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Could the carbon market save the Amazon rainforest?

Could the carbon market save the Amazon rainforest?

Could the carbon market save the Amazon rainforest?
Rhett A. Butler,
November 29, 2007

While deforestation and climate change threaten to accelerate the loss of Amazon rainforest, a bold initiative could fund conservation

The global carbon market could play a key role in saving the Amazon from economic development and the effects of climate change, which could otherwise trigger dramatic ecological changes, reports a new paper published in Science. The authors argue that a well-articulated plan, financed by carbon markets, could prevent the worst outcomes for the Amazon forest while generating economic benefits for the region’s inhabitants.

The paper, “Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon”, is written by Yadvinder Malhi of the Oxford University, J. Timmons Roberts of Oxford University and the College of William and Mary, Richard A. Betts of the Met Office Hadley Centre in the UK, Timothy J. Killeen of Conservation International, Wenhong Li of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Carlos A. Nobre of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE) in Brazil. Below is a summary of some of the key points of the “review” paper.

The Amazon

The Amazon contains Earth’s largest tropical forest: in 2001 it covered about 5.4 million square kilometers across nine South American countries (62 percent of which is in Brazil). Its extent is so great that the ecosystem fuels its own rainfall — 25 to 50 percent of precipitation is recycled through evapotranspiration by tree — and affects weather as far away as the Midwest of North America. Amazon forests also store tremendous amounts of carbon, house perhaps one quarter of the world’s terrestrial species, and account for 15 percent of global terrestrial photosynthesis


Deforestation in Brazil

By 2001 roughly 837,000 square kilometers of the Amazon forest had been cleared. Since then, while deforestation rates in Brazil have fluctuated on an annual basis depending on commodity prices, currency swings, and law enforcement initiatives, the country has lost another 120,000 square kilometers of forest. Most clearing is concentrated in the so-called “arc of deforestation” on the southern and eastern margins of the Basin, and is driven primarily by expansion of cattle and soybean production. Clearing in wetter, more remote areas like the northwestern Amazon is minimal. Nevertheless, deforestation figures significantly understate disturbance in the region, where vast areas are affected by selective logging and low-intensity fires that make forests more vulnerable to future burning. Fragmentation is also taking a toll, reducing the quality of habitat for primary forest-dwelling wildlife, causing changes in forest trigger, and bolstering risk of fire.

Climate change

A metric of the probability of enhanced drought in Amazonia: the proportion of 23 climate models that show a decline in rainfall between 1980 to 1999 and 2080 to 2099 under mid-range (A1B) global greenhouse gas emissions scenarios. (A) Any decline (rainfall decline > 0%); (B) significant decline (rainfall decline > 20%); severe decline (rainfall decline > 50%). Dry season rainfall is particularly important. Left column: December-January-February (dry season in north); right column: June-July-August (dry season in central and southern Amazonia). Image and caption courtesy of SciencExpress

In recent decades the rate of warming in Amazonia has been about 0.25°C decade but future forecasts carry large uncertainties due to questions over how the Amazon forest itself will respond to higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and whether the ecosystem will be a net sink or source of greenhouse gas emissions. Under mid-range emission scenarios, temperatures are projected to rise 3.3°C (range 1.8-5.1°C) this century, though substantially larger increases of up to 8°C could occur should large-scale forest dieback trigger regional “biophysical” shifts. The impact of climate change on precipitation is also poorly understood, though the authors say that models from the IPCC–which show “no consistent trend in annual, Amazon-wide rainfall over the 21st century”–are probably too conservative by underestimating rainfall and failing to incorporate

“When the effects of rising temperatures on evapotranspiration are included, almost all models indicate increasing seasonal water deficit in eastern Amazonia,” the authors write. “This drying becomes more severe with greater magnitudes of global warming, and is exacerbated by ecosystem feedbacks such as forest die-back and reduced transpiration in remaining forests.”

The authors note that some models suggest the Amazon forest-climate system may have two stable states and the loss of 30 to 40 percent of forest cover could trigger a shift for much of the Amazon to a drier state.

“Loss of forest also results in (i) decreased cloudiness and increased inolation, (ii) increased land surface reflectance, approximately offsetting the cloud effect, (iii) changes in the aerosol loading of the atmosphere from a hyperclean “green ocean” atmosphere to a smoky and dusty continental atmosphere that can modify rainfall patterns, and (iv) changes in surface roughness and hence wind speeds and the large-scale convergence of atmospheric moisture that generates precipitation,” Malhi and colleagues write.

Synergistic effects of climate change and deforestation

The authors say that while artificial drought experiments and remote sensing show that intact Amazonian forests are more resilient to climatic drying than is typically supposed, the combined effects of deforestation with climate change could increase its vulnerability to fire and large-scale die-off.

