Amazon: carbon emission almost doubles absorption

The increase in deforestation for commercial, legal, and illegal purposes has led to 71,497 fires in the Brazilian Amazon this year.

Amazon: carbon emission almost doubles absorption
The increase in deforestation for commercial, legal, and illegal purposes has led to 71,497 fires in the Brazilian Amazon this year. Photo: Twitter

The study analyzed the capacity of the dynamics of carbon sequestration in the Amazon. It found that between 2003 and 2016, the Amazon emitted more carbon than it was able to absorb. Indigenous lands and protected areas performed better than unprotected lands.

Between 2003 and 2016, the Amazon emitted twice as much carbon as it absorbed, becoming an emitter of this polluting gas instead of fulfilling its natural role as a reservoir, according to a study published in the journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The researchers in this study confirmed that more than 50 percent of the losses are due to deforestation but 46.6 percent are linked to degradation, such as discriminating logging or loss of forest volume at the edges of logged forests.

One of the authors of the study, Carmen Josse, scientific director of Ecuador's EcoScience Foundation, warned that there is "no political activity in any country of the region" on degradation, despite it being a common factor.

"Of the nine countries in the basin covered by the study, in seven of them, the greatest amount of losses are attributable to degradation. Only in Brazil is the majority of losses attributed to deforestation. This is due to the size of the country," Josse told SciDev.Net.

The research also included nine countries - Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela - and analyzed carbon dynamics in three areas: protected areas, indigenous lands, and "other lands" of the forest, which have no special protection and represent almost half of the total territory of the Amazon.

In analyzing each sector, the scientists found that in the indigenous territories and protected areas -- which cover 52 percent of the Amazon and store 58 percent of the carbon -- the difference between emission and absorption was almost zero.

The "other lands" accounted for about 70 percent of total carbon losses.

Looking at losses by country, the Brazilian Amazon - which is 1.5 times larger than the other countries - accounted for 72 percent of the region's losses. In that territory, nearly 90 percent was derived from carbon losses recorded in "other lands".

Thus, one of the main conclusions of the study is that "indigenous territories and protected areas were (independently and collectively) more effective than other lands in maintaining a balance between carbon losses and gains, and therefore in keeping their total carbon stock intact.

According to the study, an estimated 1.7 million people belonging to some 375 indigenous groups live in the 3,344 indigenous territories and 522 natural protected areas. These communities occupy only 30 percent of the Amazon forest but protect more than half (52 percent) of the forest.

Another objective of the study was to identify the causes of degradation. "It talks about the 'point of no return'. With 30 percent forest loss in the Amazon as a region, the climate cycles will change and these are based on the capacity of the Amazon forest to produce rainfall.

This means that water will not reach the mountain range, agriculture and industry will be affected, and fires will be generated due to the lack of water resources. "In countries like Bolivia or Brazil, due to the climate conditions of their Amazon and the dry seasons, there may be a greater propensity for fires, as we saw at the beginning of 2020," reiterates the author.

In Josse's opinion, many recent studies focus on deforestation, but in reality, we need to think more about analyzing other angles of degradation. The biologist explains that it is likely that the 'edge effect' is having an impact. "When the edge of protected areas is linked to agricultural activities and roads, that 'edge effect' is a major cause of biomass loss.

The Amazon basin is a mature forest, which means that it no longer can capture carbon dioxide (CO2) but is a reservoir of CO2. "Giant forests like the Amazon represent a CO2 bank that has been there for millions of years. We need to reduce deforestation, prevent forest banks from losing their deposits, and make sure we recover trees where we don't have them," David Romo, co-director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station at the University of San Francisco in Quito, told SciDev.Net.

Romo is also a member of the second REDD+ roundtable in Ecuador, an international mechanism that seeks to provide incentives for developing countries to protect and restore the carbon stocks of their forests. Ecuador and Brazil are the first countries to be granted a budget to meet this goal under the administration of the United Nations.

"Governments throughout the Amazon basin have a very large outstanding debt in respect of indigenous communities. From the scientific world, we are trying to give arguments to the politicians so that they propose strategies of sustainability and conservation. This research is an alert to take more into account the positions of indigenous populations. We need more studies of this nature," says Romo.

How would the deforestation of the Amazon affect the world?

The Amazon, 60 percent of which is in Brazil, absorbs 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide, but the world's lungs have been burning for more than 15 days.

