Hope old and new: COP26 focused on two largely unsung climate solutions

  • COP26 ended with wide disagreement as to its degree of success. But two major climate solution discussions that happened at COP could yield important results if nations and the international community commit to them.
  • A great deal of attention at COP26 focused on the key role Indigenous communities living in tropical nations could play in protecting and sustaining carbon-sequestering forests on their ancestral lands. But Indigenous peoples can only play that role if fully supported by tropical countries and the international community.
  • A new study found that Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) now hold and use tropical lands nearly equivalent in size to the continental U.S., but have legally recognized rights to less than half that area. To curb climate change, these ancestral lands need to be fully restored to the IPLCs, with land rights vigorously protected by governments.
  • Another potential solution, atmospheric methane removal, was well discussed at COP26 and has resulted in plans for upcoming meetings between scientists and U.S. and Canadian policymakers. Methane removal is still in the experimental stage, and needs significant government funding to take it to the next level: field testing.

As consensus hardens around whether COP26, the just-concluded U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, was a middling success or abject failure, two promising approaches to solving the climate crisis are emerging from the aftermath — one concept that is quite old, and another that is very new. If backed by the international community with action and funds, not just promises, both could curb climate change in the decades ahead.

The first approach, as old as humanity’s relationship with nature itself, would empower the Indigenous peoples who first inhabited the tropical forests which are so crucial to pulling carbon from the atmosphere, storing it long-term, and bending the warming curve.

The other approach, as new and groundbreaking as any scientific research anywhere, offers a potential technological fix known as atmospheric methane removal, an engineered climate strategy that could slow warming, and even cool the planet, if promising laboratory results can be successfully field tested and then implemented on a global scale fast enough.

The first idea received major attention at COP26, the second flew largely under the media radar. But on land and in the sky — both could be game changers in holding global temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit), or below, compared to pre-industrial levels — the Paris Agreement target further emphasized in the final Glasgow accords.

Those two approaches in summary: First, the return of land tenure and land rights over as much existing tropical forest as possible to Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs). And second, provide significant research funding into the process of oxidizing and removing atmospheric methane — by far one of the most potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

Indigenous peoples the world over know well how to prevent deforestation; they’ve been managing forests sustainability for centuries. They only need to be given back control of their ancestral lands, and receive adequate recognition and resources from government to assure protection.

In contrast, methane removal technology is so new that it remains a mere glimmer of hope in U.S. and British labs, which are awaiting millions in funding from governments to test the biggest, most promising ideas for scalable realization.

Indigenous leaders and activists gather in the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, during COP26. The climate protest march attracted 100,000 people. The hope is that the international community is finally taking significant action to empower Indigenous communities both financially and politically in order to conserve the world’s remaining tropical forests. Image courtesy of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Indigenous breakthrough moment in Glasgow

“It’s inside of us, it’s our tradition and way of life,” Valeria Paye, an Indigenous leader of the Kaxuyana people in Brazil, told Mongabay at Glasgow. “We cannot destroy our ancestral homes. We have a strong foundation [and an innate understanding] of how to move ahead and protect against deforestation. But things in Brazil must change. The government must change. We know what to do and have a framework. First we need our land back.”

Torbjørn Gjefsen, a program manager with Rainforest Foundation Norway, is striving through his NGO and with other international partners to enhance Indigenous land tenure rights via IPLC financial and political empowerment: “Indigenous peoples and local communities received an unprecedented level of attention, recognition and support at this year’s COP,” he told Mongabay. “This comes as a result of years of consistent and strategic campaigning by IPLC groups and their allies, in combination with growing scientific evidence.”

During the second week of COP26, the U.S.-based Woodwell Climate Research Center along with Rainforest Foundation US and the NGO Rights + Resources, jointly released a study gathering together the latest scientific evidence to show that if rainforest countries want to meet their carbon-reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement, the best thing they can do is restore land tenure and rights to IPLCs.

According to the research, which evaluated community-held territories in 24 countries containing 60% of the world’s tropical forests, IPLCs currently hold and use nearly 960 million hectares (3.7 million square miles) — an area nearly the size of the continental U.S. — but have legally recognized rights to less than half of that area, just 447 million hectares (about 1.725 million square miles).

“Their lands are estimated to store at least 253.5 gigatons of carbon, playing a vital role in the maintenance of globally significant greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs,” the study found. “However, the majority of this carbon — 52% or 130 gigatons — is stored in community-held lands and territories that have yet to be legally recognized.”

This data clearly illustrates the vital carbon storage promise of these forests, if the world’s national governments strongly support IPLC land rights, while also pointing up the peril if those same governments fail to follow through with plans and pledges to return this land.

