A rainforest nearing its tipping point
The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s great natural wonders, covering millions of square kilometers and crossing borders into nine different South American nations. But, according to Brazilian Earth system scientist Carlos Nobre, it is also under threat from deforestation, forest degradation and wildfires that could result in a “tipping point” that it might never recover from. And to keep this from happening, he said, scientists and policymakers must innovate to find a new sustainable balance between nature and the modern economy.
Nobre has been a TWAS Fellow since 2006, and was one of the authors of the Fourth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He spoke at TWAS Fifteenth General Conference on 2 November, as part of a symposium titled as the whole Conference itself “Advancing frontier science, technology and innovation for the SDGs in developing countries”. In his lecture and in a separate interview, he detailed the problems the Amazon faces, and the unprecedented solutions that must be found to save it.
The Amazon rainforest, he said, has already lost 1 million out of 6.2 million square kilometres to deforestation, and 1 million more to wildfires and forest degradation.
“Many studies have shown there is a possibility that we are very close to a tipping point in which only the western Amazon near the Andes would remain—30 per cent of the forest,” he said. “The other 70 per cent would become a highly degraded, open-canopy ecosystem.”
If that tipping point is reached, continued Nobre, up to 70 per cent of the forest will be “savanna-like” in 30 to 50 years. The process is called “savannization”, which means thinner canopies, wider grasslands, dryer terrain, and thus more fires sparked by lightning strikes in areas with dry vegetation.
Furthermore, if that tipping point is allowed to occur, more than 300 billion tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere, making it impossible to reach the targets set by the Paris Agreement, adopted by 196 parties in December 2015. It would also mean the extinction of thousands of plant and animal species. And the climate stability of South America, which the Amazon is essential for, will be severely disrupted. The local average temperature would increase by as much as 3 to 4 degrees Celsius, and droughts would accelerate, because the water vapor that normally emerges from the rainforest and falls as rain on the southern part of the continent would decrease.
The Amazon is already under direct pressure from droughts caused by climate change. Droughts used to happen every 15-to-20 years, Nobre noted, with a severe one perhaps once per century. Now, droughts occur closer to every five years, which causes and accelerates the fires and rate of forest degradation.
The effort to stop this tipping point from arriving faces major hurdles. Nobre said most of the deforestation in the Amazon is already illegal, much of it run by organized crime interconnected across South American countries with the Amazon territory. Almost 50 per cent of the rainforest land that was clear-cut was already legally public land. So, the only way to keep deforestation under control is for governments to put resources into enforcing the law and maintaining control over that public land.
Of the land destroyed by clear-cutting, 63 per cent was made into pasture land for cattle, and 23 per cent was completely abandoned. Nonetheless, most of the farmers and ranchers who buy the land from criminal organizations are poor and need better economic opportunities.
“I have to say, the big agricultural industry always wants to expand. But very little wealth remains in the Amazon,” said Nobre. “It doesn’t bring well-being for most of the Amazon population—about 40 million people, 2.5 million of them indigenous. About 60 per cent of the population live in cities and are very poor.”
To tackle this problem, Nobre asks a key question: What is the economic value of the standing forest?
It turns out, with the right strategy in place, the forest has a wealth of resources that could be turned into an economic engine: cacao for chocolate and other edible goods like Brazil nuts are only two examples. Also, over 240 plant species of the Amazon are also useful for cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, and the full potential of the standing forest is yet unknown. Nobre estimated the rainforest’s natural resources are at least five times more valuable than the cattle ranching or soy farming that result from the clear-cutting operations.
Nobre said scientists and policymakers must tap into the principles of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to harness the tremendous potential of the Amazon, with 450 species of known economic value that should easily surpass the value of cattle or soy. But they must do so sustainably, maintaining the rainforest’s rich biodiversity.
Nobre also noted that it’s important to remember that humans first arrived in the Amazon over 10,000 years ago. They found ways to live harmoniously with the rainforest for millennia. Already in the 1500s, when the Europeans arrived, there were an estimated 8 to 10 million people living in the Amazon.
“There are many other studies showing the Amazon potential,” Nobre said, “We need to add the forest to supply chains, with modern technologies and bioindustrialization, to create high-quality jobs. That is why, a big challenge is how to combine this with the knowledge of indigenous peoples who always kept the forest standing, and extract everything they need from it.”
He described two possible pathways: “the sustainability pathway”, in which policies change in order to preserve the Amazon, or the “dystopian way”, in which the statue quo continues, and the Amazon may vanish.
Nobre is part of a team developing what they call Amazon 4.0 Project, which will include creative labs for developing sustainable uses of the rainforest’s resources, such as for cacao and Brazil nuts. The project also includes plans for a rainforest social business school, for which they are partnering with the Brazilian public university system and will include an MBA course that they hope will help found an open forum for discussion about the Amazon bioeconomy.
“This is a big challenge and, during COP26, we are releasing the relevant report of the Science Panel for the Amazon, made up of 200 authors, scientists,” said Nobre. “We put together a report on how to create this living and sustainable Amazon, creating this new economy, with healthy forests, flowing rivers, and also regional sites to conduct this transformation.”
But perhaps the biggest part of the challenge is that such an effort would be unprecedented. There is no model to copy, said Nobre, so the situation calls for radical innovation.
“Basically, we need to bring the ways of developing new knowledge, new technology, and also combine it with traditional knowledge,” said Nobre.