“Last year… we had lots of deforestation [related] fires, whereas, this year, it does seem to be that the fires are burning more areas of standing forest, which is a huge concern,” Jos Barlow, a professor of conservation science at Lancaster University, UK, who has been studying Amazon fires for over two decades told Mongabay.
Many of this year’s Brazilian Amazon fires (13%) occurred within fully protected Conservation Units and Indigenous territories, including notably, the Xingu and Kayapó Indigenous Reserves, Jamanxim National Forest, and Nascentes da Serra do Cachimbo Biological Reserve, all in Pará state. Fires in some of these protected areas threaten uncontacted Indigenous groups who are at high risk of disease should they be forced by the blazes into contact with outsiders.
Another 1.8 million acres (740,000 hectares) in Brazil, as well as 56% of the major fires in the Peruvian Amazon, burned on recently deforested lands, highlighting the massive conversion of forest to agricultural uses currently underway in the biome.
Amazon deforestation and fires linked to rising carbon emissions
The growing incidence of Amazon deforestation and fires, say researchers, is an indicator of a key causal factor: the largescale failure of national governments, especially in Brazil, to aggressively regulate and enforce environmental laws.
“The rise in illegal deforestation is linked with a systematic dismantling of Brazil’s institutional and legal frameworks for forest protection, and takes Brazil in the opposite direction of its deforestation commitments,” Climate Action Tracker, said in a recent report.
That systemic failure, first under the government of Michel Temer and now under President Jair Bolsonaro, has serious repercussions not just for Amazonia, but the world. That’s because deforestation is the primary driver of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, as recognized by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with additional immense tracts of forest degradation adding seriously to the carbon emission problem.
Of grave concern: According to a new Climate Observatory report, Brazil — with its now skyrocketing deforestation rate — is no longer on track to meet its 2020 goals under the Paris Climate Agreement, to which Brazil is still a signatory despite Bolsonaro’s past threats to pull the country out of the accord.
Brazil’s climate pledge (it’s “nationally determined contribution,” or NDC), submitted to the UN in the run up to the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, targets a 37% cut in greenhouse gas by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. Brazil also pledged an “indicative” 2030 target, achieving a 43% reduction in emissions compared to 2005.
As part of that agreement, “Brazil has a 2020 commitment to reduce deforestation by 80% from 1996-2005 levels, and its Paris Agreement commitments include a target of zero illegal deforestation in Amazonia by 2030. Both of these [targets] are set to be missed,” Climate Action Tracker reported.
Greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil rose by 9.6% in 2019, the first year of President Bolsonaro’s term. More than 2.17 billion gross tons of carbon dioxide were released, representing 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This now places Brazil as the sixth-largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world, emitting about one quarter as much as the European Union, according to the Climate Observatory report.
Deforestation was the largest contributor of Brazilian greenhouse gasses and accounted for 44% of the country’s total emissions. Agriculture came in second place, followed by the energy sector.
“The significant increase in Brazilian emissions was powered by the high rates of devastation in the Amazon and the disregard for environmental policies in the first year of the Bolsonaro administration,” Ane Alencar, director of Science at Ipam (the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon) said in a statement released by Climate Observatory.
“The country will get to 2021 with a debt balance. 2021 is the year in which compliance with the NDC, our national goal under the Paris Agreement should begin,” Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of Climate Observatory said. “With a [national] government that denies climate change, and has not even delivered an implementation plan for the NDC so far, our participation in the Paris Agreement comes down to a signature on a piece of paper.”
Worse, Brazil’s deforestation and fire suppression failures could help lead to the degradation of the Amazon — a rainforest-to-degraded-savanna tipping point and the release of massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, with fire playing a leading role.
“If the Amazon is going to reach a tipping point, the mechanism by which it tips will be fire,” says Barlow “I have no doubt about that at all, because by the time you’ve got sufficient climate change for the trees to start dying, changing, then you probably will have burned the forest anyway. And [that’s likely to happen] unless you have incredible levels of governance, which are looking very unlikely at the moment.”
Amazon fires and a UN carbon accounting loophole
Globally, wildfires emit as much carbon dioxide as the entire EU does each year, according to a recent report by WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature, an NGO. However, that data doesn’t paint the entire picture, and in fact, conceals a significant amount of emissions. That’s because the UN doesn’t require emissions from some fires to be included in national carbon accounting.
“Forest fires are not counted because they are considered non-anthropic events, which is very questionable in the case of Brazil,” Tasso Azevedo, SEEG’s general coordinator told Mongabay.
When doing its annual UN carbon accounting, Brazil is only required to measure fire-related greenhouse gas emissions from newly deforested lands, not from fires in standing forests. This dearth of forest fire emissions accounting is questionable, Azevedo said, because fires in the Amazon are routinely set by people and escape into standing forests. That means they are anthropic: human caused.
“Fires are an agricultural management tool widely disseminated in the country — used by actors ranging from traditional populations to landowners — and, therefore, their emissions need to be counted as anthropic,” the Climate Observatory report states. Likewise, fire utilized as a tool by land grabbers to clear standing forest within conservation units and Indigenous territories.
