By Frank Jordans and Jill Lawless
World leaders promised to protect Earth's forests, cut methane emissions and help South Africa wean itself off coal at the U.N. climate summit Tuesday — part of a flurry of deals intended to avert catastrophic global warming.
Britain hailed the commitment by more than 100 countries to end deforestation in the coming decade as the first big achievement of the conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow, known as COP26 — but experts noted such promises have been made and broken before.
More than 120 world leaders were heading home after two days in which they received stark warnings about the state of the Earth from Johnson, naturalist David Attenborough, Queen Elizabeth II and — most powerfully — the people of countries and regions already facing climate upheaval.
Johnson said at a news conference that it was important to “guard against false hope,” but added that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of the talks. The conference aims to keep the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — the goal set at the Paris climate conference six years ago.
Johnson had a message for negotiators from around the globe who will strain over the next 10 days to turn politicians' climate promises into reality: “The eyes of the populations of the world are on you.”
The U.K. said it has received pledges from leaders representing more than 85% of the world’s forests to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Among them are several countries with massive forests, including Brazil, China, Colombia, Congo, Indonesia, Russia and the United States.
More than $19 billion in public and private funds have been pledged toward the plan.
Experts and observers said fulfilling the pledge will be critical to limiting climate change, but many noted that such grand promises have been made before — to little effect.
“Signing the declaration is the easy part,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Twitter. “It is essential that it is implemented now for people and planet.”
Alison Hoare, a senior research fellow at political think tank Chatham House, said world leaders promised in 2014 to end deforestation by 2030, “but since then deforestation has accelerated across many countries.”
Forests are important ecosystems and provide a critical way of absorbing carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas — from the atmosphere. But the value of wood as a commodity and the growing demand for agricultural and pastoral land are leading to widespread and often illegal felling of forests, particularly in developing countries. Indigenous peoples are often among the hardest hit.
“We are delighted to see Indigenous peoples mentioned in the forest deal announced today,” said Joseph Itongwa Mukumo, an Indigenous Walikale and activist from Congo.
He called for governments and businesses to recognize the effective role Indigenous communities play in preventing deforestation.
“These are billions in investment towards environmental preservation, but it’s very difficult for this money to reach Indigenous communities, reach traditional communities,” said Chief Ninawa, a leader of the Huni Kui people from the Amazon attending the summit.
Some campaigners said the forests pledge was a step forward. Luciana Tellez Chavez, an environmental researcher at Human Right Watch, said there were “quite a lot of really positive elements.”
She said it was positive to see China and Brazil pledging to protect forests, but noted that Brazil's public statements don't yet line up with its domestic policies and warned that the deal could be used by some countries to “greenwash” their image.
Brazil's government has been eager to project itself as a responsible environmental steward in the wake of surging deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal wetlands that sparked global outrage in recent years. Critics caution that its promises should be viewed with skepticism, and the country's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an outspoken proponent of developing the Amazon.
On Tuesday, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden launched a plan to reduce methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. The announcement was part of a broader effort with the European Union and other nations to reduce overall methane emissions worldwide by 30% by 2030.
Clamping down on methane flaring and leaks from oil wells and gas pipelines — the focus of the Biden plan — is considered one of the easiest ways to cut emissions. Reducing methane from agriculture, in particular by belching cows, is a trickier matter.
Helen Mountford, a climate expert at the World Resources Institute, said the agreement “sets a strong floor in terms of the ambition we need globally.”
Separately, the U.S., Britain, France and Germany announced a plan to provide $8.5 billion in loans and grants over five years to help South Africa phase out coal.
South Africa gets about 90% of its electricity from coal-fired plants, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
But campaigners say the world’s biggest carbon emitters need to do much more. Earth has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2F). Current projections based on planned emissions cuts over the next decade are for it to hit 2.7C (4.9F) by the year 2100.
Increased warming over coming decades would melt much of the planet’s ice, raise global sea levels and greatly increase the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather, scientists say.
“I don’t think that activists are being heard here," said Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a climate activist from the Philippines.
“We have to make sure that we really rally together and make sure that we’re so loud that the world leaders can’t keep ignoring us,” she said. "Because every fraction of a degree, every step towards the right direction is what matters here.”
Some 25,000 people are expected to attend the vast COP26 gathering, from heads of state to activists and charity workers. Attendees on Tuesday included Leonardo DiCaprio, who drew a crowd of journalists and fans. The Hollywood star, who is a U.N. climate change representative, visited an exhibition highlighting the role plants can play in providing solutions to climate change.
As countries announced major initiatives, those attendees appeared ready to do their small part: For a few minutes Tuesday, the vegetarian version of haggis — a Scottish delicacy typically made with sheep's lungs — was sold out. It was outselling the traditional version, servers said — perhaps unsurprising in a crowd well aware of the impact of meat-eating on the climate.
Updated on November 2, 2021, at 3:37 p.m. ET with additional details.