For nearly fifty years, Carlos Nobre has played a leading role in bringing public and political attention to the importance of the Amazon and rainforests in general, influencing key scientific and policy advances and mobilizing people across sectors for their protection. Building on this experience, he is now creating the blueprint for a new development paradigm in the Amazon and other resource-rich ecosystems that puts cutting-edge technologies in the hands of local populations to save biodiversity through innovation.
The New Idea
Carlos Nobre has dedicated himself to changing mindsets around climate change and the value of the Amazon worldwide. He has leveraged his leadership as a researcher to forge a global scientific consensus on the causes and impacts of climate change and the need for urgent action globally, particularly in the Amazon. His decades-long work has greatly contributed to elevating and positioning climate change as a top policy priority and public concern. After creating breakthrough research that demonstrated the tipping point beyond which the Amazon would dry out, Carlos moved to create the scientific, political, and civic infrastructure needed to avert this scenario. On one hand, he created the institutional backbone for climate research in Brazil and beyond, mobilizing, and leading interdisciplinary teams to produce data to influence national and international policies. On the other hand, he worked to increase understanding of the science of climate change among policymakers, businesses, and citizens alike, inspiring them to take action while also empowering them with the knowledge to do so. In Brazil, more than 90% of Brazilians consider climate change as a ‘catastrophic risk’, according to a recent survey, a number that is much higher than in other economies in the world.
Carlos has also played a leading role in the climate science field globally, especially in his role as co-chair of the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP) during 2005-2011 and contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports. In 2007 Carlos was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work as one of the 127 lead authors in the fourth assessment report, a report that created a global action framework upon which countries agreed to adopt measures to address climate change.
Carlos is convinced that a sustainable pathway exists in the Amazon and that one need not choose between conservation and exploitation of natural resources (such as development of the land and use of its natural resources for agriculture, energy, and mining). As a result, Carlos is now working to revolutionize the model for development in the Amazon and prove that it is feasible to develop a new model of decentralized bioeconomy by leapfrogging existing technologies to turn the region into a hub for high-tech innovation through The Amazon Third Way Initiative (or Amazonia 4.0).
Amazonia 4.0 uses mobile co-creation labs to bring advanced technologies to the heart of the rainforest, building up capacity in local communities to harness traditional knowledge in innovative ways to develop competitive products. Carlos expects this will shift the local economic system away from destructive industries such as livestock and towards an “inclusive bio-economy.” Carlos is currently finishing the construction of the first Amazon Creative Lab for cocoa-cupuacu value chains in four communities in the Amazon, including indigenous communities; three other labs are currently in development. One of these labs will train locals in genetic sequencing of all plant, animal, and microorganism species in the Amazon, using blockchain technologies to facilitate and regulate the global commercialization of this data in a way that ensures just compensation for the communities involved. This could not only exponentially increase economic incentives to preserve biodiversity, but also provide a framework for indigenous groups to benefit from their knowledge. Carlos hopes that by demonstrating their viability in the Amazon, these initiatives will be replicated in other biodiversity-rich regions around the world.
The Amazon is one of Earth’s most important ecosystems, housing nearly a third of all the remaining rainforests and between 10 and 15 percent of all the known wildlife species. Amazon biodiversity plays a critical role in supporting global ecosystem services, storing up to 120 billion tons of carbon and generating 15% of all fresh water that flows into the oceans. Yet over the past 50 years, human activity has increasingly destabilized ecosystems in the Amazon region. Vast swaths of land have been cleared for cattle and commercial crops. Additionally, rising temperatures due to global warming have led to more frequent and severe droughts. The combination of deforestation, higher temperatures, and more extreme droughts has increased forests’ vulnerability to fire and accelerated climate change.
Before the 1980s, the value of rainforests was not recognized by the government nor Brazilian society. Policy towards the Amazon was dominated by the belief that conservation was a barrier to economic progress, and there was little concern for the issue of climate change. There was virtually no climate research in Brazil and minimal involvement in international environmental policy.
