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Q&A: Climatologist Carlos Nobre’s dream of an Amazon Institute of Technology

Researcher Carlos Nobre on his way to a research tower in the Amazon. Photo courtesy of Tore Marklund/Volvo Environment Prize.

  • Three decades ago, Carlos Nobre projected a not-very-encouraging scenario for the Amazon. Today, he witnesses the beginning of the forest’s savannization, but he says he believes that the scenario can still be reversed.
  • As an internationally renowned expert when it comes to the world’s largest tropical forest, Nobre is leading a project that intends to bring Amazonian countries together in developing research and educational centers focused on a “standing forest economy.”
  • In an exclusive interview with Mongabay, he detailed the project of the Amazon Institute of Technology (AmIT) and spoke about what must be done to prevent the Amazon from reaching a point of no return.

His goal is to transform the heart of the Amazon into a cutting-edge science production hub by connecting technical expertise and Native peoples’ knowledge. If he were not the project’s mastermind, this effort would sound impossible in a region that is increasingly degraded and taken over by environmental crime. But Carlos Nobre — one of the greatest experts on climate change in Brazil and a major researcher of forest matters — is focused on turning this old dream into reality.

Three decades ago, Nobre projected that the Amazon would undergo a savannization process if deforestation kept its fast pace, and today he is considered a pioneer in his field of study. While the scientist’s predictions have turned into an unfortunate prophecy come true, he does not lose hope of seeing a radical change in the process of destruction, which is increasingly close to being irreversible. In the same year that he became the second Brazilian member of the Royal Society — the oldest scientific society in the world — Nobre also launched a draft project for the groundbreaking Amazon Institute of Technology (AmIT), a Pan-Amazonian research and education center inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and focused on the development of a new bioeconomy.

At 71, Nobre is optimistic about the future of the world’s largest rainforest. He believes that, with the right environmental policies, Brazil can reach zero deforestation within a few years, be one of the first major emitters to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and become a world reference in the development of a bioeconomy based on natural resources, biodiversity and forests. He holds a PhD in meteorology from MIT. He is a researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo and the author of several reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In a video interview with Mongabay in early December, Nobre spoke about the current situation in the Amazon after four years under Bolsonaro, analyzed the scenarios for the forest after the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and detailed the plans for AmIT, which should get off the ground in the near future.

Carlos Nobre at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2020. Photo courtesy of Greg Beadle/World Economic Forum.

Mongabay: In the early 1990s, you published the first studies projecting that, in case of massive deforestation in the Amazon, the forest would undergo a process of savannization. What does that mean?

Carlos Nobre: If we look at the ecological evolution of the Amazon Forest over millions of years, we will see that the forest only exists when the dry season is short — 3 or 4 months at the most — and it rains during that time. The forest evolved with its own efficient, tree-based system of water recycling, which has increased rainfall, shortened the dry season and lowered the temperature in the region by at least five degrees, thus maintaining the tropical forest. Another very important aspect of the evolution of the forest is that it is dense rainforest — that is, totally closed. Virtually all solar radiation is absorbed by the trees and very little of it reaches the soil — around 4%, or 2% in very dense areas.

Therefore, there isn’t enough solar energy to evaporate water, which makes the soil very wet. So, when there is electrical discharge, that is, lightning, it carries so much energy that the place dries up and catches fire. But the conditions in the forest prevent this fire from spreading. This ecological evolution of millions and millions of years allowed the tropical forest to be the way it is, with much greater biodiversity, a much larger number of species and capacity to store much more carbon. This is different from the Cerrado, from tropical savannas, where the dry season lasts six months, fire is an element that has existed for tens of millions of years, and the biome has adapted to it and evolved — for example, trees have very thick bark. It’s very dry in the savanna. Its trees have deep roots, but they cover between 20-25% of the surface. The rest are grasses and shrubs that go into senescence — that is, they stop carrying out photosynthesis and transpiration, thus drying out the soil.

Mongabay: Thirty years ago, studies projected this savannization scenario. Is it already a reality today?

Carlos Nobre: At that time, less than 10% of the entire Amazon was deforested, and what those studies pointed out was a projection. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a projection. From 1979 to 2021, the dry season became 4-5 weeks longer across the southern Amazon, where 35% of the forest has been cleared already, and the start of the rainy season was equally delayed. This is due to a combination of factors: global warming and changes in land use. Global warming is increasing the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean north of the tropical equator, and this warmer water is driving droughts.

