Colloquium on Forests and Climate

New Thinking for Transformational Change

24 September 2014, Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University, New York

Colloquium on Forests & Climate: Carlos Nobre on climate variability & sustainable landscapes


Watch Carlos Nobre (National Secretary for R&D Policies, MCTI, Brazil) speaking at the Colloquium on Forests & Climate.

Colloquium on Forests & Climate: New Thinking for Transformational Change, Columbia University, New York. #forestsclimate

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Carlos Nobre’s speech:

Good afternoon to all. Thank you very much for the kind invitation to join this very interesting discussion. My take will be on climate. I will split my earlier hat as a climate scientist for most of my life, and then my recent experience in working at the science–policy interface in Brasília for the last three and a half years.

Let me start by making a very strong statement: tropical forests face a critical dilemma now and for the coming decades. Even if tropical nations – and Brazil is doing a lot along that direction, and another nations as well – succeed in cutting down deforestation to near zero in the next – let’s say yesterday’s commitment – by 2030, unchecked climate change may wipe out all the gains over the course of the next 30, 50 years.

Tropical forests face a critical dilemma now and for the coming decades. Even if tropical nations succeed in cutting deforestation, unchecked climate change may wipe out all the gains.

I think this is very profound and very worrisome, and I will talk more about that.

So basically, as we know today, two days ago, the Global Carbon Project released the latest carbon balance for the planet. Whereas in the early ’90s, land-use change emissions accounted for 25 percent, today it’s only 8 percent. So this is very important – we should pay attention. It’s very critically important to protect the forests, but perhaps less and less so for emissions – more for many other reasons, such as biodiversity and other environmental services, besides carbon.

I just want to provoke you and to shock you that it’s more than protecting the forest. We must reduce global emissions. That means fossil fuel emissions. First on the climate science – and why am I saying that? Of course, it comes from many theoretical modeling studies in which there is an indication that there are tipping points. This is particularly so for the Amazon, and I apologize, my focus will be the Amazon. But I think the Amazon illustrates what’s going on for all the tropical forests of the planet.

Basically, for the Amazon, there may be what we call two stable biome climate equilibriums – stable states. One is the current one – forests dominating all of the Amazon. You see on the top diagram, this is stable. You can perturb that equilibrium a little bit here – droughts or flood or more rain, less rain – and it will go back to a forest cover.

But there is another stable equilibrium, which is represented in the second diagram. If you perturb the forest and one part of the Amazon becomes a savannah, then the climate envelope for that region becomes a savannah climate envelope – warmer temperatures, longer dry seasons.

And then the savannah would become also a stable climate. A stable savannah climate equilibrium is possible. This is from theory – from modeling and from theory. And if you perturb and you transgress and reach the second state, then fire and drought will make it even deeper – a deeper trough, a very stable, robust equilibrium. So this is a theoretical possibility.

However, many observations in the Amazon, including controlled experiments like in northern Mato Grosso by EPA, setting fire, seeing what the effects of repeated fire and droughts are, show that this hypothesis, the so-called savannah-ization hypothesis, is real – is something we should worry about.

If you perturb the forest, with a combination of fire, land use, and drought, you may tip the balance. And many studies indicate that those thresholds should not be transgressed – the 3.5 degrees warming. The Amazon has warmed one degree so far, and the deforestation limit threshold is 40 percent. We have deforested in the Amazon, over all of the Amazon, about 20 percent. And more and more studies and observations are showing, perhaps we are starting to see a lengthening of the dry season. We are not certain about that.

If you perturb the forest, with a combination of fire, land use and drought, you may tip the balance. So my message here is: Be careful.

So, basically, my message here is, be careful. We may be playing with a system that may switch to this other state. If it is switched to the other state, it will be a savannah – part of the Amazon at least – for hundreds of years, or millennia.

The next question I pose is: Are we seeing climate change in the Amazon? And I guess my answer, and not only my answer but also the IPCC’s answer, is perhaps we are starting to see climate change operating in the Amazon.

We have seen, in the last 10 years, nine years, two record-breaking droughts, three record-breaking floods. So a lot of rainfall, a lot of droughts, in a sequence very unlikely, statistically speaking, to be caused by natural variability. And models, climate change models, project that climate variability will be exacerbated and perhaps it’s already exacerbated. So, still tentative conclusions and I guess this comes straight from an IPCC AR5 report (I copied exactly): changes in extreme flow in the Amazon River. There’s medium confidence, major contribution from climate change.

So now you’re not saying this is only climate variability, or natural. Science is starting to point that this may be the early, precursory signs of climate change. So this is the more “science” element of my short intervention here. We may be risking pushing tropical forests, the thresholds, past the tipping point and changing vegetation forever – from climate reasons and land-use change reasons alone.

We may be risking pushing tropical forests past the tipping point, and changing vegetation forever.

Next, let me move on perhaps to a better, bit more positive aspect. This is well-known data. The Brazilian president yesterday referred to these data in the climate summit in this city. And Brazil has successfully implemented policies to curb illegal deforestation, logging, in the Amazon. Deforestation rates, you can see there, dropped 80 percent in the period from 2005 to 2013. Somewhat fortuitously, science and policy engaged.

I’m not a social scientist and I cannot claim I understand why science and policy engaged, but they did. Many people in this audience and some of the speakers were very important scientists in making that engagement occur. This engagement, for instance, made that satellite-based systems like INPE – my former institute in Brazil – satellite-based systems, PRODES and DETER systems, were used, are used routinely, daily, as a very important tool to keep illegal deforestation down. And they provide invaluable support to those policies, and are still providing them.

