Letter from the Director: “Climate Change and Biodiversity: Urgent and Entangled”

My flight out of Boston was delayed again — going on two and a half hours. An enormous thunderstorm spitting lightning and slapping rain and wind all around the plane and down the runway was keeping thousands of people paused on the tarmac and huddled in our semi-comfortable aluminum tubes. Logan was once again flashing red in delayed and canceled flights. I was on my way to Ecuador by way of a five-hour layover in Miami. At the very least, I was grateful for the long layover because I would need that time to catch my next flight. 

The ESI has been working in Latin America for many years now. Much of our work has been in Colombia but we have worked on climate and biodiversity efforts in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Recently, I traveled to Quito with the intention of furthering our contributions to what I consider a critical challenge and one in which MIT can provide unique capacity — addressing biodiversity concurrently with climate change. MIT’s commitment to climate change has been steady over the years and now turbo-charged with the arrival of President Sally Kornbluth, but biodiversity has yet to catch on as a critical priority.   

Quito is one of the highest national capitals in the world at an elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters) second only to La Paz, Bolivia at 11,975 feet (3,650 meters) and just higher than Thimpu, Bhutan at 8,688 feet (2,648 meters). My destination was the Ecuadorian Amazon which required traveling over a mountain pass of more than 3,000 feet above Quito before a four-hour descent to the river basin by not-so-comfortable bus to the east. I traveled with a group invited to join a discussion about the future of the Amazon. We were all already engaged in fervent conversation as we wound around mountain ridges traveling from an arid high alpine climate through a series of precipitous and gorgeous cliffs and valleys into a humid river landscape to reach the boat that would take us to our final destination.

The Amazon region is a continuous tropical biome that includes portions of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana and amounts to about half of our planet’s tropical forest. It is also home to about one in ten known species on Earth. The region is critical as a natural carbon sink and plays an essential role in the global hydrological cycle. I have been to different parts of the Amazon in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and as a child to Venezuela, and I have always been struck by two things: the jarring presence of both an otherworldly density of nonhuman species and the ubiquity of humans. I have traveled to very remote places on every continent on Earth, save Antarctica, and it is still extraordinary to me that much of what I have seen has not only been visited by humans for a very long time, but has been substantially and mostly irreversibly altered by our presence.  

The Amazon is no different. Plastic pollution is more widespread than one would think, carried hundreds of kilometers by rivers small and large from the smallest camps of a single family or two and the largest cities — Manaus being the largest at over two million residents. Methane flaring from oil production disturbs the night sky with a deep red flickering. The sound of two-stroke combustion engines drone on at all hours as people and goods are transported on every navigable waterway in the region. As a result of human activities, large parts of the Amazon forest have been damaged, some permanently. About 18% of the forest has been lost completely and about the same amount is currently degraded. Forest degradation results when human activities like logging or mining affect the functioning of habitats hosting biodiversity, ecosystems services (like water filtration, retention and evapotranspiration), loss of soil and the health and diversity of trees. Both deforestation and degradation are ongoing and lead to a loss of resilience and the possibility of a tipping point that would accelerate the dieback of trees and their replacement with a less biodiverse and reduced biomass-dense biome, like a savannah (Boulton et al. 2022).  

The Amazon basin is home to more than 40 million people living in cities and remote settlements and villages (28 million in Brazil alone). While more than 400 indigenous and distinct ethnic groups live in the Amazon, most people are not indigenous and live in cities whose economies are driven by the wealth of natural capital. Much of that wealth is extracted to become commodities on the global market, including timber, gold and various other metals and minerals, oil and gas, crops and animal products, and wild animals trafficked on the legal and illegal local and international markets. And then there is, of course, cocaine derived of coca, more of which is now grown in the Amazon basin than ever before. As a result, the Amazon has been severely degraded with the eastern portion reverting from its natural capacity to capture and store carbon to become a net carbon emitter (Assis et al. 2020). 

The Napo River, Ecuador.

The Napo River, Ecuador. Photo credit: John Fernández

I traveled to Ecuador this past July because I was invited to a gathering to discuss the future of the Amazon with a small and diverse group of scientific experts and academics, financiers, representatives of indigenous people and government leaders. The 2023 Concordia Amazonas Summit was hosted by the former President of Colombia Ivan Duque and was held deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon at a location on the Napo River, Napo Province, Tena Canton. The setting was stunning — a planet away from Cambridge, Massachusetts — and suitably amenable to considering the enormity of both the challenge and the urgency of not further destroying and degrading the forest and waterways of the Amazon.  