Carlos’s pioneering research demonstrated the climate impacts of deforestation in the Amazon and the risk of ecological collapse on a continental scale. His publication, which drew the attention of scientists, policy makers, and citizens around the world, painted a grim picture: Amazon rainforests cycle moisture back into the atmosphere, regulating temperatures and providing an important source of rainfall to the bread-basket quadrangle of southern South America. Carlos demonstrated that failing to curb rainforest degradation could increase warming in the region by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius by 2050. The resulting disruption of the hydrological cycle could lead to a tipping point converting large parts of the tropical forest into dry savannah.
This process, known as savannization, would devastate biodiversity and threaten the livelihoods of more than 30 million people who inhabit in the Amazon, especially Indigenous communities. But the effects of savannization would reach much further than the basin, irreversibly affecting ecosystem services that are essential to human life globally. Reduced rainfall, longer and more extreme dry seasons, and warmer temperatures would diminish the water supply and damage agricultural production, affecting food security across South America. Savannization of large portions of the Amazon would also result in emissions of more than 200 billion tons of carbon and reduce the forest’s crucial role as a carbon sink (thus worsening climate change). Finally, severe ecological degradation could increase the risks of spreading diseases, posing a threat to global health.
Carlos has worked at strategic national and international levels to increase understanding of the relationship between the Amazon and climate change and to build the technical and institutional infrastructure to take action. His groundbreaking research has provided critical evidence that the Amazon is worth vastly more if it is substantially preserved than if destructive extraction continues.
Carlos has mobilized the global scientific community to inform and advise public policy. He spearheaded major international, interdisciplinary environmental science experiments in the Amazon. Most notably, after years of lobbying, in 1998 Carlos launched the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), the world's largest international environmental science program. He united an interdisciplinary network of 280 global institutions, including NASA and the European Union, to better understand global environmental change and the role of the Amazon. The LBA has made an unparalleled contribution to decision-making under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and to the design of public policies for sustainable development in the Amazon region. Among its key findings, it shed light on the importance of the Amazon as a carbon sink and a generator of clouds and heat, influencing the climate over vast areas of the planet. This pathbreaking study—which continues to date and has engaged over 1,000 researchers—cemented Carlos’ position as a global reference on the science of climate change and the Amazon.
Recognizing the need for translating scientific knowledge into practical solutions, Carlos has harnessed the media, public events, and high-level international fora to communicate the science of climate change in a language that could be easily understood by a wider audience. He raised public awareness about the effects of deforestation on climate change and, conversely, how climate change may affect the Amazon and its inhabitants. At the same time, Carlos emphasized a message of hope by focusing on potential paths and models to catalyze systemic changes. By making the numbers relevant to people’s daily lives, and empowering them to act, Carlos triggered a paradigm shift in public opinion that galvanized grassroots campaigning and organization to push for policy change in Brazil. At a global level, Carlos leveraged foreign media to bring attention to the universal significance of the Amazon, which fueled international concern and put the spotlight on Brazil. The political and economic costs of external pressure, combined with growing demands from civil groups, were decisive in forcing a response from the state to curb deforestation. This set the foundations for ambitious conservation policies that helped decrease the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 75% in the decade after 2004.
Furthermore, as part of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), Carlos was a founding member of the IPCC and has actively participated in its deliberations, laying out the further implications of climate change. He served as chairman of the IGBP for six years and shaped its agenda at a global level. For example, he played a major role coordinating scientific input into the UN's Rio+20 summit in 2012, which resulted in the creation of a UN Scientific Advisory Board to improve coordination between science and policy. Carlos was one of 26 scientists appointed to the Board, where he advised the Secretary General on science, technology, and innovation for sustainable development. This work has been essential to build a global consensus on the science of climate change, its causes, key impacts, and the necessary measures to counteract them.
To help shape Brazil’s policies regarding further investments in the Amazon, Carlos pioneered and built a scientific backbone consisting of major research centers, public institutions, and research networks that have turned Brazil into a global powerhouse in climate change research and policy. This institutional infrastructure has improved coordination between organizations and increased cross-disciplinary, international collaboration, leading to more comprehensive data to inform decision-making in the public and private sectors.
