A recently-published study has found that the impact on the Amazon rainforest of Jair Bolsonaro’s government and its policies was so great that it produced an effect equivalent in scale to the El Niño extreme weather event. Luciana Gatti, the study’s lead researcher and coordinator of the Greenhouse Gas Laboratory at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), expressed her despair at seeing the “Amazon being murdered”, as she described it when she spoke to Agência Pública.
According to the study, between 2019 and 2020 carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions doubled in the region, due to the weakening of environmental inspection and control agencies and the resulting surge in deforestation and environmental degradation. The final paper presenting the findings of the study – which was carried out by a team of 30 scientists, led by Gatti – has been submitted to the reputable Nature magazine and now finds itself in the preprint stage – awaiting peer review and publication in a scientific journal.
The numbers represent a worsening in relation to the team’s previous study, which was published last year and presented data from the period between 2010 and 2018, containing the worrying revelation that the Amazon now acts as a source of CO2 for the atmosphere rather than as a carbon sink. The publication sent alarm bells ringing when it warned that the world’s largest tropical rainforest could be on the verge of a point of no return, in which its original characteristics and capacity to perform key ecosystemic functions could be irreversibly lost.
In an interview with Agência Pública, Gatti, who has carried out research on the Amazon for almost 20 years, explained the discoveries made by the latest research and shared her anger at the Amazon’s current predicament and its potential consequences.
“We are not only going to lose the Amazon. It’s going to be a calamity for Brazil, it’ll destroy agriculture, there’ll be an increase in extreme weather events. A lot of people are going to die, lose everything,” she warned. “The vision I have of Brazil is one of an airplane heading for the abyss. Its kamikaze pilot, Captain Bolsonaro, taking everyone to the abyss and all that the passengers say is: ‘wow, what butterflies in my stomach! This pilot is good’,” Gatti said.
Despite this, Gatti does not talk about the topic with a pessimistic tone, rather she lays out an array of urgent measures that must be taken in order to divert from the current destructive course.
The researcher also argued that environmental management in Brazil should be treated as a matter for the state, not the government of the day.
What are the new study’s main warnings in relation to CO2 emissions in the Amazon, its rainfall patterns and climatic conditions?
The first piece of really bad news is that the rainy season was affected. Until 2018, we saw that only the dry season had been affected – it became drier, hotter and longer. This creates a stress in the rainforest that causes it to lose its capacity to absorb carbon. This time around, we found that the problem carried on into the rainy season. Some places saw a 40% decrease in rainfall and certain areas experienced a 0.8ºC increase in temperature during the months of the rainy season – January, February, and March.
The second piece of bad news is that the western Amazon has become a source [of carbon emissions]. The western Amazon was previously better preserved, the forest absorbed [carbon] and practically compensated for all the emissions caused by humans [in the eastern part of the region]. In 2020, the Amazon region as a whole saw a 12% fall in its yearly rainfall levels. This is a tragedy. The rainy season saw a 26% drop in rainfall. Until 2018, the main changes that we had identified were happening during the dry season. Only in Santarém [in the state of Pará], where deforestation levels stand at nearly 40%, had we previously observed a fall in rainfall during the rainy season. That region represents 10% of the Amazon. This time, we saw this across the entirety of the Amazon region. That is really bad news.
How do you explain the changes that have been witnessed in the western Amazon?
The worsening of the situation in the western Amazon is to do with what is going on in [the states of] Roraima, Amazonas, Rondônia and Acre. The [increase in] deforestation started in 2019, but we did not witness the effect on the carbon cycle in that year, but in 2020. People want to turn that region into another Matopiba [a region of Brazil that encompasses areas mostly located in the Cerrado biome in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, which was the site of the expansion of agricultural activities in the country from the mid-1980s onwards], but there’s not going to be enough rain. Not just for them – the Pantanal, Cerrado, southeastern and southern Brazil are also going to be affected. People have to understand that we are living in a period in which climate change is affecting everything, because the natural world is complex. The vision I have of Brazil is one of an airplane heading for the abyss. Its kamikaze pilot, Captain Bolsonaro, taking everyone to the abyss and all that the passengers say is: “wow, what butterflies in my stomach! This pilot is good”.
