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As negotiators meet in Bonn, Brazil’s carbon emissions rise

  • Brazil pledged in Paris to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent by 2025 over 2005 levels. But its emissions shot up 8.9 percent in 2016, largely due to deforestation and agriculture. That increase threatens Brazil’s Paris goal.
  • Pará, in the heart of the Amazon, was the highest carbon emitter state, with 12.3 percent of the national total (due almost exclusively to deforestation and poorly managed industrial agriculture), followed by Mato Grosso state (9.6 percent of national emissions), which has converted much forest to soy production.
  • Experts say that this emissions trend could be reversed through sustainable forestry and more efficient agricultural practices. However, the dominance of the elite ruralist faction in Congress and in the Temer administration is preventing progress toward achieving Brazil’s carbon pledge.
Pará, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, was the highest carbon emitter state for 2016, accounting for 12.3 percent of Brazil’s total emissions, followed by Mato Grosso (9.6 percent), which has converted much of its forest to soy production. Photo credit: CIFOR via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

In December 2015 as part of the Paris Agreement, Brazil pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. However, it increased its emissions by 8.9 percent in 2016 over the previous year, according to just released figures — significantly distancing the country, the world’s seventh biggest carbon emitter, from its Paris goal.

Brazil released 2.278 billion gross tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2016, compared with 2.091 billion gross tons in 2015. The 2016 total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were the second highest since 2008 (2.806 billion gross tons).

Pará, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, was the highest emitter state, accounting for 12.3 percent of the total, followed by Mato Grosso (9.6 percent), which has converted much of its forest to soy production. Those two states were followed in turn by Minas Gerais (9.3 percent), Bahia (8.7 percent) and São Paulo (7 percent).

The statistics are part of a new edition of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimates System (SEEG), released at the end of October by the Climate Observatory (OC), a national civil society network reporting climate change data. The estimates were produced according to precise United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC) guidelines and based on Brazilian Inventories of Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Removals recorded by the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications (MCTIC).

The United Nations Environment Programme, in its Emission Gap Report 2017 (also released in October), which updated Paris carbon pledges by the world’s nations found that “recent studies assessed suggest that Brazil… [is] likely to — or [is] roughly on track to — achieve [its] 2030 NDC [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution] targets with currently implemented policies.” That document, however, makes no mention of the recent SEEG report showing a sharp upsurge in emissions for Brazil in 2016. Experts also warn that achieving the Paris goal will be made even more challenging once the impacts of President Michel Temer’s recent flood of pro-agribusiness decrees begin to be felt.

Brazil continues to convert its forestlands to cattle ranches and soy plantations. Photo credit: Henry H. via Visualhunt / CC BY-ND
The dry season in Brazil has brought record wildfires this year, most of them human caused, releasing significant amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. Recent record droughts in 2010 and 2015 resulted in the Amazon temporarily ceasing to be a carbon sink, with serious implications for future climate change. Photo by Antonio Cruz / Agência Brasil

Brazil moving in the wrong direction

Surprisingly, the 2016 rise in GHG emissions occurred amid one of the country’s worst financial crises and economic downturns. Last year, Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell 3.6 percent, and in 2015 GDP fell 3.8 percent. Declines in GDP usually herald decreases in GHG emissions. However, in Brazil, the cumulative increase of emissions for the two years of economic crisis was 12.3 percent

Commenting on these numbers, Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, said: “We have the worst climate headline of the planet: increased emissions due to unbridled forest destruction, and totally dissociated from the economy. The country, [now attending] the COP23 [summit] is already a risk to the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Rittl noted that emissions from Brazil’s economy are relatively low in comparison with those caused by deforestation — which increased by 27 percent in Legal Amazonia in 2016 over the previous year. “Deforestation has increased because, to a great extent, it is the product of crime: it is performed not to generate wealth, but to take possession of public lands and speculate with them. Although these [deforested] lands are later destined for livestock, it is one of very low yield and efficiency.”

The OC secretary told Mongabay that Brazil is walking in the opposite direction of the worldwide trend: “More advanced societies are slowly detaching their economies from GHG emissions, the best example of which is that global GDP has grown 3 percent in 2016, and global emissions have not risen for the third consecutive year. While other countries are getting richer polluting less, we are getting poorer by polluting more.”

