Amazon rainforest fires: We must rise above the egos and insults threatening climate change policy

As the 'lungs of the Earth' continue to burn, discussions at international summits have devolved into a circus of egos and insults that suggest that future collaborative efforts to combat climate change will revolve around petty but powerful people who can't see the wood for the burning rainforest.

Amazon rainforest fires: We must rise above the egos and insults threatening climate change policy

We all know that climate change is a collaborative journey, and not one that organisations can take alone, but with the international political sphere becoming crowded by petulance and ego, the need for a coherent business voice to tackle climate change and deforestation has never been more important.

The severity of Monday’s G7 Summit laid down the law early doors. The French coastal town of Biarritz was placed on lockdown, with tourists and demonstrations barred and blocked by security forces consisting of 13,000 police and the inception of a special magistrate’s court for anyone stirring up trouble.

As national leaders, finance ministers and central bank governors rolled into Biarritz, many travelling by highly polluting jets, the focal point of these serious discussions was that of the fires plaguing the Amazon rainforest, which has since been confirmed a result of manmade action, notably deforestation.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) states that there has been a total of 72,843 fires in Brazil this year and more than 1.5 football fields of Amazon rainforest are being destroyed per minute, per day – an increase of 80% compared to the same period the year prior.

The Amazon, like other large rainforests, plays an integral role in the battle to reverse the climate emergency, because it absorbs heat and acts as a carbon sink. It is being whittled away by demand for cattle, soy, palm oil and timber – the majority of which has a hefty carbon footprint attached.

This year’s G7 Summit followed a slightly different format than previous years. Following US President Donald Trump’s decision to disown the official “communique”, insult Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and then board a private jet to Singapore to prepare for his summit with Kim Jong-un last year, French President Emmanuel Macron, the G7 host this year, decided that the traditional statement would be scrapped altogether; after all, arguments and egos can be left at the table, provided there is nothing official to sign.

Instead, the key takeaway of the summit was a $20m international aid pledge to combat the fires in the Amazon, the most of which would be spent on paying for more firefighting planes.

At the time of writing, Brazil looks set to reject the $20m in international aid pledged by the G7 nations to combat the fires that are devastating the Amazon rainforest, with President Bolsonaro saying he would reconsider if French President Emmanuel Macron apologies for “insulting” him. You can read the full rundown of that here.

According to news site G1 Globo, Onyx Lorenzoni, Brazil’s the chief of staff of President Jair Bolsonaro, claimed that the country would reject the $20m pledged by G7 nations, claiming that the aid should instead be used to reforest Europe. In fact, Bolsonaro suggests that creating an international effort to combat the devastation in the Amazon would be an attack on the nation’s sovereignty, likening it to treating Brazil as a “colony”.

The chief of staff also couldn’t resist aiming an insult at Macron, claiming he “cannot even avoid a foreseeable fire in a church that is a world heritage site”, in reference to the blaze that damaged the Notre Dame cathedral earlier in the year.

In typical Trump fashion, the US president skipped the session of the Summit aimed at discussing climate change, claiming he wouldn’t lose his nation’s wealth on dreams and windmills.

“I feel the US has tremendous wealth … I’m not going to lose that wealth on dreams, on windmills – which, frankly, aren’t working too well,” he said. “I think I know more about the environment than most.”

He later chimed in with his own support for the Brazil President.

Boris Johnson, another world leader with the expertise to fill a room with his ego, pledged £10m to combat the fires, and immediately came under fire by those claiming that he failed to rule out any trade deals that involved meat raised on land that was created by burning the rainforest.

The G7, expected by the rest of the world to set an example on global cooperation, has devolved into a circus where everyone believes they are the ringmaster, but most are unable to see that the circus tent is deflating on top of them.

It is perhaps impressive that a $20m pledge was agreed amidst all the “my wealth’s bigger than yours” – amongst other measuring contests. However, campaigners have rightly labelled the sum as “chump change” - it is 32 times less than the funds set aside after Notre Dame caught fire.

Tradeoffs

Somewhere over the course of history, we’ve got our priorities mixed up. Human ingenuity is prioritised over the regenerative force of nature. We burn and raze rainforests to make room for livestock that is linked with spiralling emissions, soil erosion and land degradation. Long gone are the times when we’d look at the window at marvel at the sights, now we think “what can I put there to serve my purpose?”.

The political sphere has become so divisive, with the far-left and far-right stretching further apart that nuanced conversations on these delicate issues – deforestation spans entire supply chains and will impact millions of workers - are becoming so much harder. Earth Alliance, the environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5m towards the Amazon fires, yet that doesn’t stop people criticising the actor-cum-environmentalist from taking private jets, even though he offsets his journeys.

There are always trade-offs when it comes to sustainability and climate change, but in the era of the ego, these are being weaponised by people who don’t agree with you or your point of view. This extends to political views as well.

So, what can businesses do to make a difference?

The likes of Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so I’d argue that it is time to leave policy behind and let MPs play catch up with us.

Businesses commonly look for policy guidance and incentives to act on climate change, but in this divisive political landscape, businesses that want to thrive in the future have to set the tone, march to the beat of a unified drum and take a leap of faith. In turn, this will spur demand for low-carbon products and services, attract customer and staff loyalty and, ultimately, force new policies that reflects the trajectory of global markets.

Fortunately, the business case for ending deforestation is well and truly built.

Research from CDP warns that the business community is risking up to $941bn on commodities linked to deforestation, with just 13% of companies that responded to a disclosure request making time-bound pledges to zero-deforestation. Already, food manufacturers and retailers such as Tesco, Unilever and Nestlé are "seizing the opportunity" of a thriving plant-based market to assist with the low-carbon transition. The alternative protein market is expected to be valued at $100bn in the next 15 years.

There is your business imperative to act on deforestation. The deadline for a deforestation-free supply chain by 2020 has probably sailed, but forests are in the Paris Accord, creating yet another imperative to act.

Research from Global Canopy found that 52% of shareholder proposals between 2011 and 2017, put forward by members of the Ceres Investor Network – which collectively manages more than $17trn in assets - led to the formation of some sort of company action plan or commitment to tackle deforestation risks.

Pressure, from stakeholders, investors, the public and other businesses are key to igniting a global change on deforestation.

Action, of course, speaks louder than words, but if the business community can shout loud enough, it can light its own fires under our petty politicians to make them take notice that the private sector and the majority of the global economy has gone deforestation-free.

Matt Mace

Topics: Climate change
Tags: | investors | low carbon | palm oil | supply chain
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