What Virginians Can Do About Amazon Fires

Sep 6, 2019

A herd of cattle stand in the midst of smoke from the fires at the Nova Fronteira region in Novo Progresso, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.
Credit AP Photo/Leo Correa

News of big fires in the Amazon raised many questions last week.  That region is known as the lungs of the planet.

So will we all be gasping for air as rainforest is lost?  And is there anything we, in Virginia, can do to prevent disaster? At UVA a professor of environmental science offers some surprising answers.

Deborah Lawrence has been studying rainforests for more than 30 years, and she says they are not the lungs of the planet. 

“When they store carbon dioxide, they let off a little bit of oxygen, so that’s where that idea comes from, but if we lost the entire rainforest, we’d still have enough oxygen to breathe.  Humans would not notice that,” she explains.

Instead, she thinks of the Amazon as the Earth’s sweat glands.

“Water goes from the soil, through the plants, out through these tiny pores under the surface of their leaves. It goes into the atmosphere as water vapor, and that process cools the atmosphere.  That is super important, and it actually keeps temperatures cool for agriculture nearby or for cities nearby.”

And old growth forests also contains a lot of carbon.  If trees are cut down or burned, carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere – contributing to a layer of greenhouse gas that traps heat.

“Forests take up about a quarter of all of the atmospheric CO2 that we put in  from fossil fuels," Lawrence says. "If they didn’t, we’d have a hotter climate now.” 

So to counter the loss of Amazon rainforest, she proposes planting many more trees all over the world.  Here in Virginia, she says, there is degraded farmland where we could restore what was once wooded.

“Those are perfect places for reforestation.  We could easily put back forests without really upsetting someone else’s land use plan.”

She adds that we should also stop cutting down existing forests.

“Old trees and old forests store so much carbon.  It would take more than a hundred years of growing anywhere to get to that state.  You can’t just say, ‘We’ll clear the rainforest, and we’ll plant it back, because you have this deficit that will take more than 100 years to get back.”

And, she advises us to eat less beef, since the process of raising cattle, processing and transporting meat to market is energy intensive and produces lots of greenhouse gas.

“You don’t have to eliminate beef.  If you ate less beef, you’d be doing a great job.   If you could switch to chicken, that would be great too.  So I think an incremental approach is oaky, and every time you try to choose chicken over beef, or you choose plants over chicken, you’re actually doing something for the planet.”

She notes that small farmers in the Amazon aren’t the only ones setting fires. In Indonesia, for example, wealthy corporations are burning rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations.  So Lawrence urges consumers to look for that ingredient on labels and make sure it’s certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil or RSPO.

The UVA professor of environmental science knows climate change poses a very real danger to the Earth, but she remains hopeful.  For ten years, she notes, Brazil was a sterling example of conservation.

“They had a major reorganization of their legal framework around forests.  It was very successful for a decade, and what’s happening now is it’s not being enforced.”

Fires in the Amazon prompted an outcry from voters there, and a substantial drop in the popularity of that country’s president.  He then called for a 60-day moratorium on burning of rainforest, and Lawrence hopes that will be extended indefinitely.

She says the U.S. faces a similar environmental disaster as the Trump administration rolls back regulation of methane leaks from pipelines, oil and gas wells. Methane, she notes, is a powerful greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming impact of carbon dioxide.