The European Green Deal commits the EU to achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. COP26, held in Glasgow this November, is the latest step along the road of the Paris Climate Change Treaty.
In the meantime, world leaders met virtually on April 22nd to discuss climate change, during which the US committed to cut carbon emissions by 50-52 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
On top of the EU’s recent legal framework to cut carbon emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, it looks like we are making progress. Nevertheless, the world is in COP26’s hands.
Obviously much of the conference’s focus will be on scrutinising the viability of the nations’ roadmaps towards net zero, but there are also other things the conference can do.
One is to focus on the plight of the Amazon. The Amazon is located mostly in Brazil and currently comprises about six million square kilometres of rainforest. It is currently being cut down at the rate of about 200,000 acres a day.
The effect this will have on biodiversity is obvious, but a big problem in terms of climate change is that trees store CO2, of which the Amazon is estimated to capture about 400 billion tons.
The release of this will have an important effect on greenhouse gasses and so the ability of the world to keep global mean temperature rise below 2 degrees, ideally to 1.5 degrees as envisioned by Paris.
The West substantially developed its farming and industry around the felling of its own forests, so why should Brazil not do likewise?
There are other implications. There will almost certainly be a detrimental effect on weather systems, and we have already seen forest fires raging. There will be implications on soil erosion and question marks over the long-term viability of cleared farmland.
Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, has consistently claimed the Amazon is Brazil's sovereignty and the international community should not interfere. This was recently evidenced when in 2019 the G7 suggested a £16 million package to help combat Amazonian wildfires and Bolsonaro refused it.
To be fair, Bolsonaro perhaps regarded the offer of such a parsimonious amount as an insult – what’s £16 million in the context of saving the Amazon?
It is understood the US and Brazil have been conducting discussions for an Amazon Protection Agreement. But April’s Earth Day Summit suggests they are in stalemate. Bolsonaro has made clear Amazon conservation is dependent on financial contributions from other nations.
This moment gives future inspiration. Why not set up (under the auspices of Unesco?) an international Amazon protection fund into which Europe and the G20 could contribute collectively, say, £1 billion a year towards Amazonian preservation and regeneration?
Bolsonaro would be unlikely to scoff at such an amount.
There are arguments Brazil could not be trusted with this money. But the quid pro quo should be the cash is managed by a new international body, and that Brazil’s anti-deforestation efforts should be supervised by it, much as a charity receiving a grant would be subject to impact, monitoring and evaluation assessments.
Brazil has other objections. Why should it halt its deforestation of the Amazon when the West has denuded its own forests? For Bolsonaro, the West’s entreaties to stop felling the Amazon are just plain hypocrisy.
On a level, it’s hard to disagree. The West substantially developed its farming and industry around the felling of its own forests, so why should Brazil not do likewise?
The answer is that now we know what we are doing to the environment and the climate, whereas previously we did not; and now the Amazon and a few other forests comprise the last vestiges of global rainforest cover. There is another complementary answer to this conundrum: the West can seek to put its money and its land where its mouth is and commence its own forest regeneration programmes.
Forest cover in Ireland is estimated at 11 per cent, one of the lowest in the EU. In some European countries, proposals exist to increase forest cover by a substantial amount. In the UK, the Government has committed to planting 30,000 hectares of new trees per year between 2020 and 2050, so increasing the UK's forest cover (including Scotland) from 13 per cent to 17 per cent.
Perhaps Ireland could incentivise the EU to make these proposals at COP26 and persuade Brazil to take the Amazon seriously?
There is an argument that Ireland should do likewise, and an increase of Irish forest cover by just 1-2 per cent would make a significant difference.
Donal Whelan, technical director of the Irish Tree Growers' Association, highlights Ireland's modest national planting target of just 8,000 hectares per annum (about 1 per cent of current forest cover), however less than one-third of this is being achieved. Whelan is optimistic, however, that when a new strategy is developed these targets can be achieved or even exceeded.
These two initiatives might go a long way towards rescuing the Amazon. Perhaps Ireland could incentivise the EU to make these proposals at COP26 and persuade Brazil to take the Amazon seriously?
At about the time of COP26, Ireland is scheduled to host the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification international general assembly, the annual assembly of the world’s largest forest certification scheme, giving Ireland a major profile on the world stage and potential to show real leadership.
It used to be the humourists’ joke that a paper cut was a tree’s final revenge. But that’s no longer the case. Imagine the bittersweet revenge when all those billions of tonnes of previously sequestered carbon are released into the atmosphere to choke our planet.
The Amazon is no joke. Next time you think about it, just realise how we might save it if we try.