With methane and forest deals, climate summit offers hope after gloomy start
By Jim Tankersley, Katie Rogers and Lisa Friedman
World leaders gathered at a crucial climate summit secured new agreements earlier this week to end deforestation and reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, building momentum as the conference prepared to shift to a more grueling two weeks of negotiations on how to avert the planet’s catastrophic warming.
Capping off two days of speeches and meetings, President Joe Biden Tuesday said the United States pledged to be a “partner” with vulnerable countries confronting climate change, while expressing confidence that his own domestic climate agenda is on track to pass Congress despite the wobbling of a key Senate Democrat this week.
Biden told reporters the meeting had reestablished the United States as a leader on what he has called an existential threat to humanity, saying America would keep raising its climate ambitions and that his engagement on the issue had drawn thanks from other heads of state.
He also reproached President Xi Jinping of China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, along with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, for not attending the summit.
“We showed up. We showed up,” Biden said at a news conference at the United Nations summit on climate change, known as COP26. “The fact that China is trying to assert, understandably, a new role in the world as a world leader, not showing up? Huh. The single most important thing that’s gotten the attention of the world is climate.”
The most consequential agreements reached Tuesday came in areas where Biden said the United States was poised to move aggressively: reducing methane emissions and protecting the world’s forests.
The Biden administration announced Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency intends to limit the methane coming from about 1 million existing oil and gas rigs across the United States, as part of a larger climate-focused plan to protect tropical forests and a push to speed up clean technology.
Soon after that announcement, administration officials said that 105 countries had signed the Global Methane Pledge, a commitment to reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030, including half of the world’s top 30 methane-emitting countries, and that they expected the list to grow.
Notably absent from those signing on, however, were some major methane polluters such as China, Russia, Australia and India.
Leaders of more than 100 countries also pledged Tuesday to end deforestation by 2030, agreeing to a sweeping accord aimed at protecting some 85% of the world’s forests, which are crucial to absorbing carbon dioxide and slowing the rise in global temperatures.
Millions of acres of forests are being lost to global demand for soy, palm oil, timber and cattle, most notably in Brazil, which has seen a surge in deforestation of the Amazon since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019. Brazil is among the signatories of the agreement.
Boris Johnson, the British prime minister who has played host and master of ceremonies for the gathering of leaders, called countries to action on forests by invoking a horror movie. “Let’s end this great chain saw massacre,” he said.
The plan is focused on an effort to reduce financial incentives to cut down forests, with 12 governments committing $12 billion and private companies pledging $7 billion to protect and restore forests.
But some environmental organizations criticized Tuesday’s agreement, saying it would allow deforestation to continue and noting that similar efforts have failed in the past.
At an event unveiling the methane pledge, Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission and a partner in hosting the event, framed the agreement as one of the most effective ways countries around the world could quickly begin fighting the effects of climate change.
Emissions of methane, which is produced from oil and natural gas operations, livestock and landfills, can warm the atmosphere 80 times as fast as carbon dioxide in the short term.
Biden said the United States was prepared to meet the methane goal and could “probably go beyond that” by 2030.
The American Petroleum Institute, a trade group that represents the oil and natural gas industry, called the EPA proposal “sweeping” and pledged to work with the agency to “help shape a final rule that is effective, feasible and designed to encourage further innovation.”
Before he left Glasgow Tuesday to return to Washington on a late-evening flight, Biden hailed progress on multiple fronts from the second day of meetings with heads of state, including initiatives to reduce emissions from agriculture. John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy on climate change, said he expected new financial commitments to fulfill a long-delayed promise to provide $100 billion a year in aid for developing countries to fight and adapt to global warming.
There were private commitments as well: Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people on the planet, pledged $2 billion to restore natural habitats and transform food systems to reduce their footprint and make them more sustainable in a warming world.
The pledges on Tuesday offered glimmers of some concrete progress after a pessimistic start, which included repeated warnings that the world was running out of time to solve an existential crisis for humans — along with anger from leaders of developing countries who called on wealthy countries to do more, faster, to reduce the fossil fuel emissions that are warming the planet.
Yet the hardest work at the conference will begin after the top leaders have left for home.
Over the next week and a half, diplomats will have to hammer out rules around international carbon markets and figure out how to deliver on a still-unmet promise from more than a decade ago to deliver $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor countries pivot away from fossil fuels and prepare for the impact of climate change.
Most critically, vulnerable countries are pressing major emitting nations to agree to raise their climate targets each year in order to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above levels before the Industrial Revolution.