- The upsurge of global environmental anxiety over the recent outbreak of forest fires in the Amazon, apparently marking a renewed push to deforestation, is clearly testimony to the heightened awareness of the danger to human security represented by global warming.
- The anti-environmental and climate denial views of Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, and his colleagues, the reining in of environmental controls the President’s initial air of unconcern, and his absurd counter-allegations regarding the causes, have all contributed to exacerbating this anxiety.
- This has drawn the ire of environmentalists, and public and government opinion globally.
Land use vs Fossil fuel emissions
- The Amazon rainforest, the vessel holding a massive amount of the world’s oxygen, is burning at a rate scientists have never seen before.
- The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has recorded more than 74,000 fires so far this year – an 84 percent increase on the same period in 2018. It’s the highest number since records began in 2013.
Afforestation not a panacea
- As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes in its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the cumulative net addition of carbon to the earth system from terrestrial ecosystems since 1750 amounts to about 30 Gigatonne (Gt).
- But the net balance of all terrestrial ecosystems, those affected by land use change and the others, is close to neutral because the cumulative emissions from land-use change since 1750 (almost 180 Gt) were compensated by the 160 Gt of absorption by existing vegetation not subject to land use change.
- Fossil fuel use, in contrast, contributed 375 Gt since 1750, that is more than 12 times that of the net cumulative emissions from terrestrial ecosystems.
- This pattern in carbon accounting also extends to annual emissions.
- On an average, the Global Carbon Project reports, fossil fuel emissions currently pump about 9.9 Gt of carbon annually into the atmosphere, while land-use change accounts for 1.5 Gt.
- But terrestrial ecosystems absorbed 3.8 Gt. Taking sources and sinks together, they are a net sink.
- By one scientific estimate, the Amazon, in 1980, stored 128 Gt of carbon, with 94 Gt in vegetation and 33 Gt in the reactive component of soil carbon.
- While preservation of the Amazon as a carbon pool is essential, such preservation clearly is not the magic bullet that would counteract the impact of fossil fuel emissions.
- But the bottom line from this evidence is that fossil fuel emissions have a lasting impact of a kind that deforestation and land use change do not.
- The effect of the latter can be partially repaired over time, albeit slowly, as the data on tropical forests demonstrates, while untouched forests and living biomass continue to absorb carbon.
- Fossil fuel emissions from coal, oil, and gas cannot however be put back in to where they came from.
What then has driven the global outrage against Mr. Bolsanaro?
- Brazil has also put in substantial effort over the last decade to slow down deforestation, with some notable success, reducing it by 2013 to 75% of its pre-2005 annual average.
- It is quite likely that Mr. Bolsanaro represents a reaction to the tough measures that accompanied this effort.
- Apart from deforestation though, Brazil is by no means a high emissions country, and a model of renewable energy use from hydro power and biofuels.
- Conservationists - The Amazon was always the poster-child of conservation and biodiversity, and halting deforestation there a global cause célèbre among environmentalists and their movements.
- With global warming, the difficulty in slowing down fossil fuel emissions provides added fuel to such views, even if the evidence militates against them.
- Governments of developed countries and many international non-governmental organisations - These nations have notably failed to deliver in reducing their fossil fuel emissions.
- Now, they want to change focus on mitigation in the non-industrial sectors as these sectors play a major role in the emissions of most developing countries, however low they may be in absolute terms.
- Also, Brazil is a softer target than the superpower USA, or the large developing nations such as China and India for the world to blame.
- The threat by the French President, Emmanuel Macron to block the EU-Mercosur trade deal to mark the European Union’s displeasure marks a new low in the global North’s pressure tactics on the South in dealing with the climate challenge.
- Global talk of a climate emergency that is not grounded in scientific evidence, however well-intentioned in their origins, will not yield any positive result.
- The Amazon and other terrestrial ecosystems offer much needed room to manoeuvre in dealing with global warming.
- But without reducing fossil fuel emissions drastically and the global North paying back its carbon debt by taking the lead, there can be little hope of meeting the climate challenge.