The Amazon rainforest is of vital importance to the planet. The largest tropical rainforest in the world, its trees support not only one of the richest biomes, but also regulate the weather patterns that are key for agriculture in the region and provide water across South America.

Crises in the Amazon Rainforest

In the current climate emergency, the rainforest plays a central role in constraining the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon. Unfortunately, the forest and its ability to be part of the solution are in danger. The Amazon region currently faces four simultaneous crises that could compromise its capacity to help keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C.

  1. Becoming a net emitter: Deforestation and degradation directly emit greenhouse gases, threatening to turn the Amazon region from a carbon sink into a net emitter of carbon dioxide. A recent study conducted over the last decade shows that important parts of the forest have already become a source of CO2.
  2. Biodiversity loss: Ongoing fires and deforestation remove large parts of the natural habitats so vital to maintain biodiversity in tropical forests like the Amazon, according to a study published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Estimates suggest fires have already impacted the vast majority of the biome’s species. And deforestation, which has been increasing considerably in the last four years, also plays a part in biodiversity loss. Logging and illegal mining also pose a risk to the functions the forest environment can provide.
  3. Transitioning from forest to savanna: New studies suggest ongoing deforestation could lead the Amazon rainforest to a tipping point, where it no longer sustains itself and large portions would instead transition to a Savanna-like ecosystem. This would accelerate climate change and disrupt weather patterns throughout the continent, affecting agriculture in other regions of South America.
  4. Socio-economic crisis: The Amazon rainforest is a vast and difficult region to access. It is also an exceptionally socially diverse and impoverished part of Latin America, and current economic dynamics have increased the pressure on its natural resources.

Deforestation has reached historic levels, with timber, soy, cattle and mining sectors pushing the forest’s limits. The conflict between forestland and other forms of land use has been a problem for the region since colonial times.

However, recent changes in Brazil’s regulations have reportedly encouraged illegal extractive activities, which has incited a cycle of degradation and violence in the countryside, including recurrent invasions of indigenous reserves.

The coronavirus crisis has deepened these historical challenges — driving the need for new deforestation-free, sustainable development opportunities and economic diversification for local communities.

a man delivers a banana load at the market in Manaus, Brazil
Green infrastructure investments will be crucial on the transition to a low carbon economy in the Amazon and must be done without sacrificing biodiversity. In the picture, a man delivers a banana load at the market in Manaus, Brazil. Photo by GuenterManaus/shutterstock

What Can Brazil Do to Help Protect the Amazon Rainforest?

Avoiding these dire scenarios is in the interest of all nine Amazonian countries — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. Colombia, for example, has stepped up its already ambitious climate action plan (otherwise known as an NDC, or Nationally Determined Contribution), and convened the Leticia pact aimed at protecting the Amazon.

However, given that 60% of the forest is within Brazil’s borders and the country has proven expertise in dramatically reducing deforestation in the past, Brazil is key to protecting the Amazon. 

Here are four strategies that the country can put in place to protect the Amazon rainforest and, at the same time, provide an economic path to green recovery, creating jobs, generating incomes, and moving the region to a low carbon economy.

First, connect the Amazon rainforest’s economic policies with Brazilian climate goals.

Brazil could show the international community it takes the Amazon deforestation problem seriously by strengthening its NDC.

The country, an emerging economy, has a very different pattern of emissions when compared to high-income countries where most CO2 emissions come from the energy sector. It has a high share of hydro-renewables in electricity production — accounting for more than 64% of electricity generation — and the largest chunk of emissions comes from the Land Use sector — with more than 70% of emissions related to agriculture, deforestation and fires.

Since the NDC is a commitment to reduce emissions, Brazil has two challenges: the first is maintaining its current legislation in order to avoid the legalization of the deforestation levels seen today; the second is halting illegal deforestation. This is one of the most critical and strategic climate actions Brazil can pursue to meet the Paris Climate Agreement while also avoiding dangerous tipping points in the Amazon rainforest.

However, the current administration submitted a disappointing climate action plan in December 2020. While Brazil committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 37% below 2005 levels in 2025, and by 43% below 2005 levels in 2030, adjustments to the 2005 baseline in fact transforms these into less ambitious targets than what the country committed to in 2015.

The 2020 update of the NDC also dropped any mention of sectoral targets — such as zero illegal deforestation and the restoration of 12 million hectares of forests by 2030.

In a letter sent to President Biden in April, and again during his speech at the Leaders Summit, President Bolsonaro committed to curb illegal deforestation by 2030 — but whether this will be re-entered into the official climate action plan is yet to be seen.