There have always been periods of drought, but they used to happen more or less every two decades, which is why the Amazon Rainforest has evolved almost without fire. Sometimes there would be a huge drought caused by El Niño, once a century or every 200 years, when electrical discharge could result in fire and burn a large area, but then the forest would have several decades to regenerate: The secondary forest would grow, then the primary one would take over again.

Droughts are happening very often now — about twice per decade, causing tree mortality to increase without time to recover. The forest is not adapted to recover from such frequent droughts. This is one of the factors. Along with it, we have the issue of massive deforestation throughout the southern Amazon, from the Atlantic to Bolivia [more than 800,000 sqare miles], which undermines the water recycling process.

The forest has evolved very efficiently in terms of recycling water. About 10-20% of the trees have very deep roots and are able to access the water that falls in the rainy season. During the dry season, they pull up that water and bring it to the ground, close to the surface, and then distribute it to other trees. Since solar radiation is stronger in this season, the leaves sweat a lot; it’s what we call evapotranspiration, about 0.18 inches a day. Such strong transpiration in the dry season brings a lot of water to the atmospheric layer, thus humidifying it. Certain regions of the Amazon have 270-300 rainy days a year.

So, when you deforest, what happens in that area replaced by pastures is low transpiration — about 0.06 inches a day. That is three times less water rising and helping to form clouds and a 20-30% decrease in rainfall during the dry season. And then what happens? The start of the rainy season is delayed, which is causing a huge increase in tree mortality throughout the region. And with this mortality, the trees degrade and emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That entire area has become a source of carbon. That’s why this immense region is very close to its point of no return.

Mongabay: How bad is this process?

Carlos Nobre: It’s extremely bad. I’d put it on the list of the biggest impacts of climate change, along with, for example, what happens in the Arctic Ocean. While the planet’s average temperature has risen by 1.15°C, in the Arctic it has already increased by 4°C. This happened because ice reflects 60% of solar radiation, but when you remove the ice, the water only reflects 6%. All that extra solar radiation warms up the ocean. This is one place where climate change is exploding, and the other place where it’s also exploding is southern Amazon, where the temperature has already risen by 2°C.

Mongabay: But have we already reached that point of no return? Is it reversible?

Carlos Nobre: There are scientists who think that the far south of the Amazon may have already passed its point of no return and there is nothing we can do because as the forest dies, it drives less rain and the climate becomes increasingly similar to that of the Cerrado. Other scientists, myself included, think that if we overcome two major challenges – preventing the global temperature from increasing more than 1.5°C and reaching zero deforestation — the forest will remain there. But we must do both, because even with zero deforestation, a climate change of more than 2.5°C would lead to savannization in the Amazon.

The dry season is increasing one week per decade, so it could reach 6 months in another two or three decades, and then there would be no return. It would become an ecosystem similar to the Cerrado, but very poor in biodiversity and storing much less carbon. If it passes this point, projection studies indicate that 50-70% of the Amazon as we know it today would disappear. The forest would only remain in the west, because the Andes drive a lot of rainfall in the region. At the same time, if we didn’t have global warming but deforestation exceeded 40% in the Amazon, forest water recycling would decrease so much that the dry season would also last longer than six months and would also drive savannization. So these two challenges must be overcome in order to avoid that scenario. And there is also a third element, which is forest restoration.

Meteorologist and researcher Carlos Nobre’s most recent project is the creation of a research and education center in the heart of the Amazon. Photo courtesy of Tore Marklund/Volvo Environment Prize.

Mongabay: At COP27, you presented a project on forest restoration. Can you tell us more about that?

Carlos Nobre: Several researchers like Luciana Gatti and I believe that if we are successful in the Paris Agreement, if we reach zero deforestation and quickly rebuild the secondary forest in this area of southern Amazon, the forest will remain there. This is what the project we launched at COP27 is about. It’s called Forest Restoration Arcs.

The secondary forest evolved over tens of millions of years along with the primary forest: When you had a huge drought caused by El Niño, which happened more or less once a century, thousands of square miles of forest ended up destroyed by fire. On these occasions, the secondary forest grew quickly, covering everything in 5-7 years. Then, slowly, the primary forest would grow back. Today, as droughts are more frequent, there is no time for that to happen, so we think two restoration arcs are necessary – a huge one from the Atlantic to Bolivia, covering 900,000 mi2, and another one along the Andes. While rain is very intense in the Andes and the forest is unlikely to disappear, its biodiversity is the greatest on the planet. If you deforest too much there, there will be a huge impact on biodiversity.

