Earth’s Lungs

22 February 2015

Every second of every day the world loses more than two football fields of rainforest. The Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world, is under the greatest threat. Rainforests have substantial control over Earth’s climate, giving us 60% of all fresh water and 20% of the oxygen we breathe every day. Yet nearly one fifth of the Amazon has been deforested. The Amazon is often described as the lungs of Earth. And, like a chain smoker, we are slowly destroying it.

From 1990 to 2010, tropical rainforest clearing increased by 62% worldwide. At the United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014, dozens of countries and companies vowed to halve deforestation by 2020 and halt it completely by 2030. However, one critical country was missing from the agreement – Brazil. While clearing may have plummeted during the past decade in Brazil, its yearly rate of deforestation has more than doubled since August 2014. With deforestation contributing to 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, this increase threatens the future of the entire planet.

Despite the global ramifications of deforestation, the president of Brazil, Dilma Roussef, has called for the construction of new hydroelectric dams and a highway that will travel directly through the heart of the Amazon. With the economy shrinking, Brazil has become desperate to reinstate itself as one of the five largest economies in the world. With Roussef’s approval ratings dropping into the single digits, she is even more driven to keep her promise to end poverty in one of the world’s largest economies. As a result, 70% of Brazil’s deforestation has occurred to create new cattle ranches as a response to the growing price of beef globally. Roussef’s administration also supports legislation that undermines environmental protections and even offers amnesty to those undertaking illegal deforestation – all in the name of economic growth.

So what impact does Brazil’s decision to continue deforestation have on the rest of the world?

Currently the Amazon releases nearly 20 billion tons of water vapour into the atmosphere on a daily basis. However, a study conducted last year by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research found that deforestation has decreased atmospheric moisture movement to the south. Scientists believe this has been a major factor in the series of droughts experienced in the southern parts of Brazil and throughout Argentina. Brazil’s Amazon Research Institute, the INPA, warns that if the current rate of deforestation continues, these droughts will likely become permanent.

The impact of deforestation also reaches far beyond Brazil. Amazon researcher, Thomas Lovejoy, fears that the Amazon is close to its tipping point. Deforestation and climate change may transform the Amazon into a savanna and it may not be able to maintain current weather systems in the Western Hemisphere for much longer. The dry air over the basin could cause a ripple effect from Argentina all the way to the Pacific Northwest. A study conducted at Princeton in 2013 predicts that a fully deforested Amazon would result in a 20% decrease in the Pacific Northwest’s rainfall and a 50% decrease in snowfall in Sierra Nevada, California. This would result in a significant loss of water that agriculture in the United States depends on. David Medvigy, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton explains, “The big point is that Amazon deforestation will not only affect the Amazon – it will not be contained. It will hit the atmosphere and the atmosphere will carry those responses.”

This threat to the Amazon is not just imminent for humans either. The Amazon is home to at least 40,000 different plant species, approximately 3,000 fish, 1,300 birds, 427 mammals, over 400 amphibians, 378 reptiles and nearly 2.5 million insect species. They are all under threat owing to deforestation.

Surely the country that encompasses the largest percentage of the Amazon should be most responsible for its protection? Yet Brazilian law allows for limited legal deforestation, meaning it can’t sign the UN agreement to end deforestation of the Amazon. And even worse, illegal deforestation is on the rise. Land speculators are forming an army of informants that track environmental police movement, leading to an increase in unregulated deforestation. Unfortunately the Brazilian environmental police and government are not adapting to these new threats fast enough. Brazilian priorities remain economic and are skewed at local benefit rather than global conservation.

Giving your signature to Greenpeace petitions appealing to the Brazilian Congress and Senate to halt deforestation can only do so much. And it doesn’t help that leading countries like China and the United States are hedging on carbon reduction plans. Ultimately, there needs to be a far greater global pressure on countries that refuse to acknowledge the global impacts of their economic decisions. However, there are some countries doing their part. For example, Norway has committed to paying Brazil $1 billion between 2008 and 2015 in exchange for slowing severe deforestation rates. We can only hope that more international collaboration like this in the future will help to safeguard the sustainability of our planet.

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