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COP24: Will they stay or will they go? Brazil’s threat to leave Paris

  • In October, Brazil elected far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency. During the campaign, he threatened to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, implement extreme environmental deregulation policies, and introduce mining into Amazon indigenous reserves, while also using incendiary language which may be inciting violence in remote rural areas.
  • Just days before his election, Bolsonaro contradicted his past utterances, saying he won’t withdraw from the Paris accord. At COP24, the Brazilian delegation has fielded questions from concerned attendees, but it appears that no one there knows with certainty what the volatile leader will do once in office. He begins his presidency on the first of the year.
  • Even if Bolsonaro doesn’t pull out of Paris, his plans to develop the Amazon, removing most regulatory impediments to mining and agribusiness, could have huge ramifications for the global climate. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, stores massive amounts of carbon. Deforestation rates are already going up there, and likely to grow under Bolsonaro.
  • Some in Brazil hope that environmental and economic realities will prevent Bolsonaro from fully implementing his plans. Escalating deforestation is already reducing Amazon rainfall, putting aquifers and agribusiness at risk. Agricultural producers also fear global consumer perceptions of Brazil as being anti-environmental could lead to a backlash and boycotts.
President-elect Jair Bolsonaro pretends to shoot a gun, a signature gesture he uses to punctuate a point in his speeches. The gesture has become a sort of meme and accompanies incendiary language which critics say may be inciting some Brazilians in remote rural areas to violence against indigenous groups and other minorities. Image by Carlos Eugênio.

KATOWICE, Poland – One by one, Brazilian representatives from science, government and civil society gamely responded publicly in a press conference this week to a question they’d been fielding privately since arriving at the 24th United Nations climate summit, COP24, here in Poland:

Would the volatile and staunchly anti-environmental President-elect Jair Bolsonaro follow the path of another volatile and staunchly anti-environmental president to the north and join the United States as the only other nation on earth to promise to leave the historic Paris Agreement?

The answer is critically important not only to Brazilians, but to the world. The South American country is the world’s eighth largest economy and is guardian to much of the Amazon rainforest – the world’s largest carbon storehouse.

“I don’t think he will leave,” said Alfredo Sirkis, a former presidential candidate and member of Brazil’s Congress, now executive director of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change. “But I didn’t think the Trump government would leave either. It depends on a lot of political circumstances. There will be very strong pressure, especially from agribusiness, to remain in the Paris Agreement. At the same time, this is a very idiosyncratic group of people on the very top of the power structure.”

The Brazilian pavilion at COP24 in Poland. But will Brazil have a pavilion at COP25, which is to be held in Latin America? President-elect Bolsonaro has already reversed Brazil’s previously commitment to host COP25, citing expenses. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

Paulo Barreto, who tracks Amazonian deforestation for the NGO Imazon, said, “I can show the data. Deforestation has hurt many parts of our country and our economy. The evidence is very clear. I think this is really important to keep showing the evidence. We need to stay in the Paris Agreement.”

During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro said he would pull Brazil out of the accord, a position upon which he has seemingly reversed himself since then.

As a result of these contradictory statements, Brazilians at the climate summit seemed caught in a twilight zone of despair and hope similar to the one that possessed U.S. delegates two years ago in Marrakesh, Morocco, at COP22. The surprise election of Donald Trump that November marred the entire two-week negotiation in 2016. .

Bolsonaro, who unlike Trump, enjoyed a clear majority presidential win, has remained a Trumpian figure of discord and divisiveness during his transition to power. He has assailed environmental regulators, given lethal encouragement to gun owners, and struck fear deep in the hearts of indigenous peoples and environmental activists in a country that already sees more forest guardians murdered annually than any other country in the world. Violence has been rising since the campaign’s start, and included indigenous and landless movement assassinations, which some critics say have been incited by Bolsonaro’s incendiary language.

Amazon deforestation is also seeing a rapid rise, reaching the highest levels seen in ten years. Analysts fear that, based on Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental ministry appointments and his plans for deregulation, that deforestation will continue to surge threatening the nation’s Paris Agreement carbon reduction pledge, biodiversity, and indigenous and traditional communities.

“The biggest threat to Brazil is the president-elect himself,” said indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara, the Liberty Party candidate for vice president in the recent elections. “He wants to take away our rights, our land and our culture. This is a very dangerous moment. An urgent moment. People are just starting to understand the role indigenous people play in protecting our forests, and now we are fearful.”

