Amazon Deforestation in 2021: Causes & Effects

It is difficult to comprehend the vast size of the Amazon rainforest. Covering 6.9 million square kilometres (2.72 million square miles), its basin is about the same size as the 48 lower states in the US.1 But despite its immense size, Amazon deforestation is a threat to the world’s largest rainforest.

Deforestation reached a 12-year high in 2020.2 An area of forest seven times the size of London was razed that year.3 There are concerns that this high rate of deforestation will continue throughout 2021.

What causes deforestation in the Amazon?

Agricultural production drives about 80 per cent of all deforestation worldwide.4 This is also the lead factor behind habitat destruction.5 In the Brazilian Amazon, cattle ranching causes the majority of deforestation.6 Removing trees to make space for cattle is responsible for about 70 per cent of Brazil’s deforestation in the Amazon.7

Cattle pasture in the Brazilian Amazon

Converting forest to cattle pasture is the cheapest and easiest way to establish an informal claim on the land. Clearing trees can increase the value of the land by more than eight times. It can then be sold on to other parties at a profit. The economic incentive for deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is clear. Since 2000, Amazonian cattle ranching has become increasingly industrialised as ranchers produce cattle to sell commercially.8

Linked to cattle ranching is the production of soybeans. Soybean production in the Amazon forest has a huge impact throughout the world. Since 2010, Brazil’s soy planting area has increased by 45 per cent.9 Around 90 per cent of all soy is used as animal feed.10 20 per cent of soy exports and 17 per cent of beef exports from Brazil to the EU are contaminated by illegal deforestation.11

The demand for meat and dairy products fuels deforestation as land conversion occurs for cattle ranching and soy production. It is, therefore, a considerable driver of deforestation. It is also one that individuals can depreciate, for instance, by choosing a plant-based vegan diet to mitigate forest loss.12

What is being done to stop deforestation in the Amazon?

In 2009, Brazil signed its National Policy on Climate Change. It includes a commitment to reduce the Amazonian deforestation rate by 80 per cent by the end of 2020. Achieving this involves maintaining annual forest loss below 3,925 square kilometres. However, in 2020, an estimated 11,088 square kilometres of rainforest was lost. This represents a level of deforestation that is 182 per cent higher than the legal target.13

The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) is the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment’s administrative arm.14 They represent the government by protecting the Amazon from illegal logging, farming and other encroachments. But, their power has been severely weakened in recent years by Brazilian President Bolsonaro.

Accountability for forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon

21 out of 27 IBAMA state superintendents responsible for imposing most deforestation fines have been fired or left unreplaced.15 In Bolsonaro’s first eight months in office, the number of IBAMA-issued fines related to deforestation nationwide fell by 38 per cent compared to the previous year.16 The total number of fines fell to its lowest point in at least twenty years.17 Likewise, the overall value of fines related to forest destruction in Amazonian states fell by 37 per cent.18

Fire and smoke in Amazon

What are the effects of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest contributes to climate change.19 Greenhouse gases – namely carbon dioxide (CO2) – accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere cause global warming.20 Trees counter this by absorbing CO2 and other greenhouse gases.21

Plants use carbon to grow and sequester the excess in their biomass and the surrounding soil.22 Forests are, therefore, carbon sinks, removing CO2 from the atmosphere so it cannot contribute to climate change.23 The Amazon stores up to 200 gigatons of carbon in this way.24 That is equivalent to global human CO2 emissions for four to five years.25

Forest loss and CO2

However, cutting trees down and burning the wood or leaving them to rot releases the stored CO2.26 Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest increases the atmospheric concentration of CO2. It therefore increases the likelihood that the world’s average temperature will exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.27

fossil fuel plant and co2 released

Fossil fuel damage around the world

New research even suggests that deforestation has dangerously impeded the Amazon rainforest’s ability to soak up carbon. There is evidence that some portions of the tropical forest may now release more CO2 than they store. This damage is not irreversible. Ceasing worldwide emissions from fossil fuels and curbing deforestation can help the rainforest to restore balance. Tree-planting efforts can also enhance forest cover and encourage recovery.28

Why is deforestation happening in the Amazon?

Forest cover loss

Put simply, the economic incentive for destroying the rainforest takes precedence over the environmental benefits of leaving it standing. Between 2004 and the early 2010s, annual forest cover loss in Brazil was curtailed by about 80 per cent. It demonstrates that Amazon deforestation is largely avoidable. However, since 2012, tree felling and land conversion has been on the rise again.29

Political leaders, such as President Bolsonaro, have gained popularity by presenting deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon as a national business opportunity.30 Since his inauguration in 2019, the rate of deforestation has swollen by as much as 92 per cent.31 His hamstringing of environmental regulations has opened up the forest for loggers, land speculators and settlers.32

Trees in Amazon forest

Forest loss and the future of the Brazilian rainforest

To protect the world’s largest rainforest, Brazil must strengthen its environmental law enforcement and diminish the economic incentive for cutting down trees. There is hope that environmentally-conscious US President Joe Biden will help pressurise Bolsonaro into changing tack with his approach to deforestation.33

At the individual level, we can all help to fight deforestation and forest loss by reducing the demand for meat and dairy products. Our choices as consumers can also have an impact. We can, for instance, purchase Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) endorsed products.34 If we do not take sufficient action soon, we will lose the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, and any hopes for climate mitigation will be destroyed.

Amazon Deforestation in 2021: Causes & Effects

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