What would a 4°C warmer world mean for the Amazon rainforest?

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What would a 4°C warmer world mean for the Amazon rainforest?

At a recent conference in Oxford, Richard Betts, the head of climate impacts at the UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre, launched a new report that warns that we could see a global increase in temperatures of 4°C as soon as 2055. Climate change could accelerate so rapidly because of feedback loops which are triggered by increasing greenhouse gas emissions and which in turn will cause new emissions.

“Four degrees of warming, averaged over the globe, translates into even greater warming in many regions, along with major changes in rainfall,” Betts said. An increase of 4°C global average temperature would mean a rise of up to 15°C at the North Pole. Sea levels would rise by up to 1.4 metres. Monsoon rains could fail. At the conference, two scientists looked specifically at the implications of 4°C warming for the Amazon rainforests: Yadvinder Malhi, a Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University; and Wolfgang Cramer at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

In his presentation, Yadvinder Malhi pointed out that tropical land regions have already warmed by almost one degree since 1980. He asked the question “How will tropical organisms and ecosystems respond to this warming?” The short answer is not particularly well. “Rapid climate change is reweaving the web of life, not just in the tropics, but everywhere,” he said.

Malhi pointed out that both climate change and deforestation are serious threats to tropical forests:

“Sometimes you are asked what is the greatest threat to tropical forests, climate change or deforestation? Well both of those are happening. And really there is no choice. The greatest threat is the fact of the synergy of these two phenomena.”

While temperature increase by itself may not wipe out forests, reduced rainfall will. “If you dry a region enough, then you can no longer support a forest,” Mahli said. His research, “Exploring the likelihood and mechanism of a climate-change-induced dieback of the Amazon rainforest”, published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, found that tropical forests are likely to become more seasonal.

The spread of fire ignition associated with advancing deforestation, logging, and fragmentation may act as nucleation points that trigger the transition of these seasonal forests into fire-dominated, low biomass forests.

Mahli spoke of the links between damage to the forest from climate change and human-caused deforestation: “It may be this interaction between seasonal drought and ongoing fragmentation that pushes the Amazon to a potential die back,” he said. Mahli explained the importance of maintaining tropical forests as a “strategy for adapting to climate change”, and he ended his presentation on an almost optimistic note:

“[F]orest protection is also a component strategy for mitigation of climate change, the recognition of the role of tropical forest as stores of carbon and as sinks for carbon and this also presents an opportunity at the UN negotiations this year. It seems quite likely that either then or soon after that some deal will be done for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, where payments will be made and the amounts of potential finance available for tropical forest conservation and altering the economics of the degradation of many areas of the tropics maybe changed. But it opens up huge challenges as well. The finance is only part of the issue there. But tackling climate change ironically also provides an opportunity to build in a climate resilience plan for tropical forests into our planning for the 21st century.”

In his presentation, Wolfgang Cramer showed no signs of optimism. Here’s how New Scientist reported what he said at the conference:

The Amazon – gone

In a 4 °C world, climate change, deforestation and fires spreading from degraded land into pristine forest will conspire to destroy over 83 per cent of the Amazon rainforest by 2100, according to climatologist Wolfgang Cramer at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. His climate models show global warming alone converting 30 per cent of the Amazon into degraded shrub land and mixed woodland by 2100. Even this grim estimate is based on the hopeful assumption that extra CO2 in the atmosphere will “fertilise” the forest, buffering it from drought. But we can’t be sure this will happen, says Cramer. “If we’ve overestimated the magnitude of CO2 fertilisation, we risk losing the entire Amazon.”

Cramer described the work of Peter Cox et al, published in Nature in 2000: “For about 10 years now we have been aware that climate warming is possibly having some impact on Amazonian rainforests.” Cox’s research showed for the first time that “you could have a drying effect that would lead to a massive loss of vegetation carbon. Effectively, it’s a very sort of bleak way to show that this would be a loss, almost total loss, of Amazonian rainforest.”

Cramer asked two questions during his presentations. First he asked, “Is it conceivable that climate-driven dieback of Amazonian forests could outrun deforestation?”

Cramer did not directly say yes or no to this question, but his response was not reassuring:

“If you want to be sure that you maintain those carbon stocks that are currently there [in the Amazon rainforest] then you shouldn’t embark on a climatic pathway that implies the risk of major dieback.”

