Why the free trade agreement with Mercosur should be ratified despite media hysteria about the Amazon fires

The hysteria has been fuelled by media outlets that prioritise sensationalism over unbiased reporting…

It is now more than a year since the European Union and Mercosur (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil) reached a trade agreement, ending twenty years of negotiations. Described as “historic” by former European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, the agreement provides for the lifting of 91% of customs duties on European exports and 93% of customs duties on imports into the EU. Because of the size of the free trade area it creates (780 million consumers), this agreement is the most significant economic agreement ever negotiated by the EU. 

However, one issue continues to divide the Member States: the Amazon rainforest. Two months after the announcement of the agreement between the EU and Mercosur, the fires of the summer of 2019 had indeed caused a lot of commotion. French President Emmanuel Macron immediately reacted by declaring that he would not sign the treaty “as is” – accusing Jair Bolsonaro of having “lied” about his climate commitments. A few days earlier, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had already warned that Ireland would oppose the treaty if Brazil did not step up its efforts to protect the Amazon. A month later, Austrian MPs voted against the agreement. More recently, in June, Dutch MPs also opposed the deal. The ratification of the treaty thus seems to be in real danger. 

The rejection by several heads of state and national MPs of a treaty that took twenty years to negotiate is a response to an inevitable global hysteria. The curve of Google searches on the Amazon suggests that the world discovered in August 2019 that there was a fire season. 

This hysteria has been fuelled by media outlets that prioritise sensationalism over unbiased reporting. In August 2019, the BBC headlined: ‘Amazon fires up 84% in a year’, ignoring the fact that variations from year to year can be considerable and that the number of fires in 2018 was meager. The BBC even attached a truncated graph to the article that obscures the underlying trend. 

Indeed, if we look back over the last 15 years, the trend is downwards, as the National Institute for Space Research (NISR) data clearly shows. The fires of 2019 were not exceptional; the total number of fires was only 7% higher than the average of the last ten years – the average of the last ten years (2009-2019) is 25% lower than the average of the previous ten years (1998-2008). The 7% increase is mostly in ‘dry brush and trees felled for livestock’ as environmentalist Michael Shellenberger points out in Forbes.  

The media is not the only one involved in maintaining myths about the Amazon. In August 2019, President Emmanuel Macron wrote in a tweet, “The Amazon, the lung of our planet that produces 20% of our oxygen, is on fire. This is an international crisis”. The idea that the Amazon is “the lung of the planet” comes up very regularly. Curious, Michael Shellenberger asked Dan Nepstad, an Amazon expert and lead author of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (Working Group II, Chapter 4). His answer was clear: this idea has no scientific basis. While it is true that plants produce oxygen, this oxygen is then entirely absorbed by organisms in the Amazon soil. The net contribution of the Amazon rainforest to the production of ‘our oxygen’ is therefore zero. Moreover, the Amazon ecosystem produces oxygen and stores carbon, but so do the soy farms and pastures, the IPCC expert reminds us.

In 2020, the obsession with the Amazon rainforest does not seem to have eased. Last August, Le Parisien still ran the headline: “Fires in the Amazon: the most catastrophic summer since 2010”. This information is entirely irrelevant and misleads the reader:

  1. The fire season is not over, so there is no point in jumping to conclusions.
  2. The data already available for June and July are not particularly worrying: the number of fires is more or less equal to the median.
  3. Even if 2020 turns out to be an exceptional year, it would be too early to conclude that the trend is really on the rise.
  4. As the IPCC expert points out, it is too often forgotten “that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burning to keep insects and pests down.”

In a statement issued on 17 June, several hundred NGOs demanded a freeze on the negotiations until a guarantee is obtained “that no Brazilian products that cause increased deforestation are sold in the EU”. But is this really reasonable? We are talking about the quarter of the Brazilian population that is still below the poverty line and is simply trying to get out of poverty by growing soya and raising cattle. What right does the West have to prevent the Brazilian countryside from developing in the same way that the European countryside developed centuries ago? Indeed, let us not forget that until the 14th century Europe was 80% covered with trees – compared to 40% today, according to Shellenberger in his latest book Apocalypse Now.

This does not mean that the entire Amazon should be destroyed. The question is not even relevant. As Nepstad reminds us, ‘only 3% of the Amazon is suitable for growing soya’. The challenge, however, is to do more with less. In this respect, Brazil benefits from a technology that was non-existent at the time of the development of European agriculture: genetic engineering. Indeed, thanks to their increased yield, in 2014, GMOs made it possible to use 20 million fewer hectares to produce the same amount of food and fuel – slightly more than the area covered by the French forest.

In Forbes, Dan Nepstad tells Shellenberger that “Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s electoral base as Hillary Clinton’s tweet calling Trump’s electorate pathetic. Postponing ratification of the treaty is not penalising Bolsonaro; it is rewarding him. Conversely, ratifying the treaty supports vulnerable populations – let’s not forget that poverty kills more than climate. The benefits for European consumers would also be colossal. So what are we waiting for?

Originally published here.

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