The Amazon has 7.4 million km2, is the largest region of tropical forest on the planet and about 60 percent is in Brazil. Its biome is unmatched and its existence is vital to efforts against climate change. However, at the moment the world's so-called lung is in flames.

Large forest fires have been reported for at least two weeks in Bolivia and Brazil, the latter being where the main focus originated, specifically in the state of Rondonia. So far it is estimated that 500,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed between Brazil and Bolivia, and it has begun to spread to Paraguay and Peru.

Social networks have circulated images of large tracts of burned forest across the Brazilian states of Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso do Sul, as well as animals fleeing their habitat. The denunciations took more than 15 days, but the news did not become visible until the fire became a triple threat between Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

In this context, Internet users have chosen to make their claim visible with the hashtag #PrayForAmazonia, which they accompany with images and videos of the fire ravaging trees and animals. In addition, they denounce the little action taken by government authorities, especially in Brazil, in response to the environmental emergency.

According to reports from local authorities, the forest fire has not been able to diminish with the passing of days and continues to advance in the Amazon forest zone.

Deforestation ravages the Amazon

Ricardo Mello, director of the Amazon Program of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said that in the Amazon region there are no natural processes that cause fires, so the increase is due to the direct action of human beings.

Ane Alencar, director of science at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), said the fires are due to increased deforestation, caused by farmers obtaining farmland. Added to this are the expansion of road infrastructure and the agricultural and livestock frontier, the increase in illicit crops, and the trafficking of timber. A business of criminal gangs, as well as local and national governments.

Alencar detailed that "this year we don't have an extreme drought like the one that occurred in 2015 and 2016. In 2017 and 2018 we had a sufficient rainy season", while "in 2019, we do not have climatic events that influence droughts, like El Niño, or these are not happening with force". Therefore, the climate cannot explain the increase in fires.

The burning program of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) indicates that fire hotspots in Brazil increased 82 percent compared to last year. Specifically, between January and August 2019 there were 71,497 disasters, while at the same time in 2018 there were 39,194 burns. Brazil is followed by Bolivia (1,618), Peru (1,166), and Paraguay (465).

Businesses against the Amazon

The response to the growing fires points in only one direction: deforestation for commercial purposes and the lack of environmental policies to protect the Amazon.

Since the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian government, deforestation is estimated to have tripled, with 2,254.8 square kilometers of forest cut down in July alone, or 278 percent more than in July last year, according to figures from Inpe last June.

However, the Brazilian president cataloged the Inpe data as false, whose publication was done to harm his government. And the fact is that Bolsonaro has undertaken a policy of land exploitation to make the Amazon an economic zone with "a development similar to that of Japan. For this reason, he has criticized that "60 percent of the territory is immobilized with indigenous reserves and other environmental issues.

Among the measures taken by Bolsonaro that harm the Amazon are:

- Reduction of efforts to combat illegal logging, mining and cattle ranching in the Amazon.

- The increase in soybean production over the next 10 years, which means using an additional 70 and 75 hectares. Bolsonaro justified the decision with his theory that excessive logging does not cause deforestation, but rather increases the population.

- Bolsonaro promised not to demarcate indigenous lands, which threatens the conservation of their livelihoods and forests. These lands are now open to mining and forestry. Indigenous communities have also denounced invasions of their territories by cattle and timber companies, a violation of the rights enshrined in the country's Constitution.

Bolsonaro's anti-environmental measures caused Norway and Germany to suspend funds to preserve the Amazon, given the increase in deforestation with the approval of the Brazilian government. That's 33 million dollars for the planet's lungs.

Destruction of the Amazon and its consequences

The Amazon rainforest is considered the lungs of the world for a very important reason: it absorbs 1,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (three decades ago there were 2,000 million), which avoids the concentration of greenhouse gases, which cause climate change.

The German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Müller, explained that the protection of the tropical rainforest is essential to curb global warming since deforestation will cause the carbon dioxide that the Amazon now absorbs to be released back into the atmosphere.

In addition, the WWF organization indicates that the forest contains 40,000 species of plants, 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, 378 reptiles, more than 400 amphibians, around 3,000 freshwater fish, and 400 different indigenous peoples (about 34 million people). While the Amazon River Basin is the largest in the world with 20 percent of fresh water on the land surface.

In this sense, experts and activists around the world agree that the continued destruction of the Amazon represents a threat to the future of humanity. Recently, President Bolsonaro replied to a European journalist:

"The Amazon is ours, not yours. But if the consequences are for the planet, then its property belongs to all living beings."