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The ‘net zero’ bridge to saving the Amazon (commentary)

  • Nature cleans up half of humanity’s carbon pollution each year; securing and expanding natural carbon stocks and sinks is a key piece in the effort to manage the climate crisis, right alongside emissions reductions.
  • Well-designed natural climate solutions also enhance food security, alleviate poverty, secure freshwater supplies, and protect biodiversity. Companies’ “net-zero” commitments have the potential to provide critical finance for natural climate solutions while at the same time reducing harmful emissions.
  • Amazon states have strategies in place to protect forests and support a transition to low-emission development; what they lack is financing. Support for these strategies would help to prevent an Amazon “tipping point” and the loss of one of the world’s most critical carbon sinks.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Mother Nature will feature prominently at the climate summit this week in Glasgow, and it should. Forests, soils and the oceans are pulling half of humanity’s carbon pollution out of the atmosphere each year.

Protecting and expanding these “global carbon sinks” is one of the most urgent climate challenges we face today, right up there with reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. To successfully manage the climate crisis, we need to do both.

Unfortunately, many in the climate community see as the enemy a new trend with enormous potential to make rapid progress in achieving this critical outcome.

Hundreds of large companies are making commitments to become “net-zero.” To achieve net zero, firms must measure their emissions, reduce their own emissions, and “offset” what remains by purchasing carbon credits from others. The purchase of offsets represents a major new source of funding for natural climate solutions that are starved of finance.

Securing and expanding natural carbon stocks and sinks such as exist in the Amazon is a key piece in the effort to manage the climate crisis, right alongside emissions reductions. Image by Felipe Dias.

Opponents of these net zero commitments and offsets cite the risk of “greenwashing” — of companies announcing ambitious greenhouse targets far in the future while doing little to lower their own emissions today. They contend that expanding carbon sinks will foster the replacement of species-rich, carbon-poor native ecosystems, such as grasslands, with fast-growing exotic trees.

These are valid concerns, but they pale in comparison to the potential positive influence of net zero commitments and offsets for natural climate solutions, which, properly conceived, have the potential to enhance food security, flood control, and the cooling effects of vegetation, even as they help avoid species extinctions.

The Amazon rainforest is a prime example. The carbon stored in its wood, leaves, bark and roots is equivalent to all of humanity’s carbon pollution over the last decade. But that is not all. The Amazon’s trees lose enough water to the atmosphere through “evapotranspiration” to influence the circulation of moisture and heat around the planet, shaping weather patterns in far flung places.

Soy field adjacent to Amazon transition forest in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Today, two forces are pushing the Amazon toward a large-scale forest dieback. First, the forest is being directly converted to cattle pastures and crop fields. Second, this direct forest conversion, or deforestation, together with climate change, are weakening the forest-dependent rainfall system upon which the Amazon depends for its survival, increasing fire danger, and threatening the forest’s giant trees that up to now have proven resilient to prolonged dry spells.

If allowed to continue, the Amazon could surpass what scientists refer to as its “tipping point,” transforming one of the most important global carbon stocks and sinks into a major source of emissions. The process has already started in the southern Amazon.

Significantly, we know what is needed to prevent this: slowing and reversing forest loss; detecting and putting out forest fires; and fostering new Amazon economies consistent with a forest-positive agenda.

These are management challenges. And the management units of a successful Amazon forest strategy are the region’s massive states. Recently-completed state plans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru covering most of the Amazon forest are blueprints for forest-positive, socially-inclusive regional development. And they are in urgent need of funding for implementation.

Overlooking the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in Perú. Amazon states within the nations of Perú, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil recently completed plans which offer blueprints for forest-positive, socially-inclusive regional development. Image by Lenin Quevedo.

One of the most advanced state plans is that of Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest agricultural producer and home to 43 Indigenous people’s nations. It is on track to become forest-positive and carbon neutral by 2035, keeping a few billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the process. It just needs the money.

This large state — twice the size of California — has already reduced its deforestation rate 75% and is seeking to sell some of the resulting emissions reductions (ER’s) to companies. These ER’s are measured, verified and reviewed through a UN process. Proceeds from Mato Grosso’s first “results-based-payment” contract with Germany and the United Kingdom are providing critical support for Indigenous tribes, smallholder farmers and enhanced law enforcement. Much more is needed.

Mato Grosso’s success — which comes despite measures that have weakened federal protection for forests and Indigenous territories — means more forest standing and a lower risk that the tipping point will be surpassed.

The biodiverse Pantanal located in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul and Mato Grosso states, and extending into Bolivia and Paraguay, is the world’s largest tropical wetland region. Image by Filipefrazao courtesy of Wikipedia.

A few billion dollars per year flowing to these Amazon state strategies could go a long way. The question is whether the international community can or is willing to deliver this level of finance to keep the Amazon standing and safely distant from its tipping point?

Previous financing mechanisms created to help tropical forest regions achieved important successes but were ultimately too small and bureaucratic. The two largest government-to-government financial deals — the Amazon Fund of Brazil and the Indonesia partnership with Norway — have been idled.

The corporate “net zero emissions” movement could usher in a bolder, more agile approach to the critical funding gap, providing an important complement to further public funding like the Germany/UK contract with Mato Grosso.

A toco toucan (Ramphastos toco), flies above Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Photo credit: Free pictures for conservation on

Companies can move money much faster than governments. They are urgently needed to ramp up funding for state plans through financial gifts (philanthropy), the purchase of emissions reductions such as those offered by Mato Grosso, and state-level credits verified against international standards, such as those that are the focus of the LEAF Coalition. Upfront funding for states like Mato Grosso is urgently needed and will increase the likelihood that there will be large volumes of credits to sell.

For the net zero movement to succeed, companies that are making the most progress reducing their own emissions and supporting funding-starved strategies like those in Mato Grosso need to become more competitive than the companies that really are greenwashing. That is a challenge both for public policymakers and climate advocates.

Tropical forest nations and regions are poised today to make rapid progress protecting and expanding the living carbon of these magnificent ecosystems, protecting biodiversity, freshwater supplies, and food security as important co-benefits. But they need upfront finance and partnerships.

While decarbonizing the economy — and pushing companies to make this transition as quickly as possible — is critical, the role of offsets as natural climate solution partnerships is just as vital.

The fact is, we need both.

Dan Nepstad ( is a forest ecologist and president and founder of Earth Innovation Institute (EII).

Banner image: An adult female jaguar (Panthera onca) prowls the Pantanal wetland. Photo credit: Allan Hopkins on

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: In the Amazon, women are key to forest conservation, listen here:

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