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.

Backed 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 that 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 at 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.

Environment  Mongabay: The science of forest biomass — Conflicting studies map the controversy

Before: An Estonian forest filled with a variety of tree species and a natural habitat for biodiversity. Such ecosystems are essential to climate mitigation, from carbon sequestration to flood control.
After: The same Estonian forest clear cut so that the stemwood — tree trunks seen stacked in rows — can be shipped to one of the world’s largest wood-pellet producers. This is an ecosystem destroyed. Biodiversity scattered, carbon sequestration is diminished, flood control lost. Photos by Karl Adami

This story was months in the making. Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, and I had been discussing a story that took a step back from the breaking news around climate policy and rising biomass consumption to look at the science behind the issue. Since last spring, I researched and printed out peer-reviewed studies with diverging outcomes and read them closely. The biomass industry can point to scores of research that supports its claim that wood pellets are good for forests and a genuine climate solution, while forest advocates can pile up even more research that explains just how big a mistake the Kyoto Protocol made when it classified all bioenergy as renewable and carbon neutral.

Because there are so many points of difference, the biggest challenge in this story was narrowing the scope of issues to compare, knowing full well that in a 2,000-word story, important issues would not make it into this story. Still, I kept my focus on the issues industry officials tend to use the most in defending themselves against their growing chorus of critics.

This particular story is as balanced as fairness allows. By that I mean, it is fair in clearly explaining the industry arguments and citing the studies that back their claims, while making sure to be accurate in the overall thrust of the story in terms of the impact woody biomass is having on — to pick just one issue — the accuracy of carbon-emissions accounting.

This is among the more important stories I’ve done on this issue since I started covering it in 2018. Hopefully, it will serve as a trustworthy resource for new reporters coming to this story and heavily lobbied policymakers trying to figure out who and what to believe when it comes to energy generation and actual climate mitigation.

In the Southeast U.S. — the world’s largest producer of wood pellets — natural forests are often cleared and then replanted with pine plantations. Environmentalists say fast-growing pine does not sequester nearly as much carbon as the hardwood and softwood forests they replace, nor harbor much biodiversity. Biomass backers say fast growing young forests sequester more carbon than mature forests. Pine plantations like this one are harvested on 20-year time cycles. Photo credit: nationalagroforestrycenter on Visualhunt

Environment  Mongabay: Forest advocates press EU leader to rethink views on biomass and energy

Forest advocates in Brussels put pressure on EU Commissioners, especially Executive VP Frans Timmermans, to drastically revise regulations pertaining to burning woody biomass for energy and heat. The advocates presented the commissioners with a petition containing 200,000 signatures from EU citizens calling on its 27 member nations to phase out national subsidies for biomass burning and prioritize forest and biodiversity protections. Image by Daniel Djamo.

I learned of Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission, during the last press conference I covered at the UN climate summit in Madrid in 2019. Astonished at the absence of any discussion of whether burning woody biomass (wood pellets) and the forests it took to produce them was actually a viable climate-mitigation strategy, I posed a question to Timmermans in a room packed with European journalist. My question was something like: A top EU priority is accuracy in carbon accounting, yet EU policy promotes the burning of biomass in which emissions go uncounted at the smokestack. Is this carbon accounting discrepancy something you’re concerned about?

After a pause that led me to think he planned to ignore my question, he provided, to me, a surprising answer: Yes, he was concerned. The science on biomass has changed in recent years, he said. The EU needed to make sure it wasn’t doing more harm than good when it came to biomass-for-energy. This policy would be revisited under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive in 2021.

Pretty big story. My editor agreed. And we put Timmermans on the record globally saying, for the first time, that biomass wasn’t an unquestioned, common-sense, climate-friendly substitute for coal — which is most definitely is not.

This story is in some ways a follow up to that December 2019 story. The pressure on Timmermans has been intense for nearly two years — from all sides: anti-biomass advocates, EU countries with trees to clear, a rapidly growing, multibillion-dollar biomass industry. Timmermans, as my story illustrates, has learned a great deal about the science of biomass, its impact on forests and carbon neutrality. But as the European Commission tries to decide if it will regulate biomass to protect forests and perhaps increase accuracy in carbon emissions accounting, Timmermans remains on the fence about which way he will push his European colleagues.

Frans Timmermans (center) on a panel at COP25 in 2019. Image by Justin Catanoso.

Environment  Mongabay: Illegal clearing for agriculture is driving tropical deforestation: Report

An expanding oil palm plantation abuts rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.
An expanding oil palm plantation abuts rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Forest Trends is an NGO I’ve been familiar with for a number of years, primarily through a deputy director, Gena Gammie, who lives in Lima and heads up water conservation initiatives there. I’ve interviewed Michael Jenkins, the founder and CEO, several times and have always found him knowledgeable and candid — no nonsense, like Phil Duffy at Woodwell Climate Research Center. So when Forest Trends released a major new report on illegal deforestation connected to agriculture commodities, I knew we had a for a solid story for Mongabay. The story linked here. Also, Mongabay produced a short, subtitled video of my story for social media, linked here.

