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One graph shows how Brazil's election could speed up destruction of the Amazon rainforest — and imperil the planet

Paola Rosa-Aquino,Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

One graph shows how Brazil's election could speed up destruction of the Amazon rainforest — and imperil the planet
  • Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro faces former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in a runoff election on October 30.
  • Forest clearing in the Amazon surged under Bolsonaro. Lula promises to crack down on deforestation.

Brazilians will head back to the polls on Sunday to vote for a new president. They'll choose between right-wing incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, two-time former president on the left, popularly known as Lula. It's a tight race. Tensions are high before the runoff vote, which follows Bolsonaro's unexpectedly strong showing in the first round of voting earlier this month.

It's not just the candidates that are up for election. The fate of the Amazon rainforest — the planet's largest — is on the ballot.

"Brazil was almost an environmental hero 10 years ago, when deforestation reached the lowest ever since 1970s," Carlos Nobre, a leading Amazon scientist at the University of Sao Paolo, told Insider. Since then, he added, the country has become "one of the villains."

One big difference during that decade: the environmental policies of the man holding the country's highest office.

As seen in the graph below, during Lula's years in office, between 2004 and 2012, Amazon deforestation — which refers to cutting down or clearing trees, often replacing them with farms or cattle ranches — fell by more than 80%. In addition to cutting down fewer trees, the government carved out roughly 150 million acres of forest for conservation.

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has cleared large swaths of the Amazon rainforest for farmland, accelerating deforestation there.

In 2019 alone, the first year of the Bolsonaro administration, 2.4 million acres — a section of the forest about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined — was cleared, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). That is a 30% increase from the previous year.

Overall, deforestation rose more than 50% during his presidency, according to INPE. A victory for Bolsonaro could continue that catastrophic trend.

Lula, meanwhile, has pledged to crack down on deforestation. One recent analysis by Carbon Brief, a website that covers climate science and policy, suggests that if Lula were to win the upcoming election, annual deforestation in the Amazon could fall by nearly 90% by the end of the decade.

Destroying the Amazon will change the climate worldwide

About 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest is located in Brazil. And it's teetering on the edge of a tipping point. If enough of the forest gets burned or clear-cut, it will change the local climate and water cycle enough to cause massive tree die-off, starting an irreversible process that would eventually convert the forest into a savanna. That would release up to 140 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where the gas would trap heat and accelerate global warming, with catastrophic impacts worldwide.

"This is a very bad, terrible scenario if we exceed this tipping point," Nobre said.

Nobre's research shows the Amazon could reach that point in just 10 to 20 years if deforestation continues at the current rate.

Even before reaching the dangerous tipping point, cutting down the Amazon has global implications. The rainforest plays an essential role in the planet's oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles, absorbing vast amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

"The scenario that the current president is reelected is very serious," Nobre said.

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