Leading article: Beware the collapse of the planet's lungs

Amazon drought is consistent with what scientific models predict for a warmer globe

Share
Related Topics

The year 2005 was an exceptionally dry one for the Amazon rainforest. Thousands of square kilometres of rainforest were destroyed. The level of the mighty Amazon river and its tributaries fell to the lowest levels since records began. Fish perished in the abnormally warm waters. Boats were grounded. Locals were forced to abandon their homes. It was the kind of drought that researchers would expect no more than once a century.

But then came the drought of 2010. As a new research paper published in the journal Science today reveals, last year's drought was even more severe than 2005. So Brazil has experienced two "once in a century" climatic events in a decade. Unsurprisingly, scientists are beginning to suspect that something is amiss.

A link between these crippling droughts and climate change cannot be proved. But increasingly common drought is consistent with what scientific models predict for a globally warmer world. Increasing Atlantic sea surface temperatures are expected to lead to lower rainfall in Brazil's great forest.

There is another deeply worrying trend. The amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by our societies has fallen in recent years because of the global economic downturn. But the latest readings suggest that CO2 levels in atmosphere still increased over that time. The fear is that this is being driven by a "feedback loop", whereby the impact of climate change itself accelerates climate change. In this case, as the climate heats up, rainforest trees fall and burn, releasing the carbon locked up in them. And this, in turn, accelerates warming further.

Again, the existence of a feedback loop is difficult to prove. But it fits predictions. Normally, rainforests function like great carbon sinks, absorbing a large proportion of the CO2 that human activity produces. But in 2005, thanks to deforestation, the Amazon became a net emitter of carbon dioxide. In that year, the rainforest is estimated to have emitted some 5 billion tonnes of CO2, almost as much as the entire output of the United States.

The pace of deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest appears to have slowed somewhat in recent years. But pressure on rainforests continues in equatorial regions elsewhere, from Congo to Indonesia. We need to preserve the world's existing arboreal lungs if we are to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change. But human activity is still depleting this crucial natural asset, even as its role in climatic regulation shows ominous signs of breaking down.

The only viable strategy for preserving the world's rainforests that has been put forward is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). This scheme would transfer money from high-income countries to developing countries, in order to dissuade them from cutting down their trees for profit.

But to work, this will require an overarching global climate-change treaty, with mandatory emission limits for each country. Without such a framework fiscal transfers between high-income and developing countries will never be substantial enough to affect behaviour in poor nations and the deforestation, by ranchers and loggers, will continue. Despite the great hopes, the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009 failed to deliver a binding global treaty. Last year's follow-up summit in Cancun was hailed by some environmentalists as a small step forward.

But the hour is too late for small steps. The world needs massive action, beginning immediately, to reverse the existing trends on emissions and deforestation. We also need to pray that it is not already too late.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Supporters of New Democracy wave Greek flags during Antonis Samaras pre-election speech.  

Greece elections: Where does power lie? This is the question that ties the UK to Athens

Steve Richards
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project