However, estimating the emissions from these human-set forest fires is difficult, for several reasons. First, the highest CO2 emissions from forest fires in the Amazon don’t happen during the burn, but years later, according to a recently published study in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
A fire, burning a rainforest for the first time, kills most small trees and seedlings, and can kill 50% of large trees. But these big trees take years to die, decompose, and release their carbon stores. The CO2 emissions from dead trees don’t peak until four years after a forest fire, but will continue for 30 years.
“So, all this devastation scenario we are seeing now [will] have delaying effects, meaning forests will suffer the effects slowly through the following years, aggravating the consequences to climate,” Camila Silva a PhD student at Lancaster University, UK, and the lead author of the study, told Mongabay.
Accounting for the carbon re-absorbed by new plants as they grow in burned forests is also a challenge, which few studies have addressed. Complicating matters: Brazil’s Legal Amazon encompasses not only forests, but also savannas, which we know are fire dependent ecosystems that recover quickly after burning. Savannas are typically not considered net contributors of CO2 emissions, despite frequent fires, as plants are able to sequester CO2 when they regrow. The same cannot be said for forests.
Silva and her colleagues found that the carbon capture potential of burned forests is rather low. Over a 30-year period, they estimate, regenerating forests only offset around 35% of the carbon lost in a wildfire.
Another challenge: measuring the land area of burned forests, a necessary data point for calculating emissions. Historically, this “burned area” information is not reliable for standing forests, as most tropical forest fires burn low and slow through the understory, making them difficult to detect from satellites. Due to the remoteness of many of these places, ground truthing is also not easy or cheap.
As satellite monitoring improves, government failures grow
Huge strides were made in 2020 toward more accurately detecting and measuring forest understory fires. NASA’s new Amazon Dashboard, launched this year, is able to determine where and what kinds of fires are burning (discriminating between deforestation fires, understory forest fires, small clearing & agricultural fires, and savanna fires). Determining the relative contributions of the different fire types to greenhouse gas emissions is a goal of the project, but the dashboard does not yet provide those estimates.
For Amazon fire reporting in 2020, Mongabay relied heavily on MAAP’s innovative Real-time Amazon Fire Monitoring app, launched in May of this year. MAAP uses a combination of aerosol emissions data, hot spot data, and verification from satellite imagery to report major fires in newly deforested areas or intact ecosystems such as standing forests. This measure is more selective than the widely reported “hotspots” detected by satellites, which include annual burns of existing pastures and croplands.
The pattern of this year’s fires provides a good formula for planning for next year, Matt Finer, senior research specialist and director of MAAP at the Amazon Conservation Association told Mongabay. “In the Brazilian Amazon [next year], look for fires burning recently deforested areas early in the season (July-August), with a possible shift to raging forest fires as the dry season intensifies [in September].” Then expect fires to break out in the Bolivian Amazon, where 25% of blazes this year burned in protected areas, and where the season starts a little later but goes strong into November, really impacting savannas and dry forests.
Clearly, great advances are being made in satellite monitoring: Information detailing where deforestation and fires are happening is now readily available in real time, via INPE, the Brazilian space agency, long a leader; NASA’s dashboard; and other sources like MAAP.
But how the Brazilian government uses that information, or whether they use it, depends on political will, current environmental policies, and the funding of fire control and enforcement agencies like IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency. But the Bolsonaro administration has significantly defunded IBAMA, and largely handed over its firefighting role to the Army, which critics say was utterly inefficient at the job this year.
More accurate monitoring and prediction data will do little good when regulatory agencies and law enforcement lose the funding and support to conduct on-the-ground fire suppression, and to prosecute those who set illegal fires.
“By ignoring its [past regulatory] strengths, Brazil is squandering decades of efforts to strengthen institutions; historic engagement of the private sector; and the stewardship of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities that have kept the Amazon from crossing a tipping point. We have never been so capable of identifying the problems haunting the Amazon as we are in 2020. Our challenge now is to act fast on the solutions, before climate change makes it much harder to solve the wildfire problem in the Amazon,” a recent study concluded.
“It is very concerning that we are seeing wet ecosystems not adapted to fire, like Pantanal [the largest tropical wetland] and Amazonia, being burned in unprecedent extensions,” Silva said; 28% of the Pantanal biome burned this year. “These are very clear signs of climate change combined with irresponsible human action. The resulting losses in terms of biodiversity and extreme climate conditions means severe consequences for future generations.”
Additional reporting provided by Jenny Gonzales.
Banner image of fire near the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous territory, in Lábrea, Amazonas state, Brazil taken 17 Aug, 2020. CREDIT: © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Brando, P., Macedo, M., Silvério, D., Rattis, L., Paolucci, L., Alencar, A., … & Amorim, C. (2020). Amazon wildfires: Scenes from a foreseeable disaster. Flora, 151609. doi: 10.1016/j.flora.2020.151609
Climate Observatory (2020) Analysis of brazilian greenhouse gas emissions and their implications for brazil’s climate goals (1990-2019)
Finer M, Villa L, Vale H, Ariñez A, Nicolau A, Walker K (2020) Amazon Fires 2020 – Recap of Another Intense Fire Year. MAAP.
Silva, C. V., Aragão, L. E., Young, P. J., Espirito-Santo, F., Berenguer, E., Anderson, L. O., … & França, F. (2020). Estimating the multi-decadal carbon deficit of burned Amazonian forests. Environmental Research Letters, 15(11), 114023. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abb62c
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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