Amazon rainforest just two years from tipping point of turning into a 'carbon bomb', expert warns

Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest could reach a tipping point within just two years, turning it into a savannah and releasing a "carbon bomb" into the atmosphere, an economist has warned.

The recent "season of the queimada" as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro put it, saw thousands of fires blaze across the forest, often called the 'lungs of the world'.  

Burning off forest to make way for farmland has increased in recent years, encouraged by Bolsonaro's ultra-nationalist policies and earning him the nickname 'Captain Chainsaw'. 

The rate of deforestation has almost doubled this year, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the US-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, says if the rainforest is depleted much further it will lose the ability to generate enough rain to sustain itself, and dry out.

" I calculate that maintaining the current rate of deforestation through the rest of 2019 and over the next few years would bring the Amazon dangerously close to the estimated 'tipping point' as soon as 2021," she wrote in a new paper, published this week. 

Charting deforestation in the Amazon.
Charting deforestation in the Amazon. Photo credit: Peterson Institute for International Economics

"The rainforest is a vital global resource because of its role in storing carbon. Destroying it will cripple efforts to slow climate change."

Brazil managed to drastically cut the amount of forest being destroyed by about 80 percent between 2004 and 2014, but a recession saw deforestation start to rise again in 2015, and it's been full-steam ahead since Bolsonaro took power. 

Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist and member of the Brazilian Academy of Science, said in September if 40 percent of the rainforest disappeared, the rest would soon follow.

"The post-deforestation climate will no longer be a very wet climate like the Amazon," he told Yale Environment 360, published by Yale University.

"It will become drier, it will have a much longer dry season, like the long dry seasons in the savannas in the tropics in Africa, South America, and Asia."

But with the added effects of climate change, the tipping point might be as little as 20 percent gone. About 19 percent has already been cleared, according to INPE figures.

An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 17
An aerial view shows a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 17. Photo credit: Reuters

De Bolle said Bolsonaro can't be entirely blamed for the uptick in deforestation.

"While Bolsonaro's views may well emphasise his nationalist stance, he may have a partial point. The global social value of the Amazon cannot be overestimated, and yet the world pays nothing for its preservation apart from the small amount contributed to the Amazon Fund by Norway and Germany... Attacking the Bolsonaro administration, as some governments have done, without considering cooperation and the provision of incentives to avert deforestation has put Brazil’s government in a confrontational position, which does not serve anyone's interests."

Her recommendation is the US rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and "immediately establish a joint action plan with Brazil to implement steps to preserve and restore the rainforest", and Brazil should set aside areas for farming, and crack down on illegal activities everywhere else - particularly logging and mining on public land.