IPCC report author: ‘No faster way’ to reduce emissions than stopping deforestation

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is now out, and the news is grim. Human induced global warming is a fact, and will almost certainly continue, reaching and possibly surpassing thresholds set under the Paris Climate Accord.

Yet even as wildfire, drought, and other signs of a planet in distress abound, the report’s authors stress that with steep emission reductions over the next decade we can still slow planetary warming and prevent far worse outcomes yet.

“We will probably go over 1.5°C and maybe 2° [of warming],” says EII Board Member and report co-author Prof. Paulo Artaxo Neto. “But the IPCC’s message is that if we reduce emissions right now, as early as possible, and as aggressively as possible, the effects will be smaller.”

Tropical forests remain one of the most important tools to meeting this challenge, according to Artaxo, head of the Department of Applied Physics at the University of São Paulo and lead author of chapter 6 of the report, dealing with methane, black carbon, and other heat trapping gasses.

“Forests are the only way right now to remove CO2 through photosynthesis at the scale needed,” he notes, adding however that while protecting forests and planting new forests – as several countries are attempting to do – is an important step, “it is not enough to deal with the climate change issue we are facing. We have to decarbonize the whole society as quickly as possible.”

This is the first installment of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), which is expected to be completed in 2022. Drawing on the latest in climate science, including new advances in monitoring and modeling techniques, and over 14,000 peer reviewed papers, the report offers the world’s most comprehensive understanding of climate change to date.

Among its key findings are:

  • A “near linear relationship” between CO2 from human activity and the “extent of observed and future warming”
  • the only way to limit global warming is to reach net-zero CO2 emissions at a global scale
  • extreme weather events, including drought, severe heat, and flooding, will continue and worsen barring a reduction in emissions
  • under a scenario of continued rising emissions, ocean and land-based carbon sinks – including tropical forests – will become less effective

As for this last, already there are reports that unchecked deforestation in Brazil has turned parts of the Amazon into a net emitter of CO2, a “very worrisome trend,” according to Artaxo, who notes the 120 billion tons of carbon (C) stored in the trees and soil of the Amazon is equivalent to 10 years’ worth of planetary fossil fuel emissions. “If even a fraction of that is released it will be very, very bad news for the global climate.”

The AR6 report will figure prominently in upcoming negotiations at the annual climate conference in Scotland in November, where leaders are expected to hammer out the details of agreements on a range of issues related to emission reductions.

According to Artaxo, there is “no cheaper, easier, and faster way to reduce CO2 emissions than by reducing tropical deforestation,” which account for up to 14% of annual CO2 emissions globally.

Governments in the tropics have long sought to partner with the international community on achieving this goal, calls that have largely gone unanswered, though there are expectations the emerging carbon market will provide the finance these regions need to keep their forests standing.

Recent years have seen a steady increase in rates of deforestation, with figures from 2020 showing a continued rise despite almost a decade of unprecedented attention and intense international pressure. 

According to EII Executive Director Dan Nepstad, a lead author of the IPCC’s AR5, the stubbornly high figures point to the need for a strategic rethink of approaches to forest protection, with greater focus on social and economic conditions on the ground in tropical forest regions. 

“Our teams in the Amazon (Brazil, Peru, Colombia) and Indonesia are all working to slow the loss of tropical forests,” explains Nepstad, “not by telling people to put away their chainsaws, but by collaborating to create a new kind of rural development that is forest- and climate-friendly.”

EII has long helped to advance jurisdictional approaches to sustainability, which have the potential to embed forest protection and inclusive development policies across entire political geographies. 

Among the strategies EII is pursuing are efforts to enhance the management and efficiency of Amazon aquaculture, incentivizing producers to transition to more sustainable practices, and securing the rights and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, among the best defenders of tropical forests.

According to Artaxo, stopping deforestation is also critical to securing global food supplies. Brazil is a leading producer of soy and corn, much of it grown in the savannah-like Cerrado region abutting the Amazon, which through a process of evapotranspiration supplies the water that Brazil’s large agro businesses rely on.

Fortunately, there is a precedent. Between 2002 and 2011, Brazil managed to cut deforestation in the state of Amazonia from 28k sq kilometers per year to just 4k sq kilometers in 2011. “Brazil has shown this is possible to do,” says Artaxo.

Describing himself as a “veteran” of the IPCC, this is the third assessment report that Artaxo has participated in. He was co-author of both AR4 and AR5. A voluntary effort, the monumental undertaking spanned over 5 years during which time contributors “worked continuously” reading papers, writing text, and analyzing and compiling data.

“What is important is to develop the best science to help the planet emerge from the most important crisis in the last millennia,” Artaxo says. “We are working for science.”

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