More than 100 countries pledged Tuesday to end deforestation in the coming decade — a promise that experts say would be critical to limiting climate change but one that has been made and broken before.
Britain hailed the commitment as the first big achievement of the U.N. climate conference known as COP26 taking place this month in the Scottish city of Glasgow. But campaigners say they need to see the details to understand its full impact.
The U.K. government said it has received commitments 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.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “with today’s unprecedented pledges, we will have a chance to end humanity’s long history as nature’s conqueror, and instead become its custodian.”
Forests are important ecosystems and provide a critical way of absorbing carbon dioxide — the main greenhouse gas — from the atmosphere. Trees are one of the world's major so-called carbon sinks, or places where carbon is stored.
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.
“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.
Experts cautioned that similar agreements in the past have failed to be effective.
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.”
Still, Luciana Tellez Chavez, an environmental researcher at Human Right Watch, said the agreement contains “quite a lot of really positive elements."
The EU, Britain and the U.S. are making progress on restricting imports of goods linked to deforestation and human rights abuses “and it’s really interesting to see China and Brazil signing up to a statement that suggest that’s a goal,” she said.
But she 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.
The Brazilian 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 and threats of divestment in recent years. But critics cautioned that its promises should be viewed with skepticism, and the country's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is an outspoken proponent of developing the Amazon.
About 130 world leaders are in Glasgow for what host Britain says is the last realistic chance to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels — the goal the world set in Paris six years ago.
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.
A 'Doomsday Device': Boris Johnson
On Monday, the leaders heard stark warnings from officials and activists alike about those dangers. Britain's Johnson described global warming as “a doomsday device.” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that humans are “digging our own graves.” And Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, warned leaders not to “allow the path of greed and selfishness to sow the seeds of our common destruction.”
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II urged the leaders “to rise above the politics of the moment, and achieve true statesmanship.”
“We are doing this not for ourselves but for our children and our children’s children, and those who will follow in their footsteps,” she said in a video message played at a Monday evening reception in the Kelvingrove museum.
The 95-year-old monarch had planned to attend the meeting, but she had to cancel the trip after doctors said she should rest and not travel.
The British government said Monday it saw positive signs that world leaders understood the gravity of the situation. On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden was due to present his administration's 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.
But campaigners say the world’s biggest carbon emitters need to do much more. Earth has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). Current projections based on planned emissions cuts over the next decade are for it to hit 2.7C (4.9F) by the year 2100.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg told a rally outside the high-security climate venue that the talk inside was just “ blah blah blah" and would achieve little.
“Change is not going to come from inside there,” she told some of the thousands of protesters who have come to Glasgow to make their voices heard. "That is not leadership, this is leadership.”
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