A more ambitious NDC, officially submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change during or before COP26 in Glasgow in November, should explicitly include these targets and show the path to achieving emissions reductions. This would help demonstrate to the public and to the international community that the Bolsonaro administration is serious about these climate goals

Second, recover degraded pasture.

An agribusiness powerhouse, Brazil’s agriculture and livestock industries represent at least a quarter of Brazilian GDP. However, unsustainable ways of producing commodities have resulted in more than 50 million hectares (123 million acres) of degraded pastureland in the country, equivalent to the size of Spain.

Recovering degraded pasturelands and Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forestry Systems could boost meat production while scaling restoration and regeneration of native forests (photo by Ronaldo Rosa, Embrapa)
Recovering degraded pasturelands and Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forestry Systems could boost meat production while scaling restoration and regeneration of native forests. Photo by Ronaldo Rosa, Embrapa

Brazil does not need to chop down new areas of forest to maintain its livestock production. Instead, new studies show that recovering degraded pasturelands could boost Brazil’s capacity to produce meat while scaling massive restoration and regeneration of native forests.

A 2020 WRI Brasil and New Climate Economy (NCE) study demonstrates that this would also bring several economic benefits. The restoration of 12 million hectares (29 million acres) of degraded pastureland could lead to an increase of $3.7 billion in additional agricultural production, alongside $144 million in additional tax revenues from the agriculture sector alone.

Third, attract green investments for the Amazon region.

Finance is another crucial reason for Brazil to keep up with its climate commitments and protect the Amazon rainforest. The country has the expertise to drastically reduce deforestation. To do so previously the government has worked with civil society as well as the federal police, created the Plan for the Prevention and Combating of Deforestation in the Amazon, and conditioned finance and rural credit to compliance with the Forest Code, among other measures. Additional resources should come through transparent, climate-smart financing.

Reinstating policies to control and prevent deforestation while also creating new ways to make deforestation-free products and supply chains could be key to attracting new international finance for the Amazon region.

The international finance sector is quickly moving away from unsustainable investments and products. Over 1,500 organizations globally (including over 1,340 companies with a market capitalization of $12.6 trillion and financial institutions responsible for assets of $150 trillion) have expressed their support for the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, which creates transparency around climate risks. This is a strong signal to countries seeking investment that they need to demonstrate sustainability.

Seventy-three of the world’s largest asset managers — including Blackrock and Vanguard, which collectively oversee $35 trillion, or one-third of global assets — have set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions across their investment portfolios by 2050 in alignment with 1.5 degrees C goals. 

Brazil will need to send the right signals to the international community if it wants to capture sorely needed financial flows. Otherwise, companies with climate targets and disclosures won’t be willing to invest in the country for fear of exposure to climate risk.

New methods of production like agroforestry, that integrates trees and crops, can generate income while preserving natural capital (photo by HenriqueFerrera/shutterstock)
New methods of production like agroforestry, that integrates trees and crops, can generate income while preserving natural capital. Photo by HenriqueFerrera/shutterstock

Finally, create new ways to include local communities.

The current economy of the Amazon rainforest is mostly extraction-based and the main source of income for local communities is turning forestland to pasture, crops and logging. However, studies show deforestation does not translate into well-being for people living in the Amazon, nor does reducing deforestation jeopardize agricultural production. There are methods to increase production without destroying the forest, like the recovery of already degraded areas (as mentioned previously).

In this sense, policies to stop deforestation are not enough; local communities need an alternative source of income. Discovering, piloting and scaling new economic cycles that add value to both the maintenance and preservation of the forest and to product value chains based on traditional knowledge — such as the açai and Brazil nut — will be key to preserving natural capital and doing better than business-as-usual.

The transition to a low-carbon economy must therefore create new jobs and opportunities for indigenous populations, local rural families, and grassroots groups, as well as provide needed infrastructure without sacrificing biodiversity.  

It is important to note that indigenous communities play a key role in conservation by serving as forest stewards. In order to protect their communities and safeguard this role for the future, it is essential to secure their land rights. Such a task would require coordination and modest investment but could lead to important social, environmental and economic benefits.

The Amazon Rainforest is Central to Climate Action

Climate action in Brazil will be decided by the response to the current crises in the Amazon. The recent WRI Brasil/NCE report shows that a climate resilient economic recovery in the country, compared to business-as-usual, could deliver over two million additional jobs, a total GDP gain of $535 billion, and lower air and water pollution by 2030 — benefitting all Brazilians as a result.

The region and its cities should be able to lead the transition to a low-carbon economy in Brazil. Actions Brazil takes in the Amazon rainforest region will help determine not just the future of local communities, but also whether the world will be able to avoid the worst impacts of the climate emergency.