Mongabay: Regarding the Paris Agreement, in 2015 Brazil committed to neutralizing greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury. However, the country has been increasing its emissions since then, mainly due to the advance in deforestation. Is it still possible to meet the targets of the agreement?

Carlos Nobre: Yes, it is. And for that, first of all we must reach zero deforestation and degradation in all biomes, as their levels are still very high. We saw a 60% increase in deforestation in the Amazon [during the Bolsonaro administration]. There was also enormous deforestation in the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest and the Pampas during that period. Deforestation accounts for almost 50% of our emissions, and the official data from emission inventories do not include those caused by degradation, which are also very high.

So we must reach zero degradation as well. If we achieve it in the coming years, we’ll have virtually met the first goal of the Paris Agreement, which is to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. And then we have the next challenge: to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, which it’s totally doable. Almost 30% of our emissions come from agriculture, mainly due to methane emissions. We can practice regenerative farming, increasing livestock productivity to such a level that we will use less than 50% of the approximately 650,000 mi2 of pasture used today, much more efficiently and greatly reducing emissions.

That can be done within 15-20 years, even before 2050. In 3-5 years, it’s possible to make our farming regenerative without huge costs, but government policies and the private sector must invest in this change. About 18-20% of Brazilian emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and the investment needs to focus on renewables. Brazil has a lower-emission energy mix, but any need to increase demand — which occurs especially if we improve the quality of life of the poorest people [which increases electricity consumption] — will have to be supplied by wind, solar or green hydrogen energy. Brazil has all the conditions to be the first country to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement; it is the only big emitter that can reduce 50% of emissions by 2030, become a great example and be a leading force among all tropical countries. If Brazil goes in that direction, our economy will become much more powerful.

Mongabay: The election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has awakened a sense of hope in several segments of civil society. However, previous PT-led administrations were also marked by some setbacks in environmental agendas. Do you believe that from 2023 on we will resume social and environmental policies that were abandoned by the Bolsonaro administration?

Carlos Nobre: There is well-known criticism related to the fact that the Belo Monte dam was approved during the first Lula administration. But I think there has been a change in attitude, and there will be a change in policies. In my point of view, this new administration no longer advocates unreasonable expansion of power dams, for example. Of course, we need to wait to see what the new administration policies will be, but in any case, the discourse of the candidate and then President-elect Lula is pointing to an economy based on a standing forest, in which a standing tree is worth much more than a felled one, a new economy that must respect all the rights of traditional peoples who want to keep the forest standing. And that goes for all ecosystems, including aquatic ones.

It’s been 20 years [since the first Lula administration], and the price of solar energy has dropped by 80% since then. Today, wind energy already costs one-third of the price of thermoelectric power and less than half the price of hydroelectric power. So we have sustainable solutions for energy supply. Twenty years later, the world has evolved a lot in terms of sustainable solutions. Therefore, I feel that some of the mistakes of the first eight years of the Lula administrations will be corrected. I can’t imagine the new government creating any policy that encourages and stimulates deforestation or degradation. The president has said very clearly that he is going to invest in the fight against organized crime, environmental crime, which has exploded in the Amazon over the last four years.

Mongabay: What should the government do to fulfill its promise of reducing crime and forest degradation?

Carlos Nobre: The great success of the Lula administrations and then the first Rousseff administration in reducing deforestation by 83% [from 2004 to 2012] was due to several factors, but some of the most important ones were the policies of command, control and punishment, and the creation of environmental protection areas and demarcation of Indigenous lands. Deforestation, degradation, timber theft, illegal airstrips for wildcat mining — all that can be seen by satellites. Satellites see the crimes on the first day they happen. It’s not like drug trafficking, in which it’s hard to track down the drugs. Then, with effective command and control actions, you besiege crime. Back then [in previous PT-led administrations], the Federal Police also carried out numerous investigations to find out who funded environmental crimes. There is indeed a possibility of tackling environmental crime, and this is what this new administration is committed to. In addition, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has been created, which will help a lot in the process of demarcating Indigenous lands.

Carlos Nobre in a lecture in Ribeirão Preto, Brazil, on September 2009. The climatologist has been one of the most prominent voices on climate change in the world. Photo courtesy of Renato Lopes.

