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Science panel presents COP28 with blueprint for saving the Amazon

Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Five policy briefs launched at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai highlight the critical challenges facing the Amazon Basin, as well as the immediate actions and solutions needed to ensure a sustainable future for the region’s ecosystems and the 47 million people living there.
  • The reports, published by the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA), a high-level science body, cover cross-cutting topics, from root causes of deforestation and rethinking Amazon infrastructure to restoration and finance solutions.
  • Stressing the urgency of preventing the rainforest from crossing a tipping point into a dry scrubland, the panel calls for leveraging nature-based solutions and Indigenous knowledge to consolidate new social bioeconomies that can “leave forests standing and rivers flowing.”
  • Based on a previous SPA brief, Brazil launched Arcs of Reforestation, a $205 million program to restore 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of deforested and degraded forest land in some of most affected parts of the Brazilian Amazon.

Five policy briefs released at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai call for urgently protecting the Amazon Rainforest from degenerating into a dry savanna, providing insights about what drives destruction and degradation in the region and solutions for securing the basin’s sustainable future.

The reports were published Dec. 9 by the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA), the first high-level science initiative focused on the region and counting more than 250 scientists. The briefs cover critical priorities, including tackling illegal activities, improving infrastructure, boosting sustainable forest management, tackling carbon emissions, exploring financial solutions — and avoiding the tipping point that scientists warn would see the world’s greatest tropical rainforest unravel into a dry scrubland.

“Now there’s no time to waste,” said Pedro Moura Costa, co-lead author of the brief on carbon emissions and ecosystem services loss, at the reports’ launch. “We should conserve and restore the Amazon now at a large scale and we should try to end all deforestation and avoid forest degradation.”

A grim picture

Since 1978, the Amazon has warmed by an average of 1° Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit), but the situation is worse in heavily deforested areas, experts say. In the southeast, where 28% of the land has been deforested, the dry season now lasts four to five weeks longer and temperatures are 3.1°C (5.6°F) higher than in 1978.

Deforestation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In the northeastern Amazon, which is 38% deforested, total annual rainfall has dropped by 11%, and up to 35% during the dry season; experts note that forest loss is having a major impact on the water cycle, comparable to its contribution to carbon emissions.

“[Amazonian] areas where you have … more than 20% forest loss per year … are actually reaching tipping points that are very dangerous and could create irreversible scenarios for non-recovery of this forest,” Moura Costa said.

The report also warns that more than three-quarters of the Amazon Rainforest has been losing its resilience as synergies increase between deforestation, forest degradation, fires and climate change affecting the region.

Saving the Amazon requires new paradigms

Marielos Peña-Claros, SPA co-chair and lead author, told Mongabay that illegal activities play a major role in undermining efforts to conserve the Amazon. She said understanding the interconnections between the land market and illegality could provide a major input for talks at COP28.

Weak state presence and deteriorating democracy, illegal land appropriation, drug trafficking, illegal gold mining and other illicit activities continue to plague Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, according to one SPA brief. The proceeds of illegal operations are often then laundered into purchasing deforested land.

In Colombia and Brazil, the situation is largely driven by “land chaos,” the experts write, as state institutions fail to tackle illegal land grabbing, which concentrates land and thus forests in only a few hands.

Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The SPA calls for urgently investing in better traceability systems for the land market, as well as for expanding command-and-control policies to tackle illegal activities.

“The issues that are affecting the Amazon and putting the region at a verge of a tipping point are so complex … but also they cross borders,” said Ana Maria Gonzalez Velosa, senior environmental specialist at the World Bank.

One SPA brief focuses on building a new sustainable development model for infrastructure in the Amazon, a major contributor to forest and ecosystem loss. As countries in the region prioritize infrastructure for mining, energy and agriculture over the needs of local populations and the environment, experts say new infrastructure needs to be planned by and for local communities, while also relying on nature-based solutions and Indigenous and local knowledge.

With more than 90% of Amazon deforestation happening within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of existing roads, it’s essential that any new investment in transport infrastructure comes with strong regulation that avoids any further forest loss, the report says.

