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December 11, 2013

At Stanford, inaugural Bright Award lecturer makes a passionate plea to preserve the world's forests

Tasso Azevedo, a forestry manager and climate change consultant in Brazil, was awarded the inaugural Bright Award at Stanford yesterday. In his acceptance speech, he made a stirring argument for preserving the world's forests and for governments to take a more urgent approach to mitigating climate change.

By Bjorn Carey

Law School Dean M. Elizabeth Magill presents the Bright Award to Tasso Azevedo. (Linda A. Cicero / Stanford University)

In the inaugural Bright Award Lecture, Tasso Azevedo, a consultant and social-environmental entrepreneur in the field of forests, sustainability and climate change in Brazil, detailed the underappreciated value of forests, and made a passionate plea for greater efforts to preserve them for future generations.

"With this award, Ray Bright particularly sought to recognize unsung people who were actively leading efforts to protect or reinvigorate an area and lead it toward a more environmentally sound future," said M. Elizabeth Magill, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of the Stanford Law School.

Azevedo, she said, fits Bright's vision perfectly as a person who has crossed disciplines and worked with scientists, politicians, businesses and entrepreneurs to accomplish actions that will preserve the environment for future generations.

"I'm very honored to be here to accept this prize. It was quite a surprise," he said. "You're not only giving it to me, you're giving it to thousands of people that I've had the privilege to interact with and learn from while trying to fight the challenge of deforestation."

Azevedo choked up as he thanked his wife and their 4-year-old daughter. "I worked in the forest for many years, and the thing about my daughter is I think I just realized what it means to talk about sustainability for next generations," he said. 

Over the past 18 years, Azevedo's innovative ideas on promoting sustainable forest management have contributed to a reduction in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent, along with a 35 percent reduction of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions. His work serves as a formula for similar efforts around the world.

Azevedo founded the Brazilian non-governmental organization Imaflora – the leading environmental certification institution in Brazil – to create alternatives to deforestation. He served as the first chief and director general of the Brazilian Forest Service, and helped establish the Amazon Fund, which is dedicated to conserving forests in the Amazon and around the world.

He has since worked tirelessly as a socio-environmental entrepreneur to develop plans and measures to help Brazil reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 36.1 percent by 2020.

Forests, he said, make up just 10 percent of the planet, but play an essential role in regulating climate. In some parts of the world, evaporation from forests can account for 70 percent of rain.

Tropical forests, which account for 25 percent of all forests, are responsible for capturing 50 percent of atmospheric carbon, and are home to 90 percent of the planet's species.

"There's no way a manmade environment can match anything that forests can give us," he said.

The temptation to cut them down, however, is strong. Forests are clear-cut to free up land for new people, to grow food or to produce energy. Forestry products are everywhere around us, he said, in our paper, clothes, automobiles, buildings, food and more.

As he worked to save forests, he became more aware not only of deforestation's role in climate change – deforestation accounts for 10 percent of global emissions – but also the threat that climate change posed to the very things he was trying to preserve. He established the Amazon Fund, the largest forest conservation fund in the world, as a way to combat deforestation and combat climate simultaneously.

Human activity is responsible for emitting 50 billion tons of carbon emissions per year. That number needs to drop to 10 billion tons by 2050, Azevedo said, which will require a major effort at both the country and individual levels.

Governments focus too much on placing blame or responsibilities on other nations, he said, when they should really engage in reaching global agreements that move the discussion and science forward. Individuals, however, should make their own changes while waiting for governments to act.

Each human is responsible for producing seven tons of carbon per year. Activities such as owning a car or taking a flight to Europe account for one ton each.

"By 2050, we have to get to one ton of carbon per person," he said. "We have to completely reinvent ourselves. There's no space for incremental improvements."

Currently, 60 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases are the result of energy production or consumption. To overcome this, countries must become more responsible both in the ways that they generate energy and in how they use it.

It is a daunting task, Azevedo said, but Brazil's success reducing the rate of deforestation, which accounted for 60 percent of its emissions, provides a road map for large-scale change.

"If we can face the challenge of deforestation in Brazil, which is our 60 percent, then I think we can all definitely do it on energy," he said. "But we need commitment."

The Bright Award, issued by Stanford Law School in collaboration with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, is the only honor of its kind to recognize significant achievement in conservation in different regions of the world and is the top environmental award at Stanford. Next year's recipient will be chosen from North America.

The award was created by a gift to Stanford Law School in 2007 from Raymond E. Bright Jr., JD '59, on behalf of his late wife, Marcelle, and himself. Mr. Bright died in 2011. For more details, visit http://brightaward.stanford.edu/.

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Contact

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu

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