The Amazon Rainforest and Climate Change
By Harsh Vardhan Bhati
Prof. Armin Rosencranz
Rainforests lock up vast amounts of carbon, moderate local temperature and influence rainfall and weather patterns at regional and planetary scales. The Amazon rainforest is the largest intact tropical forest on Earth. It houses the greatest biodiversity of flora & fauna and powers the world’s largest and longest river. It is also home to a majority of indigenous groups still living in isolation from the rest of humanity.
The Amazon River, which drains an area nearly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States, contains 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. From poison dart frogs and giant anteaters to golden lion tamarins and stinging bullet ants, the Amazon rainforest is the most species-rich biome on Earth, with more diverse plant life in a single acre than may be found in many American states. It is home to 10 percent of the world’s species, including 2.5 million species of insect.
The Amazon covers 2.6 million square miles (6-8 Million sq. km.) across nine countries — Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. It contains 628 million hectares of tree cover, including 526 million hectares of primary forest. Since all forests store carbon, the Amazon rainforest acts as a major carbon sink that mitigates the effects of fossil fuel emissions. Beyond this type of climate control, the Amazon rainforest produces 20 percent of all oxygen on planet Earth.
The Amazon rainforest is made up of 360bn trees from at least 16,000 species. Brazil’s leading archeologist, Eduardo Neves of the University of São Paulo, notes that açaí palm trees are the most common tree in the forest, which is a primary source of nutrition in the Amazon. This is unlikely to be an accident, according to Neves. “The forest is not just the product of natural forces; it was nurtured by indigenous knowledge,” notes Neves. For about 10,000 years, the indigenous residents of the forest cleared less than 0.5% of the Amazon while planting productive trees that enriched the soil and increased biodiversity. The population thrived, reaching at least 8 million before European colonialists arrived. These new arrivals brought diseases such as malaria, influenza and measles that – along with slavery and violence – wiped out 90% of the Amazon’s indigenous population.
The rainforest functions as the heart of the world, according to Earth scientist Antonio Nobre of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Even more than sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, the forest’s most crucial role is to pump water – the blood of the planet – through rivers and across the skies in the form of vapour. This occurs through the transpiration of billions of plants.
When forest trees are felled or set ablaze, there are fewer to soak up carbon from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, carbon stored in the trees is released, exacerbating climate change. Over time, this process turns forests from carbon sponges into CO2 emitters. The Amazon’s ability to decarbonize is being undermined by deforestation, fires, agriculture and cattle ranching.
About 60 percent of the Amazon biome is in Brazil. Brazil is also the country that has lost much of its forest cover. Twenty-eight years ago, in June 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature in Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil’s rainforest was largely intact. But since Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office in January 2019, his government has gutted Brazil’s anti-deforestation regulations and environmental agencies, which together had successfully protected the Amazon for years.
Part of the blame certainly lies on Bolsonaro, but Amazonian forest loss — which has covered an area larger than Texas over the last half-century — started long before his rise to power. The harsh reality is that this destruction is the product of a globalized world with changing consumer tastes. Since the 1960s, international consumption of meat has doubled and is still rising. Ranchers and farmers in Brazil, which is the world’s largest exporter of beef, set off many fires to create pasture for cattle.
In the last 40 years, the Brazilian Amazon has lost more than 18 percent of its rainforest — an area about the size of California — to illegal logging, soy plantations, and cattle ranching.
INPE’s deforestation monitoring system, DETER, detected 406 sq. km. of forest loss in the Amazon during the month of April 2020. An estimated 464 square miles of Amazon tree cover was slashed from January to April 2020, a 55 percent increase from the same period in 2019. In 2019, deforestation in the Amazon had reached levels not seen since 2008. From August 2018 to July 2019, over 10,000 sq. km. of the Amazon rainforest was cut down, a rise of 34 per cent. This represents the worst year-on-year increase for a quarter of a century.
According to NASA, three droughts in 2005, 2010 and 2015 undercut and damaged the stability of the Amazon ecosystem. The number of fires in the Amazon increased in 2019 as well, sending smoke thousands of miles across the region and darkening skies all the way to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. The Amazon rainforest does not burn naturally, so fires are a direct result of human action.
