“It’s not going in the right direction yet,” Pierre Friedlingstein tells Mongabay of the effort to meet the Paris Agreement goals; a member of the IPCC and a climate professor, he says he’s mildly optimistic about the trend in global emissions.
Friedlingstein says he’s hoping deforestation will go down in the coming years in Brazil, but he’s not sure that Indonesia, another major global carbon sink, is ready to go in the right direction at the moment.
He says the COVID-19 pandemic showed that climate is still “not on the top of the list” of government priorities, given that all nations sought to boost economic growth after lockdowns, despite the carbon emissions they incurred.
When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s new president at the beginning of the year, he vowed to place the Amazon Rainforest at the top of the country’s climate agenda, much to the relief of conservationists across the world. But what does this mean for global climate change?
Pierre Friedlingstein has been searching for these answers as a professor and chair in mathematical modeling of the climate system at the University of Exeter, U.K., and director of the Global Carbon Budget, a report that quantifies the amount of CO2 emissions every year and determines how much ends up in the atmosphere, the land, and the ocean. It helps researchers better understand the global carbon cycle and the human impact on it.
Friedlingstein was also the lead author of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with which he has collaborated since 1994. Now, he’s not so sure.
“We are entering unknown territories,” he told Mongabay in an interview. “Not just for the Amazon but for many regions across the world, because the current warming is at a level we haven’t yet observed.”
It makes predicting what will happen over the next few decades “quite hard,” he added. What we do know, however, is that despite global emissions continuing to increase, there’s a small glimmer of hope that the soaring tree loss in the Amazon Rainforest is being curbed and could help slow the rate of emissions.
But there’s a long way to go. Brazil continues to have the world’s highest rates of carbon emissions from deforestation, followed by Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to data from the Global Climate Budget 2022. Together, the three countries account for more than half of the global land-use emissions, and the commitment to take action isn’t the same across the three.
“Brazil is the only one where there is a clear indication that they want to reverse and reduce deforestation,” Friedlingstein said. Brazil will be the host of the COP30 climate summit in 2025, a commitment that places the country firmly back in global discussions around climate change.
To reduce Amazon deforestation and global carbon emissions requires major systemic changes and political will across the world. In July, Friedlingstein talked to Mongabay by video call from his home in Bristol, U.K., about the current global carbon situation, what’s holding us back from reducing emissions, and the future of the Amazon Rainforest.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: How are the standing global forests and land influencing our current carbon emissions?
Pierre Friedlingstein: We find that, on average, about half of the emissions stay in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by the land and ocean systems, which is what we call the land and ocean carbon sinks. Without these land and ocean carbon sinks, the carbon dioxide concentration and warming would be twice as large today and we would be well above 2° [Celsius, or 3.6° Fahrenheit] already.
[On land], it’s mainly tropical forests [absorbing emissions], but also temperate and boreal forests. But the tropical forests alone were responsible for about 50% of the land carbon sink. That’s another good reason why we want to keep tropical forests, because they are actually helping us by removing a [large] fraction of the emission of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere.
Mongabay: What are the key factors currently influencing change in the Amazon Rainforest and what can be done about them?
Pierre Friedlingstein: There are mainly two drivers of change in the Amazon. One is human direct intervention — deforestation — which is something we can control and we can stop. We just need the right policies to be put in place to make sure that we reduce and eventually stop deforestation.
Climate impact on the Amazon is the one which is more complicated to assess. We do know that tropical forests need a large amount of precipitation. If climate change leads to reduced precipitation in the tropics, it could reduce the extent of the forest, replacing parts of the forest with drier ecosystems like savanna. When this is happening, and the level of precipitation, is where we struggle to put a definite number. Some models show a large increase. Some models show a more modest increase or even decrease in the tropics. So these are the regions where it’s not as clear.
Mongabay: Are we going in the right direction to meet the Paris Agreement targets, even though there is still an increase in emissions?
Pierre Friedlingstein: No, not at all. To be on track, we need to reduce global emissions of CO2 by about 40% by 2030, or 80% by 2050. If you just look at 2030, we need to reduce emissions by about 5-6% per year every single year for the next seven years. And continue to do that until we reduce our emissions by 80% or 90%, and do this every single year to go all the way down to almost zero in 2050. So even a small increase, like the one we observed last year of 1%, goes in the wrong direction. If you look at the remaining carbon budgets, which is what we define as the amount of CO2 you can still put in the atmosphere before you reach 1.5° [C, or 2.7°F], it’s equivalent to less than 10 years of carbon emission. It’s not going in the right direction yet.