“When our land is not secured, it is open to a series of threats — logging, mining, agriculture at an industry scale,” Joseph Itongwa, executive director of the Anapac National Alliance for Supporting and Promoting Indigenous and Community Conservation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), told Mongabay at COP26.

“Many people see the forests as an economic asset. But we connect forests with our personality and culture,” he added. “We bring something important, and in addition to, the economic elements of the forest.”

A Batwa woman and her child in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda. Research has repeatedly shown that IPLCs are the best stewards of the world’s tropical forests. Image courtesy of George Perry / Flckr.

The science behind IPLC rights

The Woodwell study illustrated and quantified the potential benefits Itongwa described. It found that of the 24 national jurisdictions analyzed around the global equator, 22 already have at least one legal framework for recognizing IPLC tenure rights. Of those, at least 10 have legislation for recognizing their full ownership rights.

Importantly, the study also found that by fully implementing this existing legislation in just two countries — Indonesia and Itongwa’s DRC, more than 200 million hectares (roughly 772,200 square miles) of IPLC lands would be recognized, helping conserve an area of carbon-sequestering tropical forest equivalent nearly to the size of Mexico.

Saving that much land from deforestation would contribute significantly to climate change mitigation. But there’s a catch, of course. There always is.

While DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi has shepherded legislation through his Congress for the transfer of land and rights, but Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has reneged on his promises to IPLCs according to the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), an Indonesian NGO and the world’s largest advocacy group for Indigenous communities, representing more than 20 million people.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Indonesia now says it never actually agreed to end deforestation by 2030 when signing up to a global pledge to halt and reverse forest loss at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow. Photo credit: KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea on Visualhunt.com.

Monica Ndoen, a project manager with AMAN, told Mongabay in Glasgow that her group mapped Indigenous territories years ago totaling 12.7 million hectares (49,034 square miles), land that Indonesia pledged to return to ancestral peoples. But only 60,000 hectares (232 square miles) has been returned thus far.

“It is mandated by our constitution,” Ndoen said. “It is mandated that the [Indonesian] state make this transfer of land by law. But it remains a bill. No action is being taken.”

It’s not a mystery why. Widodo has made it clear that his highest priority is neither reducing deforestation nor honoring IPLC rights. It is monetizing Indonesia’s vast and biodiverse rainforests largely by converting them to lucrative oil palm plantations, partly it is said, as a means of recovering economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, though critics find it debatable as to how much oil palm production money will ultimately benefit forest communities.

The Brazil pavilion at COP26. While Brazil is a signatory of the Glasgow Forest Declaration announced at COP26, the country under President Jair Bolsonaro has been openly hostile to Indigenous communities and to Amazon forest protection. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

Can the momentum generated in Glasgow for IPLC rights and land tenure turn the tide in recalcitrant nation’s such as Indonesia and Brazil? That’s not likely under current governments ruled by the likes of Widodo or Jair Bolsonaro, say analysts.

But clearly, money talks. And in an historic pledge in Glasgow, several wealthy nations and philanthropies joined together to pledge $1.7 billion to support IPLCs and the potential they hold for reducing deforestation. Likewise, the Glasgow Forest Declaration strongly recognized the role Indigenous peoples can play in conserving forests.

Gjefsen, of Rainforest Foundation Norway, said his group’s research has found that up until COP26, the world’s IPLCs received less than 1% of available climate funds. If the true guardians of the forest are to help us escape climate catastrophe, the money pledged at COP, along with billions more, must be delivered to Indigenous communities, along with new laws to finally return land to its rightful original owners.

The oil and gas industry has done little to curb the practice known as flaring, the burning off of methane at fracking and other drill sites. Methane removal from the atmosphere has been shown to work in the laboratory, but field testing — and its financing — is needed now to see how viable the technology is in curbing climate change. Image by Haymarketrebel on Visualhunt.com.

Methane removal: A surprise silver bullet?

For the first time ever, a COP summit focused extensive attention on humanity’s escalating methane releases to the atmosphere. In a move heralded by the global press, more than 100 nations, led by the U.S. and E.U., signed a pledge at COP26 to reduce human-caused methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

One problem, however: That’s far from enough of a reduction to adequately slow surging methane levels. To do that, nations must not only rapidly reduce human-caused methane emissions at the source — fossil fuel production and transport infrastructure and landfill releases — but also support potential new technologies to actually remove methane that is already in the atmosphere, according to Daphne Wysham, the chief executive of Methane Action, a new Washington-state NGO.

