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By Roger Highfield on

Deforestation Pushes Amazon Towards Tipping Point

Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest has soared by 22% within a year. Science Director Roger Highfield talks to Brazilian climate scientist Patricia Pinho about the profound implications for biodiversity, indigenous people, and global climate.

The recently reported surge in deforestation of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, provides only a glimpse of a wider pattern of forest degradation that heralds irreversible climate change, with potentially global implications, a so-called tipping point.

‘We really are in near a tipping point’, said Patricia Pinho of The Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, and of the CITinova Project, which is working on greener, more sustainable and climate resilient cities in the global south.

“The ecological tipping point is fast approaching both as a consequence of compounding effects of climate change associated with greenhouse emissions and deforestation and forest degradation impacts,” she said.

“However, in terms of the social tipping point, we see that this could happen sooner as most indigenous people and traditional communities in the Amazon have been impacted by climate change hazards but also affected by the dynamics of deforestation and forest degradation.”

Changing by Alisa Singer 2021. Image credit: IPCC

Dr Pinho, who focuses on social aspects of climate change, is also one of the authors of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists whose findings are endorsed by the world’s governments, and lead author for the IPCC’s 1.5 degree special report.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has given assurances that the country is curbing illegal logging. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Brazil signed up to a global pledge with more than 100 other nations to eliminate deforestation worldwide by 2030. Under the plan, Brazil said it would reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 15 percent in the next year.

Yet around the time that this commitment was made, a report by INPE, Brazil’s National Institute for Space, showed satellite data from PRODES (Projeto de Monitoramento do Desmatamento na Amazônia Legal por Satélite) that revealed that Brazil has experienced a fourth consecutive year of rising deforestation rates.

Since Mr. Bolsonaro became president in 2019, the country has lost a forest area bigger than Belgium. During a period from August 2020 through July 2021, INPE recorded an astounding 13,235 square kilometres (5,110 square miles) of deforestation, its highest levels in 15 years.

By comparison, the area of greater London is 1,569 km², so this area of deforestation is more than eight times the size of England’s sprawling capital. Dr Pinho said that there was also an equal or larger amount of degraded forest, that is, forest that no longer provides the same ‘ecosystem services’ in terms of removing carbon, taking part in the water cycle and so on.

The Amazon is one of most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, hosting about three million species of plants and animals, and around one million indigenous people, along with another 30 million so-called traditional people who adopt lifestyles that are similar.

“They are near collapse. Indigenous people cannot live their lifestyle or earn their livelihoods under the circumstance that they are living in now, as a consequence of deforestation, forest degradation and climate change impacts such as severe droughts and floods,’’ said Dr Pinho.

The Amazon and its people, both of which are celebrated in Sebastião Salgado’s Amazônia exhibition at the Science Museum, are considered critical to staving off catastrophic climate change.

Chaman Yanomami en rituel avant la montée vers le Pico da Neblina, État d’Amazonas, Brésil, 2014 © Sebastião Salgado

“We know there is a strong link between culture, diverse biodiversity and climate services,” said Dr Pinho.  “Indigenous territories are the most biodiverse areas in the Amazon forest, including the lowest levels of deforestation, degradation, and fire incidence providing tremendous services to the world in terms of climate services and water cycle regulation.”

The Amazon rainforest is an important carbon sink that helps absorb and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, stabilising the global climate, but persistent deforestation has converted denuded regions of the rainforest into a source of carbon that is more susceptible to wildfires.

Some scientists are concerned that if enough of the rainforest is destroyed, it could cross a tipping point, dry out and turn into savannah over a few decades. That would release huge amounts of carbon, accelerating climate change.

“The Amazon will become a Savannah like ecosystem and what will happen with indigenous territories, which are the areas with the highest level of biodiversity?” she said.

‘The whole world is talking about a climate emergency and yet we are seeing before our eyes the disappearance of the Amazon forest and its legacy that is not important only for the local people and the region but globally,” she said. “We do have a short window for action right now if we are to achieve the Paris climate target, which limits global warming to 1.5 °C

FAQ1.2, Figure 1: How close are we to 1.5°C? Image credit: IPCC

Under the presidency of Jair Bolsanaro, the Amazon has been increasingly losing tree cover due to illegal logging, illegal mining, illegal forest clearance by fire, illegal ranching and “predatory road building”. As a consequence, there are “severe human rights violations, including violence against indigenous people and traditional populations,” she said.

At the same time Brazil shut down the $1.2 billion funding from Germany and Norway that supported tracking deforestation and fire prevention (in 2019, for example, forest fires affected 148 indigenous territories). “Monitoring of deforestation no longer features in Brazilian environment and climate change legislation, while the environment ministry has been merged with the ministry of agriculture” said Dr Pinho.

“We could be driving economic growth, reduction of poverty, reduction of inequality and protection of the Amazon, indigenous people and traditional livelihoods. But what this government is doing is the opposite, pursuing an anti-climate and antisocial agenda.”

The European Union and United States are discussing legislation that would prevent imports of goods linked to deforestation and, for example, ask companies selling beef, soy, palm oil, cocoa, coffee, and wood to prove the commodities were not produced on land that had been deforested or degraded.

However, Dr Pinho fears that such measures could severely affect local agribusiness, the heart of the country’s economy. “On top of the impact of COVID-19, this would be horrible for the economy and horrible for people who live in poverty. If we don’t act carefully, future generations will have no future in Brazil.”

“Ending deforestation and forest degradation as well as limiting greenhouse emissions in the Amazon (and globally) would make it easier for indigenous people to achieve a sustainable and prosperous future.”

After a successful run at the Science Museum in London, Amazônia is on at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester from 13 May – 14 August 2022. Book tickets now