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Global leaders pledge to end deforestation, rein in methane

On the second day of a major United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, world leaders pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and U.S. President Joe Biden pushed to make the United States a leader on reducing methane emissions and halting global warming.

Tuesday's announcements may end up being the most significant achievements at the two-week gathering of world leaders for this Conference of the Parties, an annual gathering of nations that signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But this year's event is particularly important because it coincides with a five-year requirement for nations to deliver updated plans on how they plan to reduce carbon emissions. This year's meeting was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It has been billed as a crucial occasion to get nations, especially the biggest economies, to adopt drastic policies to slow global warming. Scientists warn that the planet is on track for catastrophic warming by the end of the century unless nations do much more to cut down on carbon emissions.

The first two days of these climate change gatherings are given over to government leaders. The rest of the conference will see negotiators discussing and arguing over the details of rules, pledges and policies. More announcements and breakthroughs are possible.

Tuesday saw world leaders take the stage and sing a similar tune about saving the planet by investing in new renewable energy technologies and finding ways to stop polluting the atmosphere.

Outside the conference hall, protesters chided politicians for not doing enough to stop global warming and behaving hypocritically for arriving on private jets, getting escorted to and from the convention by gas-guzzling limousines and pretending that innovative technologies are the answer.

Nonetheless, the leaders signed pledges by which their countries will be held to account for in the future.

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More than 100 nations, including Brazil and other major forest nations, said they will stop destructive deforestation by the end of the decade and take steps to repair past damage. This was seen as the day's biggest announcement.

Still, it remains only a pledge – as are most actions at these annual U.N. climate conferences – and certainly does not guarantee that forests around the planet will be saved from chainsaws in the future.

The countries signing the pledge account for more than 86% of the world’s forests and 12 nations said they would spend $12 billion between 2021 and 2025 on restoring degraded land, tackling wildfires and advancing the rights of indigenous peoples in developing countries, according to a British government news release.

Also, a number of nations and donors pledged to spent $1.5 billion to protect the forests of the Congo Basin, the second largest tropical rainforest in the world.

“The Congo Basin is the heart and lungs of the African continent,” said Ali Bongo, Gabon's president. “We cannot win the battle [on the climate] without the Congo rainforest.”

Deforestation is estimated to account for nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Forests around the world, and most dramatically the rainforests of the Amazon Basin, are cut down to make way for farming.

Tuesday also saw Biden trying to show his green credentials as he pledged to reduce U.S. methane emissions from 2020 levels by 30% by the end of the decade. His administration also announced the U.S. is rejoining a coalition of nations pushing hard to stop the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

“One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade is – to keep 1.5 degrees in reach – is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,” Biden said.

The White House first asked other nations to join the U.S. in pledging to reduce methane emissions in September and since then nearly 100 other nations have joined the coalition, Biden said. But other major economies – including China, Russia and India – have not joined the initiative.

Biden said cutting down on methane emissions can be done by doing more to detect leaks in oil and gas pipelines, capping abandoned oil wells and mines and reducing methane emissions from refineries and landfills.

He touted new rules being proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deal with leaks from pipelines. The oil and gas industry is estimated to be responsible for about 30% of methane emission in the U.S.

The Trump administration loosened methane emission rules and Biden's new attempts at tightening them may be opposed by the energy industry. Biden is selling his green policies as good for the economy by creating jobs and making American businesses cleaner and more cutting edge.

Additionally, Biden said the federal government will aim to get farmers and ranchers to cut down on methane emissions.

On Tuesday, the White House also said the U.S. was rejoining the so-called High Ambition Coalition, a group of nations at the climate talks that is pushing for more drastic action on climate change, such as a quick end to the use of coal and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.

The White House highlighted a number of other global climate initiatives it is pushing to advance renewable energy technologies, suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and get corporations to adopt green practices.

Biden also spoke glowingly about the Build Back Better World scheme. This initiative aims to round up public and private funds for so-called clean projects around the world. This effort, first announced in June during a Group of Seven gathering, is being touted by the U.S. and its allies as a pro-democracy and green countermeasure to China's global development fund called the Belt and Road Initiative.

He said the initiative will “deliver high-quality, sustainable infrastructure” to many parts of the world.

Although he did not mention China, Biden clearly was criticizing the Belt and Road Initiative when he said the Build Back Better World project will be “transparent” and without “debt traps and corruption.”

“By coming together to make a difference in the lives of people all around the world, we have to show – and I think we will show – that democracy is still the best way for delivering results,” Biden said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping opted to not make the trip to Glasgow and his absence and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin is hanging over the conference, leading many to surmise that no major breakthroughs on reducing carbon emissions will be reached.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the event, had hoped to get world leaders to commit to so-called net zero by 2050 but China and Russia have plans to get there by 2060. For the first time, India announced plans on Tuesday to reach net zero by 2070. Net zero is the definition for when a nation emits as many greenhouse gases as it keeps out of the atmosphere.

Despite widespread pessimism about the meeting's achievements, the conference can be seen as advancing efforts to slow global warming, expanding the use of renewable energy technologies and protecting nature.

Besides the pledge to stop deforestation by 2030, about 50 nations, including China and the U.S., agreed Tuesday to coordinate the introduction of new clean technologies in order to drive down costs.

“The aim is to make clean technologies the most affordable, accessible and attractive choice for all globally in each of the most polluting sectors by 2030,” the U.K. government said in a news release.

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Sandip Bhattacharya/CC BY 2.0

The trees of a redwood forest on Aptos Creek Trail in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Santa Cruz County, California. The 10,000-acre park boasts over 40 miles of hiking trails of varying difficulty and the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, also reachable by an easy hike.

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