However, bringing down deforestation rates from the still-high level of today, about 5000 to 6000 square kilometers a year, to near zero, presents many unforeseen challenges. Government targets are for cutting deforestation to less than 3600 square kilometers a year by 2020 – and that means dropping Brazil’s emissions. Considerably, Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions dropped 40 percent from 2005 to 2013. This is remarkable. Still, Brazilian per capita emissions is about six tons of CO2 equivalent per inhabitant. And of course, for two degrees, we need to bring that down to two.

So it’s still a major challenge for all the planet, not only Brazil. Of course, we may be getting close too; you know, command and control policies, which are mostly responsible for bringing it down, curbing illegal deforestation, are necessary. And they will have to continue forever. But it may not be sufficient. So we need to come up with some clever ideas.

One very obvious one, and Brazil is starting to practice it, is using the deforested areas more effectively.

Brazil launched in 2010–11 a low-carbon agricultural plan. This is a very all-encompassing – all of Brazil, not only the Amazon. It’s starting. We can assess, but it’s well meaning, well thought out. It has already put $4 billion for subsidized loans over to 20,000 farmers in Brazil – all over, including the Amazon. They’re taking those loans, but they have to modernize agriculture in six different activities: nitrogen fixation, recovering and recuperating 25 million degraded pastures, integration of crops and cattle grazing, agroforestry systems, and many more.

That’s the target: By 2020, 150 million less tons of CO2 equivalent emitted by Brazilian agriculture

So this is a win–win. Increasing productivity, increasing gains for farmers, and also reducing – that’s the target, 150 million: By 2020, 150 million less tons of CO2 equivalent emitted by Brazilian agriculture. By the way, with these land-use changes successes, Brazil is becoming more like other industrialized nations. Most of the emissions come from energy and also agriculture, but less from land-use change. This is very much the obvious: to create incentives to traditional agriculture to reduce the expansion of the agricultural frontier. And we have to assess from now on the success. I’m very optimistic that this will be proven to be very successful in a few years’ time.

Of course, I think this is not sufficient. Even that is not sufficient. I think we have to invent, to create, to innovate. And the innovation would come from emergence of a new, transformative economic paradigm for the tropics, for the global tropics. In the words of the late geographer, Brazilian geographer, Bertha Becker – to add value to the heart of the forest. There are many promising examples of biodiversity-derived value chains. You’re going to hear more about that in other speeches.

Innovation would come from emergence of a new, transformative economic paradigm for the global tropics

But theoretically, 50 to 100 such value chains being developed and entering domestic and global markets – and I think economically this is doable – would suffice for providing livelihoods and well-being for all the forest dwellers plus millions of urbanites linked to these value chains. I think this is really the way to go, in addition to taking, making good use of environmental ecosystem services. This is related to the successful policies that Brazil undertook in the last 10 years.

Theoretically, 50–100 biodiversity-derived value chains would suffice for providing livelihoods and well-being for all forest dwellers plus millions of urbanites.

Because the title of this seminar is “New Thinking for Transformational Change”, let me give you my own thinking for transformational change for the Brazilian Amazon, but I think it can be replicated. We need three revolutions, at least three. Professor Holdren mentioned many aspects of renewable energy, and this is also needed in the Amazon. Most of the energy in the remote areas of the Amazon is still thermal, diesel fire, thermo-generators. And they have to bring all the way up the rivers diesel fuel. This costs $2 billion a year to Brazilian people, because these costs are subsidized by our nation.

We need also a solution in terms of renewable energy opportunities, and there are many. But I just want to focus here on three revolutions that I think we need to undertake, and Brazil is well positioned to take this on. Ro scale up a biodiverse ecosystems service model in the Amazon – economically sound, socially inclusive, and environmentally protective – to national and global scales, requires at least these three revolutions. First is a revolution in science technology innovation – it must offer solutions for the emergence of innovative local bio-industry. I think the industry has to be local. It’s not only seeing tropical countries as producers of goods or commodities of natural products, and the industrialization is done elsewhere, either southern Brazil or abroad. Local bio-industry has to be developed in the tropical forest regions.

Local bio-industry has to be developed in tropical forest regions.

This is very important, and of course this is something that where I work, the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation in Brazil, we are very concerned. I think this is our part of the business: to encourage the development of this bio-industry, in partnership with the private sector, with the private R&D labs of innovative companies. Not only Brazilian companies – we want to invite, encourage, broader development of these possibilities, and there are many.

A second revolution is one that Brazil has invested in much more, which is the ICT revolution to connect every corner of the forest to information highways and global markets. The Brazilian government has contracted a satellite to be launched in 2016 for providing very cheap broadband, access to the web, in all remote areas of the Amazon. And there’s a very innovative fiber optics project to run the Amazon River from Belém all the way perhaps even to Iquitos in Peru, and to provide fast connectivity to all riverine populations. This is important to bring the Amazon people, the forest dwellers, to the ICT era, information era.

But the most difficult one, I think the challenge really, is a revolution in education of all. Really, empowerment is linked completely to providing mass, quality education to all of Amazonian people. And this really presents a major challenge, and not a simple one. Certainly it’s one of the key sustainable development goals for the planet, and for the Brazilian Amazon as well. And this is really the great challenge, I think. Even if we succeed in the information technology highway – infrastructure is being developed. I think this is the easier part. The science and technology innovation capacity is being built. It’s not easy, but it’s being built. But the very important one, which has to be taken up with great priority, is really mass and quality education for all corners of the Amazon.

Empowerment is linked completely to providing mass, quality education to all the Amazonian people.

I think if Brazil succeeds in these three revolutions, we can see a brighter future for the Amazon.

Thank you very much.

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