COP26: Promise and limits of vows to rein in methane and protect forests

Stanford experts discuss strengths and weaknesses of major pledges at the UN climate summit that target methane emissions and deforestation.

World leaders at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, have vowed to halt deforestation and slash emissions of methane within a decade, taking on two big contributors to global warming.

An area of rainforest being cleared for a palm oil plantation. World leaders at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, have vowed to halt deforestation and slash emissions of methane within a decade. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Methane, though short-lived in our atmosphere, has 80 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide during the first 20 years after its release. Forest destruction unleashes carbon in the near term, while diminishing the capacity of these ecosystems to absorb greenhouse gases in the future. Ending it would be “akin to eliminating all carbon dioxide pollution from burning natural gas fuels today,” said Rob Jackson, professor of Earth system science at Stanford University.

More than 100 countries have now committed to reduce worldwide methane emissions 30 percent of 2020 levels by 2030. An even larger group of nations has pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and protect some 85 percent of Earth’s forests.

Below, Stanford experts explain why these pledges matter – and what actions and accountability will need to follow for them to help stabilize warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Inês Azevedo is associate professor of energy resources engineering in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). Chris Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Paul Furumo is a postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science. Eric Lambin is the George and Setsuko Ishiyama Provostial Professor at Stanford. Alicia Seiger is managing director of the Precourt Institute for Energy’s Sustainable Finance Initiative and deputy director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, as well as a lecturer at Stanford Law School.

Azevedo, Jackson and Lambin are also senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Azevedo and Jackson, who is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor, are also senior fellows at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

 

What is your overall reaction to the deals that have come out of COP26 so far?

Field: At the COPs I always look more at the change from the last meeting than at the specifics of the accomplishments. COP26 is dramatically different from COP25, in December 2019, when the United States had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and hopes for progress were meager. In Glasgow, ambition is high, and most countries are being serious about their own nationally determined contributions, as well as multilateral pledges. Because the Paris Agreement is non-binding, this kind of nudging, negotiating, leading by example, and shaming is the only real path forward.

Lambin: It is very encouraging that countries are committing to ambitious goals to decrease emissions. Of course, beyond the pledges, what will really count are the implementation actions that should follow immediately and be consistently implemented in the coming years. We have many reasons to be worried about the ability of some countries to keep their promises, but having these aspirational goals publicly announced is an important step as it creates greater accountability.

Seiger: Countries have waited so long to take meaningful action on climate that even big steps – and there were many in week one – risk falling short. The first two days with world leaders yielded big agreements to cut methane emissions and halt deforestation. But they lack commitment from key players and enforcement mechanisms that have advocates understandably skeptical.

Furumo: It is very encouraging to see how the issue of deforestation has gone from side event to one of the flagship deals made by heads of state at this year’s meeting. Previously, these commitments came from individual tropical forested nations seeking finance for conservation. Now we have a broader coalition of actors stepping up. I’m optimistic because the large consumer economies of the Global North like the U.S., EU and China – the main importers of deforestation – have also committed to halting forest loss. If this translates into domestic policies that account for tropical deforestation embedded in trade, like the European Union is pioneering, it could be an excellent opportunity to bridge supply-side and demand-side measures for controlling deforestation.

 

How significant is the pledge to reduce methane emissions 30 percent by 2030?

Jackson: I’m excited to see world leaders finally addressing methane pollution. Reducing methane emissions is the best lever we have for reducing global temperatures over the next few decades. Not to sound ungrateful, but a 30 percent reduction is only a step toward meeting the 1.5C global target; to do that, we need 50 percent or so reductions over the next few decades.

Azevedo: The pledge to cut emissions of methane by 30 percent is a very important one. The use of natural gas in several regions, such as in the U.S., increased tremendously in the last decade, which was beneficial to economics, and leads to less emissions than coal. But the extraction of oil and gas has the side effect of methane release.

 

What kinds of changes will be necessary to reach this goal, particularly in agriculture and oil and gas operations?

Jackson: We’ll need to clean up the super-emitters we find in oil and gas fields, where 10 percent or so of facilities emit more than half of emissions. We’ll have to tackle agricultural emissions too. Few people realize that a billion-plus cows globally emit as much methane as the oil and gas industry. Scientists are studying feed additives that substantially reduce cow burps. Eating less red meat is also something many people can do to improve their health and help the environment.

 

More than 120 countries have pledged to “halt and reverse forest loss and degradation” by 2030. What would this mean for the world’s prospects for keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures?

