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Commentary

Celebration, Concern, and Hope for Amazon Summit

Antoine Halff, Co-Founder of Kayrros, argues that it takes more than political resolve to end deforestation.

The Amazon Summit on deforestation held this week in Brazil has sprung a rollercoaster of emotions: relief, but also deep disappointment. And finally, hope.

Relief first. The summit marks a much-needed turnaround in Brazil’s environmental policy since President Lula da Silva succeeded the climate foe Jair Bolsonaro in January. Beyond the host country, the summit was good news for the region, marking as it does the first gathering of Amazon nations in 14 years, and a welcome resumption of regional policymaking on their shared forestry resources. It was obviously good news for the world, which depends on the Amazon to meet its climate goals.

The venue couldn’t have been more meaningful. Belém, the host city, is the capital of Pará state, one of the main centres of Brazilian deforestation. Under Bolsonaro, from 2019 to 2022, the country, whose rainforest is often described as the planet’s lungs, became the world leader in deforestation. The destruction tragically accelerated as the administration relaxed environmental laws, eased anti-deforestation enforcement, cut the budget of the relevant government agencies and encouraged mining on indigenous land.

By the end of Bolsonaro’s presidency, in 2022, the destruction reached more than 2 million hectares (5 million acres). That year, Brazil accounted for 43% of global tree cover loss in tropical primary forests, up from just over 25% in 2015, according to the World Resources Institute.

Understandable criticism

Lula’s promise to reverse course is easier said than done, however. And that is where disappointment come in.

For all the Summit’s promise, it’s hard to escape the fact that it failed to yield any big breakthrough. There was no strong co-ordinated action to end deforestation in the Amazon. This has fueled understandable criticism from NGOs and concern amongst governments, who were seeking strong leadership, accountability and international coordination.

Lula’s own track record in the Amazon since he took office in January is also a mixed bag. Deforestation in Brazil slowed markedly, but remains way too high. Satellite data processed and analyzed by Kayrros, a leading environmental intelligence company, show that January to mid-July, Brazil’s rainforest shed another 370,000 hectares, down 50% from 746,000 ha in the same period last year. Measured in tons of biomass, the loss amounted to 66 million tons of carbon, down 52% year-on-year, but still equivalent to the total annual GHG emissions of a mid-sized economy like Austria. And deforestation will be even worse in the second half of the year, as it always is, peaking seasonally in August and September.

Eighty-three percent of this year’s surface loss to date has come from just three states: 31% from Mato Grosso, on the southern deforestation front; 28% further north in Para state; and 24% to the West, in Amazonas state. Due to variations in forest density, the loss distribution changes somewhat when expressed in carbon terms, Kayrros data reveal. The closer to the deforestation front, the more degraded the forest tends to be. Thus, Mato Grosso accounted for a smaller share of overall biomass loss – 29% — than surface loss in the last six months.

The reverse is true of Amazonas, further away from the front. Particularly worrisome, though, is the fact that the deforestation front keeps expanding, bringing both outright deforestation and forest degradation in its wake.

Beyond politics

What the continued erosion of the Amazon rainforest and the disappointing outcome of the Belém Summit show is that it takes more than political resolve to end deforestation, but also strong regulations, enforcement capacity – and the right financial incentives and forest monitoring technologies.

And that’s where hope comes into play..

In all Brazilian states, and well as in other Amazon countries, forest conservation projects financed by the sale of carbon offsets, known as REDD+ projects, have played a significant role in slowing deforestation rates.

Due to the lack of transparency surrounding forest conservation, these projects have taken a bad rap. Until now, opacity has plagued carbon offset markets, undermining market confidence. Lack of effective inspection and monitoring technologies has rendered the system rife for abuse. Teams of inspectors at project sites are typically few and far between, with many projects only inspected at five- or ten-year intervals, and typically just by checking out a few samples and extrapolating from them. This approach cannot identify issues fast enough to address them, does not adequately detect carbon leakage – when forest preservation at one location only pushes deforestation to surrounding areas — and cannot transparently establish the additionality of projects – that biomass losses would have been worse without them.

All this is changing with recent advances in satellite technology, and in particular the processing and analysis of satellite imagery with artificial intelligence. New AI enabled technologies are now providing new near-real-time transparency on the entirety of forestry projects and their surroundings. And satellite observation shows that while many projects have exaggerated the benefit they provide, and in some cases issued too many credits, the good news is that, on balance, they have a positive impact and help slow down and even arrest deforestation. In the last six months, nature-based solutions projects contributed only 1% of Brazil’s overall deforestation, far less than their share of Brazilian forests.

Even with their current flaws, projects implementing nature-based solutions are already providing a benefit to Brazil and the rainforest. With stronger safeguards their contribution can be much higher.

There is clearly need for reform in voluntary carbon markets (VCMs), but it is important not to throw the baby away with the bath water.  New satellite-based monitoring technologies can make REDD+ and other such projects much stronger, rebuild trust in the global VCM market, and erect stronger safeguards around the rainforest.

Channelling flows

Stopping deforestation takes the right laws and the right enforcement capacity, but also the right financial incentives and the right monitoring technologies to channel international financing and monetary flows to forest-rich countries like Brazil and compensate them adequately for their global service as guardians of our global forestry endowment; and to send local stakeholders the right financial incentives.

Saving the Amazon is not just a Brazilian project or even a regional project. It is a world project that entails the flow of financial aid from high-carbon economies of the global North to forest endowed economies of the South. Financial tools such as VCMs have a key role to play in protecting the rainforest and helping Lula and the region achieving the desired turnaround in forestry trends. New monitoring technologies based on earth-observation satellites and AI have the power to unlock those tools – while also monitoring our progress towards our ESG goals.

This article was co-authored by Marion Messador, Product Manager at Kayrros.

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