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Role Amazon Plays in Regulating World’s Climate

Fires across the Brazilian Amazon have sparked an international outcry for preservation of the world's largest rainforest

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Amazon, World, Climate
An ant is pictured as a fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 27, 2019. VOA

Fires across the Brazilian Amazon have sparked an international outcry for preservation of the world’s largest rainforest. Here’s a look at the role the Amazon plays in regulating the world’s climate:

Is the World’s Oxygen Supply at Risk?

No. While it’s commonly said that the Amazon produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, climate scientists say that figure is wrong and the oxygen supply is not directly at risk in any case. That’s because forests, including the Amazon, absorb roughly the same amount of oxygen they produce. Plants do produce oxygen through photosynthesis, but they also absorb it to grow, as do animals and microbes.

That doesn’t mean the fires aren’t a problem for the planet. The Amazon is a critical absorber of carbon of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas produced by burning fossil fuels, like oil and coal.

Amazon, World, Climate
A burned tract of Amazon jungle is pictured as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 27, 2019. VOA

Is the Amazon ‘the Lungs of the Planet?’

The Amazon rainforest is frequently referred to as the “lungs of the planet,” but it may not be the most accurate analogy for the forest’s role.

Carlos Nobre, a University of Sao Paulo climate scientist, says a better way to picture the Amazon’s role is as a sink, draining heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Currently, the world is emitting around 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. The Amazon absorbs 2 billion tons of CO2 per year (or 5% of annual emissions), making it a vital part of preventing climate change.

What Do the Fires in the Amazon Mean for the World’s Climate?

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Fires in the Amazon not only mean the carbon-absorbing forest is disappearing, but the flames themselves are emitting millions of tons of carbon every day. Nobre says we’re close to a “tipping point” that would turn the thick jungle into a tropical savannah.

The rainforest recycles its own water to produce a portion of the region’s rain, so deforestation makes rains less frequent, extending the dry season. Nobre estimates that if 20% to 25% of the forest is destroyed, the dry season will expand enough that it will no longer be a forest, but a savannah.

“Unfortunately, we are already seeing signs of the Amazon turning into a savannah,” he said, citing the increasingly long dry seasons. “It’s not just theoretical anymore, it’s happening already.”

What is Causing the Fires?

Amazon, World, Climate
An aerial view shows smoke rising over a deforested plot of the Amazon jungle in Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, Aug. 27, 2019. VOA

The current fires in the Amazon are not wildfires. They are manmade and are mostly set illegally by landgrabbers who are clearing the forest for cattle ranching and crops.

Deforesting the Amazon is a long, slow process. People clear the land by cutting down the vegetation during the rainy season, letting the trees dry out and burning them during the dry season. Fully clearing the dense forest for agricultural use can take several years of slashing and burning.

“When I’m talking about 21st century deforestation, I don’t mean a family headed into the woods with a chainsaw,” said NASA researcher Doug Morton. “I mean tractors connected by large chains. They’re pulling trees out by their roots.”

He said researchers could see piles of trees months ago in satellite images. “They’re burning an enormous bonfire of Amazon logs that have been piled, drying in the sun for several months.”

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“What has changed is the political discourse,” Nobre said. President Jair Bolsonaro has decreased the power and autonomy of forest protection agencies, which he says get in the way of licensing for developing land and accuses of being “fines industries.”

“The number of fires increasing is because people think law enforcement won’t punish them,” Nobre said. (VOA)

Next Story

Denmark Hopes to Set Example for World with Ambitious Scheme to Cut Carbon Emissions by 70%

To be honest, for the climate, even if we just close down our country tomorrow, it wouldn't help much

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Denmark, World, Scheme
FILE - Denmark's Climate and Energy Minister Dan Jorgensen speaks during an interview in Copenhagen, Denmark, Aug.16, 2019. VOA

Denmark’s official in charge of climate matters says his country hopes to set an example for the world with an ambitious scheme to cut carbon emissions by 70% in little more than a decade, but it has no illusions that it can have a meaningful impact on global warming by itself.

“To be honest, for the climate, even if we just close down our country tomorrow, it wouldn’t help much,” Dan Jørgensen, Denmark’s top climate and energy official, told VOA during a visit to Washington this week. “I guess you can argue: Does it really matter what you do?”

Jørgensen said Denmark accounts for just 0.1% of the world’s carbon emissions, a drop in the bucket compared with emissions from the largest polluters such as China, the United States and India. But he said, “The reason we do these things anyway is that if we succeed in doing that, then hopefully we’ll inspire others.”

Jørgensen, who will be in New York next week to promote his country’s climate agenda at the United Nations, said his country hopes to demonstrate that it can carry out a green transformation and still be competitive in the global marketplace. In the process, it expects to develop new technologies that “other countries can also use.”

Denmark, World, Scheme
People hold placards during the Global Climate Strike at Raadhuspladsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Sept. 20, 2019. VOA

Stages of debate

According to Jørgensen, the climate debate in Denmark has gone through several stages since the issue started to enter the public’s consciousness about 15 or 20 years ago.

At that time, he said, some in Denmark still questioned how real climate change was and whether humans had anything to do with it. That was followed by a period in which the public by and large understood that climate change was real, but some remained reluctant to devote resources to the problem, concerned that efforts by Denmark alone would be futile.

Now, he said, most people agree on the nature of the problem. Looking out the window, “they see droughts, they see flooding, they see extreme weather phenomena,” he said. “We are also a nation that’s closely connected to Greenland,” one of the places where climate change is most evident in the form of melting glaciers.

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With that consensus, the debate has shifted to an energetic discussion about the best policy instruments to address the problem.

The issue so dominated Danish general elections in June that the campaign has been described as the country’s “first climate election,” with the question of how to achieve a green transformation topping the agenda in debates among the candidates for prime minister and other posts.

Looking beyond Denmark, Jørgensen said Denmark and its partners in the European Union were sad to see the United States withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and hope it will reconsider. “There’s nothing I would hope more than the U.S. taking leadership on the global stage also on green issues,” he said.

Join the battle

Denmark, World, Scheme
Denmark’s official in charge of climate matters says his country hopes to set an example for the world with an ambitious scheme to cut carbon emissions by 70% in little more than a decade. Pixabay

Meanwhile, Jørgensen said, all countries and especially the “big growing economies” must join in the battle to prevent climate change “from becoming irreversible and having the most catastrophic consequences.”

But he acknowledges the frustration of newly developing countries, which are only now acquiring energy-intensive amenities that the developed nations have long enjoyed.

“It’s not up to us who’ve been polluting and emitting greenhouse gases for more than 100 years — when I say us, I mean the West, the United States, Europe — it’s not up to us to tell them, ‘No, you cannot drive a car, you cannot buy a fridge or an air conditioner, no, you can’t start to eat meat a few times a week because you can afford it all of a sudden because you’ve come out of poverty.’ ”

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Rather, he said, it is up to Denmark and the other developed countries to say, “Can we help you in any way to make that growth green?” (VOA)