Brazil’s Progress in Reducing Deforestation – Is It Over?

November 30, 2015 | 9:36 am
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

Shortly before I arrived here in Paris for the climate negotiations, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research released the annual figure on Amazon deforestation for 2014–2015. This number comes out each year about this time, and is eagerly awaited as a sign of whether the dramatic progress that Brazil made over the past decade in reducing deforestation by three-fourths, is continuing.

The new figures show that it’s not. Last year we saw a decrease of 18%, but this year that was essentially wiped out by an increase of 16%. Thus we’re almost exactly back to where things were two years ago, with an annual deforestation level of 5,831 km2, versus 5,891 km2 in 2012–2013.

This year’s increase doesn’t by any means wipe out all the progress of previous years, as you can see from the graph of the annual figures below. With the new number, Amazon deforestation is still 70% below the average level from 1996 to 2005 that Brazil uses as its baseline.

Brazil's Amazon deforestation dropped dramatically after 2005, but that progress has been stymied since 2012. Source of data: INPE, Brazil;

Brazil’s Amazon deforestation dropped dramatically after 2005, but that progress has been stymied since 2012. Source of data: INPE, Brazil;

But the sawtooth pattern of the last four years – down, up, down, and up again, all within a range of about 5,000 to 6,000 km2/year – does show that the nearly-continuous reduction since 2005 has stopped.

Coincidentally, this ending of the downward trend came just a few months after the Brazilian government released its “INDC,” telling the international community the climate actions it plans to take in the 2020s. While quite positive in some ways, on forests the INDC was disappointing, and for some of the same reasons as the new figure. It indicated a plan for a substantial slowdown in Brazil’s progress in reducing Amazon deforestation, with the goal of reaching zero only by 2030 – and even then, only for illegal deforestation, not for deforestation overall.

This lowered ambition matters not only for Brazil, which contains 60% of the Amazon forest. It is the largest tropical forest nation – and until the last decade’s progress, it was the largest tropical deforesting nation as well.

Thus what happens in Brazil matters not only for the Amazon as a whole, but for global deforestation too. If deforestation stops being decreased in the Brazilian Amazon, it could well end the decrease in tropical deforestation worldwide shown by several recent datasets. This would have serious impacts on the climate, since deforestation accounts for nearly 10% of global warming pollution.

Not an auspicious start for the Paris climate negotiations. Let’s hope that tomorrow, as 150 world leaders gather here to open the talks, that we have more positive news.