Tasso Azevedo: Hopeful lessons from the battle to save rainforests Jan 2015
When the Portuguese arrived in Latin America about 500 years ago, they obviously found this amazing tropical forest. And among all this biodiversity that they had never seen before, they found one species that caught their attention very quickly. This species, when you cut the bark, you find a very dark red resin that was very good to paint and dye fabric to make clothes. The indigenous people called this species pau brasil, and that's the reason why this land became "land of Brasil," and later on, Brazil. That's the only country in the world that has the name of a tree. So you can imagine that it's very cool to be a forester in Brazil, among other reasons.
Forest products are all around us. Apart from all those products, the forest is very important for climate regulation. In Brazil, almost 70 percent of the evaporation that makes rain actually comes from the forest. Just the Amazon pumps to the atmosphere 20 billion tons of water every day. This is more than what the Amazon River, which is the largest river in the world, puts in the sea per day, which is 17 billion tons. If we had to boil water to get the same effect as evapotranspiration, we would need six months of the entire power generation capacity of the world. So it's a hell of a service for all of us.
We have in the world about four billion hectares of forests. This is more or less China, U.S., Canada and Brazil all together, in terms of size, to have an idea. Three quarters of that is in the temperate zone, and just one quarter is in the tropics, but this one quarter, one billion hectares, holds most of the biodiversity, and very importantly, 50 percent of the living biomass, the carbon. Now, we used to have six billion hectares of forest -- 50 percent more than what we have -- 2,000 years ago. We've actually lost two billion hectares in the last 2,000 years. But in the last 100 years, we lost half of that. That was when we shifted from deforestation of temperate forests to deforestation of tropical forests.
So think of this: In 100 years, we lost the same amount of forest in the tropics that we lost in 2,000 years in temperate forests. That's the speed of the destruction that we are having.
Now, Brazil is an important piece of this puzzle. We have the second largest forest in the world, just after Russia. It means 12 percent of all the world's forests are in Brazil, most of that in the Amazon. It's the largest piece of forest we have. It's a very big, large area. You can see that you could fit many of the European countries there. We still have 80 percent of the forest cover. That's the good news. But we lost 15 percent in just 30 years. So if you go with that speed, very soon, we will loose this powerful pump that we have in the Amazon that regulates our climate.
Deforestation was growing fast and accelerating at the end of the '90s and the beginning of the 2000s. (Chainsaw sound) (Sound of falling tree) Twenty-seven thousand square kilometers in one year. This is 2.7 million hectares. It's almost like half of Costa Rica every year.
So at this moment -- this is 2003, 2004 -- I happened to be coming to work in the government. And together with other teammates in the National Forest Department, we were assigned a task to join a team and find out the causes of deforestation, and make a plan to combat that at a national level, involving the local governments, the civil society, business, local communities, in an effort that could tackle those causes.
So we came up with this plan with 144 actions in different areas. Now I will go through all of them one by one -- no, just giving some examples of what we had done in the next few years. So the first thing, we set up a system with the national space agency that could actually see where deforestation is happening, almost in real time. So now in Brazil, we have this system, DETER, where every month, or every two months, we get information on where deforestation is happening so we can actually act when it's happening. And all the information is fully transparent so others can replicate that in independent systems. This allows us, among other things, to apprehend 1.4 million cubic meters of logs that were illegally taken. Part of that we saw and sell, and all the revenue becomes a fund that now funds conservation projects of local communities as an endowment fund. This also allows us to make a big operation to seize corruption and illegal activities that ended up having 700 people in prison, including a lot of public servants. Then we made the connection that areas that have been doing illegal deforestation should not get any kind of credit or finance. So we cut this through the bank system and then linked this to the end users. So supermarkets, the slaughterhouses, and so on that buy products from illegal clear-cut areas, they also can be liable for the deforestation. So making all these connections to help to push the problem down. And also we work a lot on land tenure issues. It's very important for conflicts. Fifty million hectares of protected areas were created, which is an area the size of Spain. And of those, eight million were indigenous lands.
Now we start to see results. So in the last 10 years, deforestation came down in Brazil 75 percent.
So if we compare it with the average deforestation that we had in the last decade, we saved 8.7 million hectares, which is the size of Austria. But more importantly, it avoided the emission of three billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is by far the largest contribution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, until today, as a positive action. One may think that when you do these kinds of actions to decrease, to push down deforestation, you will have an economic impact because you will not have economic activity or something like that. But it's interesting to know that it's quite the opposite. In fact, in the period when we have the deepest decline of deforestation, the economy grew, on average, double from the previous decade, when deforestation was actually going up. So it's a good lesson for us. Maybe this is completely disconnected, as we just learned by having deforestation come down.
