Climate and the rainforest

Man-made, catastrophic climate change is a reality that is happening right now. There is no denying that the climate is not what it used to be, and we are clearly feeling the effects – what used to be considered a “summer of the century” is the new normal. Rainforests are tightly intertwined with the climate system: their destruction is driving global warming, and the remaining forests are suffering from the changes – while being the key to climate protection.

Facts about climate and the rainforest in five minutes

How the climate and rainforests are linked

Amazon rainforest Mighty trees form a dense canopy (© Dr Morley Read / shutterstock.com)

Rainforests are complex ecosystems in which a vast number of animal, plant and fungi species are tightly interdependent. They play a major role in the local and global climate. In a process called photosynthesis, plants absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. With the help of water and sunlight, they form sugar and from it other plant building blocks. In doing so, plants sequester carbon in stems, leaves and roots while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

According to estimates, rainforests sequester 250 billion tons of CO2, much of it in peat forests. Globally, this is equal to 90 times the man-made greenhouse gas emissions per year. 40 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes from rainforests. While the metaphor of forests as the “lungs of the Earth” does not fit perfectly, it certainly does underscore their vital role.

Rainforests themselves produce a large part of the high year-round rainfall they receive. Evapotranspiration, i.e. the moisture that the plants release through their leaves, is an important aspect in this respect. The forests are hot and humid, but the clouds reflect much of the sunlight back into space – thus cooling the atmosphere. Without this effect, the areas would be even warmer.

As carbon sinks and rainmakers, intact forests play an important role in regulating the climate and are crucial to the fight against catastrophic climate change.

The problem: catastrophic climate change and forest destruction

Oil drilling in Ecuador Environmental degradation through oil drilling in Ecuador (© Nathalie Weemaels)

Rainforests are increasingly unable to act as climate stabilizers: When they are destroyed for plantations, grazing area or mining projects, vast amounts of greenhouse gases are released. For example, forest fires in Indonesia accounted for one-third of total global emissions in 1997. The loss of peat forests is particularly devastating.

According to a study published by Nature, rainforests could change from carbon sinks to carbon emitters solely due to changing climatic and growth conditions from 2035 onward – thus accelerating catastrophic climate change.

Because of the intricate interdependencies of the rainforest ecosystem, the entire web can suffer if it is damaged in one place. Take the water cycle, for example. If drier periods occur as a result of global climate change – and this is already being observed – the cycle may break down. This can lead to evergreen, lush rainforests becoming grasslands with far lower biodiversity. The local climate would become drier and hotter.

The 18 tipping points in the climate system are particularly ominous: If, for example, the climate change in the Amazon region reaches a certain point, the process and the loss of the rainforest in its current form will become unstoppable.

One thing is clear: catastrophic climate change is man-made. 98 percent of the scientists who study climate issues agree. Because the climate is a highly complex system, researchers are constantly discovering new relationships, interpreting data in different ways and revising forecasts. This is completely normal in science. However, the findings of climatologists are becoming increasingly alarming.

The solution: rainforest protection is climate protection

Primate on a tree Intact rainforests are the habitat of an untold number of animals – many still undocumented by science (© Mathias Rittgerott)

Rainforests must be preserved because they are indispensable as carbon sinks and their further destruction would worsen the impact of catastrophic climate change. Climate protection is therefore rainforest protection and vice versa.

  • We need to preserve forests and nature and heal damage. Forests are more than just carbon sinks – they are diverse ecosystems and home to millions of people.
  • We need to protect the climate while preserving biodiversity. Catastrophic climate change and extinction are two existential crises that we must tackle together.
  • We need to secure and strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples, who are often the best stewards of the forest.
  • We need to fundamentally change our way of life and how we do business: This will mean reducing our consumption of energy, food and raw materials instead of maintaining it by turning to “green products”. We must stop burning fossil fuels.
  • We need to reform flawed climate policy: We must end the misguided use of biofuels, especially if they are based on palm oil, soy or sugar cane, and stop burning trees in power plants.
  • We reject offset programs as a modern “indulgence trade” in which companies finance environmental protection measures in return for being allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases. We also reject supposedly more climate-friendly “bridge technologies” like replacing coal with natural gas.
  • In the wake of the Covid pandemic, we need to rebuild the economy and society in an environmentally sound way. There must be no economic “stimulus programs” based on old formulas.

At the same time, Covid has shown that we are capable of creating rapid and profound change in the face of an existential crisis.