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As fossil fuel use surges, will COP26 protect forests to slow climate change?

  • Despite the world’s commitment in Paris in 2015 to hold back the tide of global warming, carbon emissions continue rising, while impacts are rapidly escalating as heat waves, drought and extreme storms stalk the world’s poorest and richest nations — bringing intensified human misery and massive economic impacts.
  • Once viewed optimistically, nature-based climate solutions enshrined in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement (calling for protections of carbon-storing forests, peat bogs, wetlands, savannas and other ecosystems) is now threatened by politics as usual, and by the unabated expansion of agribusiness and extraction industries.
  • As world leaders gather in Scotland for the COP26 climate summit, scientists and advocates are urging negotiators to at last finalize comprehensive effective rules for Article 5, which will help assure “action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases … including forests.”
  • Over the first two weeks in November at COP26, the vision and rules set at Paris are to be settled on and fully implemented; John Kerry, co-architect of the Paris accord and President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, calls this vital COP the world’s “last best chance” to finally move beyond mostly empty political promises into climate action.

As delegates from more than 190 nations gather today in Glasgow, Scotland, for the opening of the United Nations climate summit known as COP26, they find themselves in a perilous situation largely of their own making.

In the years since the signing of the historic Paris Agreement in 2015, the world was supposed to act decisively, putting humanity in a far better position climate-wise now than it was then. The planet’s largest economies — the U.S., China, India, U.K. and E.U., along with other nations — were to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The wealthiest countries were also to raise billions of dollars to be committed to vulnerable nations for climate change-related losses and damage, and for adaptation to climate impacts.

Also, fossil fuel burning was to be rapidly cut, with solar and wind energy on the rise. And heavily forested nations, such as Brazil, Russia, the U.S. and Canada, were to curtail deforestation and advance reforestation, a commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement.

The Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, Scotland, U.K., venue for COP26. Courtesy of Scottish Trade Assoc.

Six years on, the global community has failed to advance significantly on every one of those Paris goals. In fact, in many ways it has regressed, especially regarding the conservation of forests as “sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases” under Article 5.

The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest, Earth’s greatest green carbon storehouse and the size of the continental U.S., is tipping from being a net carbon sink to a net carbon emitter due to deforestation, human-caused fires, and rapid expansion of agribusiness. Likewise, the once thickly forested Canadian province of British Columbia, four times the size of California, has been so decimated by logging, wood pellet production to replace coal, wildfires and insect infestations that it is no longer a net carbon sink, but rather a carbon source, according to the provincial forestry ministry.

Anzac Valley clearcuts in British Columbia’s boreal rainforest. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.earth.

Emissions keep rising, albeit a bit slower due to the pandemic, and nature is responding to those increases in rich and poor countries alike with climate disasters not expected so soon after those heady days of celebration in Paris.

Instead, what the world has witnessed since 2015 is the breathtaking absence of collective political will to implement aggressive climate action, even as the increasingly dire U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) analyses of impending climate change impacts regularly underestimate the speed of the unfolding crisis on every continent.

John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State under the Obama administration, signs the Paris Agreement at the U.N. while holding granddaughter Dobbs Higginson. Scientists warned in 2015 that the agreement was insufficient to prevent disastrous climate change and need to be strengthened at future COPs. Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of State.

COP26: The ‘last best chance’

And so it is that COP26, at which the vision and rules of the Paris Agreement are to be finalized and fully implemented, represents what John Kerry, U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy and co-architect of the Paris deal, calls the world’s “last best chance” to finally turn political promises into climate action.

“This COP is happening at a remarkable moment,” said Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of World Resources Institute, a global nonprofit. “There is an unsettling sense of mistrust among world leaders; trust needs to be rebuilt in a spirit of solidarity to build a better world. Major emitters must come to COP with the goal of making good on their promises.”