The gathering included representatives at the highest levels of major conservation organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, World Resources Institute and The Nature Conservancy. The group also included former presidents of Colombia (as mentioned), the former president of Chile Sebastían Piñero and for a day the current president of Ecuador Guillermo Lasso. The group of financiers included an individual who was instrumental in designing and implementing the recent and largest ever debt-for-nature swap with Ecuador, specifically benefiting the Galapagos Islands (Jones and Campos 2023).  

The gathering was organized into a series of group discussions, breakout sessions and presentations on the most important factors contributing to the current state and near future of the Amazon. The rights of indigenous people, the production of low and zero carbon energy, technologies for assessing and supporting ecosystems, biodiverse positive infrastructure, financing mechanisms for conservation, sustainable urban planning and population growth in the Amazon were all debated. The conversations were led by individuals with deep expertise in a given subject and engaged in by others approaching the topic with fresh eyes.   

I led a discussion on energy production and infrastructure in the Amazon. This is a topic that had first interested me many years before, since I had first noticed the methane-flaring red glow of the night sky of the Colombian Amazon. In fact, energy production in the Amazon — in the most biodiverse region on Earth — is surprisingly extensive. In Ecuador, 91.30% of land-based oil and gas activities are in the Amazon and a study in 2019 determined that more than 10% of the Amazon is involved in oil and gas activities amounting to more than 600,000 km2 (more than 230,000 sq. miles). That’s double the land area of the entire UK. 


Oil and gas activities in the Amazon

Oil and gas activities in the Amazon. Source: Codato et al. 2019.

This extensive overlap between oil and gas activities and important ecosystems and biodiversity raises a fundamental issue regarding the general intent of leaving reserves untapped as we seek to remain within a global carbon budget. Fossil energy carriers are a commodity, but the biodiversity loss potential of a barrel of oil extracted from the Amazon is very different than one extracted from Saudi Arabian reserves. Yet, once on the global market the embodied biodiversity loss of any particular barrel of oil becomes unknowable — lost in transit and not affecting the price in any way.  

Another way to consider this issue is that a barrel of oil left in the ground in Saudi Arabia, or in another relatively less biodiverse place than the Amazon, offers much less potential to reduce biodiversity loss than a barrel of oil left in the ground in the Ecuadorian, or Colombian or Brazilian Amazon.  

Of course, the consequences to biodiversity of oil and gas activities around the world is a hotly debated topic with actions being taken to protect important and fragile ecosystems. In the US, the Biden administration recently decided to cancel all drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and prohibit drilling in 13 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve. The combined priorities to avoid a “carbon bomb” from the oil extracted, the threat to biodiversity and respect for indigenous values prompted the action.  

However, it remains the case today that once a barrel of oil is on the move, the embodied biodiversity loss of that particular barrel is opaque to the market. We discussed the idea of tagging barrels of oil and enacting pricing mechanisms that would reflect the damage done to biodiversity from particular barrels of oil based on their origin. One can imagine the many technological and policy challenges of doing this and yet, if possible, tagging commodity fossil energy carriers with their embodied biodiversity loss  may promote appropriate pricing that would effectively limit production and even make prohibitive the cost of oil and gas from sensitive ecosystems around the world. Admittedly, this is a system much easier described than realized beginning with the challenge of replacing the lost revenue to the government from the creation of market friction on oil and gas tagged as high embodied biodiversity loss product.  

Also, we heard from several indigenous leaders on the very difficult situation that arises when oil and gas and mining leases are granted on indigenous lands. Despite the fact that many indigenous groups across the Amazon have rights to the land in Formally Recognized Indigenous Territories (FRITs) those rights are often only surface rights, they do not extend to the subsurface which is reserved by the government and therefore can be leased to oil, gas and mining interests. FRITs are extensive, amounting to 26.98% of the Amazon with enormous overlap with gas, oil and mining activities. In a sharp shift away from supporting oil and gas in the Amazon, Ecuadorians recently voted to suspend all development of new oil wells in the Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse territories on Earth and within the ancestral territory of the Huaorani indigenous people (Collyns 2023).  

