Conservation news

Fate of the Amazon is on the ballot in Brazil’s presidential election (commentary)

  • In the late 20th and early 21st century, Brazil set policies that made it a world leader in reducing deforestation, helping safeguard the Amazon.
  • However, the gains made over those years are now at risk due to the proposed environmental policies of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who analysts say is highly likely to become Brazil’s president in a runoff election on 28 October.
  • Bolsonaro has pledged to shut down Brazil’s environmental ministry, relax environmental law enforcement and licensing, open indigenous reserves to mining, ban international environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and WWF from the country, and back out of the Paris climate accord.
  • A study by this commentary’s authors estimates that Brazilian deforestation and carbon emissions under Bolsonaro’s policies would cause unprecedented Amazon forest loss, and contribute to destabilizing the global climate. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
The loss of the Amazon rainforest would be a catastrophe for Brazil and for the world. Its destruction would significantly increase the country’s carbon emissions and further destabilize the global climate. Photo credit: lubasi on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

It was almost too good to be true. In the late 20th and early 21st century, Brazil’s Amazon forest was disappearing at a rapid rate (27,772 square kilometers or 10,723 square miles per year in 2004), making the country the worldwide leader in deforestation and a major emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). Then, starting in 2005, annual deforestation rates began to decrease at a breathtaking speed, dropping to 4,575 square kilometers (1,766 square miles) in 2012, a historical low, and a fall of more than 83 percent in just eight years.

This caused the country’s carbon emissions due to land use change to fall sharply, by 63 percent from 2005 to 2012. Building on these successes, the Brazilian government pledged an ambitious reduction of its GHG emissions – 37 percent by 2025, and 43 percent by 2030, below 2005 levels – a promise made at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December, 2015.

There are several plausible causes behind the sudden decrease in deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon, including the expansion of protected areas and indigenous lands, better enforcement of existing environmental legislation, interventions in supply chains and credit restrictions, and fines and embargoes of illegal deforesters.

While praised by many inside and outside the government, the durability of this achievement is uncertain, given increasing demand for Brazil’s agricultural commodities worldwide, large-scale transportation and energy infrastructure projects (including Amazon dams, roads and railways), and political upheaval.

Jair Bolsonaro launches his candidacy for president, July 2018. His proposed policies, if implemented, pose an existential threat to the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy Fernando Frazão / Agência Brasil.

Today, in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis and political unrest, environmental protections are in danger of being rolled back. The annual deforestation rate in the world’s largest rainforest has been steadily growing since 2012.

But the worst is likely yet to come. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate who is poised to become Brazil’s next president after taking a near-majority in a first round vote, has promised that, if elected, he would shut down Brazil’s environmental ministry, relax environmental law enforcement and licensing, open indigenous reserves to mining, and back out of the Paris climate accord. Moreover, international NGOs, such as Greenpeace and WWF, would be banned from the country.

The damage these policies could do is extreme. Based on an economic modeling approach that simulates the competition for land in order to meet a growing global demand for major commodities such as beef and soybeans, we estimate that, if environmental protections are removed by Brazil’s next president, the average annual loss of primary forest in the Amazon will quickly rise to 25,600 square kilometers (9,884 square miles) per year, a figure similar to the deforestation rates measured at the beginning of the 2000s and an increase of 268 percent from 2017.

Within a decade, the scale of deforestation would be equivalent to the area of the UK or the US state of Oregon. Moreover, 18 percent of this deforestation (46,300 square kilometers or 17,877 square miles) would occur inside protected areas, including national parks and indigenous reserves.

Actual accumulated deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in the period 2001-2017 (INPE/PRODES estimates), and GLOBIOM-Brazil projections* for the period 2021-2030 in square kilometers under proposed Bolsonaro policies.

Carbon emissions would rise as deforestation increases. Under Bolsonaro’s proposed policies, from 2021 to 2030, accumulated emissions from clear cutting Amazon forest would attain 13.12 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), or an average of 1.31 GtCO2e per year, making it all but impossible for Brazil to fulfill its international commitments made in Paris. This annual carbon release corresponds to 3 percent of the current global emissions. Moreover, according to the latest literature 13.12 GtCO2e could represent up to 20 percent of the “free” carbon budget remaining to achieve the 1.5 Celsius IPCC goal. Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is a measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential.

In this election, and in the coming years, political will is needed to ensure that the Amazon forest and the ecosystem services it provides are conserved. The loss of biodiversity and climate regulation that could result from a dramatic change in policies would be a tipping point for both biodiversity and climate change, with global consequences.

Authors: Aline C. Soterroni, National Institute for Space Research, São José dos Campos, Brazil, and International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria (soterr@iiasa.ac.at); Fernando M. Ramos, National Institute for Space Research, São José dos Campos, Brazil (fernando.ramos@inpe.br); Michael Obersteiner, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria (oberstei@iiasa.ac.at); and Stephen Polasky, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, USA. (polasky@umn.edu).

Correction: The accumulated deforestation chart that appeared in the original version of this story has been updated to more effectively show the true progression of deforestation, and future projections, in the 21st century.

Black-striped capuchin in Brazil (Sapajus libidinosus). Uncontrolled Amazon deforestation would do permanent harm to the region’s extraordinary biodiversity. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay

Citations:

Soterroni et al., Environmental Research Letters 13 (7) 1–12 (2018). http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaccbb/pdf

Jason A. Lowe, Daniel Bernie, The impact of Earth system feedbacks on carbon budgets and climate response. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 376 20170263 (2018). http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/376/2119/20170263

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