Mongabay: How much carbon balance do we have left?
Pierre Friedlingstein: We look at the amount of CO2 you can still put in the atmosphere before you reach 1.5° or 2°. The higher the climate target, the more emissions you can have. The remaining emissions for 1.5° is about 300 billion [metric] tons of CO2. We emit about 40 billion [metric] tons of CO2 every year, so that’s less than 10 years. In 2023, we will already have used 90% of the CO2 budget to stay below 1.5°. In other words, we had 90% of the cake and there’s 10% of the cake left to be consumed before we reach 1.5°. If we continue doing essentially nothing or not enough, it’ll be used up in less than 10 years.
Mongabay: Based on historical data and the current scenario, what are your predictions for global emission patterns and deforestation in the next 10 years?
Pierre Friedlingstein: For global emissions, I’m mildly optimistic. I’m hoping that global emissions will peak and start to decline in the coming years. I wouldn’t dare to say this year or next year, but within the next five years, I’m hoping that we will have peaked emissions and we will see global CO2 emissions slowly starting to decline again. It won’t be fast enough to limit warming to 1.5°, so I wouldn’t declare victory, but at least it will go in the right direction globally. At this stage, every single tenth of a degree will matter. I’m still hoping that we can avoid the worst-case scenarios and every action really counts to get there.
Deforestation in the Amazon is more complicated. We can hope now that with [Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] the right actions will be taken to reduce deforestation. I’m hoping that deforestation will go down in the coming years in Brazil. I’m not sure that Indonesia is ready to go in the right direction at the moment, and Indonesian emissions are quite important.
Mongabay: The pandemic showed that it’s possible that we can significantly reduce emissions. What do you think are the key issues that are preventing this reduction?
Pierre Friedlingstein: Governments have to facilitate the transition by making it more affordable for all because a lot of the resistance from people is because it will cost a lot. They need help to do it. This means massive investment in subsidies from the government. Companies need security to invest in these new technologies with government support and help to make it possible. At the moment, it’s much easier for companies to keep investing in fossil fuel because it has been done forever and it’s working. For big fossil fuel companies, for example, to decide to change and to invest massively in the transition to renewables is a risk for them. In the last report from BP and Shell, for example, the amount of investment in renewables has [been] reduced.
Mongabay: How does climate change usually rank within political priorities?
Pierre Friedlingstein: It’s not part of the discussion, which was clear after the COVID crisis. The economy was in danger and the top priority for all governments across the world was to restart the economy as quickly as possible and to reinvest in making sure the economy gets back on its feet regardless of what it means for CO2 emissions. There is always a crisis which is more urgent than the climate crisis. I’m not saying they don’t do anything. Of course they try to address it at the same time, but it’s not across the board as it should ideally be. For every single decision in the government, they should put all these elements of sustainability, ethics and climate compatibility in context to make sure that it’s the right thing to do. But most of the time it isn’t because for each priority they have, they weigh the pros and the cons and then they make decisions. The impact of climate is not on the top of the list.
Mongabay: What systemic structures are at play that prevent companies from moving in the right direction?
Pierre Friedlingstein: It goes back to the economic system we have. Of course we want to, but we can’t blame fossil fuel companies for doing what they are supposed to do, which is making sure the business system continues. The shareholders want to make sure they get profits every year or every quarter, and to make profit they need to continue to invest. If you were a shareholder and the company you were investing in announced that they are going to divest and stop exploring oil and moving to something which is different, like renewable or something new, a shareholder can worry about the risk and look to put their money somewhere else. Of course, it’s a complex business system where decisions are not driven by what’s best for the planet, but what’s best for the shareholders.
Mongabay: What’s the solution?
Pierre Friedlingstein: One of the solutions is to make sure that the government is helping these companies to securely make the transition. It’s not just in the hands of a short-term view from shareholders — the government sometimes has short-term views because they want to be reelected. I’m not overly optimistic because it’s a complex system. And in a sense, it has been working very well, apart from climate change, if you look at other elements of development. We live in a world where there is globally less poverty, life expectancy is longer, we are curing diseases. We are doing much better. People are not willing to take risks and move into something which is slightly different. It’s complex and we don’t have much time.
Banner image: Pierre Friedlingstein is a member of the IPCC and a climate professor. Image courtesy of Pierre Friedlingstein.