Cattle in the Colombian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The panel also warns against any new major hydroelectric dams, which have oversized negative social and environmental impacts and often violate the rights of local and Indigenous communities. Currently, there are plans for 147 new hydropower projects across the Amazon Basin, in addition to the 160 that are already operating or under construction.

To shift gears toward a sustainable future, the SPA says authorities should be primarily concerned about choosing infrastructure improvements that promote zero-deforestation, socio-bioeconomic growth, create jobs, and boost living standards. These solutions also require solid policies, enough funding, and strengthening of institutions.

The economics of saving the Amazon

Moura Costa said one of the keys to implementing the SPA’s recommendations will be to unlock much more funding, shifting attention from carbon markets to climate finance, which recognizes the fuller range of social and environmental services provided by forests.

“I’ve spent my whole life creating carbon credits out of anything that reduces or sequesters carbon. And they do have a role to play,” said Moura Costa, who has helped to develop compliance mechanisms for the voluntary carbon market. “But we have to recognize that carbon markets also have their limitations … they restrict the ability of deploying climate finance at scale.”

At COP28, the Brazilian government announced it would allocate up to $205 million for its Arcs of Reforestation program, aiming to restore 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of deforested and degraded forest land in the Brazilian Amazon by 2030.

Carlos Nobre, SPA co-chair and Earth system scientist, told Mongabay that the idea behind Arcs of Reforestation came from an SPA brief presented at the COP27 climate summit in 2022, and was a huge achievement as it would focus on the southeast Amazon, which scientists warn is close to passing the tipping point.

In rethinking a sustainable future for the Amazon, nations need to push for zero deforestation, SPA experts warn. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Restoration is a major theme running throughout the briefs, leveraging nature-based solutions and Indigenous knowledge. It would form the basis of new “social bioeconomies” that would “leave forests standing and rivers flowing” while also creating new jobs and opportunities for the basin’s 47 million residents, including 410 Indigenous groups.

Nobre said it compares far more favorably to the “more traditional economy, which is always about getting rid of the forests, where you have cattle ranches, crops, like soy and corn. What we’re proposing keeps the forest standing. But this is really Indigenous knowledge. They have been in the Amazon for 12,000 years.”

Nobre said forest restoration would also restore agroforestry systems that support a higher concentration of species of economic value than the current model of monocropping. A separate brief recommends forest management practices to improve sustainable timber extraction and landscape restoration. This includes lowering logging intensity, extending cutting cycles, backing community-based forestry, and managing secondary and degraded forests for timber alongside mixed plantations with native species.

“But this is not something that you will do within a year but rather a few decades,” Nobre said. “We have to get to zero deforestation and forest degradation before 2030, otherwise we’re going to cross the tipping points.”

The path forward

“The recommendations made in the policy briefs are all very pragmatic,” said Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of WWF-Brazil. “The main challenges for implementing those recommendations are very much because sometimes a lack of political willingness, be it in federal government, different countries in the Amazon, in the parliament of those countries … or the finance sector.

“However, we are seeing more and more different, very important players taking recommendations from the Amazon Science Panel as the basis for action and for their decisions,” Voivodic added.

While Nobre and Peña-Claros said they hoped for more urgent commitments from the Belém Declaration, signed by leaders of the Amazonian countries in August this year, they agreed it’s a step toward of greater collaboration between these countries.

“We are at the edge of the tipping points,” Nobre said. “But good news, in 2023 I think was the first time we’ve seen more than a 55% reduction in deforestation compared to previous years. So Amazonian countries are willing to move in that direction.”

At COP28, Brazil and Colombia’s presidents agreed to zero-deforestation targets by 2030. But while Colombia’s Gustavo Petro has suspended new oil exploration contracts, there’s concern over Brazil joining the OPEC+ group of oil-exporting countries, and thus its commitment to move away from fossil fuels.

Banner image: Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Related reading

Amazon deforestation declines but fossil fuels remain contentious, COP28 shows

Amazon deforestation has a regional, not just local impact: study

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