Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Steffi Lemke on a plane to Brazil: The top politicians want to support the country financially in protecting the rainforest
Photo: Jens Büttner / dpa
A forest area about the size of Lower Saxony is gone, cut down, the earth burned, 45,586 square kilometers.
The Amazon rainforest shrank by this area between 2019 and 2022 alone, according to calculations by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
These four years correspond to the tenure of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
During his tenure, the far-right politician relaxed laws to protect the forest and withdrew funds for protective measures from monitoring authorities.
The result: in 2020, twice as much forest was cut down as in 2012, and in 2021 it was almost three times as much.
Bolsonaro's successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, now wants to stop deforestation.
His election could be instrumental in saving the world from catastrophe.
Rainforest on the brink of collapse
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens) also traveled to Brazil when Lula took office on New Year's Day.
"It is important to all of us that we preserve the green lungs of the earth, the rainforests of the Amazon," Steinmeier said upon his arrival on Sunday.
The top politicians want to visit the monitoring center for deforestation in Manaus and the research station ATTO in the Amazon rainforest.
This is run jointly by German and Brazilian scientists.
They research the complicated interactions between rainforest and climate.
The rainforest area, which at around six million square kilometers is significantly larger than the European Union, may already be on the brink of collapse which, once set in motion, could no longer be stopped.
The consequences for humanity would be serious.
Why is the Amazon so important?
Although the rainforest is often referred to as the »lungs of the world«, its contribution to the oxygen content of the atmosphere is small.
More important is its role as a carbon sink.
The plants of the rainforest filter the climate-damaging gas from the air and convert it into biomass.
Up to 45 billion tons of carbon are stored in leaves, branches and trunks in the Amazon, and an even larger amount is stored in the soil.
This is how the huge rainforest buffers climate change.
If the forest is cut down, the climate is doubly damaged: in the short term, carbon is released and in the long term, less climate-damaging gas is absorbed from the air because the trees do not grow back quickly enough.
The rainforest would go from being a sink to a source of carbon.
When forest becomes savannah
The Amazon is on the threshold of a tipping point that can no longer be stopped.
Normally, the Amazon rainforest is largely self-sufficient in water.
Trees evaporate the liquid stored in the soil and vegetation, and clouds form over the canopy of leaves, which rain down again.
The forest practically waters itself.
If it gets too warm and too dry, the plants die, the water cycle and with it the rainforest system collapse.
The fertile stock of trees with its immense variety of species is irrevocably becoming a savannah.
Exactly when this point is reached cannot be precisely determined, model calculations show large ranges.
Accordingly, the tipping point could already be reached when 25 percent of the rainforest area has been destroyed.
Then there wouldn't be much time - 20 percent of the original area is already considered destroyed.
"If the Amazon tipping point is reached, one of the most important climate regulators for our globe, for our planet, would fail," Lemke warned in Brazil.
"That would result in severe disturbances in the climate system that we cannot predict accurately, but would affect the entire planet."
What role does Lula play?
In his first two terms of office from 2003 to 2011, Lula did not really appear as a Green Party.
But when he was in power, deforestation in the rainforest decreased significantly.
In 2004, Lula launched an action plan to prevent and control deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
The regulation that Bolsonaro later weakened in important parts.
Lula's goal is to end deforestation by 2030.
Environmental and control bodies weakened under Bolsonaro are to be rebuilt and environmental crimes punished.
At the same time, he offered the United Nations to host the 2025 World Climate Conference and to hold it in the Amazon region.
Lula has also appointed prominent conservationist Marina Silva as Minister for the Environment.
The federal government wants to seize the opportunity offered by the change of government in Brazil.
"We want a new alliance in cooperation with Brazil to save the rainforest, against species extinction," said Lemke.
Steinmeier announced that 35 million euros from the Amazon fund, which had been frozen under Bolsonaro, would now be released again.
In addition, Berlin is doubling the funds for the global protection of forests from one to two billion euros.
Money will also flow to South America from this pot.
According to forecasts, nearly 76,000 square kilometers of rainforest could be saved under Lula if he keeps his promises.
That is more than the area of Bavaria.