A consensus that international cooperation is required to limit the danger from global heating has existed for decades. The success of the rearguard action against this knowledge, led by fossil fuel interests, is a catastrophe whose full extent is yet to unfold. Central bankers are now demanding that a “whole economy transition” must follow the pandemic if the world is to avoid the extreme disruption that temperature rises of 4C would bring.
Arguably, the chaos unleashed by coronavirus has made such a future seem less remote, and action to prevent it more necessary. The risk is that the virus will have the opposite effect: focusing minds on the threat right now rather than the one that can be ignored for a few more years.
Nowhere is this danger greater than in Brazil. South America’s most populous country is responsible for 2.25% of global emissions (by comparison, the US, with a population 50% bigger, emits seven times as much). But accelerating deforestation places Brazil, which has 60% of the Amazon rainforest within its borders, at the heart of the struggle to prevent runaway global heating. That is because the Amazon is the planet’s biggest terrestrial carbon sink and plays a crucial role in the water cycle, as well as providing a home to more species than anywhere else on land.
Twenty-eight years ago, in June 1992, the UN framework convention on climate change was opened for signature in Rio de Janeiro. But since Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office 18 months ago his government has sabotaged years of work by environmentalist and indigenous activists aimed at protecting the rainforest, and instead fanned the flames of its destruction by illegal loggers, miners and cattle ranchers. In the year to July 2019, losses rocketed to 9,800 sq km and research predicts that the rainforest is on course for a tipping point that would see it become a carbon emitter in the mid-2030s. Now there are fears that the coronavirus pandemic may speed this up.
On Thursday, Brazil overtook Italy to become the country with the third-highest Covid-19 death toll (behind the US and UK), after a daily record of 1,743 fatalities took the total to more than 34,000. While Mr Bolsonaro continues to attack public health measures, the indigenous population of the Amazon region appears increasingly under threat from violence as well as disease, with five killings in Maranhao state in six months.
The tropical rainforest may seem distant. But we cannot afford to wring our hands and look away. Every possible lever must be pulled that could influence Brazil’s government and meat industry. This week, the Guardian reported that UK banks have provided more than $2bn (GBP1.5bn) in backing to companies linked to deforestation. Those institutions must now come under pressure, along with US investors such as BlackRock. So must politicians and regulators.
It will take a huge international effort to preserve the Amazon rainforest. Agribusiness is responsible for more than one-fifth of Brazil’s GDP. If the cattle industry is to face curbs, there must also be incentives. International trade and climate negotiators have their work cut out. There is a job to be done by public opinion too.