The Amazon rainforest is nearing a tipping point, at which it will be a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. Researchers have predicted that carbon emissions in the Amazon could surpass the carbon absorbed by the rainforest in the near future. The news comes at a time when Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is working to weaken rainforest protection policies. Bolsonaro has opened up parts of the Amazon that were initially protected to oil companies. He has also been quoted encouraging farmers to explore the region for agricultural purposes.
According to a study published in Nature Climate Change, forests in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, are already emitting more carbon than they absorb. If actions are not taken to stop the rapid deforestation of the Amazon, it will go in the same direction. The Brazilian Amazon has already become a net emitter of carbon, with more carbon emitted than absorbed in this part of the rainforest from 2001 to 2019.
The world relies on tropical rainforests to absorb carbon emissions. The Amazon, being the largest rainforest in the world, is a major carbon sink and has remained important to the global ecosystem. But increased logging and fossil fuel exploration are now threatening to turn the rainforest into a source of carbon. Forest fires and the loss of peatlands have further reduced the Amazon’s ability to absorb carbon.
Researchers are concerned about the status of the three great swaths of tropical rainforests in the world. Of the three, only the Congo Basin remains strong. Tropical rainforests are vital in combating carbon emissions. Through photosynthesis, the trees are able to absorb and use carbon. As the trees age, they store the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. If they are cut rapidly through deforestation, the trees release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
“Unlike secondary forests or fast-rotation pine or eucalyptus plantations, harvesting in old-growth forests releases CO2 that has taken centuries to accumulate — carbon that, once lost, is irrecoverable in our lifetime,” the study authors explained.
It is critical for tropical rainforests to be protected at all costs to balance global ecosystems. Today, forests remain the largest carbon sink, absorbing about 7.6 billion metric tons of carbon each year.
Image via Matt Zimmerman