Upon his return to Brazil after his PhD studies in the U.S. in the late 80s, Carlos started by supporting the implementation of new technologies at the National Institute for Space Research to precisely measure deforestation and fires across the Amazon. Its monthly data releases became a critical resource to monitor progress in meeting conservation targets. For example, the government’s first Action Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Amazon launched in 2004 used the deforestation and vegetation fires data to target its enforcement efforts. Since the data is publicly released, it has also allowed citizens to hold accountable all levels of government as well as the private sector, particularly the soy and beef industries.
To further expand Brazil’s technical capacity, in 1995 Carlos led the establishment of the Brazilian Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies, which became the most advanced center for monitoring changes in climate in Latin America and for the coordination of international projects related to climate and Amazonia. He also established the Center for Earth System Science in 2008, institutionalizing the field of earth system sciences that he had been constituting in the country throughout his career. The Center expanded the local scientific community’s vision beyond climate to encompass multiple, interlinked dynamics affecting global change, and represents the only systems model that has been adopted by the IPCC. As such, Carlos brought together interdisciplinary teams and cross-sector institutions to guide the national agenda for sustainable development.
During 2011-2015, in his role as National Secretary of R&D Policies at the Ministry of Science and Technology, he was able to further cement the institutional architecture for climate change. In early 2011, Brazil witnessed the worst natural disaster of its history. Massive landslides and floods caused by record-breaking rains claimed more than 900 lives in the hills of Rio de Janeiro state. That provided the sense of urgency that he needed in order to create the National Center for Monitoring and Alerts of Natural Disasters. Early warnings of the risks of natural hazards issued by the Center are in great part responsible for an 80% reduction of deaths caused by natural disasters since then.
After he left the government, Carlos decided to dedicate himself to creating a new venture, Amazonia 4.0, to pave the way for a new development model for the Amazon and other rainforests, based on research he had developed throughout his career. Amazonia 4.0 seeks to preserve 80% of the rainforest, while harnessing it as a source of income that provides a sustainable livelihood to local communities. Although the Amazon has long been exploited as a source of raw materials, local industries do not create, develop, or innovate ideas that will add value. Instead, Carlos seeks to facilitate an economy based on the region’s biological richness that allows local communities to flourish. He is combining local knowledge with advanced technology such as artificial intelligence and blockchain through the Amazon Creative Labs – mobile units that bring together Amazonian communities, indigenous groups, local universities, and businesses to train in the use of technologies, co-design innovative products, and create strategies to reach markets. In the long term, the model can be replicated in other biodiverse regions across the world.
He first laid out the foundations for Amazonia 4.0 in 2016 through a research paper, where he makes the case for a new ‘Third Way’ development paradigm that transcends the current debate between maximizing conservation versus intensification of traditional agriculture and expansion of hydropower capacity. He then started developing the concepts and model in close partnership with the University of Sao Paulo, Vale do Paraiba University, and several citizen sector organizations (Imazon, Conexsus, and Center of Entrepreneurship of Amazon), and with support from Brazilian and global philanthropic organizations. In 2019, in partnership with Imazon (led by Ashoka Fellow Adalberto Verissimo), Conexsus, and Vale do Paraiba University, Carlos started working on the construction of the first Amazon Creative Lab, focusing on the cacao and cupuacu value chains. Current research includes the development of “bio-skins” based on the biological composition of indigenous species that can be reproduced in a lab and that substantially improve upon the characteristics of products currently in the market. The construction of the Lab is scheduled to be completed by March 2021 on the Vale do Paraiba technological cluster campus and will be rolled out in four communities in the Amazon, including indigenous groups and women producers, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Three additional labs are currently in design for nuts, gourmet cooking oils, and genome sequencing. The genome sequencing lab is a field lab to create the Amazon Bio-Bank of Codes, a digital repository of genetic data on all species in the region. Communities will be trained to sequence data themselves, which will be stored using blockchain to provide a means to regulate and trace its generation, access, and use. This technology has the potential to curb biopiracy by enabling the automatic registration of searches and downloads, as well as the secure transfer of fees paid by data users such as researchers, businesses, and governments to data producers in Amazonia. The projected worth of this information ranges in trillions of dollars by 2050 — this will make biological assets visible and profitable, which creates an incentive for governments to preserve biodiversity by promoting new value chains. At the same time, the Bio-Bank will promote social justice and wellbeing for Amazonian populations by building local capacity on genome sequencing technology, empowering them to make decisions about sharing the data, and facilitating the fair compensation of indigenous communities for their intellectual property. The initiative also has the potential to protect public health by identifying new species with biomedical applications and enabling disease surveillance, among other applications in fields such as engineering and agriculture. Carlos is piloting this idea in the Amazon to generate a roadmap that can be scaled to other high-biodiversity regions and eventually all species on the planet.
