On Sunday Brazil elected its new president: Jair Bolsonaro, who is strongly conservative. His rise to power has caused concern among environmentalists.
The central issue is the Amazon rainforest, 60 per cent of which is within Brazil’s borders. The rainforest is a haven of biodiversity and is also thought to have a stabilizing influence on the global climate. So preserving it is a priority.
It is not clear what Bolsonaro wants to do with the Amazon. His official presidential program does not even mention it. He seems to believe that growing the farming sector is a higher priority than protecting natural ecosystems like the Amazon, but specific policies are thin on the ground.
As a result, there is little that can be concretely said about what Bolsonaro is going to do. What we can do is to look at what has happened so far, and what Brazil could do next.
The deforestation of the Amazon has been tracked since the late 1970s, mainly by the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE). From 1977 to 2004, annual losses varied from 11,000 square kilometers to 29,000 square kilometers. But after a particularly bad year in 2004, the rate of deforestation has dramatically slowed. From 2009 onwards, each year has seen less than 10,000 square kilometers destroyed. While deforestation has increased slightly after hitting an all-time low in 2012, it remains much slower than it was before 2004. A review published in August confirms this.
The drop in deforestation was partly driven by government policies, such as stricter enforcement and private sector incentives, and by the 2008 financial crisis, which reduced demand for Brazil’s agricultural products. Slowing the rate of deforestation so dramatically has helped Brazil achieve its climate goals: deforestation is a major source of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, so slowing deforestation reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, a big chunk of the Amazon has been lost over the last few decades. About 20 per cent of what was there in 1970 is now gone. We do not know how much we can safely remove before the rainforest begins dying back uncontrollably. This “tipping point” is lurking somewhere: converting the forest to farmland and savannah increases the risk of droughts and wildfires, which then destroy yet more forest.
That means the ideal would be to reduce deforestation to zero – or at least, to net zero, meaning some logging can still go on but it must be compensated by allowing regrowth in other areas.
It is also worth bearing in mind that deforestation is not Brazil’s only problem. Compared to other countries, it gets a lot of its electricity from renewable sources, but the majority is from hydroelectric dams, which cause environmental problems of their own and work less well during droughts.
According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, published today, wildlife in South and Central America (including Brazil) has experienced steep population declines. Populations of vertebrates – animals with backbones – fell by 89 per cent on average between 1970 and 2014. This is worse than any other region of the world. In comparison, the average global fall in vertebrate populations over the same period was 60 per cent.
So while Brazil has made huge progress on protecting the trees of the Amazon, it has not done so well at protecting the animals. The trade in illegal wildlife, especially birds such as parrots, is positively vibrant.
The question is now whether the country’s new president will drive further progress, or set things back.