Author Archives: Steve Schwartzman

Why and how Brazil should do more to stop deforestation and climate change

Forest fire in Brazil

This post was co-authored by Paulo Moutinho of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and Steve Schwartzman of EDF. See the first part of this reaction to Brazil’s climate target: Brazil's climate pledge is significant, but falls short on curbing deforestation.

Brazil’s climate pledges in advance of the Paris negotiations were significant because it is one of the world’s most important emerging economies, and it’s taking on an absolute, economy-wide emissions reduction target. But, its related goal of achieving zero illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 2030 is widely regarded in Brazil as lacking in ambition.

Stopping deforestation, which formerly accounted for about 70% of Brazil’s emissions, would be good for Brazil, good for Brazilian agriculture, and supported by a large majority of Brazilians. It is also doable. Here are three reasons why, and a look at how Brazil could make such policies work.

1) More forest, less poverty: Brazil’s economy can grow without deforestation

Brazil succeeded in reducing Amazon deforestation by more than 80% since 2005 while maintaining robust growth in beef and soy production. There are at least about 56,000 km² of degraded cattle pasture in the Amazon that can be reclaimed for agriculture, as well as ample scope for intensifying cattle raising and improving yields, freeing up even more land.

Agriculture and land-use scientist Bernardo Strassburg argues that by increasing average productivity of pasture in Brazil from the current 30% of its potential to about 50%, Brazil could meet all new demand for commodities until 2040 with no new deforestation. The benefits to smallholders would be also important, considering the already deforested area (12.7 million hectares) available for agriculture expansion in rural settlements. With appropriate technical assistance and credit smallholders could produce more food (smallholders account for 80% of food production in the Amazon) with less deforestation.

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Brazil's climate pledge is significant, but falls short on curbing deforestation

Amazon rainforest. Credit: Adrian Cowell, used by EDF with permission.

This post was co-authored by Paulo Moutinho of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and Steve Schwartzman of EDF.

Brazil did the UN climate change negotiations – and hopefully, the planet – some good Sunday when President Dilma Rousseff announced emissions reductions targets in the UN General Assembly. However, it missed an opportunity do itself and the planet much more good.

President Rousseff deserves credit above all for announcing an absolute, economy-wide, emissions reductions target, rather than reductions below a business-as-usual projection, or a “carbon intensity” target. The goal is a 37% reduction by 2025 and 43% by 2030, both in relation to 2005. She also spoke promisingly of “decarbonizing” Brazil’s economy.

Brazil’s announcement is an important contribution to a successful agreement in the UN climate talks in Paris

Brazil has thus aligned itself with other major emitters, such as the U.S., China and the European Union, which have committed to becoming part of the solution to climate change. And the decision by one of the world’s most important emerging economies to take on an absolute emissions reduction target provides yet another signal that the world has moved on from the Kyoto Protocol approach of dividing the world sharply into “developed” and “developing” countries — a division that has helped lead to deadlock in the negotiations. For both reasons, Brazil’s announcement represents an important contribution to a successful agreement in the UN climate talks in Paris this December.

While the announcement did not go into detail, it is clear that these targets can only be met if Brazil sustains the 80% reduction in Amazon deforestation by 2020 in its National Climate Change Policy, passed by Congress in 2009.

Beyond this, the devil-in-the-details starts to show his face. Read More »

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In U.S.-Brazil statement on climate change, Rousseff misses opportunity for international leadership

Presidents Obama and Rousseff deserve credit for putting climate change at the top of their bilateral agenda today.

Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

President Obama and President Rousseff announced June 30 that the U.S. and Brazil would increase collaboration on climate change. Above: Obama and Rousseff at a 2011 press conference. Photo: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR via Flickr

Public commitment to a strong Paris outcome from two major emitters that are already taking significant action on climate is more than welcome. Restoring 12 million hectares of degraded forest, as President Rousseff has pledged, is a positive contribution – albeit no more than Brazil’s current law mandates.