His second question was, “And if so, at what degree of warming?” Cramer did not give a number in answer to this question, but once again, his response was disturbing:

“Beyond four degrees warming, we think that Amazon ‘dieback’ or severe degradation (we prefer that term) is a very significant risk.”

The implications for REDD and trading forest carbon are clear. Stopping deforestation is crucial. But so is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Cramer pointed out that there is “a very significant risk” that very large areas of the Amazon will become “severely degraded” beyond 4°C warming. This would result in the release of vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. If we want the carbon stored in the Amazon to remain where it is, we need to stop runaway climate change. To do that we need to stop burning fossil fuels. If we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and dramatically, we could see global warming of 4°C by 2055. Trading the carbon stored in the Amazon allows fossil fuel emissions to continue elsewhere and risks massively more emissions when the Amazon goes up in smoke.

Cramer’s research was carried out, “because of a direct request of the World Bank . . . to better understand the sensitivity of Amazonian rainforest to climate change,” he said. Let’s hope that the World Bank and other promoters of trading forest carbon are listening.

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7 Comments

  1. I take issue with the statement ” Trading the carbon stored in the Amazon allows fossil fuel emissions to continue elsewhere and risks massively more emissions when the Amazon goes up in smoke”.
    Trading carbon is a way to maintain and expand existing forests, not a licence to emit ghgs. in other places.
    The desire to exact punishment against the evil-doers is a morality play best left on the trash heap of historically counterproductive ideas.

  2. Dear Richard,

    Thanks for your comment. Do you agree that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? If so, do you agree that we need to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels? I would hope that your answer to both these questions is yes.

    Now the tricky part. If carbon credits are generated from “avoided deforestation” they will be bought by companies or governments that will continue to burn fossil fuels and therefore to emit greenhouse gases. Carbon trading allows companies to delay the changes necessary to move away from burning fossil fuels.

    Please read this article by George Monbiot which explains why carbon offsets cannot possibly address climate change. Monbiot’s conclusion is that

    “Carbon offsetting makes sense if you are seeking a global cut of 5% between now and forever. It is the cheapest and quickest way of achieving an insignificant reduction. But as soon as you seek substantial cuts, it becomes an unfair, impossible nonsense, the equivalent of pulling yourself off the ground by your whiskers. Yes, let us help poorer nations to reduce deforestation and clean up pollution. But let us not pretend that it lets us off the hook.”

    Please don’t just read this conclusion and respond to that. In his article, Monbiot explains in detail why greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced in Annex 1 countries quickly and dramatically.

    Your final comment is extraordinary: “The desire to exact punishment against the evil-doers is a morality play best left on the trash heap of historically counterproductive ideas.” I’m really not sure what you mean by this. Taken literally, this statement would do away with any concepts of justice, law, governance or rights. I’m not sure what we have left – other than perhaps “the market”, that raging success that recently brought the global economy to its knees.

  3. Richard

    I know that you have noted elsewhere on this site that you are a “nascent REDD projectier”, but one of the basics of the trade that you seem yet to have realised is that in order to do Amazon carbon credit trading, you have to trade *against* something.

    What exactly do you think that ‘something’ is going to be?

    Robin

  4. Dear Robin,
    Yes. Avoided emissions from deforestation are traded against smokestack emissions. The thing is, if your really trying to lower atmospheric CO2 levels, then you have to start with the easiest tasks first. Land- use change in general is this low hanging fruit, Plus, Its an amazingly excellent thing, that preventing deforestation not only avoids a CO2 emission, but has such profound concommitant benefits along the way.
    Lets not make the perfect the enemy of the essential…
    Dear Chris,
    Re Monbiots estimate of 5%…not really, for example, if all possible emissions from land-use malpractice were halted, CO2e emissions would be reduced by a third to a half. This is extremely significant in that it gives us some time to keep burning the fossil fuels that by any reasonable estimate we’ll probably keep burning anyway… for a while…wrong feeling as that may be.
    And yes, I do think we need to reduce industrial emissions, but, and here come some more controversy…because we need to be in a lower or no growth . sustainable economy eventually. For now, land use change still looks pretty good to me… RW

  5. Richard

    Precisely. So smokestack emissions are allowed to continue, as they will be traded off against supposed REDD credits. In other words, we fail to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, climate change continues, and the planet goes to hell, including the world’s forests.

