Energy and EnvironmentThe Risk Radar

August 2019: Deforestation crisis

The world’s largest rainforest is becoming a burning political issue. At the latest G7 meeting, the Amazon was among the most hotly-debated topics. Half the planet’s rainforests are in the Amazon, which has a crucial function not only as the “lungs of the earth” (it produces 20% of the oxygen we breathe) but also as an enormous air conditioner: keeping the earth cool (storing vast amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide) and humid (by its water-recycling function). Moreover, it is the habitat of thousands of species and thus important to Earth’s biodiversity. However, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to open up the two-million-square-mile forest to more farming and mining. Since he took office, deforestation has already gained speed.

Over the last month, record numbers of raging wildfires linked to deforestation have been diminishing the Amazon. Although Brazilian Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles blamed “dry weather, wind, and heat” for the rising number of forest fires, the wildfires are accompanied by the surge in deforestation and there is clear evidence that the recent rise in deforestation is partly the result of pro-development policies of Bolsonaro. This has caused global anger and concern, and has led the other G7 leaders to offer 20 million dollars in emergency aid to help battle wildfires in the Amazon rainforest. However, Brazil rejected the offer, slamming the gesture as colonialist. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s success is partly due to his casting himself in opposition to the rich global North. In the past, the other G7 countries have certainly taken part in large-scale deforestation with the same motives of making room for agriculture, infrastructure, and urbanization as a result of industrial modernization. Now, Brazil likewise seeks to capitalize on the rainforest for the country’s economic development as it has done before. The world’s eighth-largest economy is a diversified economy, but a significant part of it was built on the destruction of the rainforest, a fifth of which has already disappeared.

In Indonesia, the rainforest is also falling prey to pro-development policies. In the world’s tenth largest economy, the intentions of nationalistic president Joko Widodo are a cause for similar concerns over the world’s rainforests. As the country’s capital is plagued by insurmountable challenges such as catastrophic pollution and traffic congestion, the government has announced its plans to move the country’s capital from the megalopolis of Jakarta to the sparsely populated island of Borneo. However, these plans threaten the world’s third-greatest rainforests, which Borneo is home to.

The world’s second-largest rainforest, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is also at risk. Deforestation is gaining speed in the African country. According to a 2018 study, at current rates of deforestation, all primary forest in the DRC will be gone by the end of the century. The main cause of deforestation here is actually small-scale clearing for subsistence agriculture.

Implications:

  • The wildfires in the Amazon are a trigger for accelerated climate change. Instead of absorbing CO2 as the forest ordinarily does, a burning forest produces massive amounts of CO2, causing global warming. Experts fear that Brazil is entering such a vicious cycle.
  • As resource nationalism is on the rise and forests are “claimed” by national leaders as a resource a country has a right to exploit (as Bolsonaro has expressed it), deforestation will not easily be curbed by international cooperation or global governance (as Bolsonaro’s rejection of the $20 million shows).

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 2: Climate change, resource Nationalism

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