It is highly promising that the two major economies are creating a high-level working group to move the climate change agenda forward.  Particularly interesting is the pledge to develop innovative public-private finance mechanisms both for clean energy and the forestry sector.

It is however, disappointing that President Rousseff’s goal on deforestation – to “pursue policies aimed at eliminating illegal deforestation” – goes no further than compliance with existing law.

Brazil has already reduced Amazon deforestation by 70% below the historical average since 2005 while increasing soy and beef production, and has an ambitious but entirely achievable goal of an 80% reduction by 2020.

Amazon states are taking the lead on reducing emissions from deforestation and putting in place the policy frameworks needed to consolidate these gains. Pará state has adopted a goal of zero deforestation by 2020, while Acre governor Tião Viana affirmed to UK government officials and private investors that Acre can, with adequate support, zero out deforestation within three years.

Particularly in light of Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical on climate change, President Rousseff sells Brazil’s achievements and abilities short in stating that all Brazil will do is follow its own law. President Rousseff has an enormous opportunity for international leadership on climate change, building on Brazil's impressive success to date and leveraging the progress and commitments by Brazilian states. She should seize that opportunity – and adopt a more aggressive and ambitious national target in advance of the Paris conference at year's end.

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Climate change denier named Brazil’s Science Minister


Aldo Rebelo, Brazil's new Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation denies climate change is real or caused by humans. Above: Rebelo takes his new position in a Jan. 2 ceremony in Brasília. Source: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff  has repeatedly claimed international leadership for Brazil on climate change in international forums, based on successes in reducing Amazon deforestation.

But days before the start of the new year, Rousseff appointed two ministers who cast doubt on Brazil’s leadership and bode ill for the atmosphere – especially given increases in Brazil’s deforestation rates from 2012–2013 and signs that deforestation may be once again be on the increase. Read More »

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Who deserves credit for protecting Brazil's Amazon rainforest? It's not even close.

Who’s responsible for the 70% reduction in Amazon deforestation that’s made Brazil the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, keeping 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere since 2005?

Who, if anyone, is responsible for the 29% increase in deforestation from 2012 – 2103 (which looks to repeat in 2014)?

Simon Romero’s New York Times story, Clashing Visions of Conservation Shake Brazil’s Presidential Vote, asks these questions from the vantage of wild-west frontier town Novo Progresso, Pará.

Terra do Meio_Brazil_map

The shaded area shows the indigenous territories and protected areas of the Terra do Meio region, whose 7 million hectares of protected forests Marina Silva created as environment minister.

Part of the answer lies just up the BR-163 highway from Novo Progresso, in the indigenous territories and protected areas of the Terra do Meio region of the Xingu River basin. When Marina Silva took over as environment minister in 2003, the Terra do Meio was overrun with gunmen working for land grabbers busy threatening forest communities, opening roads and clearing forest.

After Marina put together the national Plan to Prevent and Control Amazon Deforestation – and after American nun Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered nearby in 2005 – the government created about 7 million hectares of protected areas in the previously lawless Terra do Meio. The land grabbers and their hired guns left, because they knew they weren’t getting land titles in officially recognized indigenous territories and protected areas – and deforestation stopped.

This illustrates why legally recognizing indigenous territories and creating protected areas have been so effective in reducing deforestation on the Amazon frontier. Public lands not designated for any specific use (e.g., park, indigenous territory, national forest), like the Terra do Meio before 2005, are historically subject to invasion by land grabbers, who clear forest in order to claim the land. Once government declares land a park or reserve, it can’t be treated like no man’s land anymore, and the incentive to drive out local communities and clear forest goes away.

The science on how and why Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation agrees across the board that while various factors are in play (consumer and government pressure through commodity supply chains, law enforcement, increasing agriculture yields on cleared lands), creating protected areas and particularly legally recognizing indigenous lands is a very important part of the answer. (For more, see Nepstad et al, 2014; Soares Filho et al, 2010; Assunção, Gandour and Rocha, 2012; and Busch and Ferretti-Gallon, 2014.)

