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Brazil’s Major Victory in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

As part of its target to cut emissions from land-use changes by 80 percent by 2020, Brazil aimed to reduce annual deforestation in the Amazon to no more than 7,000 square kilometres by 2013. Environment Minister Carlos Minc explained today that his country is four years ahead of schedule with that plan.

By Stuart L. Pimm

Special Contributor to NatGeo News Watch

The flight from anywhere in the eastern USA to Rio de Janeiro is about to become very different–at least for those of us who look out of the window. Much of it is over the Amazon. That’s a landscape that for hours can be unbroken forest and huge winding rivers–but one that for many years has simply been obscured–by smoke.


This year, the view was very much better. Earlier today, Brazil’s Environment Minister Carlos Minc explained why.

The forest “year” runs from August to August. August is literally the burning season, when the forest is driest and easiest to put to the torch. In a conference call with international media today, which I joined, Minister Minc announced with “great joy” that Brazil had reduced Amazon deforestation to about 7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles) last year–down from an average of two to three times that in recent years.

Photo of Carlos Minc courtesy of Brazil’s Environment Ministry

Fires are the main way forest is cleared–and most of the cleared land goes to cattle ranching. Much of the land clearing is illegal. And the majority of the logs extracted from the Amazon are likely cut illegally.


August is a bad month for Amazon deforestation and over 17,000 square kilometers (6,500 square miles) of forest was cleared in 1999. This image is roughly 1,200 km (750 miles) from east to west. Large areas of the Amazon are covered in  smoke, with some smoke plumes from eastern Pará state stretching  hundreds of kilometers to the west. Smoke appears brownish in this image, whereas clouds are white.

NASA satellite image

Brazil has been one of the world’s top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, not from it its cars or industry, but because of its forest losses.

Stopping the burning of 20,000 square kilometers of forest (Brazil lost 27,000 square kilometers of forest in 2004 alone) allows a quick calculation. There’s at least 10,000 tons of carbon in the trees in each square kilometer. So that’s 200 million tons of carbon–and well over half a billion tons of carbon dioxide–that didn’t go into the atmosphere this year.


Data from INPE show individual satellite “tiles”  across the Brazilian Amazon. Each tile is 170 x 170 km (roughly 100 miles x 100 miles) and the area of the Brazilian Amazon is about half the size of the USA.  INPE has estimated how much deforestation occurred in each tile–ranging from less than 30 square kilometers to over 400 (see scale).

Graphic courtesy of Stuart L. Pimm

I asked Minister Minc, “What mechanisms have been most effective in slowing the deforestation?”

His first answer was, in effect, good science. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, INPE keeps excellent records on changes in forest cover–and has done so for decades. Minister Minc credited the agency for its work. Being able to monitor what’s going on on the ground, even on such a massive scale as Brazil’s forests, is the first step necessary to gain control of the situation.

The data are impressive. Compared to the 2007-2008 year, when there was extensive deforestation in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, the 2008-2009 year shows a significant reduction.

Indeed, Minister Minc pointed to Mato Grosso when I asked him where the greatest reduction in deforestation had taken place.

There was still a lot of deforestation in the eastern Amazon, in the state of Pará, however–and the data from INPE shows that Pará now has more deforestation than any other state.

Pará has the reputation for being a dangerous place.

That brought the Minister to his second answer. “Federal Police are now fighting crime–illegal timber cutting and illegal ranching–so that people will not get wealthy from crime,” he said in response to my questions.

“It’s a matter of tracking cattle…making sure that they are not raised in illegal areas, such as national parks…and working with supermarkets to make sure they are not selling illegal beef,” he said.


Brazil’s Environment Minister Carlos Minc at a logging operation.

Photo courtesy of Brazilian Environment Ministry

The reductions are a considerable achievement, involving dozens of different ministries and other agencies in Brazil.   And Minister Minc also stressed the importance of working with different sectors–including mining and soy farmers to bring down the deforestation rates.

International help will be important, too, with a $U.S. one billion contribution from Norway. I talked about such mechanisms that involved REDD — Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation–in an earlier blog.

REDD is by far the cheapest way of reducing carbon emissions. And, as the Minister also noted, it helps protect the livelihoods of traditional communities, including rubber tappers and indigenous groups.

Brazil has protected substantial areas of the Amazon by giving title to indigenous peoples. Research from my group has shown that such reserves have very many fewer fires than comparable areas not so protected.

Like other South American countries, the Amazon is important for biodiversity, but other areas are even more important. Like Colombia, Brazil has a second rain forest–the Mata Atlântica–which stretches along Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

Brazil has much drier areas, too, the Cerrado of central Brazil, and the Caatinga. These areas are filled with species that live nowhere else. Minister Minc mentioned these areas explicitly–they too have targets for reduced emissions.

Like other nations, Brazil stands to be harmed by climate change. In particular, the northeast of the country is dry and poor. Climate change threatens to reduce the economy in that region by a third.  Brazil’s leadership on climate change issues recognizes the massive social and economic hardship that will disproportionately fall on its poorest people.


stuart-pimm-bio-picture.jpgProfessor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”



Read earlier blog posts by Stuart Pimm>>



  1. Irfan
    February 20, 2012, 11:44 pm

    It’s an interesting point that it takes over a 100 hectares to get 1 hectare reduction in deforestation, thereby bringing the viability of the whole project into question (notwithstanding the problems with monitoring etc ). In Indonesia, they have made it part of their national policy to push for REDD. However I wonder how the commercial interests of the palm oil plantation will reconcile with it as they need’ the income from the first 3-4 years before the plantations become economically viable. Are there similar commercial considerations in Mexico ie. any particular agricultural products that would demand forest clearance rather than using degraded land?

    Prof. Pimm replies. Can you please explain what you mean by “it takes over a 100 hectares to get 1 hectare reduction in deforestation?” The Brazil project is simply and obviously, reducing the rate of deforestation.

  2. Dikilink
    February 18, 2012, 12:59 pm

    Hi Nick! I was really surprised about the calculations regarding the input required to prevent one hectare of deforestation; thinking about it, it sounds plausible to me. As much or as little I know of Mexican agriculture, most of it implies clearing of forest (in fact, agriculture is forest clearing factor Nr 1) there are some agricultural products like shade coffee that thins the forest rather than completely clearing it. Interestingly, there does not seem to be any consideration to reforest land with agricultural plants like palmoil. There is a big reforestation programme (which has come under huge criticism see the upcoming report) but that only plants trees.Mexico should be concerned about what is happening to forests if the neighbouring US really gets going with biofuels if prices for biofuel inputs rise, the consequent economic incentives could be devastating for Mexico’s forests (and Mexico’s century old Maize growing culture.