Above all that, Bolsonaro’s policies are likely to irreversibly damage the Amazon. In August 2019, Bolsonaro fired Ricardo Galvão, director of INPE, the Brazilian government agency that monitors the Amazon. He dismissed all the deforestation data released by INPE as “lies.” In November 2019, the government lifted a ten-year ban on planting sugar cane in the Amazon. And a bill to regulate mining and oil exploration in indigenous lands will soon make its way to Brazil’s national congress. If passed, it could threaten large swathes of well-conserved forest that are managed by indigenous communities.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the global lockdown measures keeping us all at home can only have been good for the environment. But in the world’s tropical forest regions, it’s another story. There has been an uptick in deforestation and illegal logging during lockdowns, as well as increases in poaching, animal trafficking and illegal mining worldwide. This has been reported by environmental agencies and activists from Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Kenya, Cambodia, Venezuela, Madagascar, Ecuador, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Contrary to all environmental prescriptions, this illegal deforestation and mining has intensified at a time when indigenous communities are being invaded by the pandemic. The Brazilian government has reduced its efforts to halt forest degradation amid the Covid-19 pandemic, opening the doors to increased deforestation, wildcat mining and land grabbing. As a result, deforestation in 2020 increased 51% through March compared to the first quarter of 2019, according to INPE.
Carlos Nobre, Climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo, has observed, “the Amazon has the highest quantity of microorganisms in the world. We are disturbing the system all the time, with urban populations getting closer, deforestation, and the trade of wild animals.” In this dystopian scenario, the Amazonian communities are, today, in greater danger than the forest itself. It is no accident that the five cities with the highest rates of lethality from Covid-19 are located in the Amazon region (Tabatinga, Manacapuru, Autazes, Coari, and Iranduba) — and they are precisely those with the highest practices of imbalance between humans and the environment.
When this fragile equilibrium between the environment and society is broken, it causes the appearance of new diseases. Rapid deforestation in the Amazon rainforest could open up a pandora’s box of new viruses and bacteria against which humans will have no defense.
Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research scientist Dr. Carlos Quesada observed that “until recently the rainforest absorbed as much CO2 pollution every year as the amount produced by all the cars on the planet.”
The effects of deforestation, forest fires and climate change are pushing the rainforest to a tipping point beyond which it will start releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere than it captures. Deforestation will also affect the rainfall pattern as forest plays a crucial role in the hydrological cycle. This will cause water shortages in cities located in the rainforest regions. Scarce water would have harsh consequences if fall 2020 shapes up as a bad fire season.
We have come to a stage where preservation of the rainforest has become fundamental to limit global temperature increase to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that human activities have already caused one degree Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels in 2018. This warming is likely to reach 1.5 degree Celsius between 2030 and 2052 if the business-as-usual scenario continues.
The remedy to the continuing deforestation and illegal activities in the Amazon rainforest is not easy, but not impossible either. Indigenous communities have maintained a symbiotic relationship with forests for centuries. The solution to save the world’s tropical rainforests involves working closely with local communities and empowering them against illegal activities, better forest monitoring by governments, effective enforcement of forest conservation laws and policies and a shutdown on organized crime. It also involves people in cities and overseas, helping them to understand the role they play in the deforestation of tropical forests by reflecting on how their consumer habits could be supporting it.
Of course, this ever-growing deforestation and illegal activities will not likely go away when the lockdown is lifted. Economic pressures and opportunities to exploit the rainforest will always be present. Over time, it may keep on growing and damaging the Amazon. If deforestation of the Amazon and greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current pace, the Amazon will turn into an African Savanna during this century.
ABOUT THE AUTHORs
Harsh Vardhan Bhati
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Harsh Vardhan Bhati is a Lecturer at Jindal Global Law School, OPJGU. B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) Jindal Global Law School; LL.M. (Environmental, Natural Resources, and Energy Law) Lewis & Clark Law School; He has worked on a broad range of environmental and human rights campaign in India and Court cases (PILs). He has also contributed toward legal and social advocacy work in Ecuador and Amazon Rainforest, Brazil regarding rights of indigenous people and forest rights. He has published papers on environmental law and policy issues in international journals and written reports on waste management, bonded tenancy and rural governance.
PROF. ARMIN ROSENCRANZ
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Armin Rosencranz, the Dean of the Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, was educated at Princeton (AB – arts bachelor) and Stanford (LL.B; MA and PhD in political science). He taught energy and climate for many years at Stanford with his late colleague Steve Schneider, with whom he co-edited two books on climate change policy. He taught environmental and natural resources policy and law to Stanford undergraduates for 20 years. His courses were cross-listed in ten different departments, including history, political science, human biology and earth systems. Armin also taught Climate, Energy and Global Environmental Law at Boalt Hall – UC Berkeley, Golden Gate Law School and Georgetown Law School before teaching these same subjects at Jindal from 2014 onward. Armin has been an Indianist for more than 30 years, and has taught at three Indian law schools. His co-authored book, Environmental Law and Policy in India, is the standard book on the subject in India. He has received five Fulbright awards, including two to India.