Make good or else the world should prepare for a catastrophic 2.7° Celsius (4.9° Fahrenheit) increase in temperature over pre-industrial levels by 2100, according to the October 2021 U.N. Emissions Gap Report. That’s a long way from the Paris goal of a 1.5°C (2.7°F) threshold — a temperature limit required to prevent climate disaster, especially for vulnerable nations in the Global South.

Avoiding catastrophe won’t be easy. Of the G-20 counties representing 80% of all carbon emissions, only four nations have thus far officially increased their carbon-reduction targets, the U.S. among them. China, by far the world’s largest polluter, just submitted modest goals for 2030 as it ramps up coal burning. India is taking a pass. Six nations have not even met their modest reduction targets set in Paris: the U.S., Canada, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and Mexico.

A coal-burning power plant in China. While China recently pledged not to fund the construction of new coal-burning plants abroad, it has made no such pledge regarding the phase out of coal inside China’s borders. Image by Tobixen under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

According to the U.N., 15 major fossil fuel-producing countries, including the United States, plan to produce more oil, natural gas and coal by 2030, not less. That projection dramatically increases pressure on the application of Article 5 of the Paris Agreement to slow the rate of warming through what are known as nature-based climate solutions, by taking “action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases … including forests.”

Questions to be debated in Glasgow, as delegates navigate a treacherous path to a sustainable future: How stable is the land sector — the human-stressed forests, savannas, wetlands, peat bogs, tundra and other ecosystems that act as carbon sinks and reservoirs?

Can we expect them to continue serving as reliable buffers against escalating warming and climate impacts, as agribusiness, extraction industries, and pressure from rising human population reduces their size and degrades them, and as nations delay a critical rapid reduction in fossil fuel use?

A forest fire in Novo Progresso, Pará state, Brazil. Novo Progresso is a hotspot of illegal deforestation, with fires set by land grabbers as a tool to convert rainforest to cattle pasture, and eventually croplands. Carbon-storing forests around the planet are under assault by agribusiness and extractive industries, including timber harvesting and mining. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Optimistic reliance on nature turns to worry

In 2017, just prior to COP23 in Bonn, Germany, U.S. forest ecologist Bronson Griscom joined multiple co-authors to publish a landmark study in which they wrote: “Twenty conservation, restoration, and/or improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions across global forests, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural lands … can provide one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation between now and 2030 to stabilize warming below 2°C [3.6°F].”

Coupled with dramatic fossil-fuel reductions, Griscom’s team concluded, “Natural climate solutions offer a powerful set of options for nations to deliver on the Paris Agreement while improving soil productivity, cleaning our air and water, and maintaining biodiversity.”

The study offered a much-needed jolt of optimism and a clear pathway for nations to adjust rules and regulations regarding ecosystem protections and agricultural practices to essentially make Article 5 of the Paris accord a working reality — buying the world time as it simultaneously slashed emissions.

Except that few nations seriously embarked on manifesting these clearly workable solutions. The land sector instead keeps taking hit after hit.

Base Map: Deforestation hotspots across the Amazon in 2021 (as of September 18). Data: UMD/GLAD, ACA/MAAP.

At least 13% of the Amazon has been deforested, for example, according to Matt Finer, director of the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), and more than 17% is badly degraded, providing weakened carbon storage. Likewise, tropical forests in Central Africa and Indonesia are fast being replaced by cattle ranches, oil palm and soy plantations.

Those natural sinks and reservoirs? Going, going, but thankfully, not yet gone. However, the trend remains exceedingly ominous: In 2020, carbon emissions from tropical forest loss totaled more than double the emissions from all cars on U.S. highways, according to World Resources Institute research.

In a recent opinion piece, Griscom and his colleagues at Conservation International issued a far less optimistic assessment than in the 2017 study: “Today, ocean and land ecosystems remove around 50% of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere each year,” an extraordinary gift from nature.

But there’s a huge problem: Climate models that project warming trends assume that this 50% land and ocean carbon sequestration rate will remain stable, a shaky assumption at best, they write: “Are we at risk of losing the biosphere carbon sinks and thereby the safe operating space for humanity provided by nature? The latest evidence is not encouraging.”

