From: Rhett A. Butler, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published June 9, 2014 08:53 AM

In cutting deforestation, Brazil leads world in reducing emissions

Brazil's success in reducing deforestation in the world's largest rainforest has been much heralded, but progress may stall unless farmers, ranchers and other land users in the region are provided incentives to further improve the environmental sustainability of their operations, argues a study published this week in the journal Science.

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The paper, co-authored by an international team of researchers led by Daniel Nepstad of the San Francisco-based Earth Innovation Institute, starts with a detailed overview of recent shifts in the Brazilian Amazon, including reasons for the 70 percent drop in deforestation recorded over the past decade. The cut in Amazon deforestation effectively spared 86,000 square kilometers of rainforests, an area larger than the state of Maine or equivalent to 14.3 million soccer fields. That reduction in deforestation prevented 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equal to the savings that would have been achieved by taking all cars off American roads for three years.

The reduction, which came of the heels of a period of skyrocketing deforestation for industrial soy and cattle production, was driven by several factors that evolved over time, including better forest monitoring, improving frontier governance, government policies, new protected areas, pressure from environmentalist groups like Greenpeace, and macroeconmic trends. Yet despite the slowing rate of forest clearance, Brazil's agricultural output has continued to grow.

The authors argue that this combination of mostly punitive factors — threats of fines and jail, risk to reputations, and land use restrictions — was critical to reduce deforestation.

"There is an urge to find a silver bullet hiding in all the different deforestation efforts. But the truth is that the government can’t claim this win alone, nor can Greenpeace or responsible companies," said co-author Toby McGrath of Earth Innovation Institute. "It's the mixture of interventions that worked."

But in face of rising global commodity demand, these gains may not be sustainable unless positive incentives are created for land holders.

"These gains are globally significant, but fragile," said Nepstad. "We’re bumping up against the limits of what can be achieved through punitive measures. As global demand for soy and beef begins to grow again, we will need a new approach to keep deforestation low in the Amazon."

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Rainforest image via Shutterstock.

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