Are you referring to the emergence of the new agricultural frontier in the region between eastern Acre, southern Amazonas, and northern Rondônia, known as Amacro, inspired by the Matopiba?
It’s this project which is causing the western part of the Amazon region to become a source of CO2 emissions. After everything that happened in the Amazon in these two years [2019 and 2020], we saw carbon emissions double. But this is not the only problem; when we think about the Amazon, we cannot only think about it in terms of it being a carbon reserve. In the natural world, everything is connected, one thing is linked to another. That’s how you come to view the Amazon as a great shield against climate change.
Could you explain how it fulfills this role?
The more greenhouse gasses there are in the atmosphere, the higher the temperature rises. The higher the temperature, the more water vapor stays in the atmosphere without turning into rain. When this process of condensation occurs, there is much more water up in the skies, and it then falls in a much shorter period of time – that is how you get torrential downpours. The Amazon is one big rain factory: every single little tree takes water out of the soil in liquid form and releases it into the atmosphere as water vapor. To go from liquid to vapor, it takes energy in the infrared range, which is, in other words, heat. As it vaporizes, it cools the atmosphere. The rainforest makes it rain, it cools the atmosphere and it also absorbs carbon. But when humans cut down the rainforest, we release more CO2 into the atmosphere, leading to a drop in rainfall and higher temperatures, because the rainforest [subsequently] creates less water vapor. In doing so, we are turning the Amazon into an accelerator of climate change. We are unbalancing the country’s climatic conditions in a short period of time. We need to drive home this message: that the Amazon rainforest is a rain factory that makes agricultural productivity possible. What would happen to Brazilian agribusiness with less rainfall and more extreme weather events? People have to understand that every tree is like a natural air conditioning machine. They have to understand that the forest is not a waste of land, it is a factory that produces rain and water.
How would you describe the impacts of Jair Bolsonaro’s environmental policies on the Amazon rainforest?
I’d say that the Bolsonaro government is a deadly threat to the Amazon. Four more years of him in power would mean that we will surely lose the Amazon. But we are not only going to lose the Amazon. It’s going to be a calamity for Brazil, it’ll destroy agriculture, there’ll be an increase in extreme weather events. A lot of people are going to die, lose everything. The fact that you are in denial does not change reality. We are going to pay the consequences [of Bolsonaro’s policies], and worst of all, we are all going to pay for his errors. The biggest lesson that I think we can learn from this government is that the environment and the energy sector should not be a matter for the government, but for the state at large. There’s nothing to stop some crazed person from sitting in the [presidential] chair and committing all manner of barbarities.
Is it possible to make any kind of projection about the data for 2021 and 2022? Do you think they will show a similar pattern?
Without a doubt, because deforestation was even more intense in 2021 and 2022. The expectation is for an even worse situation. How much worse? I don’t know, because [this time] I didn’t even expect to see the rainy season affected. I didn’t expect to see the west [of the Amazon] becoming a source [of emissions]. I thought that the southeast would be worse [a region that emcomprasses the southern part of the state of Pará and the north of Mato Grosso, where, in last year’s study, the biggest increase in temperature was recorded]. I am in despair at seeing the Amazon being murdered. They are killing the Amazon. The Amazon is 20% deforested, with another 20% in a state of degradation, so we are talking about a loss of 40%, not 20%. Bolsonaro says that 80% [of the rainforest] is still intact, but that’s not true.
Is that why you and other researchers say that the inventories of greenhouse gas emissions and removals submitted by the Brazilian government to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are underestimated?
The inventory does not take into account emissions that result from degradation. Worse than that: it does not count any of the emissions coming from forest fires. These are two reasons why they are underestimated. And there’s even a third: the reported level of [CO2] absorption is greater than it is in reality.
Last year, after the publication of the first study, you argued in favor of an immediate moratorium on deforestation in the Amazon and for the need to promote reforestation projects. Is this even more urgent now?
This is an emergency. We have certainly already deforested more than we could have [got away with]. And the worst thing is that there are new projects for highways and hydroelectric plants [in the region]. We are going to lose the Amazon and put Brazil in a situation of calamity, of complete bankruptcy for agribusiness. Either these guys listen to science, or they will put Brazil in a frightening state of calamity. That is why I released [the study] in preprint, because of the urgency.