Now this is all good news, and it's quite an achievement, and we obviously should be very proud about that. But it's not even close to sufficient. In fact, if you think about the deforestation in the Amazon in 2013, that was over half a million hectares, which means that every minute, an area the size of two soccer fields is being cut in the Amazon last year, just last year. If we sum up the deforestation we have in the other biomes in Brazil, we are talking about still the largest deforestation rate in the world. It's more or less like we are forest heroes, but still deforestation champions. So we can't be satisfied, not even close to satisfied. So the next step, I think, is to fight to have zero loss of forest cover in Brazil and to have that as a goal for 2020. That's our next step.
Now I've always been interested in the relationship between climate change and forests. First, because 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, so it's a big part of the problem. But also, forests can be a big part of the solution since that's the best way we know to sink, capture and store carbon. Now, there is another relationship of climate and forests that really stuck me in 2008 and made me change my career from forests to working with climate change. I went to visit Canada, in British Columbia, together with the chiefs of the forest services of other countries that we have a kind of alliance of them, like Canada, Russia, India, China, U.S. And when we were there we learned about this pine beetle that is literally eating the forests in Canada. What we see here, those brown trees, these are really dead trees. They are standing dead trees because of the larvae of the beetle. What happens is that this beetle is controlled by the cold weather in the winter. For many years now, they don't have the sufficient cold weather to actually control the population of this beetle. And it became a disease that is really killing billions of trees. So I came back with this notion that the forest is actually one of the earliest and most affected victims of climate change.
So I was thinking, if I succeed in working with all my colleagues to actually help to stop deforestation, maybe we will lose the battle later on for climate change by floods, heat, fires and so on. So I decided to leave the forest service and start to work directly on climate change, find a way to think and understand the challenge, and go from there.
Now, the challenge of climate change is pretty straightforward. The goal is very clear. We want to limit the increase of the average temperature of the planet to two degrees. There are several reasons for that. I will not get into that now. But in order to get to this limit of two degrees, which is possible for us to survive, the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, defines that we have a budget of emissions of 1,000 billion tons of CO2 from now until the end of the century. So if we divide this by the number of years, what we have is an average budget of 11 billion tons of CO2 per year. Now what is one ton of CO2? It's more or less what one small car, running 20 kilometers a day, will emit in one year. Or it's one flight, one way, from São Paulo to Johannesburg or to London, one way. Two ways, two tons. So 11 billion tons is twice that.
Now the emissions today are 50 billion tons, and it's growing. It's growing and maybe it will be 61 by 2020. Now we need to go down to 10 by 2050. And while this happens, the population will grow from seven to nine billion people, the economy will grow from 60 trillion dollars in 2010 to 200 trillion dollars. And so what we need to do is to be much more efficient in a way that we can go from seven tons of carbon per capita per person, per year, into something like one. You have to choose. You take the airplane or you have a car.
So the question is, can we make it? And that's the exactly the same question I got when I was developing a plan to combat deforestation. It's such a big problem, so complex. Can we really do it? I think so. Think of this: Deforestation means 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil in the last decade. Now it's a little bit less than 30 percent. In the world, 60 percent is energy. So if we can tackle directly the energy, the same way we could tackle deforestation, maybe we can have a chance.
So there are five things that I think we should do. First, we need to disconnect development from carbon emissions. We don't need to clear-cut all the forests to actually get more jobs and agriculture and have more economy. That's what we proved when we decreased deforestation and the economy continued to grow. Same thing could happen in the energy sector. Second, we have to move the incentives to the right place. Today, 500 billion dollars a year goes into subsidies for fossil fuels. Why don't we put a price on carbon and transfer this to the renewable energy? Third, we need to measure and make it transparent where, when and who is emitting greenhouse gases so we can have actions specifically for each one of those opportunities. Fourth, we need to leapfrog the routes of development, which means, you don't need to go to the landline telephone before you get to the mobile phones. Same way we don't need to go to fossil fuels to the one billion people who don't have access to energy before we get to the clean energy. And fifth and last, we need to share responsibility between governments, business and civil society. There is work to do for everybody, and we need to have everybody on board.
So to finalize, I think the future is not like a fate that you have to just go as business as usual goes. We need to have the courage to actually change the route, invest in something new, think that we can actually change the route. I think we are doing this with deforestation in Brazil, and I hope we can do it also with climate change in the world.