Mongabay: You are leading an innovative project, the Amazon Institute of Technology (AmIT), which has been called the ‘MIT of the Amazon’ for its proposal to develop a bioeconomy based on natural resources, biodiversity and forests in a revolutionary way, inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What is this project?

Carlos Nobre: The idea is to have a technology development institute on the same lines as MIT, except that AmIT is being designed and developed as Pan-Amazonian from the beginning. It will include decentralized research and education centers throughout the Amazon. We want to involve as many Amazonian countries as possible. We have already started some preliminary talks with Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

The idea is that everything will be done in the Amazon but spread over many places, in many cities. In Brazil, for example, the states of Pará, Amazonas, Acre, Rondônia and Amapá have shown interest. There will be numerous floating laboratories on boats, mobile and fixed research bases as well as education centers. It’s something quite new because we intend to use modern and virtual technologies for teaching. We want this technology development and education center to be open to students from all over the Amazon, incorporating Native peoples’ knowledge. This project is a big dream. I’ve had this dream for a long time. Several other people share this idea, and now the time is ripe for us to try to implement it.

Mongabay: Five main lines of work for AmIT are outlined in the project’s preliminary documents. Can you describe them?

Carlos Nobre: The five lines for the research and development centers are: Amazonian waters, forests and socio-biodiversity, altered landscapes, sustainable infrastructure and urban Amazon. These are the five major areas in which we are really going to develop a new bioeconomy, and they won’t be single centers, geographically speaking. Ideally, they will be spread across the Amazon. These are the major areas for developing what we call the bioeconomy of standing forests and flowing rivers.

Amazonian waters because this is the place with the largest freshwater river system in the world, the highest flow and the greatest diversity of aquatic systems, and it’s perfectly possible to develop an industrialized society that uses all forms of renewable energy without the need for large dams that cause major changes in the aquatic ecosystems of the Amazon.

Urban Amazon because 65% of the population of the Amazon, or 44 million people, are urban dwellers, and we need to develop solutions for these people as well, advancing with sustainable infrastructure for transportation, telecommunications, energy, among others.

Forests and socio-biodiversity because this is obviously the Amazon’s great potential, as it has the greatest biodiversity on the planet and the knowledge of traditional peoples and local communities.

And finally, altered landscapes because, obviously, the Amazon has more than 800,000 ​​mi2 deforested or degraded, so there is enormous potential, for example, for developing agroforestry systems in most of the altered landscapes.

Mongabay: In July of this year, a prefeasibility study for AmIT was presented. At what stage is the project now?

Carlos Nobre: MIT helped us to carry out a prefeasibility study, something still preliminary, which was launched in mid-2022. We are now developing the full study and the implementation plan. We want to have this full plan by the middle of next year to deliver it in August or September. In this plan, we are already going to show how all laboratories will be, as well as the educational system and the physical infrastructure.

We are developing a very bold plan, with decentralized educational and laboratory infrastructure focused on building this new economy of the standing forest, something we’ve been advocating for a long time. The institute will be an important training hub for thousands of students every year, in all these areas of the new economy. AmIT will also be a partner of the entire national and mainly international Amazonian network of research institutes and universities. It’s not one thing; it’s something done in partnership with existing institutions.

Mongabay: Are you already organizing these partnerships?

Carlos Nobre: For this project, in addition to continuing to work with MIT, we established partnerships with Stanford University, for example, and numerous others in Brazil; with state governments, with the Federal University of São Paulo, the National Institute of Amazonian Research, the National Institute for Space Research [INPE], as well as several other national and international universities and the private sector. When we launch the plan in the middle of next year, we will also seek major international partnerships with banks, such as the World Bank, Brazil’s National Development Bank, among others, in addition to private banks and governments that may fund the creation of the AmIT.

Mongabay: The AmIT’s executive summary states that its revolutionary vision — and also the institute’s biggest challenge — is to focus its actions on social empowerment. How will it be done?

Mongabay: This social empowerment of Amazonian populations will be based on quality education, according to MIT standards, and on the creation of development conditions for a very quick and effective implementation of this new economy of the standing forest, generating a large number of new products, enough to feed this new bioeconomy. Therefore, the idea is to have many young students from urban and rural Amazon, from Indigenous populations, from Quilombola and riverine communities. The goal is to provide all these young people with an educational option that allows them to engage in all aspects of this new bioeconomy.

 

Banner image: Researcher Carlos Nobre on his way to a research tower in the Amazon. Photo courtesy of Tore Marklund/Volvo Environment Prize.

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