“The synergistic combination of global warming, deforestation and increased forest fires represents a real threat to the functioning of Amazonian ecosystems and could lead to a large reduction of forest cover in the Amazon in this century,” co-author Dr. Carlos Nobre told

The potential overlap between deforestation and climate change. Potential loss in forest cover (brown) by 2050 under (A) business as usual and (B) increased governance scenarios [derived from (2)], superposed on mean projection of precipitation change in June-July-August (dry season in all but the northern edge of Amazonia) by the late 21st century. Precipitation scenarios are from mid-range (A1B) global greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, from the 21 climate models employed in IPCC Fourth Assessment Report [extracted and modified from (15)]. The projection of precipitation change is correlated with the probability of drought (Fig. 1). Image and caption courtesy of SciencExpress

“The speed and magnitude of current human pressures on forests are affecting forest resilience. Forests close to edges are vulnerable to elevated desiccation, tree mortality, and fire impacts,” the authors state. “Rainforests may become seasonally flammable in dry years, but without anthropogenic ignition sources fire is a rare occurrence. Hence fire has been a weak evolutionary selective force, and as a result many tree species lack adaptations that allow them to survive even low-intensity fires.”

“Logging and forest fragmentation also increase the flammability of forests by providing substantial combustion material, opening up the canopy and drying the understory and litter layer, and greatly increasing the amount of dry fire-prone forest edge,” they add, while noting that 28 percent of the Brazilian Amazon faces “incipient” fire pressure.

Further threat comes from ambitious plans to develop the Amazon for agriculture, energy, timber, and minerals. Manifested as the multibillion-dollar “Avança Brasil” program in Brazil and other names elsewhere, the authors say current plans for infrastructure expansion could reduce the Amazon forest from 5.4 million square miles in 2001 to 3.2 million square kilometers by 2050. Absent of other deforestation and impacts of climate change, this development alone would release some 32 petagram (32 billion metric tons) of carbon, or more than four years’ worth of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

While the authors expect most clearing to occur in the south and east, they say the remote northwestern Amazon–which holds the bulk of the region’s biodiversity–is “vulnerable to hydrocarbon exploration and oil-palm plantations that are suitable for wet climates and acidic soils and have already replaced many of Asia’s tropical rainforests.”

“Drying of Amazonia, whether caused by local or global drivers, could greatly expand the area suitable for soy, cattle and sugarcane, accelerating forest disappearance,” the authors write.

Preparing for climate change in the Amazon

While the outlook under some scenarios is dire, the authors say that planning for development and climate change could mitigate some of the worst potential outcomes in the Amazon. The authors suggest five key recommendations: limiting the extent of deforestation well below possible climatic thresholds (30-40 percent deforested) through the use of a matrix of large protected areas and human-managed landscapes; controlling fire through education and law enforcement; maintaining broad species corridors for migration; protecting river corridors; conserving the core northwestern Amazon for its high biodiversity. By implementing these measures, the authors estimate that expected deforestation could be reduced from a loss of 47 percent of the original forest area by 2050 to a 28 percent loss, avoiding 17 petagrams of carbon emissions.

Financing a Climate-Resilience Plan for Amazonia

Potential earnings from avoided deforestation, based on annual rate of forest loss in selected countries from 2000 to 2005 and average carbon storage values from FAO. Carbon is assumed to be priced at $5 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent. Note: these figures only include emissions from deforestation, not land degradation. By some estimates, Indonesia’s annual emissions may be higher than those of Brazil due to degradation of carbon-rich peatlands. Calculations are by mongabay and are not in any way related to the Science paper.

The authors say that financing a climate-resilience plan for the Amazon will be a challenge due to “the drive of globalizing market forces, insufficient financial resources, provision of open access to information, limited technical and governance capacity, and ineffective enforcement of rule of law,” but hope that new proposals for mitigating climate change could act as a “countervailing force to the economic pressures for

Specifically, the authors say that REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries), the concept in which tropical forest countries are compensated by industrialized countries for ecosystem services provided by forests, could be key to providing funds to preserve critical parts of Amazonia. REDD will be a topic of discussion at next week’s U.N. climate meeting in Bali.

“[REDD has] the potential to shift the balance of underlying economic market forces that currently favor deforestation (45), by raising billions of dollars for the ecosystem services provided by rainforest regions, but will require exceptional planning, execution and long-term follow-through,” the authors write.

“Avoided emissions from reducing deforestation of the Amazon tropical forests can be the key contributions by Amazonian countries to global efforts to mitigate climate change in the coming decades,” added co-author Carlos Nobre in an email exchange with “For that to become feasible, it is urgently needed that the UNFCCC implement a new mechanism to compensate tropical countries which in fact reduce deforestation rates”.

CITATION: Malhi, Y. et al (2007). “Climate Change, Deforestation, and the Fate of the Amazon,” / 29 November 2007 / Page 4/ 10.1126/science.1146961

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