Now, besides oil and gas production for export, imagine that one could provide all the energy needs of the 40 million inhabitants of the Amazon in a manner that achieved net zero emissions? Also, imagine if the public revenue produced by oil and gas production in the most biodiverse region of the world could be replaced by a robust bioeconomy supporting local Amazonian communities and partly financed with international investment aimed at protecting biodiversity and preventing the release of irrecoverable carbon.  

These are challenges that MIT can engage in and, from my point of view, must tackle because the entangled polycrises of climate change and biodiversity cannot be ignored for much longer by the major technical research universities of the world, many now fully engaged on climate change. The science is robust in noting that these two challenges are not only intimately connected but should be considered “core” priorities for humanity, co-equal in urgency (Steffen et al. 2015). The ESI is certainly fully committed to expanding work in biodiversity as broadly as we can and involving as many in the MIT community as are interested and willing.  

Of course as director of the ESI, I voiced the imperative of science-based decision-making and technology development which must always include the social sciences, design and planning and cultural expertise and engagement in moving forward on enlightened policy for the Amazon.  

For example during the session I organized and moderated, I proposed a project in which MIT and others would collaborate to design a decarbonized energy system for a remote settlement in the Amazon of several thousand people. If we can achieve robust technical and economically viable net zero energy systems for a settlement of several thousand — using biodiversity-positive hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal and more — we could help to transfer that solution to towns large and small along the many waterways of the Amazon. Doing so would be a fount of innovation, a real-world model of global significance and a rich business space for innovation and entrepreneurship.  

In that spirit, a major theme championed by the organizers of the summit was the role of market-driven nature-based solutions to conservation. A lively and well-informed discussion focused on how market-driven mechanisms require careful design and control to avoid unintended effects and runaway dynamics that can lessen, or even nullify positive impacts. After many hours probing the many types of private-public partnerships and other market-driven arrangements it was clear there are already proven financial instruments available to provide funds for effective conservation. One of these was particularly interesting — Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) which involves the creation of a bridge fund to assist governments to incrementally take on the cost of conservation at large scales (Roberts and Lemos de Sá 2023). We also arrived at a consensus that while it is clear the market needs to be engaged in protection of the Amazon, government involvement through oversight, incentives and regulation is critical to achieving real success in protecting biodiversity.   

The event ended with a great deal of momentum that we are acting on as I write this. More to come. And now, a bit of a side note on this kind of work… 

This trip, and many other efforts at the ESI to promote engagement on issues of biodiversity and climate change are done in a context of complex political factors. Two weeks after I returned to the states, a leading Ecuadorian presidential candidate was assassinated at a rally in Quito — just down the street from the hotel where I had stayed. Six Colombians were detained and, as of this writing, are being held for their alleged involvement in the murder.  

Official travel warnings broadcast that Quito is a dangerous place. Same for parts of Colombia, though in our many trips to that country I have never felt unsafe, no more at risk than I feel in any US state that allows the carrying of concealed loaded handguns without a permit. However, it is a sad fact that Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries for environmentalists and Quito’s crime rate is high. Let’s place those facts in perspective.  

Ecuador has 2.4 guns per 100 residents and a gun death rate of 6.2 per 100,000. In Quito that rises to 15.57 per 100,000 with a death by firearm every 1 day, 12 hours and 25 minutes. As I have traveled to Latin America these past few years, and brought along undergraduates, graduate students, researchers and other staff of the ESI, I have been concerned with their safety.   

However, the US civilian population is the most heavily armed in the world with 120 guns per person and a gun death rate of 10.89 per 100,000 people. The gun death rate in Massachusetts is lowest of all 50 states at 3.4 per 100,000, while more than half of US states exceed the gun death rate of Quito with the top three being New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi with 27.8, 29.1 and 33.9, respectively (CDC 2021). To be clear, death by firearm is more likely in more than half of US states than it is in Quito, Ecuador.  

There is more nuance to these statistics than I have room for here. For example, these aggregate statistics mask the disproportionate impact on specific communities and income levels, but as we continue to work across the world and in regions with safety concerns — as we expand our engagement on climate change and biodiversity — we should make sure to weigh the benefits against the risks across multiple priorities and contexts. We should also understand the massive social issues that are collocated in places where biodiversity loss and climate change are hitting hardest. This applies as much to doing work in Mississippi as it does to Quito.  

J.E. Fernández, Director MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative
September 15, 2022
Cambridge, Massachusetts


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