The Fate of the Amazon Forests: Land-use and climate change risks and the need of a novel sustainable development paradigm

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For over half a century the process of economic integration of the Amazon has been based on intensive use of its renewable and nonrenewable natural resources, which have brought significant basin-wide environmental alterations. Its rural development pushed the agricultural frontier very swiftly, resulting in widespread land cover change, but agriculture in the Amazon is of low productivity and unsustainable. In addition, major new hydropower generation capacity is planned over next 30 years which will have major social and environmental impacts.  Of great importance is the loss of biodiversity and continued deforestation in the Amazon that could lead to high risks of irreversible change of its tropical forests.  It has been established by modeling studies that the Amazon may have two ‘tipping points’ that, once one or both are transgressed, would entail irreversible large scale forest die-back and a tendency for drier seasonal forests or impoverished tropical savanna to prevail over 30% to 50% of the basin, especially in the southern and eastern portions. These boundaries are estimated at 4°C of warming in the Amazon due to climate change or total deforested area larger than 40% of the forest cover extent in the basin. Currently, the region has warmed about 1°C over the last 60 years and total deforestation is reaching 20% of the forested area.  The recent significant reductions in Amazon deforestation—close to 80% reduction in the Brazilian Amazon in the last decade—is an important contribution of the Amazonian countries to climate change mitigation by sharply reducing their GHG emissions and opens the opportunity for a novel sustainable development paradigm for the future of the Amazon. The Amazon development debate has been torn between attempting to reconcile maximizing conservation versus intensification of traditional agriculture and expansion of hydropower capacity. We argue for a Third Way in which we aggressively research, develop and scale a new high tech innovation approach that sees the Amazon as a global public good of biological assets that can enable the creation of innovative high value products, services and platforms for current and for entirely new markets through combining advanced digital, biological and material technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in progress.


Carlos A. Nobre is an Earth System scientist from Brazil. He obtained an Engineering degree in Electronics Engineering from the Aeronautics Institute of Technology (ITA), Brazil, in 1974 and a PhD in Meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, in 1983. He initiated his professional carrier in 1976 at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA), in Manaus, Brazil, as research assistant. He was a researcher with Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) for 35 years, where he helped to establish a modern weather and climate forecasting research center (CPTEC-INPE), and was its Director from 1991 through 2003. He created in 2008 INPE’s Center for Earth System Science. More recently (2011-2014), he was Ministry of Science and Technology’s National Secretary for R&D Policy, where he created in 2011 the National Center for Monitoring and Alerts of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN). He was President of Brazil’s Federal Agency for Post-Graduate Education (CAPES) in 2015-2016.  He has been for long associated to Amazonian science. He was one of the architects of the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA) and LBA’s Program Scientist from 1996 to 2002. He was the proponent in 1991 of the hypothesis of Amazon forest “savannization” in response to deforestation, a science subject that has received considerable attention worldwide. With PhD student M. Oyama, proposed in 2003 the idea of bi-stability of forest-climate equilibrium for the Amazon. With PhD students L. Salazar and G. Sampaio, in 2007, carried out studies that established limits, respectively, for global warming (4°C) and total deforested area (40%) for maintenance of the Amazon forest. In 2016, proposed with colleagues an innovative new paradigm for sustainable development of the Amazon. He was thesis supervisor of over 35 PhD and MSc students and has authored or co-authored over 200 scientific publications. He was chair of International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) Scientific Steering Committee (2005-2011). He has served in many international scientific committees, such as the Joint Steering Committee (JSC) of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), and more recently (2013-2016) as a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Science Advisory Board on Global Sustainability. He is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. He was one of the authors of IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, which was awarded the Peace Nobel Prize in 2007 along with Al Gore. He was awarded the Von Humboldt Medal of the European Geophysical Union (EGU) in 2010 and was the 2016 recipient of the Volvo Environmental Prize.