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Mato Grosso leading the fight against climate change and deforestation (commentary)

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A Butler

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A Butler

  • If we slow tropical forest clearing and degradation while promoting their recovery, humanity could potentially reduce global carbon pollution by a quarter or more, buying precious time to wean our energy systems from fossil fuels.
  • Mato Grosso provides important lessons on how this opportunity could be seized.
  • This post is a commentary – the views expressed are those of the author.

As the celebratory dust of the Paris climate change summit settles, an important gap remains. The reductions in carbon pollution that nations pledged to achieve are important steps in the right direction. Alone, they are insufficient to avoid many dangerous impacts of climate change.

Tropical forests could help plug the Paris gap. Roughly 18% of global carbon pollution today comes from either the clear-cutting or degradation of tropical forests. About 10% of global carbon pollution is soaked up from the atmosphere by recovering, regrowing tropical forests. If we slow tropical forest clearing and degradation while promoting their recovery, humanity could potentially reduce global carbon pollution by a quarter or more, buying precious time to wean our energy systems from fossil fuels.

Mato Grosso provides important lessons on how this opportunity could be seized. This giant Brazilian state—three times the size of California—is a global powerhouse of soy and beef production. And for many years, expansion of its cropland and pastures meant that a Connecticut-sized chunk of Amazon forest was lost, spewing half a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Then something changed. Crop and livestock production continued to grow, but deforestation fell sharply. Since 2008, it has been at least 75% lower than its historical average, avoiding two billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution. If it were a nation, Mato Grosso would be a leading climate change mitigator.

This success is fragile. The many policies and market-driven interventions that have contributed to the decline in deforestation were heavy on sticks and light on carrots. Deforestation has slowed in large part because of farmers’ fear of fines or of losing access to farm credit and markets. Farmers have grown weary of being vilified as rainforest destroyers despite the progress they have made; they have lost hope that the decline in deforestation will increase their access to markets or finance. It is no surprise that Mato Grosso deforestation is on the rise.

Recently-elected Governor Pedro Taques, a constitutional scholar and former public prosecutor whose successful fight against corruption has earned him a personal body guard, is keenly aware of the need for a different approach to deforestation—one that engages, recognizes and rewards farmers. Last September he launched a series of meetings that brought together environmental and economic branches of his Government, farmer organizations and environmental groups to hammer out a shared set of state-wide sustainability goals for 2030. The state’s plan would avoid 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions and would therefore have twice the climate impact of President Obama’s signature climate change policy—the Clean Power Plan—over the next fifteen years.

In my conversations with Governor Taques last June and August about the possibility of a bold announcement in Paris, I was particularly struck by his commitment to finding a solution to deforestation that would also relieve poverty and help the small-scale farmers of his state. One of the goals of the strategy is to provide technical assistance to all of the state’s 104,000 small-scale farmers by 2030.

The Mato Grosso “Produce, Conserve, Include” plan also seeks to reduce deforestation of the Amazon and Cerrado woodland 90 and 95%, respectively, re-establish natural forests on 6.7 million acres of land, and continue to increase the production of soy and cattle. Illegal deforestation would end by 2020.

Mato Grosso Produce Conserve Include (PCI) Strategy commits to a 90% reduction in deforestation, 2.9 Mha of new forests, and substantial increases in soy and beef production by 2030. Note: 2015-2030 data is projected.

Taques announced the plan in Paris, hoping to find partners who could help foot the bill—an estimated $10 billion over 15 years. From one perspective, this is one of the best carbon pollution deals in the world—roughly $1.6 per ton of avoided carbon dioxide emissions. From another perspective, this cost is more than all of the finance mobilized globally thus far through the program to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation—called REDD—that is part of the Paris Agreement but lacking in large-scale financial commitments. Much of the REDD funding has come from Norway, which has now pledged a total of $1.7 billion to the Brazilian Amazon Fund if deforestation continues to decline. Some of this finance is flowing to Mato Grosso, but it is not nearly enough. Some of the financial need would yield returns, and are a matter of lining up investors. Much of it will not generate returns, however.

For the Mato Grosso strategy to succeed, reversing the recent increase in the state’s deforestation, several financial and market carrots will be needed. The Brazilian government’s agricultural credit programs can cover part of the financial gap if they are fully implemented in the state. Climate finance such as that provided by Norway could be structured to help attract investors in Mato Grosso’s strategy, greatly multiplying the impact of these funds. (Some of the needed $10B would generate returns to investors.) As farmers’ incomes rise through improved productivity and efficiency, their ability to self-finance their transition to sustainable farming systems will increase. California may soon launch its REDD program, allowing the state’s carbon polluting companies to offset some of their emissions through investments in programs like Mato Grosso’s. Donors and philanthropists could send a rapid signal that the Governor’s plan is recognized and valued. A few millions dollars of contributions in the coming months could go a long way.

Some carrots would come at a low cost. Market recognition of Mato Grosso’s progress in slowing deforestation could reinforce the state’s transition to sustainability. This market recognition has been surprisingly slow thus far, despite the many corporate pledges to help slow deforestation. The Norwegian food and feed industries that import soy from Mato Grosso were among the first to formally announce their support for the state’s bold strategy. Many more such announcements are urgently needed.

Mato Grosso is not the only tropical forest state that is committed to climate change solutions. The member states and provinces of the Governors’ Climate and Forests task force contain one fourth of the world’s tropical forests including most of the forests of the Amazon and Indonesia. GCF members have pledged to reduce deforestation 80% by 2020 if adequate finance and market signals are in place. And that is just the beginning.

If investors, donors, philanthropists, and businesses take notice of these tropical forest states and provinces, recognizing and supporting their bold plans to slow deforestation and speed forest recovery through investments, donations, and preferential buying of their productions, tropical forests will begin to close the Paris gap.

Daniel Nepstad, PhD.
President and Executive Director
Earth Innovation Institute
San Francisco, California