Carlos Nobre’s pioneering work on the Amazon has been fundamental to a better understanding of the relationships between deforestation, biodiversity, and climate change. For half a century, he has envisioned and built the climate science field and applied it successfully in the Amazon Basin.
Carlos grew up on the outskirts of São Paulo, a descendant of Italian immigrants on his mother side and a professional soccer player on his father side. He was already interested in environmental issues as a teenager, yet the conventions of the time narrowed his career options. Always up for a challenge, he selected the most difficult course: electrical engineering. As a student in the 1970s, he had the chance to visit the Amazon at a time when deforestation was rare. The undisturbed rainforest captivated Carlos and inspired him to dedicate his career to studying it, leading to a switch from engineering to climate science.
After completing a PhD in Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1983, Carlos returned to Brazil to be close to his ill mother. He joined the National Institute for Space Research, where he began collaborating on an experiment in the Amazon that would become a turning point in his career, a British-Brazilian pioneering experiment of forest-atmosphere interactions. Two years later, he was already participating in major scientific projects in the Amazon with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Carlos returned to the US to complete postdoctoral studies at the University of Maryland and conducted his groundbreaking studies on the impact of deforestation in the Amazon on the climate.
By the early 1990s, Carlos was leading the Brazilian part of another British-Brazilian experiment in the Amazon, the Anglo-Brazilian Climate Observations Study, and was an author of the first IPCC report. By the mid-1990s, Carlos was organizing the LBA Experiment, which started in 1999. The scientific breakthroughs Carlos advanced helped deepen the understanding of the role of the Amazon and its deforestation in the global environment. These experiences cemented Carlos’ position as a leading figure in the field and as one of the most important scientists in the country. Such recognition opened the doors to occupy leadership positions at some of the most important scientific institutions, both within and outside Brazil. This gave Carlos a platform to push the national and global agenda on advancing the research and protection of the environment. He worked to communicate the complex science of climate change to a broader audience, using his storytelling ability and influencing skills to inform public debate and mobilize different sectors.
Carlos also founded major institutions to study, monitor, and respond to the different dimensions of the challenge imposed by climate change, including: the Brazilian Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Studies, the Center for Earth System Science, the National Center for Monitoring and Alerts of Natural Disasters, the National Institute of Science and Technology for Climate Change, the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change, and the Brazilian Network for Research on Global Climate Change (a US $15M initiative). Carlos also worked in federal government science and educational policies as president of the National Agency of Post-Graduation Education.
Today, he is leveraging the national and international networks he built to pilot bioeconomy projects at a grassroots level. At the same time, Carlos continues to promote research and policy around climate change at high-level fora. He is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the World Academy of Sciences, and a foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He is also a founding member of the Brazilian division of the World Resources Institute and was a member of the UN Scientific Advisory Board for Global Sustainability.
His tremendous contributions towards an understanding of climate change have earned him multiple accolades in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, including the 2016 Volvo Environmental Prize, the 2010 WWF-Brasil Personalidade Ambiental, the 2010 Grand-Cross Medal of the National Order of Scientific Merit, AAAS Science Diplomacy Award, among others. Carlos has authored or co-authored more than 230 scientific articles, books, and book chapters, many of which have been deeply and globally influential.