Paulo Barreto (Research, Imazon) and Robert Muggah (Principal, SecDev Group)

News coverage of the catastrophic impacts of global warming are everywhere. From the Arctic to Brazil, the house is clearly on fire. One study recently estimated that the productivity of the 10 most important agricultural crops has on average decreased worldwide due to a warmer and drier climate. Make no mistake, climate change is already contributing to hunger, migration and conflict. And while we face a climate emergency of unprecedented scale, there are also signs of possible solutions. Scaling measures to reverse climate change will require large-scale disruption, clarity of purpose and unwavering commitment.

The Amazon basin is centre-stage in the debate over the causes of and solutions to global warming. Spanning over 7 million square kilometres, it accounts for over 40 percent the world´s entire stock of tropical forests, 20 per cent of the global fresh water supply and regulates rainfall, cloud cover and ocean currents. As media headlines around the world are showing, these forests are under threat due to fires, relentless deforestation and degradation. Much of this is caused by cattle rearing, soy production, mining and selective logging.

Scientists are concerned that the Amazon is perilously close to a tipping-point creating conditions so hot and dry that local species could not regenerate. If 20-25 percent of the tree cover is deforested, the basin’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide would collapse. If this happens, the world´s largest tropical forest will become its biggest patch of scrubland. This would not only lead to rapid deterioration of biodiversity, it would profoundly upset the process of evapotranspiration which influences cloud cover and the circulation of ocean currents.

So what steps can be taken?

The most obvious involves doling out penalties. This includes imposing heavy fines on companies with dirty supply chains, divestment strategies targeting key violators, publicized product boycotts and environmental campaigns shaming those involved in illicit activities. But all this requires better evidence, including more investment in the scientific detection of illegal deforestation and sustained enforcement of existing laws related to environmental crimes. The key is to reduce land-grabbing and unproductive land use. In doing so, this can decrease deforestation while simultaneously raising the value of agricultural production by increasing productivity of under-used deforested areas.

The public and private sectors can also incentivize sustainable land use and forest conservation. For example, expanding political and financial support for progressive governors and civil society groups promoting sustainability is key. Consider the work of the Brazilian climate, forestry and agriculture coalition that is advocating for public and private partnerships to curb deforestation, stimulate land restoration and increase land-use efficiency. The coalition includes banks, beef packing groups, agricultural producers and landowners who are committed to more sustainable business practices. They are acting out of enlightened self-interest, especially since demanding international creditors are expecting greener supply chains.

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