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Amazon deforestation; surprisingly high for a record low

taxa-de-desmatamento-anual-2010.jpg The official data for Amazon deforestation over the past year is out, and the final tally, though higher than expected, nonetheless represents a historic low. And that translates into substantial reductions in greenhouse gases.

“Brazil has done more than any other country over the past five years to cut global warming emissions," says Doug Boucher, who heads the tropical forest program for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington. “Brazil had been the biggest source of deforestation pollution. Its reduction is a stunning turnaround.”

The new data (available here in Portuguese) were released Wednesday at the United Nations climate talks in Cancun, Mexico. They indicate that 6,451 square kilometres of forest were cleared in the 2009-2010 season, representing a 67-percent reduction in the 1996-2005 baseline of 19,508 square kilometres annually. That puts Brazil within striking distance of its pledge to reduce deforestation by 80 percent 2020 (Brazil recently said it would meet that goal by 2016). Early indications, including the first round of unofficial data released in late August, suggested a more precipitous drop could be in store. Why the numbers came out higher wasn’t immediately clear.

Regardless, the data show very real progress. UCS updated its calculations and found that Brazil has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation by 850 million tonnes compared to the 10-year baseline, which is just 15 percent shy of what the United States has promised to do over the next decade.

As discussed in our preview of the Cancun meeting, tropical forests represent a remarkable bright spot in an otherwise dark and gloomy period for climate trends. But scientists working in the Amazon warn that agricultural pressure on the forest is rising, suggesting that this progress could be reversed if international momentum on forest protection stalls.

Deforestation is responsible for up to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the overall share – as well as overall emissions – is going down. The Global Carbon Project’s latest data on global emissions, summarized on 21 November in Nature Geoscience, suggests that emissions from deforestation have fallen by roughly one-third since the 1990s, and UCS estimates that Brazil’s success explains about 70 percent of that decline.

Barring a sharp reversal, deforestation numbers are likely to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the problem in the years to come, if only because fossil fuel emissions are likely to keep going up. Despite a slight 1.3 percent decrease in global emissions in 2009 due to the lingering effects of the financial crisis, researchers at the Global Carbon Project suggest that industrial emissions will soon return to the brisk growth levels witnessed earlier this decade.

Such trends might underscore the need for progress in Cancun, but the talks got off to a rough start this week when Japan prominently voiced its opposition to extending the Kyoto Protocol. Given that an alternative treaty is nowhere to be found, that leaves negotiators with no where to go. The question is whether they can somehow find a diplomatic way to advance talks on deforestation and other smaller issues while diplomatically skirting discussion of things like binding treaties.

For his part, outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Cancun won’t amount to much, while reiterating that Brazil will keep its promise to tackle deforestation and reduce overall emissions by 36-39 percent by 2020.


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