• Scientists have discovered that the Amazon Basin is now a net emitter of greenhouse gases; but human activity is the main cause of climate change.
  • Fires and the drying out of seasonally flooded forests release large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, which are more harmful to the environment than CO2.
  • While they play an important role, forests alone will not be enough to slow climate change, because they are losing their ability to absorb CO2.
  • Other action needs to be taken in addition to protecting our forests; most importantly the reduction of fossil fuel burning.

Something is wrong in the lungs of the world. Decades of burning, logging, mining and development have tipped the scales, and now the Amazon Basin may be emitting more greenhouse gases than it absorbs.

Most of the conversation about climate change is dominated by carbon dioxide. While CO2 plays a critical role in the complex climate equation, other forces such as methane, nitrous oxide, aerosols and black carbon are also factors.

In a first-of-its-kind effort, a group of 31 scientists calculated the balance of all natural and human-caused greenhouse gases coming in and out of the massive Amazon Basin. The team concluded that warming of the atmosphere from agents other than CO2 likely exceeds the climate benefits the Amazon provides via CO2 uptake. Or more simply: due to humans, the Amazon Basin is now a net greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter.

“I would highlight that that natural greenhouse emissions from ecosystems aren’t causing climate change,” the study’s lead author, Kristofer Covey, an assistant professor at Skidmore College told Mongabay. “It’s the many human disturbances underway in the basin that are contributing to climate change.”

image of fire at the borders of the Kaxarari Indigenous Land, in Lábrea, Amazonas state
Fires in the Amazon are often caused by humans for agricultural reasons.
Image: Greenpeace/Christian Braga

Earth receives constant energy from the sun. Climate-forcing factors in the atmosphere, such as greenhouse gases, act like a blanket, trapping that heat energy on Earth. When there’s more energy coming in from the sun than is being reflected back out into space, the planet warms and our climate is thrown out of balance.

A healthy forest ecosystem sucks in CO2 and keeps other climate-forcing factors in relative balance. But in the Amazon, where forests have faced increased logging, mining, dam construction, and clearing for agricultural (typically using fire), the system is drying and degrading. One study found that the amount of aboveground plant tissue in the Amazon was reduced by roughly one-third over the past decade.

In short, the ability of the Amazon to absorb CO2 is declining.

At the same time, other climate-forcing factors are on the rise. When trees burn, for instance, they not only release their stored CO2, but also release methane — a GHG more than 80 times as potent as carbon, which sticks around in the atmosphere for much longer, amplifying the warming.

image of dead trees in a canal constructed for the Belo Monte Dam project in Brazil.
Dead trees in a canal constructed for the Belo Monte Dam project in Brazil.
Image: Greenpeace/Daniel Beltrá

Warming, especially of the soils and sediments in the Amazon’s seasonally flooded forests, contributes to increased emissions of methane and nitrous oxide—a GHG with 300 times the warming potential of CO2. “Of the impacts that may increase the strength of sources in the Basin, wetland warming and reservoir construction [dams] could be the most significant,” the paper says.

Black carbon, small particulate matter from fires and the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, settles and darkens the surface of the Earth, causing it to absorb more heat. Soot from Amazon fires has been found in the Andean glaciers, reducing the albedo, or reflectiveness of snow, thereby increasing melting and altering hydrology.

“Parsing the complex interactions between the Amazon, its effects on climate, and human influences is a bit like trying to predict the stock market,” said study co-author Fiona Soper, an ecologist at McGill University in Canada. “[I]t’s made up of moving parts: multiple climate forcers, not just carbon but also methane, nitrous oxide, particulates and biophysical effects, each being acted on by human stressors that range from dam building and hunting to climate change…Synthesizing these changes is a huge challenge.”

a diagram of how agriculture can damage the Amazon ecosystem
Human activity is damaging the Amazon ecosystem and adding to climate change.
Image: Covey et al 2021.

“Local-scale (A) pre-disturbance and (B) post-disturbance fluxes, biophysical forcing agents, and their associated short-term radiative forcing impact (positive, red; negative, blue; hashed arrows indicate a reduction in—as opposed to directional change to—a flux following disturbance) from undisturbed upland forests, seasonally inundated forests and wetlands, and freshwater ecosystems of the Amazon Basin. Note that because the magnitude of many of these effects is not well-defined, the arrow length is not proportional to source/sink strength.”

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

Evapotranspiration, the natural exchange of gases and water from plants into the atmosphere; aerosols, small particles produced both naturally and by burning; ozone, a trace gas usually produced from urban emissions and fires; and biogenic volatile organic compounds, trace gasses produced by plants, are all accounted for in the study.

However, despite their best estimates, researchers note some uncertainty in the magnitude of emissions from the Amazon Basin, disagreements about the best way to compare the climate forcing of non-CO2 factors relative to CO2, and the exact roles of these climate-forcing factors.

“I think this paper does a great service by highlighting how much there is to learn about the biogeochemistry of the Amazon Basin, particularly about non-CO2 greenhouse gases and other forcing factors on climate,” Ruth DeFries, a professor of sustainable development at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay.

“Forests might not be able to sequester enough carbon to provide a net benefit for climate mitigation, which suggests that efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases depend on alternatives to fossil fuel burning — the largest and well-quantified source of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.”

image of a person from an indigenous community holding eggs of a bird belonging to Tinamou order, Colombia
Person from an indigenous community holding eggs of a bird belonging to Tinamou order, Colombia.
Image: Rhett A. Butler

Many climate experts agree that reducing emissions is an essential focus to address climate change. But this doesn’t mean the services of the Amazon Basin are a wash. The remaining forests are still doing a mammoth job of stabilizing the climate, not to mention supporting rich biodiversity, cultures and livelihoods.

“The main take away from this work,” Soper said, “should be a call to arms to prevent further degradation of the Amazon system.”