An excerpt: “In its report, Illicit Harvest, Complicit Goods, NGO Forest Trends found that at least 69% of tropical forests cleared for agricultural activities such as ranching and farmland between 2013 and 2019 was done in violation of national laws and regulations. The actual amount of illegally deforested land is immense during that period – 31.7 million hectares, or an area roughly the size of Norway.

“The report reveals the climate impact of this illegal agro-conversion is equally significant, making up 42% of greenhouse gas emissions of all tropical deforestation. The related emissions total of 2.7 gigatons of CO2 annually during the seven-year period is more than India’s fossil fuel emissions in 2018. The study notes that if tropical deforestation emissions tied to commercial agriculture were a country, it would rank third behind China and the U.S.”

The problem only gets worse year by year — even as climate and national leaders stress that there were few things more important in curbing global warming and protecting biodiversity than dramatically reducing deforestation — especially in places where it’s already illegal. The issue will need to be a high priority at the United Nations climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021.

Special thanks to Mongabay’s Morgan Erickson-Davis for her careful edit.

A fire burns in Sumatra, Indonesia. These fires are generally started by slash-and-burn clearing to turn forests into crop fields. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.
A fire burns in Sumatra, Indonesia. Fires here are often started by slash-and-burn clearing to turn forests into farmland. Image by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Environment  Mongabay: Leaders make bold climate pledges, but is it “all just smoke and mirrors?’: Critics

U.S. President Joe Biden at the Leaders Summit on Climate. Image courtesy of the White House.

Having covered six United Nations climate summits, dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014, I am all too familiar with the ambitious promises of climate action and the unified chorus of environmental-protection support from world leaders (until Trump). And then, of course, as my previous story out of British Columbia illustrates, nothing — a near-total lack of political will to prioritize nature, forests and biodiversity over anything resembling sacrifice or pushback against polluting industries and forestry interests.

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to change that. He has sent constant signals that he and his entire government intend to act on climate change in a broad and coordinated way not only to reassert US leadership after the reckless and embarrassing Trump years, but because of the science: we have less than 10 years to dramatically decarbonize G-20 economies to stave off the climate crisis that worsens every day, according to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.

In my first breaking news story since COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, I cover Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate and address the gap between climate-action promises made by the US, China, the UK, EU and others, and what still stands in the way of desperately needed real action. The Eurasia Review republished my story.

As Dave McGlinchey of the Woodwell Climate Research Center told me: “This summit could be a critical turning point in our fight against climate change, but we have seen ambitious goals before and we have seen them fall flat. Today’s commitments must be followed with effective implementation, and with transparent reporting and accurate carbon accounting.”

Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to increase his country’s carbon-reduction goals. But, as the leader of the British Columbia Green Party told me: “I know there is this perception of Canada and BC as progressive on climate and the environment, but we are not. We are massively subsidizing the oil and gas industry at the federal and provincial level…”

Environment  Mongabay: With British Columbia’s last old-growth at risk, government falters: Critics

Anzac Valley clear cuts in British Columbia’s boreal rainforest. What you see was once completely forested. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.earth.

In this story, I revisit a part of the world I wrote about last JuneBritish Columbia, its rare and vanishing towering old-growth forests in coastal and interior rainforests, and a progressive government’s promises to protect and preserve much of what’s left. Spoiler alert: it’s not.

“I know what they say [in the National Democratic Party], but I don’t know what this government’s long-term vision is for forestry,” Sonia Furstenau, BC’s Green Party leader, told me in an hour-long interview. “They are adhering to the status quo that is giving us the same outcomes we’ve had for decades. I was on the finance committee a few years ago. I spent a lot of time in small planes flying over the province. When you fly over British Columbia, it is a landscape of devastation. It’s heart-wrenching to see it from the sky, just how little intact forest there is left.”

My in-depth story reveals the sentiments some the top players in this environmental saga of unfilled political promises — leading forestry experts, political insiders, even a statement to Mongabay from BC’s forestry minister. It all adds up to an inescapable conclusion: despite the NDP adopting paradigm-shifting recommendations it commissioned in 2020, the majority government is still prioritizing logging and a growing wood-pellet industry over some of the last great old-growth forests, rare ecosystems and endangered species in North America.

As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upped his nation’s carbon-reduction ambition under the Paris Agreement, he will find it increasingly difficult to meet those goals by 2030 as his country’s most powerful carbon sinks are felled for lumber and wood pellets to be burned overseas in power plants.

British Columbia’s remaining old-growth forests aren’t only valuable for the carbon storage they provide; they are also cherished for their uniqueness, the biodiversity they harbor, and the awe they inspire. Image by Jakob Dulisse.