The government of Brazil has announced that it has cut its climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions to the point that it has met a long-established goal three years ahead of time.
Climate scientists say that while the milestone reflects the strides Brazil has made in slashing the rates of forest loss, declaring victory at this stage may be premature, given the continuing struggle to control deforestation.
“It’s very risky to say that Brazil will reach the 2020 targets,” Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute Brazil, told Mongabay. He noted that while current figures are far below “the gigantic, ridiculously high deforestation rates” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a recent uptick in the loss of the country’s forests may make it difficult to maintain course.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s becoming more and more challenging,” Nobre added.
At an inauguration of new members of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change at the presidential palace in Brasília on Aug. 9, President Michel Temer reported that the decline in deforestation between 2016 and 2017 saved emissions of the equivalent of 610 million metric tons (672 million tons) of carbon dioxide from the Amazon and 170 million metric tons (187 million tons) from the Cerrado, a wooded savanna that covers more than one-fifth of Brazil. Both of those figures eclipse the targets of the equivalent of 564 million metric tons (622 million tons) of carbon dioxide emissions reductions in the Amazon and 104 million metric tons (115 million tons) in the Cerrado, as laid out in pledges passed by the Brazilian parliament in 2010 as part of the National Policy on Climate Change.
Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment compared those targets with deforestation rates measured with Brazil’s PRODES monitoring system for the Cerrado and the Amazon. But scientists point out that the methods underpinning the system leave room for uncertainty in the government’s estimates.
For example, emissions that result from degrading the forest — as a result of logging, for example — aren’t included in the government’s calculations, nor are emissions from fires.
“Logging and burning are emissions that are actually thinning Amazon forests, and they are not yet accounted for in Brazil’s Paris targets,” Daniel Nepstad, a forest ecologist and the founder and director of the Earth Innovation Institute, said in an email.
Brazil committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by 2025 when it signed onto the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.
“It would be possible to radically [reduce] Amazon forest fire and its substantial emissions since this is one of the cheapest types of emissions to eliminate,” Nepstad added. But right now, emissions from fire aren’t included in Brazil’s intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) under the Paris agreement.
The country’s current climate change policy predates the Paris climate accords. In 2009, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s promised that Brazil would reduce its emissions by 36 percent or more by 2020. That translates into a decrease of 80 percent in deforestation rates compared to what occurred between 1996 and 2005.
As a result of “massive” efforts toward those goals, which began in 2004, deforestation dropped, Nepstad said.
“Brazil succeeded doing what few who study deforestation thought was possible,” he said. “[They] clamped down on deforestation across a vast, nearly continental, tropical forest region (the Amazon).”
The government enlarged Brazil’s protected areas, upped enforcement patrols and tightened credit in spots where deforestation rates were soaring, Nepstad said. That led to a deforestation rate in 2017 that was 65 percent lower than the average rate between 1996 and 2005, the country’s deforestation reference point.
“But that achievement was even bigger” — 77 percent lower than that 1996-2005 average — “five years ago,” Nepstad said.
Since 2012, deforestation rates in the Amazon have crept back up, reaching their highest levels since 2009 in 2016 at 7,989 square kilometers (3,085 square miles). Vegetation loss in the Cerrado had also been falling since the early 2000s, but it too spiked after 2012.
Carlos Nobre attributes that rise to a recent recession in Brazil that left less money in public coffers to stop deforestation, most of which was illegal.
“You have to go out in the field,” Nobre said. “You have to bust these criminal rings responsible for this deforestation.”
Other experts point out the influence of national politics. Carlos Souza, a scientist with the NGO Imazon based in Brazil, said that rates of deforestation in the Amazon will likely remain higher than the 2009 targets for average annual deforestation — 5,586 square kilometers (2,157 square miles) per year from 2014 through 2017 — as “the government is dismantling the environmental gains from the past decade and there is less funding to command and control illegal deforestation.”
Global politics too may be having an effect. The Trump administration’s trade war has made Brazilian soy and cattle more attractive to buyers, leading to pressure on the Amazon from farmers and ranchers. Brazil’s currency, the real, has also weakened, driving greater interest in the country’s agricultural sector from abroad.
Some worry that those forces could reverse the trend in emissions reductions or that the struggle to save Brazil’s forests is over.
“This announcement may seem like great news, but it masks a real situation, which is [that] deforestation is still very high,” said Carlos Rittl, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a group of climate-focused civil society organizations, in an interview with the Brazilian newspaper Estadão. “And you can not say … the goal was achieved because this situation may change in the coming years.”
A statement from the Climate Observatory also pointed out that forest loss in the Amazon is still 78 percent higher than the 3,900 square kilometers (1,506 square miles) of deforestation needed to meet the goal of an 80 percent reduction in deforestation rates by 2020, codified in Brazilian law in 2010.
Indeed, the announced emissions reductions were the result of a drop in Amazonian deforestation rates of 16 percent between 2016 and 2017. But recent research indicates that deforestation may once again be rising in 2018. Imazon estimates that 1,169 square kilometers (451 square miles) of Amazon forest were cleared in June 2018 alone.
Despite the fluctuations in policy and enforcement, Carlos Nobre said that keeping deforestation down should be a priority for authorities, regardless of the coming general elections.
“No matter who wins the elections in October, [they] will put a lot of effort to keep those commitments because it’s very bad for Brazil internationally … if Brazil is seen as a country that cannot control [and] reduce deforestation,” Nobre said.
The international community must also continue to provide incentives to encourage Brazil to continue to tackle these issues, Daniel Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute said, such as the $1 billion that Norway gave to Brazil’s Amazon Fund in 2015 in recognition of the decline in deforestation to that point.
“Command and control is hard to keep up. Political will wears thin, and it is expensive,” Nepstad said. “Norway’s contributions to [the] Amazon Fund help a great deal, but are not enough — bigger carrots are needed.”
Banner image of slash-and-burn forest clearing along the Rio Xingu (Xingu River) in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, by Expedition 29 Crew, courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
Nepstad, D., McGrath, D., Stickler, C., Alencar, A., Azevedo, A., Swette, B., … & Armijo, E. (2014). Slowing Amazon deforestation through public policy and interventions in beef and soy supply chains. Science, 344(6188), 1118-1123.
Clarification (Aug. 24, 2018): This article was amended to clarify that 5,586 square kilometers (2,157 square miles) was the target for average annual deforestation between 2014 and 2017.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.