Certified Zero Deforestation: An Effective Response to a Global Threat
“With most of the Amazon under his control, few national leaders will have more power to harm or help the world’s fight against climate change than Bolsonaro.” Climate Home News (Oct 29, 2018)
In 2004, at the peak of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, 27,772 square kilometers of forests were cleared. Emissions from the narrow sector of land use change and forestry in Brazil accounted for 2.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions at the height of deforestation. The total area of the Amazon has declined by 19% since the beginnings of mass deforestation in the 1970s.1
Since 2004, national programs to preserve the Brazilian Amazon have led to a 76% drop in deforestation rates and cut emissions from land use change and forestry by 72%.2 Clearly, efforts to curtail deforestation in Brazil have been successful and Brazil is a world leader in advancing programs of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). This work is ongoing and REDD programs in the Amazon and around the world must continue to advance.
Forested areas in South America contain 33% of the global total of forest sequestered carbon.3 Rainforests have by far the highest density of carbon stock per unit of land area. Ultimately, climate change mitigation will require a transition from deforestation to programs of reforestation and afforestation in the Amazon and other areas on earth. Re-establishing and even extending the original area of the Amazon rainforest is vitally important to transition global forests from a source of emissions to net carbon dioxide withdrawal. Atmospheric carbon dioxide withdrawal via natural systems is viewed as an absolute requirement if future surface warming is to be limited to well below 2°C.
There are valid arguments that advanced economies have not stepped up with adequate levels of support for REDD programs in Brazil and other tropical rainforest countries. Norway has committed $1 billion to Amazon Fund based on Brazil achieving targets for emissions reduction from the forestry sector.4 REDD programs are among the most-cost effective avenues of emissions reductions and there are mechanisms under the Paris agreement that would facilitate the flow of carbon offsets in exchange for investment into REDD programs that achieve verified emissions curtailments.
Brazil is not dependent upon an expansion of pasturelands into the Amazon for continued success as a producer of agriculture commodities. Pastureland recovery, restoration of agricultural lands and integrated systems of livestock-crop-forest land use are examples of programs that can increase the density of agriculture productivity and cut greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining forested areas.5
This brings us to the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as the President of Brazil. Mr. Bolsonaro has threatened to rollback important climate, environmental and social polices in Brazil that have served to limit deforestation and exploitation of the Amazon.6 The election of Mr. Bolsonaro may well be among the more urgent items on the global agenda for combating climate. Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to eliminate the Ministry of the Environment which is responsible for policing illegal deforestation and logging activities in the Amazon and transfer these responsibilities to the Ministry of Agriculture.6 The Ministry of Agriculture is largely controlled by the “Beef Caucus” which consists of a group of politicians that are opposed to land conservation measures and advocate for an expansion of agricultural lands.6 In essence, under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, the Amazon could be re-opened for exploitation and resource extraction without consequence. Historically pastureland expansion has accounted for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon.7 A “wild-west” of unrestricted mining and logging operations along with an expansion of pastureland could re-establish dangerous rates of deforestation.
Mismanagement of the Amazon by the Brazil government will have global consequences and will contribute to a future whereby the extreme costs and hardships of unmitigated climate damage will be imposed on all nations. With an increase in the global level of ambition to combat climate change comes a responsibility for advanced economies to contribute to the efforts of developing countries to limit deforestation and degradation of forests. The international community is also obliged to impose economic and political pressure on rogue nations intent on following practices that would exploit and diminish vital natural ecosystems.
Brazil’s economy is highly dependent upon on the export of commodities with the majority of products destined for China. A coordinated international effort supported by China could react to evidence of deforestation by imposing sanctions and tariffs designed to impact the Brazilian economy. The international community could demand that Brazil implement a framework of risk-based due diligence applied to the agriculture supply chain. Measures to trace supply chains, such as electronic tagging of cows at birth, could identify products coming from practices that are damaging and unsustainable.8 The private sector, both domestically and internationally, could suspend contracts with suppliers of beef raised on deforested lands. Consumers could demand that Brazilian products are certified as “zero deforestation”.
Within advanced economies, there is little appetite for products associated with deforestation or exploitation of the Amazon. A quick international response to the Mr. Bolsonaro’s stated intensions to deregulate land use would send a strong message that these actions would be detrimental to the Brazilian economy. Mr. Bolsonaro and members of the “Beef Caucus” may not understand climate change and the impacts of unregulated deforestation. These politicians apparently view the Amazon as a resource that can be exploited for short-term profits. The message must be sent by governments, and by private sector companies and consumers (domestically and internationally) that it will be highly unprofitable to roll back policies that protect the Amazon.