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.
I learned in early September from a close friend and good Catholic that Pope Francis would release an addendum to Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. That historic and landmark encyclical on the defense of the planet, excoriated the greed, consumption and bad policy decisions that were driving climate change and damaging “God’s creation.” I knew immediately that I would be returning to a favorite beat of mine, the intersection of faith and climate action. With Laudate Deum, just 13 pages (compared to 180 pages in Laudato Si), Francis emerges again as perhaps the strongest, most authoritative voice in the world for aggressive environmental protection while unsparingly identifying those who are standing in the way.
This story here reports the breaking news from the document, release October 4 by the Vatican on the Catholic feast day of St. Francis, the pope’s nature-loving namesake. I will follow soon with an in-depth global reaction to Laudate Deum and an analysis of how faith leaders are — and are not — meeting the pope’s challenge to protect natural places, reduce consumption and pushback against political leaders who seek to enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of their communities, the poor and the planet itself.
From Laudate Deum, the pope writes: “Eight years have passed since I published the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, when I wanted to share with all of you, my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet, my heartfelt concerns about the care of our common home. Yet, with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”
This story herebegan about a year ago with an email from Roger Smith, a forest advocate for the NGO Mighty Earth in Tokyo, Japan. He had been following my biomass coverage focusing on the United Kingdom, Europe, Southeastern United States and British Columbia, and wanted me to know that biomass energy was growing in Japan. Would I write about it?
The short answer was yes. Roger and I spoke for more than an hour not long after he reached out. I intended to do the story during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November. But other stories piled up, time flew by, and even though I met the chief of staff of Japan’s energy minister, who promised to arrange an interview — after the climate summit — it didn’t happen. Fortunately, an American freelance journalist in Japan, Annelise Gisebert, pitched a biomass story to Mongabay, and my editor Glenn Scherer saw an opportunity for us work together.
It took more than a month of reporting, worked in around classes and grading, and a 13-hour time difference for Annelise and me to arrange interviews and talk about our reporting. But we finally compiled the information we needed for the first in-depth, Asia-focused stories on biomass that have been written at Mongabay. Annelise’s story, linked here, ran a week after mine.
Essentially, I wrote about the demand side for biomass in Japan and South Korea, while Annelise focused on where all the additional wood is coming from to meet Asian demand. What’s clear is that as both countries look to generate more energy from wood, more trees from intact forests will fall around the world at the very time we can least afford to lose their ecosystem services during this escalating climate crisis.
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.
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.
That’s not what hope looks like, is it? But those empty chairs, as soon as I saw them outside the main plenary hall at #COP25 in Madrid, I recognized a metaphor for this disturbing and deeply disappointing climate summit (story linked here).
Listen to Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, whom I interviewed after a panel discussion in which he participated:
“In the last 10 years following the climate talks, none have never been as bleak and disappointing as this conference. The science is staring us in the face and school children are taking to the streets in their millions, and yet at the global climate summit countries are blocking progress and watering down climate action. It’s disgraceful and politicians are simply not doing their job of protecting the planet.
“We need to see countries committing to new and improved climate plans next year. That regular review and ratchet mechanism was what made the Paris agreement an effective tool for reducing emissions, but countries are dragging their feet and they are putting us all in danger.”
My final story from my sixth climate summit details what happened and didn’t happen, and in the final section, explains why. It all comes down to leadership. And until the U.S. reengages in this process in a positive, not destructive way, hopes for the Paris Agreement coming close to achieving its climate mitigation goals will be remote.