The news that the Amazon rainforest is no longer a carbon sink puts a further big question-mark against the EU-Mercosur trade deal.
The Amazon serves as the largest rainforest on Earth and a home to one in ten known species, accounting for nearly a third of the world’s primary forest. On World Nature Conservation Day, we are faced with a gloomy reality: what used to be one of our planet’s greatest carbon sinks has become a carbon source.
A recent study published by Nature finds that deforestation and climate change—which are deeply interconnected—have resulted in a situation in which the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. It’s a devastating discovery, though not surprising in light of the rampant destruction of Brazilian rainforests under Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency.
The research findings carry unsettling implications for the wellbeing of nature and wildlife globally, with the Amazon no longer offsetting some of the effects of global heating. It appears that the window of opportunity to take action is now much narrower than we thought.
Dangerous climate denier
Faith in the Amazon is hanging in the balance because of the Brazilian government’s inability to tackle deforestation in the region. Bolsonaro has been labelled the world’s most dangerous climate denier—which may not be an overstatement, considering that at the end of last year Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that Amazon deforestation had hit a 12-year high.
In addition, Bolsonaro has received criticism from human-rights organisations, for failing to protect not only the rainforest but also the people who live there. A recent poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Brazilians, 87 per cent, believe it ‘very important’ to save the Amazon.
So what is stopping this from happening?
The deforestation there is largely driven by beef production, which is by far the biggest offender in this arena of the struggle with climate change. The dynamics of deforestation are directly linked to consumers’ growing demand for burgers and steaks.
Consumers’ greed for meat could end up being a death sentence for the world’s most important ecosystem. But this doesn’t need to be the case.
The European Union is the number-one trade and investment partner for the south-American trade bloc Mercosur, of which Brazil is a member along with Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. The EU is also Mercosur’s second biggest trade-in-goods partner after China, accounting for around 17 per cent of the bloc’s total trade in 2019.
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If ratified, the EU-Mercosur free-trade agreement would strengthen relations between the two blocs, making it the EU’s largest trade deal in history with the removal of €4 billion euro of import tariffs on its products. Looking at the widespread environmental devastation in the Amazon, it appears the EU has turned a blind eye to Bolsonaro’s empty pledges to save Brazil’s remaining rainforests.
In response to this staggering lack of judgement on the EU’s part, a few months ago 420 civil-society organisations launched a ‘Stop EU-Mercosur’ coalition, calling on political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to prevent the agreement being ratified.
Considering the EU imports over €500 million worth of beef from Brazil each year, European consumers ought to know where their burgers are coming from and the impacts their eating habits will have on our planet. These habits do not only pose a threat to the global environment but also their individual health.
An analysis by the University of Oxford found that eating meat regularly increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia and other serious illnesses. While the correlation between the intake of red meat and bowel cancer has been known for a while, the findings are the first to link meat consumption to several of the 25 non-cancerous illnesses considered in this way.
Increased beef consumption by western consumers is however only a part of a larger problem. Ravenous demand for meat from China is also fuelling the demolition of the Amazon.
Last year saw Brazilian beef exports at record levels, largely due to rising Chinese demand. In 2020, Brazil supplied 43 per cent of China’s meat imports. While the Amazon provided around a fifth of China’s beef imports specifically, this accounts for half of the deforestation risk, according to a study on the impacts of beef exports—the market associated with the greatest amount of deforestation in total.
But what can the world’s governments and concerned consumers do to tackle global deforestation? It may be impossible to ask them to stop buying certain commodities—but we can ensure production of them no longer drives deforestation.
A recent study by the charity CDP found that, of all forest risk commodities, palm oil is least associated with deforestation. Among palm-oil producers, compliance with the no-deforestation commitment was significantly higher than for cattle products and soy—often used as animal feed to maintain the beef industry.
A potential model for certification for such commodities can be found in Malaysia, the world’s second largest palm-oil producer. In Malaysia, the palm-oil industry has introduced a nationally mandated certification scheme, Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), which has drastically reduced the country’s deforestation rates.
The MSPO certification became mandatory from the beginning of 2020, with the Malaysian government issuing fines and sanctions for non-compliance. The certification ensures producers fulfil a set of regulations which forbid the conversion of tropical rainforests into palm-oil plantations, among laws which protect wildlife and the rights of those working in the palm-oil sector.
These policies have shown promising results: around 90 per cent of Malaysian palm-oil producers are MSPO certified and a study by the World Resources Institute found a notable decrease in the rate of annual primary forest loss since 2016. In 2020 deforestation was at its lowest in Malaysia since 2004.
In light of these results, the EU’s decision to ban the use of palm oil for biofuels, while actively pursuing the Mercosur trade deal, seems bizarre. The EU has a crucial role to play in shaping global environmental policies. A boycott of certain commodities rarely yields the desired results and instead risks demand shifting to regions or countries, such as China, with less strict environmental laws.
Economic blocs such as the EU have a responsibility to shape the discourse around certifications for forest risk commodities, such as beef, soy and palm oil. This entails backing up certifications proven to work while refusing to engage with producers involved in harmful practices. Up to 22 per cent of Brazil’s annual exports to the EU, notably beef and soy, are potentially contaminated by illegal deforestation, a factor the EU should no longer ignore.
Consumers on the other hand have the power to hold their governments to account for environmental violations and can press them to act before it’s too late. With the COP26 climate summit only three months away, we don’t have any time to waste if we hope to avert the most severe climate catastrophe in history.
The world may not have yet reached a point of no return—but unless we act soon, it certainly will.
Isabel Schatzschneider is an environmental activist and researcher specialising in food ethics, religious ethics and animal welfare, as well as politics in the middle east. She is currently working as a research associate at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg.