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At climate talks, countries agree to halt deforestation and cut methane emissions

The second day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) brought sweeping pledges to end deforestation and curb methane emissions. 

In the summit’s first major deal, announced on Tuesday, leaders of more than 100 countries signed a pact to end deforestation by 2030. The signatories include countries that account for about 86% of the world’s forests — including Brazil, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the United States. They committed to conserving forest ecosystems and accelerating restoration, incentivizing sustainable agriculture, and adopting trade and development policies that do not drive deforestation. 

“This is a significant moment, like a ‘Paris moment’ for forests,” said Yadvinder Malhi, a professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford.

The agreement, called the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land, is backed by about $19 billion in public and private funds, including up to $9 billion from the United States; $1.7 billion is earmarked for Indigenous groups. At the same time, more than 30 financial institutions vowed to end investments that drive deforestation in commodities including beef, soy, and palm oil. 

But the plan should do more to reduce demand for these commodities, John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace told The Guardian. “Without tackling the drivers of destruction it’s like whistling in the wind to think cash alone will work. Cattle and soya for animal feed are wiping out the Amazon and savannahs of Brazil. The industrial meat industry, like its counterpart in the fossil fuel sector, needs to come to an end,” he said.

Morgan Gillespy, Global Director of the Food and Land Use Coalition welcomed the declaration, calling it “unprecedented.” But she underscored the urgent need to turn these commitments into action, noting that the new pledge is based on a failed 2014 effort, The New York Declaration on Forests, that aimed to end deforestation by 2020.

Tuesday also marked the official launch of the Global Methane Pledge, a joint effort between the U.S. and the European Union that aims to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent but shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, is to blame for about a quarter of current warming. Cutting methane emissions is considered “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against climate change, since it will help avert some near-term warming and is easier to address than carbon dioxide emissions.

Notably, some of the biggest emitters of methane — Russia, India, and China — have not signed the pledge. 

The Biden administration’s plan to cut emissions of methane in the U.S. includes new regulations for the oil and gas industry which is the largest domestic emitter of methane. It will also crack down on methane emissions from landfills with an emphasis on reducing food waste. 

But while agriculture — primarily meat and dairy production — accounts for half of U.S. methane emissions, the strategy includes only voluntary, incentive-based measures for the farm sector, such as improved feed for animals and more methane digesters that capture emissions and use them as energy. Critics say this approach gives the livestock industry a “free pass,” and have urged the EPA to regulate methane emissions from meat and dairy producers. 

“The Biden administration’s strategy to use public spending to prop up an expensive factory farm gas system creates perverse incentives to produce more manure, and more water and air pollution for rural communities,” said Ben Lilliston, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s director of rural strategies and climate change.

Calling methane digesters “industry-friendly Band-Aids,” Mitch Jones, policy director of Food & Water Watch, said, “Factory farm biogas and carbon trading schemes are false solutions that distract from the root cause of the industrialized agriculture industry’s pollution problem — the continued concentrated corporate control of our food system.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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