Field: Ending deforestation is important for three main reasons. First, carbon emissions from deforestation are a little more than 10 percent of the anthropogenic total. To get to zero, we need to address every source. Second, ending deforestation has incredible co-benefits for biodiversity, Indigenous communities and other ecosystem services. It is hard to find bigger impacts for the total amount these efforts might cost. And third, we need intact forests in the future to help maintain carbon sinks and sustain ecosystem services. Deforestation is a carbon source in the near term, and it is eroding the ability of the biosphere to sustain the background sink that is so important for the overall carbon budget.

Furumo: Nature-based climate solutions, like reversing deforestation, are critical to keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, but must be accompanied by systemic decarbonization of our industry, energy and transportation sectors. These cannot be viewed as “either/or” strategies – we need immediate action on both. We are already seeing how parts of the Amazon have switched from net carbon sinks to sources, and we are rapidly approaching thresholds beyond which large areas of the rainforest could shift to a drier, grassland ecosystem. If we fail to take meaningful action to protect our planet’s carbon sinks now, we will find ourselves in a deeper carbon hole to climb out of later, with fewer options on the table.

Lambin: It would be impossible to limit global temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels without controlling deforestation. Every year, tropical deforestation is responsible for more CO2 emissions than the entire European Union. If deforestation is halted, not only the emissions from cutting and burning trees will be eliminated, but the role of forests as a carbon sink will also be protected. The biosphere as a whole – land ecosystems and oceans – removes from the atmosphere close to 50 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions each year. Losing the contribution of forests to this carbon sink would greatly accelerate climate change. Conserving forests will also slow the loss of biodiversity, preserve key ecosystem services and safeguard Indigenous groups who depend on forests; thus there are many good reasons to do it.

Azevedo: The pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030 is extremely important, and now the devil will be in the details for implementation, monitoring and any sort of enforcement measures. It is not entirely new, as it followed the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, but it is even more ambitious than its predecessor.

 

This is not the first time that countries have promised to cut emissions or end deforestation. How optimistic are you that these pledges will be fulfilled, and why?

Field: I’m optimistic that we have the technical ability to detect and assess deforestation, and actors around the world are eager to make progress. We don’t need to stop deforestation in every country immediately to make a dent. What we need instead is a philosophy that lets us target the places where conditions are ripe for progress and use those to build the case that avoiding deforestation can create win-win options. And based on that case, the agenda can be extended to other countries as conditions allow.

Jackson: This is the first global methane pledge. I’m hopeful countries, including the United States, will follow through on it. Cleaning up methane pollution will not only help fight climate change but also reduce emissions of other hydrocarbons, such as toxic benzene. I wish Australia, China and Russia would also sign the pledge; they’re notable holdouts so far.

 

What will be some of the biggest challenges to ending deforestation while “delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation,” all within a decade?

Seiger: The biggest challenges will likely mimic those that we saw with the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which was intended to transfer wealth to developing countries by compensating them for emissions-reducing projects. There will be challenges with respect to additionality, measurement, verification, permanence and gaming. I’d like to think CDM’s failures are in the past and that advances in satellite data and sensors will enable better monitoring and accountability. But complex questions remain over how to account for country-level versus non-state ledgers and how governments manage an equitable distribution of the costs and benefits of the transition to a net zero economy.

Furumo: The main challenge to ending deforestation while delivering sustainable development goals is that there is no single solution. Instead, we need to tailor our strategies to each setting, and be more deliberate about where and when certain policies are introduced. For instance, supply chain initiatives that rely on performance-based payments – “carrots” – will be more successful when introduced after a set of regulatory and legal standards is already in place – “sticks” – along with the institutional capacity for monitoring and enforcement. The key to accelerating progress is more coordinated policymaking that leverages the contributions being made at different scales.

Lambin: Conserving forests without impoverishing and evicting poor rural communities and Indigenous groups from their land will require major investments in rural development, sustainable agriculture and land rights. Controlling forest fires in remote places such as Siberia is incredibly challenging given the rapidly changing climate. How to enforce land use regulations in countries with a limited state capacity or with populist political leaders should keep us awake at night as, currently, a large fraction of tropical deforestation is illegal. Ensuring that the signatories of this declaration understand they are embarked on a difficult journey that will require radical actions and sustained political will to conserve forests will be key. And the list goes on.

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Media Contacts

Josie Garthwaite, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: (650) 497-0947, josieg@stanford.edu

Inês Azevedo, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: iazevedo@stanford.edu

Chris Field, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 823-5326, cfield@stanford.edu

Rob Jackson, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: (650) 497-5841, rob.jackson@stanford.edu, jacksonlab.stanford.edu

Alicia Seiger, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 725-9092, aseiger@stanford.edu

Eric Lambin, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: elambin@stanford.edu

Paul Furumo, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: pfurumo@stanford.edu, (939) 227-8899