Understanding climate change impact on Amazon deforestation

Monday, 1 December, 2014
EU-funded researchers have assessed the impact of climate and land-use change on deforestation in the Amazon and put forward policy recommendations designed to ensure the long term sustainability of this vast ecosystem.

Supporting local efforts in South America’s Amazon basin is the most effective way for the EU to reduce regional deforestation, along with strengthening environmental trade standards at the global level. These are some of the key recommendations to come out of the EU-funded AMAZALERT project, which was completed in November 2014.

“Amazon forests are of crucial importance,” explains project coordinator Bart Kruijt of Stichting Dienst Landbouwkundig Onderzoek in the Netherlands. “They safeguard regional water recycling and carbon storage. If current Brazilian policies for Amazonia are maintained and enforced, deforestation rates may be kept low, but if global markets for forest-related products and services grow and regional institutions become weak, 50% of the Amazon could be deforested by 2100.”

Understanding the threat

One reason why scientists have been unable to accurately predict the rate of future deforestation is that the threat posed by climate change is so complex. AMAZALERT, which brought together climate and land use scientists from 14 European and South American institutions, has examined how global and regional climate and land-use changes will impact Amazonian forests, agriculture, waters, and people. 

“New evidence suggests that some tree species are especially sensitive to drought,” says Kruijt. “In the worst case, up to 50% of forests could disappear or degrade, which would dry the regional climate.”

Studies also showed that forests in the south and southeast of the Amazon Basin are more vulnerable to drought than forests in the north and northwest.

Strong civil society and social cohesion were found to be important elements in preventing deforestation. While the impact of trade with the EU on Amazon deforestation was shown to be significant, this was limited when compared to the impact of trade with other regions. International investments in hydropower and mining were also found to have an impact on the Amazon ecosystem. 

Safeguarding for the future

The project’s investigations into the impact of global and regional climate and land-use change have led to a number of policy and research recommendations.

“Spatial planning, formalising land tenure and ensuring effective law enforcement can help strengthen the buffering function of forests against climate change”, says Kruijt. “Sustained long-term monitoring of the environmental conditions in the forest is also crucial to detect the possible onset of instability in a timely manner.”

AMAZALERT has made good progress in developing an ‘early warning system’ to achieve this goal. The project also linked up with other international projects (such as the EU-funded ROBIN project, due for completion in 2015) and supported regional efforts in South America to monitor climate change impacts. AMAZALERT’s solutions have also attracted positive government-level interest in Brazil.

For its part, the EU should support regional efforts to reduce deforestation, and work to strengthen environmental trade standards at the global level. This would enhance the impact of international countries and organisations that have a greater influence on the Amazon. Enhancing demand for environmentally friendly products from the region would also generate momentum towards an overall increase in environmental standards, says Kruijt.

AMAZALERT also puts forward future research recommendations, arguing that to fully understand the risk of Amazon forest degradation, scientists must focus on the interaction of various climate-related factors such as increases in CO2, temperature increases and the prevalence of drought. Furthermore, basin-wide research should emphasise regional variability in vulnerability.

“The complexity of these interactions needs to be studied further, so as to better understand and model the dynamics of climate and land-use change,” concludes Kruijt.   

Raising the alert about critical feedbacks between climate and long-term land use change in the Amazon
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