In an interview with Mongabay, Griscom remained cautiously optimistic that efforts to slow deforestation and alter agricultural practices will take hold as COP26 delegates face intense pressure to protect ecosystems under Article 5 to meet their carbon-reductions pledges.

But there are caveats: “Even though nature has been tremendously resilient to climate change impacts,” Griscom said, “and responded with increased removals of CO2, we must not take nature’s resilience for granted. We must improve land stewardship to store more carbon in ecosystems in ways that enhance the resilience of ecosystems to future climate change.”

Peat forest fire damage in Riau, Indonesia. Tropical rainforests and wetlands rarely burned in the past, but many are seeing serious wildfires as climate change worsens. As global temperatures soar and drought deepens in parts of the world, there is no guarantee already protected forests won’t burn and add their carbon to the warming atmosphere. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Can U.S. implement a big, bold forest-saving strategy?

Even as the United States expands its role as a major supplier of forest biomass to the world (making carbon-emitting wood pellets burned in place of coal), others in the U.S. are hopeful that the country’s land-use policies can become far more sustainable.

Dominick DellaSala, forest ecologist and chief scientist at Oregon-based NGO Wild Heritage, and Beverly Law, a forest ecosystem expert at Oregon State University, are among scores of scientists pressing the Biden administration to dramatically expand protections of federal lands, making carbon-dense mature and old-growth forests off-limits to roads, logging and extraction.

If done correctly, both contend, there would still be plenty of trees, mostly on commercial plantations in the U.S. Southeast and Northwest, to meet the U.S. demand for wood products.

Native forests in both regions of the country comprise vast, biodiverse tracts of large and old tree species that sequester more carbon per hectare than the tropics. But both regions lose tens of thousands of hectares each year to the production of wood pellets and other products.

A temperate rainforest in Olympic National Park, Washington State, U.S. Old growth forests have extraordinary carbon storage capacity. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

“I am more worried today for the state of our forests than I have ever been in my career,” DellaSala told Mongabay. “Time is running out in the hourglass. But if we protect our natural ecosystems, not only as a sink, but as reservoirs, it will buy us some time as we decarbonize our economy.”

In a letter she co-authored to the Biden administration, signed by 22 leading tropical ecologists, Law proposed the establishment of a National Strategic Carbon Reserve — a big idea that has Article 5 written all over it. While 13% of federal lands are already protected from commercial use, the reserve would add at least another 24 million hectares (60 million acres) of mature and old-growth federal forest and biodiverse habitats across the country to help fight climate change.

U.S. President Joe Biden at the Leaders Summit on Climate, Earth Day, April, 2021. Image courtesy of the White House.

“The ability of our forests to pull carbon from the atmosphere and accumulate it in the living and dead trees and soils of our forests will continue to play a major role in reducing the severity of climate consequences,” Law wrote to Biden nearly a year ago. “Forests represent the most powerful carbon storage opportunity at our disposal, and do not require costly and complicated schemes to engineer carbon removal and accumulation.”

Biden has committed the U.S. to the U.N. goal of “30 by 30” — protecting 30% of terrestrial ecosystems and oceans by 2030. While the administration has yet to commit to the National Strategic Carbon Reserve strategy, Biden did reverse his predecessor in restoring the Clinton-era Roadless Rules protecting Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. That decision added back protection for 3.8 million hectares (9.3 million acres) of the country’s largest old-growth temperate rainforest.

Tongass National Forest, Alaska, U.S. Photo credit: Neil. Moralee on Visualhunt.com

As Biden attends the opening two days of COP26 in hopes of restoring U.S. leadership in climate action after four years under Donald Trump, he can tout a variety of climate-friendly rules and regulations he’s imposed, including opening both coasts to wind power installations and raising vehicle fuel-economy standards.

But noticeable to the entire world: Biden still lacks the votes in Congress to enact the most aggressive climate legislation any U.S. president has ever proposed. Thus, politics threatens the U.S. pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.