SEEG event in late October 2017, where presenters announced Brazil’s major uptick in greenhouse gas emissions for 2016, mostly due to deforestation and land use. Photo courtesy of SEEG
Cattle ranches providing the world with beef are also a major cause of deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane. Photo credit: CIFOR via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Cattle farming

The numbers as calculated by SEEG confirm that land-use change — which includes deforestation and wildfires, among other shifts — accounted for 51 percent of all the carbon that Brazil emitted in 2016. Land use change emissions rose by 23 percent that year, totaling 1.167 billion gross tons of CO2e. (The CO2e unit, or carbon dioxide equivalent, represents the sum of all major greenhouse gases, including CO2, methane and others, “converted” to the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. CO2e is a measure of emissions used universally by the UNIPCC).

Land use change (51 percent) when combined with the related agribusiness sector (22 percent) accounted for 73 percent of Brazil’s total emissions in 2016. Agribusiness emissions increased 1.7 percent (from 491 million tons to 499 million) last year, but its share fell from 24 to 22 percent, due in part to the growth in land-use change emissions. Among the agribusiness emissions causal factors are management of animal waste, and burning of agricultural residue.

Paradoxically, Brazil’s economic crisis contributed to the GHG agricultural emissions increase in another way: through increased bovine fermentation, according to SEEG. The slaughter of beef cattle declined for the second consecutive year due to a fall in beef demand (but also due to competitiveness of other kinds of meat, such as pork). The decrease in slaughter meant an increase in herd size, with the bovine populations rising to 215 million head in 2015, and 218 million head in 2016. More livestock in the pasture means more bovine fermentation, meaning more methane emissions.

Also attributable to the Brazilian agribusiness sector in 2016 is a 23 percent growth in the consumption of nitrogen fertilizers, which emit nitrous oxide — a powerful greenhouse gas, 265 times more potent than CO2 in global warming.

While agricultural and land-use change saw a rise in emissions; the energy, industrial processes and waste sectors saw a decline, in line with the depressed economy. The energy sector suffered the biggest drop (7.3 percent), partly due to an increase in the share of renewable energy in the electricity matrix: non-hydro sources, mainly wind and biomass, grew by 19 percent in 2016, while the reservoirs of hydroelectric plants recovered that year thanks to Center-South rains, increasing power generation 6 percent. The industry sector, had an emissions reduction of 5.9 percent, while the waste sector saw a 0.7 percent drop.

Where Amazon rainforest once stood, the land has been virtually denuded of trees. Photo credit: Ana_Cotta via / CC BY

Pará, the champion emitter

Among all the Brazilian regions, the Center-West was the largest GHG emitter, with 34 percent, followed by the South (20 percent), the Southeast (19 percent), the North (14 percent) and the Northeast (13 percent).

Pará state, which emitted 280.3 million gross tons of carbon in 2016, saw an increase of 29.6 percent compared to 2015 (216 million tons).

Land-use change (mostly deforestation) accounted for 81 percent of this total, while agriculture accounted for 14 percent, and energy 4 percent. Notably, the sum of land use change and agriculture (95 percent of emissions) was much higher in this Legal Amazonia state than the national average (73 percent). All of this points up Pará’s serious deforestation trend.

NGO presenters speak about the SEEG carbon emissions study. Photo courtesy of SEEG
Roads provide access and are often the first step toward forest degradation, total deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: CIFOR via / CC BY-NC-ND

The “vanguard of delay”

Despite the negative 2016 numbers, SEEG technical coordinator Tasso Azevedo asserted that agriculture and livestock activities could achieve zero emissions if the country just started making the right sustainable agribusiness choices: “Brazil can expand low-carbon operations to the entire sector, which would result in a better environment for agribusiness, more income for the producer and less risk of droughts and fires. Our greatest challenge in combating climate change is also our greatest opportunity.”

Technological capability is already available to make these changes, said OC’s Rittl. “It has been more than proven that, both in the Cerrado and the Amazon, it is possible to increase meat and grain production without cutting down forest. Simply by intensifying the [grazing of] already existing livestock in existing pastures, and using areas released by the cattle to plant grains. We have more than 500,000 square kilometers [193,051 square miles] — a Germany and a half — in pastures with some degree of degradation. It is plenty of area to produce,” with no need to deforest and degrade further.

The present political reality, however, makes change problematic, concluded Rittl. “This [sustainable agriculture] transformation requires initial investments and regulation, and today the agribusiness representation in Congress is averse to all this. We have deputies and senators who seem to have jumped from the 18th century directly to Brasília in the 21st century. They are people who defend, among other things, slave labor. So it is very difficult to speak about feeding the world in a clean and efficient way,” with a legislative and executive branch that live in the past as “the vanguard of delay.”

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Deforestation not only unlocks carbon emissions, it also cancels the cooling and moisturizing effects of forests on the atmosphere, potentially altering local and regional climate and intensifying drought. Photo credit: Ana_Cotta via VisualHunt / CC BY