UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: Hope old and new – COP26 focused on two largely unsung climate solutions

At the Climate Action Center at the Scottish Event Center in Glasgow, the picture-worthy sign #COP26 was filled with tropical plants. Every summit, attendees make sure to have their photo taken in front of the sign (including me).

At the conclusion of every UN climate summit I’ve covered since Paris in 2015, I’ve written a story that summarizes the highlights (few) and disappointments (many) in a kind of post-COP analysis. Because of the massive global media attention COP26 drew (nearly 4,000 credentialed journalists), that story was largely written by others before I landed back in North Carolina.

Instead, with this final story from COP26, I followed an idea that came to me during my return flight home. I decided to focus on what seemed to me to be two significant positive developments from a climate summit that was declared a failure before it even started. Those two elements — one old and easily grasped, the other new and technologically futuristic — could turn out to be climate game changers in the decades ahead. That is, of course, if they receive the international support and billions in funding required to enable both to, in one case flourish, and in the other, reach proof of concept on a global scale.

Let’s be clear. The coordinated effort to save the planet by holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial times has virtually no chance of succeeding without these efforts I write about, in combination with accelerated efforts to decarbonize industrial economies and halt deforestation and biodiversity loss in the world’s great forests. G-20 leaders have simply wasted too many decades making problems worse for any shortcuts or easy fixes to this existential climate crisis.

This photo collage as I took in my home office before leaving for Glasgow seems a fitting parting shot for my final story from COP26. Next year’s meeting, COP27, is planned for Cairo, Egypt.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: ‘Standing with your feet in the water’: COP26 struggles to succeed

With Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg leading protests both Friday and Saturday (Nov. 5-6, 2021) through the streets of central Glasgow, tens of thousands of people, mostly young people from around the world, mocked the proceedings of COP26, demanded “real” leadership, and didn’t let up even in driving wind and rain. The protests continued every day of the summit.

On Friday, November 12, I decided to take the morning off from COP26 to see a bit of Glasgow — the immense 12th-Glasgow Cathredral that reformationist John Knox changed from Catholic to Protestant, and the campus of the University of Glasgow, which I heard was the setting for Harry Potter movies. It wasn’t, but it could’ve been.

My goal on the last afternoon of official negotiations was to simply attend press conferences, track the shifting language in the latest draft of the Glasgow accords and Paris Agreement rulebook, and prepare for the climate summit wrap up I would write once I returned home to the U.S. I had no plans to write this story.

But sometimes luck intervenes and directs you to a front row seat to history. After getting into the venue, I noticed a line of people filing into the main plenary hall, called Cairn Gorm. It wasn’t long before I realized that this could be, in borrowing from Hamilton, ‘the room where it happened.’ When U.S. climate envoy John Kerry walked right in front of me on his way to his seat, and I then heard COP26 President Alok Sharma of Great Britain call the hastily called meeting of 196 nations “our collective moment in history,” I knew I had one last story to write from Glasgow.

The tension, the emotions, the high-stakes pressure, the frustration, the recognition of a race against time in rescuing the planet from the worst ravages of human-caused climate change infused grand, furious and pleading messages by delegates from every nation. What a story.

EU lead negotiator Frans Timmermans showed the assemblage a photo of his 1-year-old grandson during his comments. Together, he said, the leaders at COP26 could assure Chase’s healthy future or assure a time when he “would be in a fight with other human beings for food and water.” The plenary erupted in applause as he thundered: “This is personal! This is not political.”

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – Are climate declarations and emission reduction pledges legally binding?

Climate Action Center at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. So many pledges and promises made at these annual summits, so many pledges unfilled and promises broken. What’s an ailing planet to do? File a lawsuit, that’s what.

There has long been a general sense that the voluntary, nonbinding nature of the Paris Agreement was a fatal flaw, a way for major polluters to sign their names to carbon-reduction pledges they had no intention of ever honoring.

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

In a story here that fell into my lap and which my ever-skeptical editor Glenn Schererurged me to pursue, I learned that the new frontier in climate action isn’t in pledges and promises, but in litigation. Just ask Royal Dutch Shell, a corporate giant in The Netherlands which a national court ruled was not doing enough to reduce its own carbon footprint, thus keeping the country from meeting its own reduction targets under Paris. Promises, meet legal enforcement. Shell is not a signatory of Paris, but was successfully held liable just the same, as my story explains.

This story focuses on a couple of attorneys who were active and visible during this climate summit, one of whom reminded me of a male, eco-crusading Erin Brockovich. Wake Forest law school professor John Knox, my colleague and an expert in international climate litigation, verified what I was learning in Glasgow, as did a lead attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in which my sister-in-law Stephanie Parent, an Oregon-based environmental attorney herself, put me in touch.