    What exactly leads you to believe that land-use change is the “low hanging fruit”. If I am not mistaken, all the evidence of the last 40 years or so of development practice tends to prove precisely the opposite: getting people to change their land-use practices, especially when they depend on it for subsistence is incredibly difficult, takes time, and is very expensive. To say nothing of the fact that most of the governments of the countries in which tropical deforestation is taking place are up to their necks in corruption and dodgy deals with logging companies, palm oil companies, mining companies, pulp and paper companies, soya companies etc etc etc. How exactly are you going deal with those situations?

    It’s clearly very easy to repeat the nostrums about “low hanging fruit” that have been trotted out by various observers, including Nicholas Stern, over the last few years. But does it not strike you as slightly odd that we think that changing the lifestyles of hundreds of millions of poor rural people in developing countries, and tackling widespread corruption, is going to be “lower hanging” than, say, banning large-engined cars, or requiring people to stop massively wasteful and profligate use of energy in the US and Europe?

    Robin

  6. @richard wineberg – Let’s take this one sentence at a time:

    Re Monbiots estimate of 5% . . .

    As I wrote in the previous comment: “Please don’t just read this conclusion and respond to that. In his article, Monbiot explains in detail why greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced in Annex 1 countries quickly and dramatically.”

    not really, for example, if all possible emissions from land-use malpractice were halted, CO2e emissions would be reduced by a third to a half.

    Yes, but see Robin’s response above. And if we trade carbon credits generated from the reduction in emissions from land-use, then the reduction in emissions is zero, because emissions continue somewhere else.

    This is extremely significant in that it gives us some time to keep burning the fossil fuels that by any reasonable estimate we’ll probably keep burning anyway…for a while…wrong feeling as that may be.

    That’s what’s wrong with offsets. They allow us to keep burning fossil fuels, when we have to start restructuring industry as quickly as possibly away from burning fossil fuels.

    And yes, I do think we need to reduce industrial emissions, but, and here come some more controversy…because we need to be in a lower or no growth . sustainable economy eventually. For now, land use change still looks pretty good to me…

    It seems that we agree on three things:

    1. we need to reduce industrial emissions,
    2. we need to reduce emissions from forests,
    3. we need to move to a lower or zero growth economy.

    Where we disagree is over the use of offsets. I think offsets are a bad idea because offsets allow industrial emissions and the current growth at all costs economy to continue. And because offsets shift the problem to somewhere else – there is an urgent need to address issues of climate justice. Offsets are asking the South to clean up the mess that we in the North created.

    Offsets are a “Dangerous Distraction” as Friends of the Earth put it.

    The five central arguments against offsetting, according to FoE, are that it:

    1. counts action in developing countries as part of the cuts promised in developed countries, although the science is clear that action is needed in both developed and developing countries.
    2. cannot guarantee the same cuts as would have happened without offsetting.
    3. is causing major delays to urgently needed economic transformations in developed countries.
    4. does not ensure positive sustainable development in, or appropriate financial transfers to, developing countries.
    5. is profoundly unjust, fundamentally flawed and cannot be reformed.

  7. @richard wineberg

    Dear Richard
    You make the following statement: “if your really trying to lower atmospheric CO2 levels, then you have to start with the easiest tasks first”.
    While I can identify no logical basis for such an approach (it’s just, as you say, “easier”, but likely indicative that we are not “really trying”), lets assume for now that I agree with you.
    The question is, what is really easier – accurately monitoring the reduction of emissions from hundreds of millions of hectares of vastly differing ecosystems across an array of counties with differing legal and governance systems, often plagued by corruption, weak capacity, and unreliable judiciaries – or monitoring emissions reductions from those relatively few industrialized countries that generate the most emissions from a relatively consolidated and easily identifiable emissions generating infrastructure?
    I think the latter is easier and more reliable, and that the only thing making it hard is political and financial resistance from the types of major polluters your business model will help continue polluting.

    I hope you agree that accurately and scientifically monitoring actual emissions reductions is essential for the forest carbon trade you are advocating being deemed “credible”, both ecologically and financially. However, I am not sure you do. As you are quoted as saying in an article on your website, the forestry you have taught yourself is “more art than science”.

    I ask you two questions:
    1. Do you or anyone in your company know what volume of emissions reductions are required globally to ensure the predictable ongoing viability of forests, and therefore the predictable viability of REDD as a reliable mitigation lever? (references please)
    2. On what basis are you confident, if indeed you are, that the world will agree and implement a climate deal that will provide that level of required emissions reductions?

    I will interpret your answers as indicative of your confidence that your business model is sustainably footed on terra-firma, so to speak.

    Thanks for your insight on these matters.

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