Brazil’s “First Step” Toward Curbing Deforestation

Forests Jul 10, 2015
Kerstin Canby

In a joint statement Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and U.S. President Barack Obama have laid out concrete actions and targets for combating climate change. As part of the agreement, announced during recent Rousseff’s visit to Washington, D.C., Brazil’s government has committed to restoring 12 million hectares (more than 46,000 square miles) of forest by 2030, further pledging to increase the share of non-hydropower renewables in its electricity generation mix to 20% during the same time frame.

But does the plan go far enough? Although the agreement explicitly sets out to eliminate illegal deforestation, critics contend that it falls short by failing to express a further commitment to zero deforestation. Still, data on the extent of illegal logging underscores that even Brazil’s measured pledge could make a significant impact.

Brazil’s new commitment to pursue policies aimed at eliminating illegal deforestation is an important first step towards saving the Amazon. It also has global implications, because Forest Trends research shows that, worldwide, 49% of all deforestation is illegal, and that “enforcing the law” is easier said than done. The United States and the rest of the world could support Brazil in reaching its own goals as exemplified in its own laws and regulations, such as by refusing to purchase agricultural commodities which have been grown on land that has been illegally deforested.

Most deforestation around the world is driven by commercial agriculture, and illegal deforestation produces an estimated 1.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year – equivalent to 25% of the EU’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions. Consequently, illegal deforestation significantly undermines national and international efforts to mitigate climate change.

In Brazil, where cattle and soy have been the main drivers of deforestation, up to 90 percent of Amazonian deforestation was categorized as illegal between 2000 and 2012. Much of the illegal activity occurred prior to 2004, before the Brazilian government instituted much-lauded reforms to conserve forests. Since 2005, the country has reportedly reduced its carbon emissions by 41 percent and achieved an 85 percent reduction in deforestation-related emissions between 2005 and 2012. Actions to address rampant illegal conversion were some of the most important drivers of this success.

Reducing 90% of illegal deforestation with existing laws, regulations, and tools is imperative. Addressing the rest will require that the Brazilian government exercise its sovereignty to develop and mobilize new tools, such as landscape planning.

So although Brazil’s pledge left some dissatisfied by failing to incorporate zero deforestation, its goal of curbing illegal deforestation, particularly in the Amazon, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen whether that commitment is feasible in the near future and if it can be achieved through more robust enforcement of existing laws alone.

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