The past year has been a momentous time for the world's rainforests, with both good and bad news. Fasten your seat belts, because this year promises to be another roller-coaster ride.
Rhett Butler, one of ALERT's principal media advisers and founder and director of the the leading environmental website Mongabay.com, has just published an incisive perspective on events that could affect rainforests in 2016. Here we highlight some of Rhett's key points along with thoughts of our own:
1. Collapsing commodity prices
The ripple effects from China's slowing economy could be huge for rainforests. China has been an aggressive driver of mineral, fossil fuel, and timber exploitation in developing nations, and has pushed hard for road and infrastructure expansion into many remote wilderness regions.
With prices for many natural resources falling, rainforests could see some respite in 2016. Conservationists need to use this breathing space to create new protected areas and promote land-use planning in environmentally critical regions.
Africa, in the midst of a mineral and road-building frenzy, is a particularly high priority.
2. El Niño drought
The fire-breathing 'Godzilla' drought ain't dead yet -- far from it. The Pacific Ocean conditions feeding this monster are still strong. This could lead to serious droughts and fires in parts of the Amazon and the Asia-Pacific region.
Indonesia, in particular, has been reeling from the drought, with massive forest and peat fires that have had much of Southeast Asia gasping for air. On a daily basis, Indonesia's fires were belching out as much carbon emissions as the entire U.S. economy.
So far some 500,000 people in Southeast Asia have experienced serious respiratory distress, and the impact on wildlife and ecosystems has been incalculable.
3. Brazil's imploding economy
If China's economy is cooling off, Brazil's economy is entering an Ice Age -- a remarkable turn of events for a nation so rich in land and natural resources.
It's hard to predict how this could affect rainforests like the vast Brazilian Amazon and imperiled Atlantic forests.
On the one hand, Brazil's currency, the Real, has fallen dramatically in value. That means that export commodities such as timber, soy, beef, oil, and minerals will be more competitive internationally -- potentially promoting more forest exploitation.
On the other hand, domestic and international investors tend to be cautious in a slowing economy. New infrastructure and land-exploiting projects, such as a slate of planned mega-dams, may well slow down.
It's hard to call this one. The imploding economy could also lead to the political demise of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who generally has been pro-environment.
4. Zero-deforestation agreements
A remarkable development in the last two years is that scores of corporations producing or using oil palm, wood pulp, soy, beef, and other commodities have declared their intent to halt or sharply curtail forest destruction. Pressures from eco-conscious consumers and environmental NGOs have been a key driver of this trend.
Overall, this has been a hugely positive step. While there are still lingering doubts about the sincerity of some corporations, and plenty of corporate 'bad guys' out there who've yet to make no-deforestation commitments, it's vital to keep the ball rolling.
However, Indonesia and Malaysia -- mega-biodiversity nations that collectively produce around 85 percent of all the world's palm oil -- appear determined to undercut or halt zero-deforestation agreements for corporations working there.
Bottom line: they want to continue clearing large expanses of native forest for oil palm and industrial wood-pulp plantations, and the zero-deforestation agreements are getting in the way of this.
This is a really critical issue to watch. If corporations start to backslide on their zero-deforestation agreements, conservationists need to let them know -- loudly and emphatically -- that they're doing the wrong thing.
5. The Paris Climate Accord
ALERT's Bill Laurance and Thomas Lovejoy attended the Paris Climate talks, where there were two key developments relating to rainforests.
First, a formal agreement for advancing REDD+ -- reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation -- was finally approved.
In theory, this means that more international funding should start flowing for forest conservation -- to slow deforestation, promote more-sustainable logging, and encourage forest regeneration -- all in the interest of reducing carbon emissions and thereby limiting global warming.
No question that this is good news -- though it's time to stop talking and start acting: Conservationists must press wealthier nations to amp up funding for REDD initiatives. As we've long argued at ALERT, conserving rainforests is clearly one of the most cost-effective ways to limit harmful climate change.
Second, the world's nations agreed in principle to limit global warming to 2 degrees -- and to strive for an increase of just 1.5 degrees. Easy to say, much harder to do.
While we must herald this landmark accord, there's no time for complacency. The Paris Agreement will only be effective if it's accompanied by concerted action by nations to reduce their carbon emissions and conserve forests.
And it's definitely worth reading these two snappy essays -- here and here -- about biodiversity in a warming world. Certain types of species and ecosystems will be greatly imperiled, and there's many scary things we still don't know about climate change.