3 ways Brazil’s environmental decisions affect the world



This post was updated on January 11, 2022.

What happens in Brazil doesn’t always stay in Brazil. Whether you live in South America’s largest country or half a world away, changes to Brazil’s ecosystems have a global impact — from the coffee you drink, to the hardwood floors in your home, to the air you breathe.

In the first half of the last decade, Brazil reduced its carbon emissions more than any other country, largely by curtailing deforestation in the Amazon basin. But more recently, environmental progress has taken a major step back.

Deforestation, destruction of vital habitats and deadly wildfires are on the rise throughout the Brazilian Amazon and a wave of rollbacks in legal protections for protected areas threaten to upend hard-fought progress to protect the rainforest.

Brazil is at a crossroads, and the path its leaders choose will be felt beyond the country’s borders. Here are three ways Brazil’s environmental decisions will affect the world.

1. Deforestation

Brazil’s forests are in serious trouble. Across the country, crucial rainforest ecosystems are being deforested faster now than at any other point in the last decade. Between August 2020 and July 2021, an astonishing 1,047,600 hectares (2,588,676 acres) of Amazon rainforest were destroyed — an area thirteen times the size of New York City.

Many factors have likely contributed to this rise. A recent study by Conservation International found that 4 percent of the country’s protected areas have been legally downgraded or reduced in some way.

Additionally, budget cuts for environmental protection have paralyzed the country’s ability to prevent illegal logging, which persists despite laws to prevent it.

The continued conversion of Brazil’s tropical forests has widespread consequences for the climate. The Brazilian Amazon holds high concentrations of climate-warming greenhouse gases collected over hundreds or even thousands of years. If they are lost, all that carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

Further, decades of forest clearing and drier conditions due to climate change have exacerbated some of the worst fire seasons the region has ever faced. If these blazes are allowed to continue year-over-year, the Amazon could be pushed to an ecological tipping point — gradually turning the forest into a dry savannah. This scenario would be disastrous for the Earth’s climate. Recent Conservation International research revealed that the Amazon Rainforest stores more than 20 percent of all irrecoverable carbon within its trees and soil — more than any other region on Earth. We refer to this carbon as “irrecoverable” because it cannot be replaced before 2050 — the year by which humans need to reach net-zero emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Conservation International is supporting a number of initiatives focused on reducing deforestation in Brazil, including the Kayapó Fund, which helps provide one of the country’s largest indigenous groups with economic alternatives to logging, enabling them to continue to be the stewards of their homeland.

2. Food production

Brazil is one of the world’s most important food producers, ranking as a leading exporter of soybeans, coffee, meat and sugar. But climate change is taking a massive bite out of Brazil’s crop yields. This year, Brazil’s Atlantic coast was hit by crippling drought and unprecedented frost. The combination caused prices to spike at supermarkets for common goods like orange juice, sugar and coffee. This is just a small taste of what’s to come as global temperatures continue to rise, scorching once fertile farmlands in Brazil.

In the long run, hotter and drier temperatures caused by climate change could slash suitable areas for growing countless crops, including a Brazilian staple: coffee. As the global leader in coffee production, Brazil could see the disruption of income for millions of farmers who grow coffee and the seasonal laborers who harvest it by hand. This reduction in coffee supply means that prices will go up, potentially resulting in future coffee shortages.

To help farmers adapt, Conservation International is working to promote sustainable farming techniques, including cultivating beans that are more heat-tolerant, mixing coffee plants with other tree species for shade, moving their farms to higher altitudes or even helping them change crops entirely to diversify their incomes.

3. Cities

Intertwined with forest and agriculture issues are cities, which are now home to more than 85 percent of Brazil’s population. Many of Brazil’s cities are currently facing historic droughts. Water reserves at hydropower plants have become increasingly strained, falling to their lowest level in 91 years.

As cities increasingly rely on emergency water supplies, the drought is making hydroelectric generation more difficult, causing price surges for power users. Currently, about 66 percent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower.

Droughts are a natural occurrence, but like wildfires, they have become more frequent and severe due to soaring temperatures, deforestation and urban sprawl. Major metropolitan areas like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have encroached upon the diverse rainforest that once stretched along much of Brazil’s Atlantic coast and now exists only in fragments. The clearing of the Atlantic Forest for development has removed a key driver of rainfall in that region, exacerbating conditions that favor drought and potentially affecting precipitation patterns far inland into the Amazon, including where the Amazon watershed touches neighboring Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia.

Extended droughts are a reminder that removing large swaths of forest can have far-reaching effects for local weather and global climate patterns — and that securing water supplies in urban areas is essential.

Molly Bergen was the former senior managing editor of Conservation News.