A pledge to reduce methane emissions. Two programmes to accelerate the innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies. A pact to end deforestation by 2030. As many heads of state prepare to fly home and leave their delegates to sort out the negotiations’ technicalities, a flurry of agreements were announced today at COP26.
Nearly 90 countries have joined the Global Methane Pledge, a pact to cut methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade (from 2020 levels), jointly promoted by the EU and the US. Brazil, one of the world's five biggest emitters of methane, is among the new signatories. Yet China, Russia and India, also top emitters, have declined to sign up.
As a greenhouse gas, methane has a much higher heat-trapping potential than CO2, yet breaks down faster. Its emissions come mostly from leaky oil and gas infrastructure, livestock farming and landfill sites. Experts say that cutting methane could help the world avoid 0.3C of warming by 2040. It is ‘one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming,’ commented EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who presented the initiative together with Joe Biden.
The US president was also with UK prime minister Boris Johnson at the launch of The Breakthrough Agenda, which aims to make clean technologies ‘accessible, affordable and attractive’ for all nations by 2030. The deal, signed by the 40 countries that make up 70 per cent of the globe’s economic activity, will see ‘countries and businesses dramatically scale and speed up the development and deployment of clean energy technologies and drive down costs this decade,’ Johnson said.
The idea is fantastic. Making clean power the most affordable and reliable option for all countries; producing near-zero emissions steel; providing the world with ‘green hydrogen’; having sustainable agriculture the most attractive option for farmers everywhere. It is a little less clear how the Agenda will accomplish these monumental tasks by 2030. Certainly though, scientific and technological innovation are key to decarbonisation.
Von der Leyen announced the EU Catalyst Programme, a €1bn public and private investment scheme meant to accelerate the development of new climate technologies, such as green hydrogen. The programme was launched in partnership with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (present today at COP26), who also contributed to the Breakthrough Agenda.
Among this flood of multilateral agreements, the best world-saving initiative is (at least in theory) the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use. It reads: ‘We commit to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030,’ and it has collected the signatures of 110 countries. Among them, Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – home to a majority of the planet’s rainforests.
But can Brazil really be trusted? This morning, at COP26, the Brazilian delegation were scheduled to hold a press conference on the subject of ‘strong environmental defence’, but no one showed up. Not to mention the fact that President Jair Bolsonaro has openly shunned the Glasgow conference. ‘Brazil is a green powerhouse. When it comes to fighting climate change, we have always been part of the solution, not the problem,’ he said two days ago - a frankly ridiculous pronouncement.
Deforestation in the Amazon has skyrocketed during his tenure. Brazil had committed to reducing deforestation to 3,925 square kilometres per year by 2020. Last year though, an estimated 10,800 square kilometres of tropical forest were felled.
The World Meteorological Organisation has just revealed that the Amazonian region, which used to be a sink of carbon, has become a source of carbon dioxide. It is awful news. Deforestation is pushing the rainforest toward an irreversible tipping point that, if crossed, could cause the entire forest to dry out, releasing carbon and disrupting rainfall patterns across South America. There would be no way back.
General elections are scheduled to be held in Brazil on 2 October next year and Bolsonaro should go, but the risk hanging over the Amazon’s destiny is so high that even halting deforestation completely by 2030 could be too late.
All of the announcements are key to keeping the temperature increase below the recommended 1.5°C but medium-term pledges like these usually get forgotten as time goes by. Take the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary and non-binding agreement on deforestation, signed by 40 governments in 2014. It aimed to halve deforestation by 2020, and halt it by 2030. Since then, deforestation has only increased.
Today’s flurry of agreements could mean that major countries are getting serious about tackling the climate crisis. These pacts could also turn out to be historical milestones. But the real success of the Scottish summit is still to be decided, away from the limelight of presidents and prime ministers and their penchant for photo opportunities.