Amazon Rainforest Emits More Carbon Dioxide Than It Absorbs—We Can Reverse That

The authors point to significant human influence as the main driving factor in the switch.

 In this aerial image, a fire burns in a section of the Amazon rain forest on August 25, 2019 in the Candeias do Jamari region near Porto Velho, Brazil.

Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

The other day, significant concern was expressed across the enviro-leaning corners of the Twittersphere. A paper published in the journal Nature—based on an extensive long-term study running from 2010-2018—had found that large swathes of the Amazon rainforest are switching from being a net sink of carbon dioxide to a net source of carbon dioxide instead. 

This is unequivocally very bad news, especially as it comes on top of other news suggesting we may be closer to a dramatically changed and more dangerous climate than previous models would have suggested. 

Environmentalists and climate scientists have long worried about the tipping point at which the Amazon rainforest can no longer sustain itself, so it was no surprise that many freaked out upon seeing those headlines. A closer and more nuanced read, however, suggests this is not the type of "game over" scenario that the more apocalyptically-minded folks would have us believe.

The paper—entitled "Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change"—does not paint a picture of irreversible decline driven by unstoppable natural forces. Instead, the team of authors, led by Luciana V. Gatti, point to significant human influence as the main driving factor in the switch. 

Specifically, manmade fires linked to cattle ranching and cattle feed growing in southeastern Amazonia are causing both direct deforestation, as well as ecosystem stress and an intensification of the dry season—leading to greater tree mortality and instances of fire nearby too. 

Here’s how the folks at Climate Tipping Points tempered the news (it’s worth reading the whole thread): 

In other words, if one region of the Amazon is emitting carbon due to human influence, and the other is storing it, we—meaning our species as a whole and those in power in particular—still have the means to change course and limit or even reverse the damage. So what can each of us do? 

Apply Political Pressure

As Matt Alderton reported for Treehugger the last week, we already know that deforestation of the Amazon increased under the watch of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. And while Bolsonaro is not exactly known for being responsive to pressure, it is true that both domestic and international pressure can make a significant difference.

It is also true that Brazil’s farming industry—including cattle ranchers and soybean growers—is being hit hard by the impacts of climate change and deforestation-driven drought. So one of the most important things you can do is support the efforts of Greenpeace or other pressure groups to win protection for the Amazon and to also pressure your elected officials, in whatever country they may be, to exert their influence on the government of Brazil. 

Reduce Your Beef Consumption

While intellectual corners of the climate-focused internet love to argue about whether it’s political and systemic action, or individual behavior change, that will save the day, most of us know that it’s decidedly a case of both/and. The trick, however, is not to simply think about your own carbon footprint—but rather to identify specific points of leverage that can create larger systemic change. 

Choosing to forego beef consumption—or even simply reducing your meat intake—is kind of a superpower on that front. Not only does it reduce direct methane emissions from cattle, but it has the potential to contribute to a reduction in global demand for beef, which would have a huge impact on the main economic engine behind Amazon’s decline. 

Support Indigenous Rights

When it comes to the Amazon becoming a net source of carbon emissions, it is largely the result of human actions. It’s important to be clear, however, which humans we are talking about—or not.

Research has shown that indigenous peoples are the best stewards of land in the Amazon, but only if and when their traditional property rights are properly protected and respected. And that’s why supporting indigenous land rights is one of the single most important things that any of us can do to walk the Amazon back from this so-called "tipping point."

News that the Amazon rainforest may be moving from sink to the source is indeed a deeply troubling development. It makes both moral and practical sense that activists and scientists were ringing the alarm loud last week. It’s important, however, that we do not mistake urgency for inevitability. 

The future is still in our hands. 

View Article Sources
  1. Gatti, Luciana V., et al. "Amazonia as a Carbon Source Linked to Deforestation and Climate Change." Nature, vol. 595, no. 7867, 2021, pp. 388-393., doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03629-6

  2. Baragwanath, Kathryn, and Ella Bayi. "Collective Property Rights Reduce Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 34, 2020, pp. 20495-20502., doi:10.1073/pnas.1917874117