This is the latest installment in a weekly column on energy and the environment — “Planetary.” This column will draw together major trends in this sphere and provide analysis and perspective that extend beyond our daily reporting. We welcome ideas from readers about major topics I should write about — click on my byline to email me, or tweet @chriscmooney.
White House officials confirmed Thursday that in President Obama’s meetings this coming week with the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, they’re going to be talking about climate change.
It’s unclear whether the result will be any kind of climate-related pact between the U.S. and Brazil on emissions, as we saw between the U.S. and China last year. But there’s certainly plenty of speculation about one.
Brazil is a nation of more than 200 million people — the fifth most populous in the world — and from 1990 through 2011 was the world’s fourth largest single emitter of greenhouse gases. So while a deal or at least some type of statement issued by the two countries might not be considered as significant as the deal between the U.S. and China — the world’s two top emitters — it still would be quite important.
One reason: it would likely help draw additional attention to the plight of the Amazon, the bulk of which lies in Brazil.
Global warming, after all, is not caused simply by humans burning fossil fuels for electricity and for transportation. True, that’s the single biggest factor in the driving of emissions.
But the burning of fossil fuels is just one part of what’s known as the earth’s carbon cycle, in which processes like photosynthesis, decomposition, and many more determine where the stores of the planet’s carbon lie, and how they shift around. If there are more plants performing photosynthesis, then more carbon will be pulled out of the atmosphere. So it follows that if humans tear down trees, they are worsening climate change, just as they are when they burn fossil fuels.
Which brings us to the Amazon, the biggest rainforest in the world. Cattle interests and other key players have been devastating Brazil’s forests. And this has vast consequences — for not only is it likely helping to fuel the devastating drought afflicting the Brazilian megacity of Sao Paulo, but it means less pulling of carbon out of the atmosphere. Indeed, recent research has already suggested that the powerful Amazon carbon “sink” has been weakening of late.
Brazil and Indonesia — also a top 10 emitter, with major forests whose losses contribute greatly to the global carbon problem — bring this side of climate change into crucial focus. And in some sense, this is a hopeful story — because Brazil has really turned things around recently.
A 2015 report on the Amazon by the World Wildlife Fund notes that in 2004, a stunning 27,722 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest were lost to agriculture and other forms of destruction. But ten years later, in 2014, the rate of destruction was 80 percent less, thanks to crucial Brazilian efforts to curb deforestation. Indeed, a scientific report last year suggested Indonesia may have now surpassed Brazil for its deforestation rate.
Obama this week “will be meeting with the president of the country that has done the most to reduce global warming pollution over the last decade,” said Doug Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists on a press call Thursday. “Brazil has achieved this almost exclusively through the reduction in deforestation,” he continues. Indeed, according to WWF, in 2005 more than half of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to land use changes (which includes deforestation). Today that’s down to 22 percent.
The Amazon is so big, however, that there’s still a long way to go. “Brazil still appears at the top of the global deforestation ranking, having lost 4,571 square kilometers of forest in 2012, and 5,891 sq. km in 2013,” WWF observes. Moreover, 20 percent of the Amazon has already been lost to deforestation, and there are concerns that a more fragmented Amazon will have a harder time weathering climate related disturbances of the future, including droughts and wildfires.
Thus any climate progress with Brazil that involves protecting forests would be critical.
So what’s going to happen next week? There’s no way to know — and indeed, climate policy watchers may be let down. Brazil has not yet released emissions reductions targets as part of the process leading up to the December 2015 U.N. climate summit in Paris, and may not be ready to do so.
Nonetheless, amid multiple chess moves leading up to Paris — a game in which the climate-committed White House is striving to put in place a convincing coterie of nations pushing action — an important one could potentially happen here. Michael Wolosin, a director at the climate consulting firm Climate Advisers, thinks the U.S. may press Brazil for further steps on shoring up the Amazon, in exchange for trade policy changes that would allow Rousseff to bring home very good economic news.
“If you’re talking about climate change with Brazil, you must be talking about deforestation,” said Wolosin.
Focusing on the Amazon also inevitably raises questions about the fate our own forests here in the United States, which are also at risk of shrinking and pulling less carbon out of the atmosphere. According to the government’s 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment, American forests currently offset 16 percent of our national emissions. But researchers project that wildfires and other disturbances could be so bad in the future that our forests could lose this ability as soon as 2030.
And just to drive that point home: Over 300 active wildfires were burning in Alaska Sunday, and over a million acres had been consumed in June alone.