Going back to the question of who can claim credit for stopping deforestation, it is then notable that President Rouseff protected just 5% of the forest in indigenous territories and protected areas that her predecessor Lula did – with the large majority of Lula’s gains coming under minister Marina.

At a conservative estimate, Marina, not Dilma, protected an area of forests nearly the size of France on the Amazon frontier.

Indigenous Territories and Amazon Protected Areas Officially Designated 1995 – 2014
GovernmentIndigenous Territories Officially Designated (#)Indigenous Territories Officially Designated (Million Hectares)Amazon Protected Areas Created (#)Amazon Protected Areas Created (Million Hectares)MILLION HECTARES — TOTAL
Dilma Rouseff (2010 – 2014)2135N/A3
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003 – 2010)168324926.358.3
Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995 – 2003)263773814.891.8
Source: Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) (Note: The table does not include the five Amazon protected areas Dilma created in the last leg of the election campaign, but they wouldn’t change the picture much.)


It’s too bad that in his otherwise very good story on Amazon deforestation today, Simon Romero didn’t point out this huge disparity.

As for why deforestation was up in 2013, and likely will be again in 2014, Beto Veríssimo of Imazon put it well in the Times:

We’re witnessing an increase in speculative deforestation and forest destruction for the government’s own infrastructure projects… There’s been a rearrangement of priorities

It doesn’t have to be this way.  If Brazil improved average pasture yields from the current 30% of sustainable potential to 50%, it could meet all the demand for agriculture commodities until 2040 with no more deforestation. Unilever, Nestle, and Cargill are only a few of long list of major consumer goods companies that have committed to zero-deforestation supply chains in recent years.

Brazil could be the go-to source for zero-deforestation commodities in emerging low-carbon, high-environmental quality markets – if it can avoid backsliding into business as usual on the Amazon frontier.

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NY Times forests oped is out on a limb: protecting trees still key to solving climate change

In an oped in Saturday's New York Times (To Save the Planet, Don't Plant Trees), Nadine Unger argues that reducing deforestation and planting trees won't help fix climate change but will rather make it worse. One might ask how the 2,000-plus scientists and experts on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) got this one wrong – they found tropical deforestation a major source that must be reduced to control climate change – but in fact it's Unger who's way out on a limb here.

Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy

Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy

When trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves and roots. When people cut the trees down and burn them to clear forest for cattle pasture or crops, as they have at a rate of 13 million hectares of forest per year in the tropics over the last decade, this releases CO₂ back into the atmosphere.

Unger argues that forests absorb more sunlight than crops or grassland, which reflect more sunlight back into space and cool the earth. But that's not true in the tropics. In tropical forests like the Amazon, where deforestation is happening and thus where the Climate Summit's attention is focused, trees take up water from rainfall and evaporate it through their leaves, and create cloud cover. These clouds reflect even more sunlight than grasslands or bare earth, thus cooling the earth more. This is why large-scale deforestation disrupts rainfall regimes – and why deforestation in the Amazon, if unchecked, may reduce rainfall in California.

Emissions from tropical deforestation are, from the perspective of the atmosphere, just the same as emissions from burning fossil fuels – carbon that was wood, coal, oil or gas is turned into CO₂ and released to the atmosphere. In a living forest, trees do die and, over time release CO₂ to the atmosphere. But then new trees grow, and absorb that CO₂ again – not the case when forests that have stored carbon for centuries are replaced by grass to feed cattle or oil palm plantations.

Contrary to Unger’s claims, the "high risk" is to ignore the 200 billion tons of at-risk carbon stocks in the world’s tropical forests. In fact, as the IPCC has concluded, stopping tropical deforestation is a critical priority for controlling climate change.

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