Private, Science & Technology

The delicate link between political and environmental climates

On Oct. 28, Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election with 55 per cent of the popular vote. This result has global implications as the Brazilian political climate has the potential to sway the course of the battle against climate change. Bolsonaro has pledged to support the country’s agricultural sector, putting business ahead of the Amazon rainforest’s biodiversity and forest conservation. His promise threatens Brazil’s ability to meet its greenhouse gas commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Brazil is a crucial player in combatting climate change. Stretching across 2.7 million square miles, the Amazon acts as a giant sink for carbon dioxide emissions produced worldwide. Bolsonaro has dismissed the idea of setting forest land aside for indigenous groups in Brazil and has promised to repeal laws protecting parts of the Amazon.

Deforestation and forest degradation in tropical countries account for approximately 10 per cent of annual pollution leading to global warming. Global Forest Watch, a research and advocacy group, found that cutting down trees in tropical nations resulted in a gross average of 4.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide every year from 2015 to 2017. This is equivalent to the emissions that come out of the tailpipes of 85 million cars before they breakdown.

“The three main sources of greenhouse gas emissions are use of fossil fuel, production of cement, and deforestation,” Catherine Potvin, professor in McGill’s Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forest, said. “This is because the trunk of a tree is made up of 50 per cent carbon. In much of the tropics, when they deforest, they don’t deforest to produce timber, but to clear land for agriculture. Thus, they cut and burn the trees. Burning forest that is cut immediately releases CO2 which is stored in the trunks of those trees.”

In 2005, deforestation accounted for 20 per cent of global emissions in the Amazon. While this figure has decreased to 10 per cent, it is still significant on a global scale.

“All issues of climate change and global warming are felt everywhere on the planet,” Potvin said. “It doesn’t matter where emissions occur, CO2 is very mobile [and] a release in CO2 where it occurs it ends up all over the atmosphere.”

Biodiversity is at risk, too. The Amazon is both the largest and most diverse rainforest in the world. If deforestation increases, it will continue to fracture the Amazon’s fragile ecosystem that is home to many endangered species.

However, Brazil is far from being the only culprit. Potvin reminded Western countries to look to their own sustainability efforts before shaming Brazil.


“Brazil has been one of the lead[ing] countries in the world against climate change in the last 15 years, far better than the US and Canada,” Potvin said. “The country has been able to reduce emissions from deforestation 70 per cent over the last decade. The world would be grateful if we could do that with the oil sands.”

Under Bolsonaro, the deforestation rate is expected to rise, affecting the whole planet. However, the US and China’s contributions to global CO2 emissions, 26.8 per cent and 14.4 per cent, respectively, are also notable.

“We must not distort the truth to make [ourselves] feel better and ignore [the reality],” Potvin said.

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