A COP26 march in Sheffield, England. In 2015, in Paris, and at all COP summits, protestors who say that the common people are those most impacted by climate change have been left to march outside, while grave decisions, or the lack of them, were pursued inside. Photo credit: Tim Dennell on Visualhunt.com

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26: E.U. is committed to forest biomass burning to cut fossil fuel use

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president (right), speaks during the COP26 press conference. E.U. minister Andrej Viziak of Slovenia is on left.

The last time I got to question Frans Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Commission and easily the most influential politician in the EU, was at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019, just weeks before the pandemic took hold. It was the last day of a dismal summit. I asked him about the future of biomass in the EU, and his answer was so surprising that it led to a story that quite literally stunned anti-biomass activists around from the US to Belgium to Australia.

In this story, my third from Glasgow, I got to question Timmermans again. This time, his answer was far more predictable, and to those same anti-biomass advocates, an enormous disappointment. I did get more than one question, though, as I asked Mr. Timmermans if he could talk further after the 30-minute EU press conference, which took place at exactly the same time former US President Barack Obama was addressing a packed plenary hall a few hundred yards away.

Aside from a range of reactions from forest defenders around the globe, I also received a detailed and thoughtful response from Christian Rakos of Vienna, Austria, president of the World Bioenergy Association. Rakos surprised me by offering an open dialogue with those who oppose everything about the industry he represents. I included it in my story and he reiterated his interest during a 90-minute meeting I had with him over Italian beer at the summit venue. Later, post-COP26, at dinner in Amsterdam with the EU’s leading biomass opponent, Fenna Swart, I mentioned to her Rakos’ interest in talking with her — even volunteering to travel to Holland to meet in person.

Swart and Rakos exchanged emails and a meeting between them is planned in Amsterdam.

Christian Rakos, president of the World Bioenergy Association, which is based in Stockholm. The EU burns an estimated 31 million metric tons of woody biomass annually for energy and heat. Rakos believes this burning of wood is far better than burning coal as well as environmentally sustainable — in the EU. His is less familiar with the industry’s impact on forests in the Southeastern U.S. and British Columbia.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – Indigenous leaders share hopes and concerns towards pledges made at COP26

Torbjørn Gjefsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway, writing in my notebook, makes sure the spelling of Joseph Itongwa’s name and tribal association are correct for my story. Joseph spoke French through a remarkable interpreter who was on the phone he is holding.

A few days before leaving for Glasgow and COP26, I had a Zoom call with Torbjørn Gjefsen of Rainforest Foundation Norway in Oslo. We spoke at length about the issues he and his group are most focused on: promoting and supporting indigenous rights in tropical countries around the world. He wanted me to do a story from the climate summit; he was pushing on an open door. Here’s why I was eager to write this story.

In September 2018, I covered the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco organized by then California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mongabay wanted me there primary to write about an issue then largely underreported and little recognized: that if tropical countries were serious about preventing deforestation and meeting their carbon reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement, they had no better means of doing both than by returning land tenure and civil rights back to the Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) who have occupied the land, as one tribal leader told me, “since time immemorial.”

Years of meticulous scientific research comparing places where rights had been returned to those where IPLCs were still largely marginalized demonstrated the impact of doing the right thing by nature and humanity.

In Glasgow, during my first two days on site at the Scottish Events Center at the end of the summit’s first week, Torbjørn arranged for me to interview, through translators, Indigenous leaders from Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. It was an honor to talk with each one of them and share their stories at a summit where for the first time their presence was met with praise, recognition and billions in funding for the important role they can play in their home countries in climate mitigation.

As my story explains, the momentum tribal leaders felt in Glasgow will only translate into action if the leaders of those countries allow it. DRC? Yes. Brazil and Indonesia? Not until there are regime changes.

This is the president of Indonesia. As my story explains, he’s not much better than the autocratic maniac, Jair Bolsonaro, who has terrorized Indigenous peoples in Brazil since taking office in 2017. Joko Widodo has broken every promise to return land and rights to the largest Indigenous group on earth since his re-election in 2020. Instead, deforestation to make room for oil palm plantations worsens.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – As carbon emissions rise unabated, scientists eye a methane removal fix

A gas flare at an oil refinery.
One of the leading causes of methane emissions is flaring like this done at facilities drilling for natural gas.

I arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, for my seventh United Nations climate summit on Friday, November 5, my birthday. I celebrated by self-administering a Covid-19 test in my AirBnB apartment, reporting the negative result to the National Scottish Health Service, then hailing a taxi to the venue. There, after weaving my way through unusually mobbed corridors of masked people from around the world, I met up, as planned, with Daphne Wysham, chief executive of Methane Action, for this story, which posted the following Monday.

Over the course of a half day that Friday and most of Saturday, I climbed the learning curve regarding methane as a greenhouse gas, how much more potent in its heat-trapping capacity it is than carbon dioxide, and why it only lasts in the atmosphere for 10-12 years, compared to centuries for CO2. Those details alone make methane a ripe target for climate action. In fact, more than 100 nations signed a declaration before I arrived in Scotland to reduce their own methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. It’s far from enough, which is where Methane Action comes in.

Daphne was eager to talk not only because she has a remarkable story to tell, but also because she and I met in Port Townsend, Washington, last July when I was reporting on the value of old-growth trees in temperate rainforests while in Washington state. Her husband John Talbert, a forest ecologist, was one of my sources. I learned just enough about Daphne’s work to know I wanted to follow up.

This is one of the more surprising stories I’ve reported and written at a climate summit. It’s actually hopeful, I realized, as I slowly grasped how engineered methods of methane oxidation — if proven in the lab and then successfully applied at a global scale — could turn out to be the most effective way of slowing global warming in the short term. It also holds the hard-to-believe potential of actually bringing about global cooling in a few decades. My story provides the details, with all the necessary caveats.

Daphne Wysham, chief executive of Methane Action (left), with Ed Gemmel of the group Scientists Warning Europe, and Peter Wadhams, a climate scientist and methane researcher at the University of Turin, Italy, at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Image courtesy of Daphne Wysham.

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UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 Glasgow Declaration: Salvation or threat to Earth’s forests?

Deforestation in West Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia on land likely to be converted to oil palm plantation. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

I wrote my second story for COP26, the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, while I was still in North Carolina. The first two days of the summit were attended by heads of state from around the world, eager to show some kind of eagerness toward climate action. The result here was the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by the U.S as well as more than 100 other countries. The goal — eliminating deforestation by 2030.

This declaration dovetailed well with my first story, which highlighted the importance of nature-based solutions in fighting climate change, and how deforestation was undermining nature’s ability to sequester carbon and provide the ecosystems services it has always provided to slow the rate of warming.

Back by $19 billion in funding to assist in reducing deforestation and promoting Indigenous land tenure, it even sounds pretty good. As I wrote: The Glasgow signees, the declaration says, “emphasize the critical and interdependent roles of forests of all types, biodiversity and sustainable land use in enabling the world to meet its sustainable development goals; to help achieve a balance between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks; to adapt to climate change; and to maintain other ecosystem services.”

But it’s what’s not in the declaration not only weakens it, but according to a variety of my sources, implicitly encourages logging forests for timber and pellets so long as they are replaced with what is usually monoculture tree plantations that lack biodiversity, sequester little carbon and are harvested on a regular cycle. My story looks both the positive and suspect aspects of a declaration whose primary goal is truly needed.

UN Climate Summits  Mongabay: COP26 – As fossil fuel use surges, will COP26 protect forests to slow climate change?

In preparation for covering my seventh United Nations climate summit, I spoke at length with my editors Glenn Scherer and Willie Shubert about the stories on which I should be focused — especially the first story that sets the scene for COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Here’s the story. Here’s how we arrived at it: given the amount of reporting I’ve done on deforestation in both tropical and boreal forests, I looked into how the land sector was holding up as a natural sponge for greenhouse gases, which slow the rate of global warming.

In doing so, I was reminded of a scientist I met in Bonn, Germany, at COP23, Bronson Griscom, who had just published a landmark study in PNAS about how “nature-based solutions,” if enhanced, could significantly boost carbon sequestration, which when coupled with dramatically reduced usage of fossil fuels for energy and heat, could help nations meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degree C from pre-industrial times.

Four year later, it turns out (spoiler alert) we can no longer take for granted that nature will provide the natural buffer she’s been providing in a range of ecosystem services. We agreed that that should be my COP26 opener, especially as it related to Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, which in the first time in an international agreement, called for the protection and enhancements of forests as carbon sinks and reservoirs. I was fortunate to, among other scientists, interview Griscom for the story.

This would be one reason why — among many — that the earth is less capable of working on our behalf in regards to climate change mitigation. We haven’t taken very good care of the planet in recent decades, especially since the signing of the Paris Agreement.

