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If climate change controls Amazon forest fires...

28 Aug 2019 | Science Notes

Then merci beaucoup for climate change because fire intensity is lower this decade than last. Which didn't stop French President Emmanuel Macron from declaring this year's Amazon fires a "crisis" (expanded to a "climate emergency" in the Reuters coverage) and calling on world leaders to take urgent action. To put it in perspective, there are 5 times as many forest fires burning in Angola and the Congo as there are in the Amazon. And, as noted by Science 2.0, while fire counts in the Amazon are up over last year, they are down compared to a decade ago (see source chart here) because many Amazon fires are set deliberately to clear or even reclear grassland for farming, a practice the Brazilian government has had some success in combatting. According to this 2018 study, continued reductions will require improving agricultural practices and strengthening local property rights. Conspicuously missing from the list: cutting French greenhouse gas emissions and preening at international conferences.

We have discussed global forest fire trends previously (see here; also for the US see here). Today the world's attention is on Brazil, which has long been under pressure to reduce destruction of the rainforest. The pressure, needless to say, is coming from countries in North America and Europe which long ago chopped down their own forests to make way for agriculture and city-building, the fruits of which now include sufficient leisure for western finger-waggers to sit around demanding Brazil stop clearing its forests for agriculture and city-building. Which, to its credit, it has done rather successfully.

Climate alarmism requires ever-greater doses of adrenaline and abstract panic; hence Macron’s claim that “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet's oxygen – is on fire." To which one of the IPCC’s lead experts on Amazon forest dynamics responded, “It’s bullsh*t. There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”

Meanwhile the authors of the 2018 study posed a practical question: what would it take to achieve zero deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon?

They began in the obvious spot by asking what caused past Amazon deforestation. And found a familiar answer: settlers moving in and practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. The Brazilian government started implementing programs in the early part of the last decade to control the expansion of settlements and limit illegal logging. That action, plus declining commodity prices, led to a 70% decline in the rate of deforestation between 2005 and 2014. But about 5,000 square kilometers of rainforest per year still disappear, and Brazil has pledged to get that to zero by 2030.

How? The authors suggest that ranching could be done more intensively, by increasing cattle from 1 to 1.5 per hectare, and encouraging ranchers to expand production on already-deforested lands rather than clearing new ones. Also they recommend implementing the recent Forest Code, which is meant to control logging practices, but enforcement in remote areas is a problem and the onerous restrictions on land use have led farmers and ranchers to refuse to cooperate.

One of their most practical recommendations is to strengthen local property rights. In regions where land tenure is unclear, no one has an incentive to conserve the forest or take care of land already cleared to support farming. While the government has been distributing land title to small farmers, it is proceeding at a snail's pace, and the authors point out that when farmers lack secure tenure on their land, they won't invest in measures to increase productivity nor will they limit their encroachment on adjacent land if it too is believed to be open access.

We await Emmanuel Macron’s urgent call for global strengthening of property rights.

2 comments on “If climate change controls Amazon forest fires...”

  1. It is amazing how virtue-signalling politicians such as Macron and Trudeau react to a photo or newspaper reports on rainforest fires. It shows how little analysis goes into government decisions. I guess such knee-jerk reactions exemplify their lack of intelligence.

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