governments plus companies, NGOs and others similarly promised to end deforestation by 2030 and halve it by 2020. The target was missed.
Rich countries have also failed to deliver the $100 billion per year they promised to help developing countries adapt to climate change and mitigate future impacts. Since the Glasgow declaration isn’t legally binding, there’s no guarantee it will be different this time round.
And yet there are reasons to be hopeful. The most compelling is who’s involved.
China, Russia and Brazil didn’t sign the 2014 deal, but did sign this one. That could make a difference because they are all home to vast areas of forest. China is also the largest importer of products linked to deforested areas in the world. If it now stops buying, the trees might keep growing. Satellite mapping shows ending deforestation can make a big difference in these countries:
- 80Mt of carbon have been stored in the past ten years in a carbon sink in southeast China following afforestation and restoration programmes.
- 100Mt of carbon every year from 2011 to 2020 have been stored through tree growth following the abandonment of farmland in five regions of western Russia – more than all EU forests combined.
- Meanwhile deforestation means Brazil has lost 40Mt per year of carbon to the atmosphere.
Indigenous voices. This deal hasn’t been hashed out between diplomats and politicians alone. An initial $1.7 billion will go to support the efforts of indigenous peoples – who are the stewards and often the best protectors of 36 per cent of the world’s large and intact forests.
Starting today, negotiators will get down to the grunt work of finalising how funds will be allocated and monitored, so they get to where they’re needed most. The declaration isn’t a solution but it is a step in the right direction. “It’s a good start,” says Chris West, Deputy Centre Director for Research at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “But more money is good money.”
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In the football match that is Boris Johnson’s contest with climate change, it was 5-1 to Team Warming at the weekend. At his pre-departure press conference last night he reckoned humanity had got a goal back – maybe two – in the first two days of Cop, and his audience was buying the metaphor if not the scoreline. Sky’s Beth Rigby reckoned Team World couldn’t equalise without China on the pitch. The Sun’s Harry Cole wondered if it was going to be Her Maj, Sir David Attenborough or “you” who pulled it level. Johnson said a team effort could “take this thing into extra time”. When this metaphor palls there’s Bond and the Doomsday machine and the “great chainsaw massacre” of deforestation – but there’s a logic gap in this sort of messaging. It presupposes nothing else cuts through. And yet in practically the same breath the PM speaks of the anger lapping at the door and round the world, ready to boil over if leaders fail in Glasgow. He knows a lot of people already care. He may also know how to get through to those who don’t, but it’s not clear he understands this isn’t just another 2012 Olympics.
engagement and activism
Cop’s organisers are facing accusations of elitism. Several Cop “observers” – people from NGOs and IGOs who monitor but don’t negotiate – have been expressing frustration that these talks don’t feel as open as previous Cops. “Normally, we are able to use corners or separate corridors to navigate space so that the VIPs can have all of the meeting rooms that they need,” says Sebastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law. “This time, they have cordoned off the entire negotiating area.” The effect is to muffle civil society’s voice during the first two days of the conference, which are also the most important. Even getting tickets is hard: word is that Climate Action Network, a group that represents over 1,500 civil society organisations, has just two tickets allowing access to all of the negotiating areas. Limited access also poses a particular challenge for smaller nations and attendees from the Global South. Many have travelled huge distances in difficult circumstances, hoping to have a meaningful impact. Instead, Duyck says, observers only have access to a couple of restaurants, supermarkets, and the Climate Fair, but not the political process itself. It’s assumed that once world leaders jet off again the talks will become more transparent – but, by that point, will it be too late to make a difference?
30 by ‘30
In lieu of bolder action, President Biden and Ursula von der Leyen formally announced a Global Methane Pledge before they left Glasgow yesterday. A total of 105 countries have committed to cut their emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by 30 per cent in a decade. It’s a sign that many leaders – but not, crucially, Putin or Xi – have heeded the suggestion in the most recent IPCC report that methane reductions would make a quick win in the climate fight. The US and EU say their pledge could knock 0.2 degrees off total warming off by 2050. But that depends on effective execution. Joeri Rogeli, a lead author on the IPCC report, told Tortoise lower temperatures are not a given: “Our modelling shows that the global warming benefit of this pledge might lower warming over the next decades by a tenth of a degree – but [it] levels off over time. This points to the importance of tackling carbon dioxide and methane at the same time, for example, through deep overall emissions cuts and a phase-out of coal infrastructure.”
Science and tech
If there was a hare from Cop’s first two days, it would be India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. His 2070 Net Zero goal is later than most targets, but as mentioned yesterday it’s better than expected, and he wasn’t done. Yesterday he brought his One Sun, One World, One Grid initiative (OSOWOG for short), to the stage in alliance with the UK’s Green Grids Initiative. It’s a grand idea that’s been in the works since 2018: a worldwide solar power grid across 140 countries that “can ensure clean energy everywhere, every time” – because the sun’s always shining somewhere. But Aditya Valiathan Pillai, an associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in India tells Sensemaker the project could trip up in the “nitty gritty”. To build something like this India will also need to build trust and exercise some very patient diplomacy. Will that be quick enough to compete with emerging technological solutions for evening out the renewable supply curve? Big Solar, meet Big Storage.
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Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Phoebe Davis and Barney Macintyre.
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