What’s the latest crisis facing the Amazon rain forest?

Experts are warning that ‘the lungs of the world’ face a disastrous tipping point by 2050 unless radical action is taken

Up to half of the Amazon rainforest could hit a tipping point by 2050 as a result of water stress; land clearance and climate disruption, a study by Brazilian scientists has shown.

It reveals the compounding impacts of local human activity and the global climate crisis. It warns that the forest had already passed a safe boundary and urges remedial action to restore degraded areas and to improve its resilience.

It projects a potential shift from slow to rapid forest decline. “By 2050, it will accelerate rapidly... Once we pass the tipping point, we will lose control of how the system will behave,” predicts Bernardo Flores of the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Why is the Amazon so important?

The Amazon is a tropical rainforest, often described as the “the lungs of the world”. It is not only an important source of food, water, wood and medicines; it helps stabilise the Earth’s climate system.


It stores up to 200 billion tonnes of carbon, its trees release 20 billion tonnes of water into the atmosphere per day, playing a critical role in global and regional carbon and water cycles. It is home to more than 10 per cent of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity

Between 1985 and 2021, it lost an area of rainforest and other native vegetation equivalent to three times the size of the UK – much of which was cleared for cattle production.

How are efforts to halt deforestation progressing?

The irony is that deforestation rates are beginning to fall. They fell by 42.5 per cent in Brazil last year during the first seven months of its new government headed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, after four years in which destruction soared under far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro.

The Brazilian president has, however, told developed countries to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to protecting the world’s remaining tropical forests. Major rainforest nations have demanded hundreds of billions of dollars of climate financing and a greater role in how their resources are spent.

Eight countries belonging to the Amazon Co-operation Treaty Organisation last August published a communique vowing to unite to prevent the rainforest region being commandeered by criminal groups or reaching a catastrophic point of no return after which the forest would die off.

Activists welcomed the collective effort but criticised a failure to mention phase-out of fossil fuel exploration or include a common commitment to halting deforestation by 2030.

What can be done?

The scale of the problem is such that it requires international action, because even a local halt to deforestation would not prevent collapse without a global reduction in carbon emissions.

For 65 million years, Amazonian forests have withstood climatic variability, but the region is now exposed to unprecedented stress from drought, heat, fire and land clearance. This is altering the functioning of the forest, which in many areas is producing less rain than before, and turning a carbon sink into a carbon emitter.

To prevent this, the study found that a safe boundary, including a buffer zone, would be needed to keep deforestation to 10 per cent of the Amazon region, and to keep global heating within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But overshoot has already happened as the study found 15 per cent of the Amazon had already been cleared and another 17 per cent had been degraded by human activity.

Its problems are being exacerbating by global warming, with dry season temperatures already two degrees higher than 40 years ago in some areas.

Flores summed up what is required: “We must reach net zero emissions and net zero deforestation as quickly as possible. It needs to be done now. If we lose the Amazon, it would be problematic for humanity.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times