Amazon summit highlights protection vows – but tougher action still needed

While Brazil has taken initial steps to curb deforestation, data suggests it’s merely a start, say Marion Messador and Antoine Halff, of environmental intelligence experts Kayrros.

Some 150 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in the Amazon rainforest.

Trees covering nearly seven million square kilometres – about the size of Australia – release 20 billion tonnes of water into the atmosphere per day, which plays a vital role in global and regional carbon and water cycles.

Not for no reason, then, is this vast, verdant, highly diverse part of the world called ‘the lungs of the Earth’. And those lungs have taken a beating in recent decades. Deforestation has stripped 17 percent of the rainforest’s tree cover since 1970. It reached a 15-year high under Jair Bolsonaro.

The return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency of Brazil – within the borders of which some 60 percent of the Amazon lies – was therefore (at least from the perspective of the rainforest) good news. It meant a handbrake turn in government policy after four years of environmental degradation and denial at the hands of Bolsonaro.

During Bolsonaro’s time in office, Brazil earned the ignominious title of world leader in deforestation. Some 2 million hectares of trees were cleared annually – amounting, according to our data, to 660 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of Germany. The World Resources Institute found that in 2022, 43 percent of worldwide tree cover loss in primary forests took place in Brazil.

The gathering of the Amazon nations’ leaders in a rare conclave in Belém this summer affirmed that the years of climate scepticism and despoliation were over, and that Brazil planned to return to its duties as steward of much of the planet’s shared forestry resources.

It followed several months of a slowing in deforestation that began when Lula took office. But this summit, to which relevant delegates from the United States and France were invited, failed to yield a meaningful breakthrough. There was no well-articulated, coordinated pledge to end deforestation in the Amazon. Governments, NGOs and other concerned parties hoping for boldness, for ambition, for a strong international commitment were left deflated.

It was not just the outcome of that summit that was cause for concern. It has increasingly become clear, thanks to our data, that President Lula’s climate record is far from perfect. Yes, deforestation has fallen. Yes, that is cause for celebration.

But the rate of deforestation was at a woefully high level when he took over. It remains far too high for comfort.

Using satellite imagery and AI, we tracked deforestation across the Amazon and revealed that Brazil had lost another 370,000 hectares of rainforest (down 50 percent from 746,000 hectares over the same period last year). That amounted to 66 million tonnes of carbon. Though a drop of 52 percent on the year before, that’s still equivalent to the total annual greenhouse gas emissions of a country like Austria.

But our data revealed something else that came as a surprise to many. Forest conservation projects financed by the sale of carbon offsets (commonly known as REDD+) are working. And these have played a small but encouraging part in slowing the rate of deforestation across Brazil and the other Amazon nations.

The REDD+ system has been attacked for good reason: infrequent and ineffective inspections, lack of oversight. But thanks to recent developments in satellite technology, we can now see that, in spite of this, and though their climate benefits have indeed been overstated, REDD+ projects have had a positive impact on forestry conservation.

They have helped to slow and sometimes halt deforestation. The technological advancements that have allowed us to see the positive impact of REDD+ projects will make the forest conservation industry stronger going forward. Technology means more robust safeguards can be put in place, maximising the effectiveness of conservation projects while strengthening trust in the global voluntary carbon market.

It is crucial to remember that, while much attention is directed towards the Amazon, the ongoing destruction of the Cerrado – a vast tropical savanna in eastern Brazil – should not be overlooked. The degradation of the Cerrado further underscores why Lula’s impact has been less than satisfactory.

On a positive note, the European Union’s recent inclusion of the Cerrado in their Deforestation Regulation offers hope for incentivising its protection. Additionally, advancements in satellite technology allow us to monitor the Cerrado in the same way we monitor the rainforest, bolstering safeguards for both regions.

While the Lula government has taken preliminary measures to curb deforestation, the data suggests it’s merely a start. Yes, there’s a discernible shift towards ending deforestation, and it’s undoubtedly in the right direction. Yet, it’s crucial for this administration to transition from these baby steps to giant leaps, and to accelerate from a tentative crawl to a decisive run.

Initiatives like REDD+ projects are showing promise, but there’s a pressing need for more impactful actions. President Lula’s seriousness about the climate crisis was evident when he convened leaders from other Amazon nations. However, the outcomes from the Belém meeting, while commendable, are dwarfed by the larger challenges at hand.

The deforestation in Brazil demands urgent attention. Financial incentives, stringent regulations, rigorous enforcement, and especially the leverage of satellite technology are pivotal in amplifying Brazil’s conservation efforts.

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