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Expect More Crippling Heatwaves By 2020

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Climate News Network

By Tim Radford

Stand by for extreme weather. Prepare for heat waves on a scale that was once unprecedented. For once, there is no “if” in the forecast. Even if governments abandon fossil fuels everywhere, immediately and invest only in green energy, there will be new record temperatures.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

European climate scientists say the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere mean it is inevitable that far more parts of the world will experience more frequent and severe heat waves in the next 30 years.

The greenhouse gas emissions of the last few decades now mean that regions of the planet subjected to extreme heat will double by 2020 and quadruple by 2040.

Dim Coumou of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a colleague from Madrid in Spain make this prediction in Environmental Research Letters. In essence, they are only pointing out that the unprecedented heat waves that have already been recorded this century in Australia, the U.S., Russia, Greece and so on will increase in frequency and extent and in degrees Celsius.

They have followed the mathematical logic of climate models and simple thermodynamics. Extra greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere has pushed up global average temperatures. But an average is only the sum of all the extremes divided by the days in the year.

And as average temperatures rise in response to carbon dioxide levels, so will the extremes. And their forecast says the second half of the century will be even worse—unless global greenhouse emissions are reduced substantially.

“In many regions, the coldest summer months by the end of the century will be hotter than the hottest experienced today—that’s what our calculations show for a scenario of unabated climate change. We would enter a new climatic regime”, said Dr Coumou.

A Done Deal

Such warnings are not new: The World Meteorological Organisation made similar predictions in July, and the first years of this century have been marked by dramatic spells of record-breaking heat. In Russia in 2010, for instance, the temperature in July went up by 7 degrees Celsius to a daily peak of 40 degrees Celsius in Moscow.

Right now, five percent of the land area of the planet has experienced heat extremes, that is, temperatures far beyond the normal for summer at that latitude: temperatures that spell out deaths from heat stroke or heat exhaustion, harvest loss, devastating drought and forest fires.

By 2020 the area at risk will reach 10 percent, and by 2040, one fifth of the land area of the planet will be experiencing extreme temperatures at some point in the summer, just because of the extra energy already in the planetary system. “There’s already so much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere today that the near-term increase of heat extremes seems to be almost inevitable”, says Coumou.

The researchers combined the results from a comprehensive set of climate models, and used them to predict not only the next 30 years but the past as well.

“We show that these simulations capture the observed rise in heat extremes over the past 50 years very well”, said Alex Robinson of the University Complutense in Madrid. “This makes us confident that they are able to robustly indicate what is to be expected in future.”

But, on the same day, another study of climate extremes suggests that heat waves could actually make things even worse. A team of 18 European scientists led by Markus Reichstein of the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena in Germany reports in Nature that extreme weather events could actually lead to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, starting a vicious cycle of feedback.

In normal climatic conditions, plants absorb carbon dioxide and lock much of it away. In abnormal conditions, the response could be the reverse: Forest fires, for instance, would release huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Drought, too, would constrain any plant growth.

Increasing Frequency

The researchers calculate that because of extreme events that already occur, terrestrial ecosystems—forests, marshes, mangrove swamps, grasslands and so on—absorb around 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide less than they would if there were no extremes.

This time, they weren’t working just with simulations. They pored over satellite images from 1982 to 2011 to work out how much biomass a particular ecosystem accumulated during or after an extreme weather event.

They also used data from a global network of recording stations that samples the air above forest canopies to check their figures, and came to the total of 11 billion tons. “That is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered in terrestrial environments every year”, said Dr Reichstein. “It is therefore by no means negligible.”

Such a finding is tentative, because extremes of some kind must occur, no matter how stable the climate, and so the “normal” pattern of events is difficult to determine. In the stilted language of science, the researchers point out that the effect of fires, drought and baking heat on carbon stores and the flow of greenhouse gases is “non-linear.” That means that a small change in average temperatures can have dramatic effects.

The next step is to investigate the ways that ecosystems respond to events. Experiments so far have measured responses only to so-called “once a century” events.

“We should also take account of events which so far have happened once in 1,000 years or even 10,000 years,” said Michael Bahn from the University of Innsbruck, “because they are likely to become much more frequent by the end of this century.”

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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