In the first half of November, all eyes and ears will be turned to Glasgow, Scotland, to see what will come out of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Here, the international dialogue on climate change will share center stage with the Amazon rain forest, as the Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA) launches its first report.
The Science Panel for the Amazon is a network of scientists, communities, institutions, practitioners, and leaders from different fields engaged in the debate around the forest’s future. At the core of the group are more than 200 experts from across the region who, in a fashion similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are in charge of summarizing the best knowledge available on the Amazon rain forest. Convened by Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, SPA was conceived within the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
An IPCC for the Amazon
“The main difference between the IPCC and the Science Panel for the Amazon is that the SPA has just the scientific, and not the intergovernmental, aspect as part of its nature,” explained Mercedes Bustamante, a professor at the University of Brasília in Brazil.
Bustamante is a member of the science steering committee of the SPA as well as a lead author of the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC’s Working Group III, focused on climate change mitigation. “Not needing to go through an approval process with national governments after putting the report together gives researchers a little more flexibility to propose policies—unlike the IPCC, whose motto is to be ‘policy relevant, but not policy prescriptive.’ With the SPA, we can be a little more prescriptive,” she said.
The flexibility afforded by the SPA process has both positive and negative aspects, according to Bustamante. “When governments assess a report, they acknowledge the information that is there at the end of the process. With the SPA, on the other hand, there’s a lot of work to be done to approach governments with the report because there isn’t intergovernmental approval,” she explained.
Still, the ways scientists work on the SPA report are very similar to the ways they work on IPCC reports. In addition, as processes in the Amazon heavily affect global climate change, it is not rare to find experts, like Bustamante herself, involved in both groups. “We have contributions from researchers in all Amazonian countries, different perspectives, [and we] also rely on social sciences to understand the human dynamics and impacts in the region,” Bustamante said.
“The SPA report is the equivalent of combining all three IPCC working group reports into one for the Amazon,” she said. (The IPCC working group reports cover physical science, the vulnerability of socioeconomic and natural systems to climate change, and climate change mitigation.)
A Comprehensive Report
As with the IPCC, such efforts resulted in a hefty document, a four-digit-page report that will be released during COP26. It comprises 34 chapters that look at the Amazon forest’s current state, threats, and solutions to those threats.
The report is divided into four main sections. The first section conveys the forest as a part of the Earth system and covers a range of topics ranging from the Amazon’s climate and geological history to its evolution and biodiversity. The second covers land use, historical occupation, and cultural diversity in the region. The third addresses climate and demographic changes in the forest, including issues like politics, agribusiness, conservation policies, and deforestation. The fourth and final section looks at solutions and sustainable pathways for the forest. The role of the Amazon region in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, possible restoration and conservation measures, and an emphasis on the importance of Indigenous Knowledges close the report.
A preview (and a digestible-length rundown) is available now in the executive summary.
High Stakes and Expectations
The report comes at a moment when stakes for the Amazon forest are high, with a looming climate crisis already showing some practical effects—including increased instances of wildfires, more polluted water, and reduced biodiversity. Emma Torres, strategic coordinator of the SPA and senior adviser on sustainability for Latin America at the United Nations Development Programme, hopes the report will be a reference point for policymakers and actors in the private sector. “And not just that—I hope the report and the activity at the SPA will stimulate science advancement by covering knowledge gaps [and getting] science academies and more young researchers involved, as well as by spurring investment in science, technology, and innovation in the Amazonian region,” she said.
The idea behind the SPA, Torres said, is to have a more horizontal approach to knowledge production instead of a top-down flow from scientists or policymakers. “This is why the involvement of social scientists, as well as Indigenous communities and researchers, is essential” in the process of making the report and other documents within the SPA.
—Meghie Rodrigues (@meghier), Science Writer