Environment  Mongabay: Forest biomass-burning supply chain from US to Europe is producing major carbon emissions: Studies

This story came up quickly, was reported in a morning and afternoon, and posted the following morning — thanks to my tireless editor Glenn Scherer. Initially, I was given a heads up that one study would be released late Wednesday night (Oct. 13, 2021) and Glenn gave me the greenlight to pursue it. When I contacted a source at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sasha Stashwick, about connecting me with a British House of Lords member with a strong position on biomass burning in the United Kingdom, she let me know that NRDC had also released a biomass-related study with similar research metrics. I combined the two studies into one story.

Another source overseas, Almuth Earnsting with Biofuelwatch, brought to my attention the quick pushback from the wood pellet industry as posted by Biomass Magazine. I made sure we got its criticisms of one of the studies in the story.

The stakes for accuracy in carbon emissions accounting continue to rise higher and higher, especially as the 26th United Nations climate summit looms in in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November. NGOs are fairly apoplectic that the issue of burning biomass and the tons of uncounted carbon emissions at the smokestack at former coal-fired plants in the UK and across the European Union, is not an official agenda item as nations finalize the Paris rulebook for implementing fully the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Several NGOs who applied for side events in Glasgow to press their points about biomass were denied permission. They are incensed and believe the host nation — the largest consumer of wood pellets in the world — is eager to downplay the science of biomass carbon accounting and its impact on mature forests in the US, Canada and eastern Europe.

Here’s an excerpt from my story:

With the two-week United Nations COP26 summit starting in Glasgow, Scotland, on Oct. 31, both studies call into question the validity of the 2030 carbon reduction pledges made by three of the world’s largest carbon polluters — the U.S. (with a 50% reduction pledge), U.K. (58%) and E.U. (55%). While these Paris Agreement signatories may meet those goals on paper, nature will know that no such atmospheric emissions cuts have been achieved as wood pellets are burned.

The citizen-supported journalism site WhoWhatWhy republished my story here.

Caption for the graphic above: The existing and proposed wood pellet plants in the US Southeast (yellow and red circles) and the harvest areas of each plant (larger beige circles). Source: Southern Environmental Law Center.

Anti-biomass protesters outside the EU headquarters in Brussels in summer 2021 when delegates were debating possible changes to the Renewable Energy Directive. Few substantive changes were made regarding biomass burning, carbon accounting or subsidies.

Environment  Mongabay: Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action — story and video

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington state, U.S. Image by Tjflex2 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This story linked here is one I originally imagined reporting from Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The Canadian province seems intent allowing the last of its majestic, irreplaceable old-growth forests be taken by the timber and pellet industries — aside from perhaps the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast. But Covid restrictions locked the border between the US and Canada in late July (2021), so I shifted my focus to Washington state and Olympic National Park for my first field reporting since summer 2019.

My idea was simple — tour a coastal, old-growth rainforest with a forest ecologist and discuss why such rare ecosystems are important to harboring vast biodiversity, cleansing air and watersheds, and storing more carbon per hectare than the rainforests of the tropics. A good source and expert, Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage: Earth Island Institute, agreed to fly up from Oregon to meet me on the Upper Peninsula of Washington state, just a few miles across the sound from British Columbia.

I also wanted a video, linked here, to complement my story. My my editor Glenn Scherer approved a budget for me to hire Seattle-based Ted Grudowski, a friend of my Greensboro neighbor and documentarian Michael Frierson (lucky connections all around). Ted is an award-winning environmental videographer and knows the Olympic National Park inside out. He was as much as a fixer in helping me map a plan for where to report from as he was an expert videographer in capturing my hike with DellaSala, and later, a key interview with John Talberth, an expert Pacific Northwest forest conversation. The multimedia package came together exactly as I hoped it would, with a special assist from Mongabay video producers Manon Verchot in India, Lucia Torres in Spain and Lisa Golden in Great Britain.

Here’s an excerpt:

“As humans endure one of the worst summers ever punctuated by climate catastrophes around the world, and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its most dire report yet, I’ve invited DellaSala, past president of the Society of Conservation Biology, to join me on this hike to discuss the value of old-growth forests.

“What’s at stake in protecting much of what’s left? How can government policy on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border do more to preserve old-growth, perhaps the most effective means we have of slowing the alarming rate of global warming — letting tall, old trees grow taller and older in large, fully intact ecosystems?”

Northwest Coastal Map: Coastal temperate rainforests, among the rarest ecosystems on Earth as well as being the most carbon dense, stretch along the Pacific Coast from northern California to the Alaska panhandle. Map (left) by Dominick DellaSala and Island Press / photo (right) by John Schoen.