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Experts Debate Amazon Gas Emissions

October 28, 1997

MANAUS, Brazil (AP) _ As the rain forest burns, greenhouse gases spew into the atmosphere. But experts disagree on just how much is released, and a leading ecologist says the Brazilian government is fudging the numbers.

The gases _ mostly carbon dioxide and methane _ stay in the air for years, and many scientists believe they trap the sun’s heat and add to global warming.

According to the government, Brazil produces less than 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, while the United States is responsible for around 26 percent _ mostly from car exhausts and other fuel emissions.

``In Brazil, the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for about 1 percent of all greenhouse emissions, and Amazon burning contributes to maybe another 1 percent or less,″ says Eduardo Martins, president of Brazil’s environmental protection agency, Ibama.

But Philip Fearnside, an American scientist at the National Institute for Amazon Research in Manaus for more than 20 years, believes emissions are much higher. He says Inpe, the government agency that monitors burning and deforestation, is only counting a third of the emissions.

In reality, ``it’s at least 6 percent,″ he said.

According to Fearnside, when a fire tears through a forest, only about one-third of burnable material _ wood and other vegetation _ is burned. But carbon in the two-thirds of the remaining material eventually enters the atmosphere, either when land-clearers set fire to it or as it slowly decays.

Evidence of this is visible in burned forest: Ground-level plants and tree trunks are singed brown but the canopy over the dead trees is still lush green, he said.

Just how much Brazil contributes to greenhouse gases will be one of the issues discussed in December at an international conference on global warming in Kyoto, Japan.

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