And therein lies the biggest obstacle to progress at COP26.

Voting: The most crucial climate action

COP negotiations are often absurdly complex. But most climate scientists agree that slowing the rate of warming is simple: The G-20 and other nations need to transition energy production from fossil fuels to renewable sources as fast as possible and protect nature on land and sea, pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it above and below ground.

However, decisions made at COPs are rarely based on science and policies as recommended by the likes of Griscom, DellaSala and Law. The fate of the planet is currently in the hands of politicians, and politics guides most decision-making at every climate summit — which has so far resulted in stalemate and the disillusionment of the world’s youth.

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,” said frustrated youth climate activist Greta Thunberg in the run-up to COP26. “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

Greta Thunberg founded the school strike movement in 2018, at age 15. Here, she sits in protest on the final day of the U.N. climate talks (COP24) in Katowice, Poland in 2018. Thunberg was mobbed by supportive climate activists upon her arrival in Glasgow for COP26. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong / Mongabay.

Despite Biden’s attempts to move the ball downfield, he is opposed by the climate denialism of the Republican Party, and by Sen. Joe Manchin’s stonewalling. The West Virginia Democrat, invested heavily in his state’s coal industry, is blocking decarbonization legislation even as his constituents suffer some of the worst climate impacts in the U.S.

Other nations are suffering similar roadblocks. Forrest Fleischman, a University of Minnesota expert on environmental governance, notes that 53% of Mexico is covered by carbon-dense primary forests. But his research shows that government subsidies incentivize cattle ranching, not forest protection. Mexico has not met its carbon-reduction pledge made in Paris, and has actually lowered its national emission-reduction goals heading into COP26.

“In southern Mexico, cattle is a major driver of deforestation,” Fleischman told Mongabay. “So you say, ‘Just get rid of that.’ Well, the president of Mexico [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] is from southern Mexico. His family has a background in cattle ranching. This goes to the heart of the identity of the Mexican elite … Our research shows that without these subsidies, the cattle ranchers wouldn’t be in business. So, this is a very difficult policy change to make.”

The same holds true of coal production in China and Australia, tar sands oil in Canada, natural gas pipelines in Russia, oil palm plantations in Indonesia, fracking and wood pellet production in the United States. Where economic interests clash with environmental protections, the outcome has for years been a nearly foregone conclusion: nature loses.

Industrial acacia pulp and paper plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Fleischman explained that the policy work of environmental scientists typically fails to address the barriers to implementation: If the majority of elected leaders at local, regional or national levels oppose climate-solution legislation, those policies will go unenacted even as lands flood, suffer drought, burn up, or are inundated by rising seas.

As an undergraduate in Earth Systems at Stanford University in 1999, Fleischman attended a program led by 15 of the university’s top environmental researchers. Famed biologist Paul Ehrlich said something that evening that stuck with him and helped shape his career.

“The most important environmental action you can take is to vote for candidates who support environmental policies,” Fleischman recalled Ehrlich saying. “And all the other scientists nodded their heads. That was over 20 years ago. And it’s even more true today.”

Of course, while voting matters in places like the U.S., Mexico or Brazil, it has little power in authoritarian states like China or Russia.

As for Article 5 of the Paris Agreement and the potential for enhanced natural climate solutions? Unless there is an unprecedented emergence of political will by the world’s largest polluters, it is destined to remain a critical policy in waiting until more voters send more climate-friendly politicians to future COPs.

Banner image: The 2015 Paris Agreement surrounded by newspaper articles; COP26 has been called the world’s “last best chance” to unify and combat climate change.

Justin Catanoso, a regular Mongabay contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He will cover COP26 from Glasgow, his seventh climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

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Stacked ring of thousands of whole trees at Enviva’s Sampson County, North Carolina forest biomass facility. Most wood pellets made in the U.S. are shipped to Europe where they are burned to make energy. The Biden administration has stayed silent as to how, or if, it will regulate the booming U.S. biomass industry. Image courtesy of Dogwood Alliance.