“Net zero emissions is not enough to stave off climate catastrophe,” Wysham told Mongabay after the summit. “If we can get methane removal scaled up and workable, it really is the quickest pathway to effective climate mitigation. But time is such a critical part of it. Scaling up removal as soon as possible while scaling down methane emissions is a dual strategy we have to pursue.”

Methane Action oversees a coalition of top scientists who are studying a variety of ways to neutralize methane in the atmosphere. Importantly, her team members left Glasgow with a sense that they were at the right place at the right time to explain methane removal.

And the right people were listening. During the second week of COP26 Wysham met with Rick Duke, senior director and White House liaison to John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy for climate.

Administration scientists back in Washington had voiced skepticism about the potential for methane removal, but after hearing from Wysham’s top experts, Duke commented that If there was only a 1% chance that methane removal could work, he was eager for a deep evaluation. He has arranged for Wysham’s experts to brief scientists next month at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and White House Office of Science and Technology.

Daphne Wysham, chief executive of Methane Action (left), and Elizabeth May, a Green Party member of the Canadian Parliament. At COP26 Wysham was able to secure upcoming meetings with both the U.S. and Canada to further discuss methane removal. Image courtesy of Daphne Wysham / Methane Action.

In addition, Elizabeth May, a Green Party member of the Canadian Parliament, has arranged for Wysham and her team to meet with Canada’s multiparty climate caucus to learn more about methane removal. If both meetings go well, Duke promised to set up another meeting early next year with the international Climate and Clean Air Coalition, an influential group that he co-chairs.

For Wysham, the attention is validating. But what she really needs is between $5 and $50 million for her scientists to bring the most promising methane removal strategies out of the lab and into proof-of-concept field testing.

As Mongabay reported during the climate summit, the interest by governments in methane removal is genuine and growing. Here’s why: Methane only exists at roughly 2 parts per million in the atmosphere, compared to 412 parts per million for CO2. But the powerful global warming potential of methane means that it traps as much as 85 times more heat over a comparable 20-year period as the more abundant polluting CO2.

But while a carbon dioxide molecule remains in the sky like a warming blanket for hundreds of years, methane largely dissipates in just a decade — making it a ripe target for nations to attack in their effort to slow the ominous pace of global warming.

A large COP26 sign decorated with tropical plants at the COP26 Climate Action Center in Glasgow, U.K. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

Is global cooling within reach?

In a nutshell, what scientists affiliated with Methane Action are trying to do is quicken an already occurring natural process, the breaking down of methane molecules into carbon dioxide molecules (which trap far less heat). Their approach, they explain, is not akin to risky geoengineering proposals to add chemical compounds to the upper atmosphere, such as aerosol droplets, to deflect more of the sun’s heating rays away from Earth.

“[Technological] methane removal methods accelerate what nature does over years — [more quickly] oxidizing methane to carbon dioxide,” explained Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University and a Methane Action board member.

For example, an innovative but as yet untried plan being researched at the University of Copenhagen would be to attach an iron chloride reservoir* to the smokestacks of container ships at sea for injection via their exhaust plumes into the atmosphere. The plume, theoretically, would carry the iron chloride into the air and speed up methane oxidation. Before real-world testing could take place, an array of environmental protection and governance issues would be required.

There are many other challenges ahead to achieving up scaled methane removal. For example, because methane molecules exist in the atmosphere at levels 200 times less than CO2, a lot of air must come into contact with the natural oxidizers to be effective, which is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack again-and-again.

But if it works, sources independent from Methane Action told Mongabay that the payoff could be dramatic: When a molecule of methane (CH4) is converted to a molecule of CO2, the new CO2 molecule has just 1/44th the heat-trapping capacity of the original methane. The result, conducted on a large scale could even result in global cooling.

“Sixty percent of methane is anthropogenic [man-made],” Durwood Zaelke with the U.S.-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, told Mongabay. “We need to slam on the brakes as fast as possible. If we do that, we can squeeze out 0.4° C of warming or more by the 2040s.”

That would be a substantial amount of global cooling. “That’s the single biggest and fastest bite out of the climate problem the world can take,” Zaelke said, if it works.

“The momentum is moving on methane that simply wasn’t there a few years ago, and we are able to offer the potential for an additional solution with methane removal at the perfect time,” Wysham said. “But funding for research, and how quickly it’s delivered, is critical. We are in a race against time in this climate crisis, and we don’t have any to lose.”

Update: This story was revised on 11/19/21 to clarify and provide details regarding research into the iron chloride methane removal process.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in the United States. He covered his seventh climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

Banner image: Inside COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Many key conversations at COPs don’t happen in the plenary sessions, but in side meetings or informally. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

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