So far this year, more than 72,000 forest fires have started (or been set by cattle ranchers) in Brazil’s rain forest. That’s an 80% increase over the same period last year. But the amount of CO2 emitted from the fires is lower than in 2010 and significantly lower than in the early 2000s.
President Macron tweeted that the Amazon provides “20% of our planet’s oxygen”, and Secretary General of the UN António Guterres tweeted that it’s a “major source of oxygen”. Yadvidner Malhi, ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University, puts them right in a detailed comment on his website.
There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the Amazon and the current fires, including regional climate, human health affects of pollution, loss of the most biodiversity rich area of the planet and global carbon emissions. But running out of oxygen isn’t one of them.
In fact, bad as they are, this year’s fires in the Amazon are actually pretty typical. Dan Nepstad, Executive Director of the Earth Innovation Institute and a scientist who has studied fire in the Amazon for 30 years, points out in a recent blog post that the number of fires this year is 7% more than the average since 2010.
September is usually the worst month for fires in the Amazon. Things could well get significantly worse in the next few weeks.
Nepstad writes that we don’t really know how much of the Amazon is burning:
When a satellite detects a fire, it does not tell us if that fire is burning a degraded pasture or an overgrown field or a patch of forest felled to make way for crops or cattle. Satellites do NOT detect most fires that are burning beneath the canopy of standing forests. And it is these low fires, that rarely reach the knee, that do the most damage, burning slowly across the forest floor, killing giant trees with thin bark. Once these trees die, they fall to the ground, opening up huge gaps in the forest canopy that allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, drying the fuel layer and making the forest more prone to further burning. During years of severe drought, such as those that usually accompany El Niño events, the area of standing Amazon forest that catches fire can far exceed the area cleared with chainsaws.
“An enormous bonfire of Amazon logs”
Nevertheless, the smoke from the fires was so bad that on 19 August 2019 it darkened the sky in São Paulo in the middle of the afternoon. São Paulo is more than 2,500 kilometres away from the main area of fires.
Nepstad points out that this is “a particularly smoky burning season”. That’s because the fires are burning trees from already cleared forest.
“The deforestation process in the Amazon frontier is a two-part process,” NASA scientist Doug Morton tells Bloomberg.
First the trees are cut, by fastening large chains between two tractors and uprooting the trees. The trees are then left to dry out.
We are now seeing the second part, where the piles of wood, cleared several months ago, are set on fire. Morton explains that,
Those fires are not burning the residues from a harvested crop field or the last remaining grasses in a pasture. They’re burning an enormous bonfire of Amazon logs that have been piled drying in the sun for several months.
Morton says we are seeing an uptick in the pressure on the remaining Amazon rainforest to expand agriculture on the deforestation frontier. “They’re pushing deeper and deeper into the central Amazon,” he says.
Can REDD save the Amazon?
Nepstad is a keen supporter of REDD payments to Brazil as a way of stopping the deforestation. He writes that,
Brazil is better positioned than any other nation to lead the pathway to the low-carbon economy. Its 7+ billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions that have been avoided through Brazil’s enormous and successful effort to slow Amazon deforestation are now poised to be monetized. The “pay-for-performance” contracts between the Brazilian national government and both Norway and Germany — both recently suspended because of changes made to the Amazon Fund structure — and more recently, with the Green Climate Fund are just one manifestation of this valuation. Germany and the UK recently began a similar pay-for-performance agreement with the States of Mato Grosso and Acre.
He’s also a supporter of California including REDD carbon credits in its cap and trade scheme – despite the unresolved problems of permanence, leakage, and additionality.
Nepstad notes that his recent blog post on the Amazon fires was “Supported by a grant from the Norwegian Development Agency to the Earth Innovation Institute”. Just maybe that explains his ongoing enthusiasm for REDD despite the lack of evidence that it works to reduce emissions.
Most REDD funding to Brazil has gone from Norwegian aid funds to the Amazon Fund. In total more than US$1.2 billion has gone into the Amazon Fund since 2008. Norway recently suspended payments to the Amazon Fund over a disagreement about the governance of the Amazon Fund.
Development Today reveals that more than US$330 million of unspent Norwegian money to the the Amazon Fund is sitting with the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). Since the breakdown in negotiations between Norway and Brazil on the future of the Amazon Fund, that money is in limbo.
That puts in perspective the squabble between Bolsanaro and France’s President Macron over €20 million from the G7 to put out the fires.
If Norway’s money was not tied into a results-based payments scheme, some of it could perhaps be used immediately to put out the fires. Perhaps even more importantly, the money could be used to continue policing deforestation in the Amazon.
In an article in ProPublica this week, Lisa Song and Paula Moura explain the importance of ongoing funding for government surveillance:
People have always exploited the forest illegally, “but in the last few months, it has increased significantly,” said Camões Boaventura, a federal prosecutor in the Brazilian state of Pará. Meanwhile, he said, environmental officials are struggling to pay for the gas they need to drive around enforcing regulations. Gisele Bleggi, a federal prosecutor in Rondônia, said Bolsonaro didn’t have to change a single environmental law to encourage deforestation. “Once you stop giving money for surveillance … the system it protects will collapse.”
The Green Climate Fund’s terrible precedent
In February 2019, Brazil became the first country to receive funding from the Green Climate Fund, for reducing emissions from deforestation. Here’s how UNDP gushed about the US$96.4 million from GCF:
The payment from the GCF is based on results achieved by Brazil in the Amazon biome between 2014-2015, and which have been reported and validated by experts from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is the essence of REDD+: a mechanism to reward countries for having reduced their deforestation.
Before the GCF Board made its decision to hand over the money, REDD-Monitor pointed out that doing so, “would set a terrible precedent, wasting GCF money without creating any incentive to protect forests in the future”.
Under this system of results based payments, a temporary drop in commodity prices, for soy beans or beef, could result in reduced deforestation. When the commodity price goes back up, the deforestation rate also goes back up.
This is pretty much what happened in Brazil, according to Philip Fearnside of the National Institute of Amazonian Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, INPA):
Deforestation rates have gone up and down over the years with major economic cycles. A peak of 27,772 km2/year was reached in 2004, followed by a major decline to 4571 km2/year in 2012, after which the rate trended upward, reaching 7989 km2/year in 2016 (equivalent to about 1.5 hectares per minute). Most (70%) of the decline occurred by 2007, and the slowing in this period is almost entirely explained by declining prices of export commodities such as soy and beef.
But since 2004, Brazil also put in place a series of regulations aimed at restricting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. In recent years, these regulations have been weakened under the influence of the bancada ruralista, a group of large landowners and businessmen.
The “essence of REDD+” then, seems to involve paying Brazil for a two year period during which deforestation was increasing, and the stage was being set for future deforestation.
This is the problem with “results-based payments”, and with “Natural climate solutions” in general. A reduced rate of deforestation may be the result of improved regulation, or low commodity prices, or a series of short dry seasons. Or a combination of all three.
But whatever caused the reduced rate of deforestation, the results can be overturned very quickly.
PHOTO Credits: Screenshots from drone footage of the Amazon fires, The Guardian, 26 August 2019.