As leaders make bold climate pledges, critics say it’s ‘all just smoke and mirrors’

Forty nations — producers of 80% of annual carbon emissions — made pledges of heightened climate ambition last week at US President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate but activists pointed to the abysmal lack of action by those nations.

Liaoning Province China Coal Plant
Coal-fired electricity plant in Liaoning Province, China. Image: billperry, CC BY-SA 2.0

World leaders took turns on Earth Day pledging increased ambition to battle climate change during President Joe Biden’s virtual Leaders Summit on Climate. But environmentalists — weary of gaping policy loopholes, conservation lapses, and the utter failure of governments to meet Paris Climate Agreement carbon reduction targets — called loudly for the gap to close now between promises and real climate action.

Yes, eco-advocates are thrilled the US is again engaged in climate leadership after four years in which the Trump Administration mocked and undermined climate efforts. But in a flood of statements, the impatience and frustration among activists were as evident as record warming, rising sea levels, and increasingly deadly storms, wildfires and drought.

“The Biden administration’s new climate target to halve emissions by 2030 is more ambitious than any previous commitment by the US government,” said Brandon Wu, ActionAid USA’s director of policy and campaigns. “Yet it is still deeply insufficient to meet the realities of the climate crisis.”

Wu and others called on Biden to up US emission reduction pledges to 70 per cent by 2030 over a 2005 baseline, and to vastly increase its monetary support to help developing nations adapt to, and recover from, escalating climate impacts. The US, they noted, remains the historical leader in producing greenhouse gas emissions; it must do more.

Dave McGlinchey, chief of external affairs for the Woodwell Climate Research Center, added: “This summit could be a critical turning point in our fight against climate change, but we have seen ambitious goals before and we have seen them fall flat. Today’s commitments must be followed with effective implementation, and with transparent reporting and accurate carbon accounting.”

And while no president in US history has prioritised climate action across the entire federal government as Biden has, plans remain vague on how the administration’s many goals will be accomplished — especially with Senate Republicans vowing to block any meaningful legislation.

With leaders from 40 countries, representing 80 per cent of annual global carbon emissions, participating in Biden’s summit, heads of state were eager to wax eloquent about the need to cut emissions, protect forests and biodiversity — even as they failed to explain their nations’ failure to meet Paris Climate Agreement targets, while their peoples have been increasingly ravaged by climate change in the years since the 2015 signing of the accord.

China to phase out coal, or not?

With the US and China still at odds on trade, technology and human rights, Biden claimed a small victory in getting the current world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter to participate in the two-day summit. Yesterday, President Xi Jinping promised his country would “strictly limit increasing coal consumption” in the next five years with a goal of phasing out coal by 2031.

But is that realistic, let alone possible? China’s demand for energy — 58 per cent of which came from coal in 2019 — is rising. And even its historic investments in wind and solar energy are more than offset by its continued investments in new coal-fired power plants.

China brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired facilities into operation in 2020, more than three times what was brought online elsewhere in the world, according to Yale Environment 360. Complicating Xi’s pledge, a staggering 247 gigawatts of coal power is now in planning or development in China — nearly six times Germany’s entire coal-fired capacity, a fact the Chinese president failed to note on Earth Day.

How exactly, critics wonder, does China simultaneously shrink its unparalleled coal consumption in 10 years and still meet the energy demands of 1.4 billion people?

Asia, Europe and forest biomass

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, presents another conundrum. After the Fukishima disaster of 2011, the country closed most of its 54 zero-carbon nuclear power plants and replaced that energy generation mostly with fossil fuels, primarily coal.

Despite that, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Biden that his country would cut emissions by 46 per cent below 2013 levels by the end of the decade, without explicitly stating how it will get there.

South Korea had already pledged to get its emissions to net zero by 2050, but on Earth Day promised it would stop financing new overseas coal plants. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to reduce his country’s greenhouse gas emissions by an astonishing 78 per cent by 2035. And in a marathon-negotiating session earlier this week, the European Union pledged to reduce emissions among its member states by 55 per cent by 2030.

These are impressive new goals, set by some of the planet’s biggest carbon polluters. Impressive until one looks behind the pledges at the numbers game played to get there.

Each of these countries, along with the EU, is shifting a portion of its energy generation mix to burning wood instead of coal, thus putting intense pressure on forests and ecosystems in the southeastern US, western Canada, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia as they meet their voracious demand for wood pellets to produce electricity.

These nations do actually stand a chance of meeting their emissions targets — but not in reality, and only on paper, due to a long-standing loophole in international carbon accounting.

A never-corrected error in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 defined wood, or biomass, as a renewable energy source on par with zero-carbon wind and solar. As such, the emissions from burning forest biomass for energy go legally uncounted at the smokestack.

In the UK, for example, biomass now accounts for 12 per cent of energy generation, leading to a significant undercounting of the country’s actual emissions. That undercount is also occurring across the EU, and increasingly in Japan and South Korea. The trouble is, nature knows these nations are cheating, and so do environmentalists, even though much of the public still remains unaware of the harmful policy flaw.

In an April 20 letter to Biden and EU leaders, some 70 European climate advocates of the Forest Defenders Alliance urged the European Union to close the loophole, which they argue is driving global deforestation when we can least afford to lose forest carbon sinks:

“As the European Commission’s own Joint Research Centre has warned, burning forest biomass is not carbon neutral because burning emits carbon simultaneously, while forests need decades, if not centuries to regrow to offset emissions.”

“We have to actually reduce emissions,” said Woodwell’s McGlinchey. “If Europe achieves so-called carbon neutrality by burning wood pellets from US forests, and not accounting for the emissions from that deforestation, then it’s all just smoke and mirrors. We are at a critical juncture in climate policy — we need real and effective solutions and we need them immediately.”

Oh, Canada!

Among the G-20, perhaps no country came in for more intense criticism from climate activists this week for its climate ambition than Canada. No sooner had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boldly announced that his country would up its previous target of 30 per cent reduced emissions to 40-45 per cent above 2005 levels by 2030, than critics began to howl.

“Canada not only needs to improve its climate targets, but also pass strong legislation to meet those targets,” said Catherine Abreu, Climate Action Network Canada’s executive director. “Canada’s proposed Net-Zero Accountability Act, currently stalled in Parliament, must be strengthened as it contains more of a duty to report than a duty to act.”

As Mongabay reported this week, Trudeau’s emission-reduction goals are not being helped by British Columbia. BC Premier John Horgan and his majority party adopted aggressive recommendations last fall to preserve the province’s shrinking stands of tall, old-growth forest, but has failed to enact those policies as logging continues and enormous stores of carbon are potentially lost forever. Canada is fast becoming a supplier of wood pellets to the world, helping send carbon skyward thru the accounting loophole.

“I know there is this perception of Canada and BC as progressive on climate and the environment, but we are not,” said Sonia Furstenau, leader of BC’s Green Party. “We are massively subsidising the oil and gas industry at the federal and provincial level… We are racing in the wrong direction as a province. The last stands of old growth, which are our best chance to absorb and store [atmospheric] carbon, are being cut down under the government’s watch.”

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is well aware of the politics of climate policy — the give-and-take, the sleight of hand, the often-empty rhetoric of global leaders. But, basking in the glow of yesterday’s new national pledges, she remains optimistic about meeting the Paris Agreement goal of holding global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above a 1900 baseline to avoid climate catastrophe.

“We congratulate the commitments shown by several nations at the [Biden] summit,” she said, “and I urge all nations to carry forth this leadership and momentum to the crucial COP26 [UN Climate Summit] negotiations scheduled for this November in Glasgow.”

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