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Amazon deforestation declines but fossil fuels remain contentious, COP28 shows

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • COP28 celebrates the strong downward trend in deforestation in the Amazon over the last year, but also reveals a conflict between Amazonian nations over fossil fuels.
  • Colombia has stopped all new oil exploration contracts in a bid to eliminate dependency on the fossil fuel economy. On the other hand, Brazil announced plans that could make it the world’s fourth-largest oil producer by the end of this decade.
  • Indigenous groups who live and depend on the Amazon Rainforest lament that they haven’t been heard or involved in important decision-making during COP28 that would ultimately impact them.
  • Experts say that international finance is “fundamental” for climate action, and while this theme has been on the table at COP28, there has been no tangible action that would meet the scale required to preserve the Amazon Rainforest.

This year’s COP28 kicked off in Dubai on Nov. 30 and saw Amazonian countries arriving with a string of environmental triumphs since the last climate summit hosted in Egypt. While these nations largely agree on the necessity to preserve the Amazon Rainforest, the conference has also unveiled a split over fossil fuel use and deforestation targets.

At COP27 in 2022, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva vowed to achieve zero deforestation by 2030, and he reiterated the same promise this year. He arrived in Dubai with figures indicating that he’s serious about fulfilling this pledge, declaring in his opening speech that his government had cut overall deforestation by almost 50% in the first 10 months of this year.

Colombia appears committed to preserving the Amazon, having reduced primary forest loss this year by 69%, according to data from a new report from Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), the satellite monitoring program of the organization Amazon Conservation. Among all the Amazonian nations, the total primary forest loss from January to the start of November was 911,740 hectares (2.25 million acres) compared with 2,062,939 hectares (almost 5.1 million acres) in the same period last year, representing a 55.8% decrease.

Primary forest loss across the Amazon in 2023. Across all the countries sharing the Amazon Basin primary forest loss decreased this year by about 55.8%. Data: ESA/S2, GFW, ACA/MAAP, NICFI.

Experts credit the countries’ political willpower and command and control efforts for the decrease. “The major factor is clearly the Brazilian government’s renewed efforts to combat deforestation,” Matt Finer, lead researcher at MAAP and author of the report, told Mongabay. “There is also a favorable government in Colombia, where deforestation dropped even more.”

At COP28, both Lula and Colombian President Gustavo Petro have agreed on zero deforestation by 2030, a goal Bolivia has been reluctant to commit to because of its dependence on an extractive economy, experts at COP28 told Mongabay. Lula was also vocal about limiting global heating to 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Scientific evidence indicates the only way to do this is to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible, including phasing out fossil fuels.

This is where the Amazonian countries disagreed. In his COP28 speech, Petro declared, “We are facing a confrontation between fossil capital and human life, Earth life,” adding, “I have no doubt about what position to take. My position is next to life.”

Colombian President Gustavo Petro has been praised at COP28 for his bold environmental policies that include a total suspension of new oil and gas contracts and signing a global treaty to phase out fossil fuels. Image by Colombia’s Ministry of Environment.

He has already suspended new oil exploration contracts and Colombia has become the 10th country to sign a global treaty to phase out oil, gas and coal consumption and exploration, alongside 10 Pacific Island nations.

Brazil, on the other hand, decided to join OPEC+, a group of 23 oil-exporting countries that influence crude oil market prices, signaling a commitment to fossil fuel production.

“We are seeing inconsistent signs [from Brazil],” Natalie Unterstell, president of think tank Instituto Talanoa, told Mongabay. “By the end of this decade, Brazil should become the fourth-largest oil producer in the world and will increase its production from 3 to 5 million barrels per day. We are talking about a potential export of emissions that is very relevant to the world.”

Lula admitted that even with no more forest loss, the Amazon could still reach the point of no-return, where the rainforest transforms into a dry savanna “if other countries don’t do their part,” he said in his speech. “The energy, industrial and transport sectors emit a lot of greenhouse gases. We have to deal with all these sources,” he added, without mentioning that Brazil would need to reduce its own fossil fuel-related emissions.

Environmentalists lament that Brazil came to Dubai with meaningful deforestation numbers and a series of positive environmental initiatives, yet its engagement with fossil fuels has undermined the country as a climate leader. “The OPEC announcement overshadowed almost all this narrative created by the Brazilian government. It’s a good example of how much oil can get in the way,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, told Mongabay.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gives a speech at the opening of this year’s COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image by Ricardo Stuckert/Agência Brasil.

While the heads of state discuss actions that will determine the fate of the Amazon Rainforest, Indigenous groups at COP28 lament that they’re not being included in the decision-making. “We have not been heard. It is the 28th edition of COP and we are still not sitting down to make important decisions,” Fany Kuiru Castro, general coordinator of Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), told Mongabay.

“We are the true guardians of Mother Nature,” Telma Taurepang, coordinator of the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon (UMIAB). “We are the ones that suffer most from [climate] effects. It’s about time that the governments truly want to sit down and talk with us.”

Global financing is “absolutely fundamental”

While experts praise the drop in deforestation in the Amazon, especially in Brazil and Colombia, the rainforest remains in a precarious situation, they warn. “Deforestation fell but it is still high, and the current level of deforestation is worrying,” Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of WWF-Brasil, told Mongabay.

Brazil continues to be the leading source of Amazonian deforestation, driven by cattle expansion, soy plantations and gold mining. Bolivia is second behind Brazil, with major increases over the past two years, especially in its soy frontier located in the southeast. Another recent MAAP report called the Amazon situation “dire” and a no-return tipping point (where the rainforest turns to savanna and becomes a carbon source) can only be avoided with continuous downward forest loss trends.

“To protect the Amazon, it’s necessary to continue with these command-and-control efforts,” Voivodic said. “But also, to create mechanisms of financial compensation for the standing forest.”

This includes developing a regional bioeconomy and urging monetary funding from wealthy countries across the world, two discussions being considered at COP28.

Aerial photo of riparian forest and deforestation for soy.
Riparian forest and deforestation for soy in Brazil’s Amazon. Brazil continues to be the leading source of Amazonian deforestation, driven by cattle expansion, soy plantations and gold mining.  Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Brazil has made two proposals at COP28 regarding conservation financing. The first is Tropical Forests Forever, an idea for a $250 billion global fund that finances forest conservation in 80 countries across the world. The second has come from BNDES, the National Bank for Economic and Social Development of Brazil, which launched the Arc of Restoration program. Using $204 million from the Amazon Fund, the project aims to restore 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of degraded woodland in the Amazon by 2030.

Experts say the conference hasn’t been effective at mobilizing the large-scale financial resources needed to protect the Amazon, which should come from developed countries and private funders. “For now, it’s still a lot of promises,” Voivodic said. “Maybe this will happen at the next COP or in the coming months. But here in Dubai, there has not yet been anything significant in terms of financial mechanisms on a scale required for the conservation of the Amazon,” he added.

Experts underscore the importance of political willpower in conservation, emphasizing the significance of global climate summits. “The case in Brazil [shows] how different policies can have radically different impacts on the ground; that is, high deforestation under [former President Jair] Bolsonaro versus lower deforestation under Lula,” Finer said. “This should be [a] clear message to policymakers that their work is critical.”

Banner image: Mist rising from the Amazon rainforest at dawn. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Related reading

What Brazil should have said at COP28 but didn’t (commentary)

Brazil proposes $250 billion “Tropical Forests Forever” fund for rainforests

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