While I didn’t travel to Dubai in 2023 to cover the 28th UN climate summit, my editor and I did plan a story to coincide with the come. Here it is. It’s a story I got turned on to at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago — the role climate litigation was playing around the world in an attempt to force climate action and emission reductions from countries, states, regions, and corporations. All summit agreements, including the historic Paris Agreement, are voluntary and carry no enforcement provisions when climate-related promises are invariably broken.
Thousands of lawsuits are in the pipeline globally, especially in the United States, and there have been dramatic wins in a variety of courtrooms from Montana to Amsterdam. But as my story explains, expecting lawsuits to quickly enforce necessary climate mitigation amidst a climate crisis is a longshot at best. As one of my legal sources told me, “There’s a lot of energy and activity going into these (legal) actions, but it’s too early to say whether it moves the needle.”
Thanks to my good friend John Knox — a Wake Forest law school professor, an expert on international environmental law, and a former UN special representative on human rights and climate change — for connecting me to several expert sources in New York and London for this story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 storycame 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.
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.
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.