The Amazon rainforest could die in our lifetime

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As we approach World Rainforest Day on June 22, we should remember how government inaction is fueling an increasingly irreversible climate catastrophe. This week NASA scientists announced the alarming results of new research: The Earth is trapping records amount of heat in the atmosphere, accelerating dangerous warming. If we do not address deforestation in the world’s rainforests, one of our last climate defenses will crumble.

World Rainforest Day was established by the non-profit Rainforest Alliance to raise awareness and encourage action to save one of our planet’s most precious resources. Rainforests are one of Earth’s most powerful oxygen hubs and mitigate climate change by acting as natural carbon sinks. While tropical rainforests only cover around 2 percent of Earth’s total surface area, they are home to over half of all known plant and animal species, serving as vital protectors of biodiversity.

For instance, the Amazon rainforest is 55 million years old and one of the world’s most biologically complex regions. As the globe’s largest rainforest, it hosts over 3 million species or about 10 percent of all known species on Earth.

However, global rainforests are disappearing at unprecedented rates. Between 2004 and 2017, land about the size of California was permanently lost to deforestation, contributing up to 10 percent of annual CO2 emissions. In particular, deforestation is surging in the Brazilian Amazon with devastating effects. A recent report finds that over the past 10 years its ecosystem released more carbon than it absorbed, contributing to carbon leakage.

And the deforestation shows no signs of stopping. In May, under right-wing populist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation rates in the Amazon hit a 14-year high, soaring 67 percent from the same time last year.

Frankly, the Amazon is dying – at an accelerated rate.

Much of the deforestation in Brazil is driven by commercial agriculture with the land targeted for commodity production. That said, “commercial agriculture” doesn’t capture the full reality: Almost all of the deforestation occurs by settlers who illegally clear the land, sell the wood and start raising cattle or farming soy.

So, what can be done?

Firstly, countries with large amounts of tropical forests must be encouraged to adopt laws that protect them. And global governments must not only embolden these policies but reprimand any violations. Importantly, importer countries must ensure the products they’re purchasing do not come from illegally acquired and deforested land.

Countries such as the UK are taking measures to tackle imported deforestation through laws like an environment bill that requires British businesses to follow due diligence practices, which make it illegal to import commodities that violate local environmental laws. 

This means that British businesses will be forced to trade and collaborate with countries that implement high environmental standards. For example, Malaysia has drastically reduced deforestation with the establishment of its nationally mandated palm oil certification scheme MSPO (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil).

The MSPO certification became mandatory from the beginning of 2020, with the government issuing fines and sanctions for non-compliant producers. The certification ensures producers fulfil a variety of rules and regulations and exploiting illegal labor or burning and converting tropical rainforests into palm oil plantations are strictly banned.

And these policies are working. A recent study by the non-profit CDP found that palm oil, of all forest risk commodities, is succeeding in effectively tackling deforestation. For example, the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch reveals a significant decrease in the rate of annual primary forest loss since 2016. Impressively, the findings show that 2020 levels reached their lowest since 2004.

It proves that governments, if willing or implementing New Green Deal, can influence the future state of their rainforests. However, the establishment of environmental policies for forest risk commodities (like soy, beef and palm oil) won’t itself save the world’s rainforests.

Environmental progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum — global consumers play a crucial role in influencing which commodities and products enter the markets. Studies have shown that the dynamics of deforestation are inseparable from the growing demand for food by Western consumers. 

For example, just last month British supermarkets declared their intent to look for alternatives to Brazilian soy if President Bolsonaro weakens protections for the Amazon rainforest. Considering all major supermarkets in Britain sell chicken and pork fed on Brazilian soy, this may indeed influence the political discourse.

Whilst the demand for these food products is not going anywhere, further deforestation is avoidable. An investigation by Mighty Earth, Rainforest Foundation Norway and Fern, reveals that across Latin America, there are over 650 million hectares of previously cleared land where agriculture could be expanded without threatening the rainforest. This is why it’s so important to learn from each other and find sustainable policies which provide viable solutions. If we want to be remembered as “good ancestors” by our grandchildren, we must fix this. It is a moral imperative for us. We must envisage a world in which every human-being enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all.

Climate change is a cancer facing our planet and deforestation is a harmful symptom. Luckily, it’s treatable, but only if we find the political and social will.

Ibrahim Özdemir is an ecologist and professor of philosophy and ecology at Uskudar Universit and was the founding president at Hasan Kalyoncu University. Previously he was director-general at the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Turkish Ministry of Education. He was a lead member of the drafting team for the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change endorsed by the UN United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC).

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