Why the Amazon region is emitting more CO2 than it absorbs

The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, covering much of northwestern Brazil and reaching all the way up into Colombia, Peru and other South American countries. It’s famous for its incredible biodiversity and is crisscrossed by thousands of rivers including the splendid Amazon river – the largest and longest river in the world.

One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon rainforest, making it the largest collection of plant and animal species in the world. The area also covers 3,344 formally acknowledged indigenous territories which make up 9% of the Amazon population. It’s estimated that 310,000 indigenous populations live there. The majority of the forest can be found in Brazil (almost 60%) and the Amazon basin is home to half of the world’s tropical rainforests.

When we spoke about the Amazon region in the past we always marvelled at how much C02 was being absorbed from the environment by this region. Well, that conversation is no longer applicable. Nowadays the Amazon is actually emitting more C02 than it absorbs! Bet you never thought you’d ever see that day arrive. But, sadly, here it is. Our very best friend has turned into a foe.

What is causing the increase in emissions?

Ongoing forest fires in the Amazon, together with ongoing deforestation, is responsible for the situation and impact over 90 per cent of plant and vertebrate species. While trees are growing they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but when they are burned they actually emit carbon dioxide.

Fires and deforestation in this region are causing rising temperatures and moisture stress during the dry season. Temperatures in the region have increased by almost 3 degrees Celsius in comparison to pre-industrial levels.

In 2020 an unbelievable 5.4 million acres were burnt in the Brazilian Amazon. (From the period May to November 2500 fires were reported).

Findings from an almost decade-long research project paint a very concerning picture of exactly what is going on in the Amazon region.

Four atmospheric areas in Amazonia, which spans more than 2 million square miles, were tested twice monthly over a nine-year period. The scientists, led by Professor Luciana Gatti (a female researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research aka INPE) found that emissions were higher in the eastern area of the rainforest and that the southeastern area is actually putting out more carbon dioxide than it absorbs and it’s therefore no longer a carbon sink. It’s now estimated that up to one-fifth of the Amazon, in total, is emitting carbon dioxide. So, to be clear, it is not the entire Amazonian region that emits carbon dioxide, but only a section. Most of the rainforest still absorbs carbon dioxide. But the fact that one-fifth (or about 20 per cent) of the Amazonian region is now emitting carbon dioxide is adding to our accelerating climate emergency. This is very concerning as it could be showing the beginning of a major tipping point for climate change.

According to a recent study, these emissions amount to a billion tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Amazon fires are set in an ongoing effort to clear more land for beef and soybean farming. (Ironically, Brazil’s soy industry actually loses $3.5bn a year from the extreme spike in the heat following forest fires). Since trees produce much of the region’s rainfall, fewer trees mean drier climates. And drier climates mean more forest fires. It becomes a vicious loop.

Furthermore, the agricultural industry is responsible for a large part of deforestation in the eastern part of Amazonia. Fourteen per cent of the seventeen per cent of forest reduction, to be exact. The Amazon rainforest is home to diverse ecosystems of plants and animals. If extensive forest reduction continues, what will happen to all these living beings there?

What does the future look like for Amazon?

Despite scientists bringing attention to the damage deforestation causes, 2019 was a particularly bad year for Amazonia, even after deforestation was on the decrease over a ten-year period.

In 2009 a study was conducted that showed a four per cent increase in global temperatures by 2100 would kill eighty-five per cent of the Amazon rainforest. This means that the rainforest’s ability to sequester fossil-fuel-derived C02 in the future is becoming severely diminished with each passing day.

According to Carlos Nobre, the man who co-authored the scientific study led by Professor Luciana Gatti, the finding suggests that within the next 30 years the Amazon rainforest could transform into a savanna.

What can we do?

Cutting emissions from fossil fuels is now more crucial than ever before. We must accelerate the move to green energy. We need rainforests to help us absorb carbon dioxide, and thanks to the slow worldwide adoption of green energy, we emitted a whopping 40 billion tons of C02 in 2019.

There is much we can do. We can start off by using public transport instead of driving, find ways to offset our carbon emissions when driving or flying, buy local products instead of importing them, reduce our consumption of paper and wood products, beef and oil and support communities in Amazonia.

Above all, we need to hold businesses accountable. If their business practices are socially or environmentally destructive, they should not receive our hard-earned incomes. We need to educate ourselves to become more responsible consumers. Do you know where and how your products are produced? If not, now is the time to really embrace sustainability and get educated. We need to read the labels on products carefully so we aren’t unwittingly adding to the problem. Alternatives do exist to products that are produced in environmentally destructive ways. Hemp and bamboo are two such examples. Hemp is not only used in clothing and ropes, but in building materials as well (known as Hempcrete and made from industrial hemp.)

We also need to be conscious of the packaging that our products arrive in. Can we ask for biodegradable packaging before we order? Mycelium packaging is the new sustainable kid on the block, and made from mushroom roots. Supply follows demand, so the more people who insist on sustainable packaging, the more sellers and manufacturers will be forced to switch away from plastic, cardboard and polystyrene – products that are notoriously damaging to the environment.

If we make these small changes in our daily lives, we can make a huge difference. We invite you to embrace sustainability so that we can save the Amazon rainforest and eventually help restore the area as a carbon sink.