The Amazon rainforest was the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world hosting well over 3 million species of animal life and over 2 500 tree species. Picture: Waren Brasse/Unsplash
The Amazon rainforest was the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world hosting well over 3 million species of animal life and over 2 500 tree species. Picture: Waren Brasse/Unsplash

The Amazon rainforest no longer a carbon sink

By Dominic Naidoo Time of article published May 24, 2021

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Recent research has uncovered a troubling fact: the Brazilian rainforest – that part of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil – is now a net emitter of carbon.

Covering 5.5 million square kilometres, the Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest on earth. Situated primarily within northwestern Brazil, parts of the forest extend into Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. The UK and Ireland would fit into the rainforest 17 times.

A latticework of streams and rivers come together to form the Amazon River, the second-longest river system in the world after the Nile.

National Geographic estimates that the rainforest is home to between 400 and 500 indigenous Amerindian tribes, with scientists believing that around 50 of those tribes have never had contact with the outside world.

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In May 2020, Greenpeace reported that the Amazon rainforest was the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world hosting well over 3 million species of animal life and over 2 500 tree species, accounting for one-third of all tropical trees on earth.

Despite the Amazon rainforest being held in such high regard around the world, protecting it has proven all but futile.

Decades of rampant, unchecked deforestation for logging and agriculture has decimated it, and raging fires have scorched thousands of square kilometres of once lush greenery. Since rainforests are the world’s most important terrestrial carbon sponges, this does not bode well for humanity’s efforts to stem the tide of climate change.

Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, and this carbon is then released when trees are burned down. A study undertaken by National Geographic from 2010 to 2019 has yielded some troubling results.

The Brazilian Amazon rainforest now produces more carbon than it absorbs, with the main cause being deforestation. The scientific journal, Nature Climate Change, reported in April this year that from 2010 through 2019, the Amazon basin gave off 16.6 billion tons of CO2 while drawing down only 13.9 billion tons.

Professor Nobre, a researcher and Amazon expert from the Sao Paulo Institute of Advanced Studies, told the BBC: "The Amazon used to be, in the 1980s and 90s, a very strong carbon sink, perhaps extracting two billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere. Today, that strength is reduced perhaps to 1-1.2bn tons of carbon dioxide a year."

That’s a massive decrease of over 800 tons annually. To put that into perspective, The Global Carbon Budget reported that South Africa produced 464.4 million tons of carbon in 2019. Even at the current rate, the Amazon could absorb just under three times our total carbon emissions. That’s how important rainforests are for our planet.

“We half-expected it, but it is the first time that we have figures showing that the Brazilian Amazon has flipped, and is now a net emitter,” said the research papers co-author Jean-Pierre Wigneron, a scientist at France’s National Institute for Agronomic Research. Most scientists agree that the entirety of the Amazon is more or less carbon neutral but that could change within the next decade as massive clearing of the forest persists.

The Global Forest Watch, an international deforestation watchdog, noted that South Africa had 3.97 million hectares of natural forest in 2010, covering 4.3% of its land area. In 2020, it lost 30 300ha of natural forest. As one of the driest countries in the world, we really should be trying our utmost best to save as many of our natural forests as possible.

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