Brazilian indigenous leader and former vice presidential candidate Sônia Gujajara. She railed against president-elect Jair Bolsonaro at a press conference this week at COP24. Gujajara and other indigenous people throughout the Brazilian Amazon hope Bolsonaro doesn’t keep his campaign promise to invite mining operations and agribusiness onto their lands. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

Hope against hope

But even as Brazilian scientists, activists and socio-environmental NGOs fear the worst, they cling to a hope that reason may prevail, data will be persuasive, and that international pressure to conserve the Amazon will help curb Bolsonaro’s most-extreme economic development policies.

“The message from science is clear, and the signals from our new government are really concerning,” said Carlos Rittl, who leads the Climate Observatory, a consortium of environmental NGOs in Brazil. “They put the battle against climate change and the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement at risk.”

He added, seizing on a theme others expressed in trying to derail Bolsonaro’s extreme positions: “Climate change and deforestation are already bringing a lot of problems to Brazil’s capacity to grow crops. We won’t be able to produce where temperatures are increasing and there is less rain. The health of our forests play a huge role in the health of agribusiness.”

Agribusiness producers, while supportive of Bolsonaro, are also very concerned about not being perceived internationally as anti-environmental extremists. They fear that their supply chains, markets and profits could be put at risk by a global consumer backlash against Bolsonaro’s Amazon mining and agribusiness development policies, resulting in a boycott of Brazilian commodities.

Amazon deforestation has escalated since protections were eased in 2012, following eight years during which Brazilian regulation and enforcement greatly reduced deforestation rates, which established the Latin American nation as a conservation role model in the global community.

But, as forests have steadily been converted to cattle pastures and soy plantations, the most productive rainforest on earth has produced less rain and created more drought in a country where 90 percent of farmland has no irrigation. And scientists fear a tipping point may be near when drought will dominate, and vast sections of the Amazon rainforest will convert to savanna. As things stand today, the vastly influential agribusiness industry is experiencing the impacts of climate change firsthand and every day.

Will Bolsonaro make the same connection soon, and recognize that his plans for growth are intricately linked to the vitality of the rainforests he has vowed to level in order to make Brazil’s economy thrive? Recent events suggest the answer to be a clear no, but only time will tell.

Meanwhile, in Katowice, Poland, far from home and surrounded by environmentalists from every nation on earth, Brazilians seemed to prefer the nurturing of optimism.

“Indigenous peoples are here to share our contributions and knowledge of the earth, which go back thousands of years,” Guajajara said. “Mother Nature is being brutalized and she says she needs our help. And we want to help her.”

Because Bolsonaro has yet to take office, it has pretty much been business as usual for the Brazilian delegation at COP24, with panel discussions held every day at their pavilion. But Bolsonaro and the future are on everyone’s mind. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

Business and Plan B

Ana Carolina Szklo and Keyvan Macedo brought their own brand of optimism to Katowice, buoyed by a consortium of Brazil’s 60 largest companies, representing 45 percent of the nation’s GDP. Szklo is development director of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development; Macedo is head of sustainability at Natura, the nation’s largest cosmetic company with $4 billion in annual revenue, 17,000 employees and a global footprint.

If Bolsonaro means business, then the pair, who spoke together at a COP24 side event, intend to demonstrate to the president-elect that business not only respects but depends on the environment.

“At this point, it’s not yet about pushing back, it’s about constructing a dialogue,” Szklo said. “Where we stand right now is finding new ways, building a new narrative, getting to know the new people in the new government.”

She added: “Agribusiness is a huge example for us because of the exports for Brazil and because they understand the importance of climate change, the environmental standards we have nationally, and international standards expected from Brazil. We are together on this. The private sector is committed. The NGOs are committed. And we are going forward exactly as we have in the past. This is a concrete contribution to the public sector.”

Brazilians from science, government and civil society discussed their hopes and fears regarding the incoming Bolsonaro administration at a COP24 press conference. Seated from left: Paolo Barreto of IMAZON, Andre Guimaraes of IPAM, Alfredo Sirkis, a former member of Congress, and Carlos Rittl who leads Climate Observatory, a consortium of environmental groups in Brazil. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

Macedo went further: “I agree that we need to start to regrow the economy of Brazil. But we need to make clear that the environmental agenda does not conflict with an economic agenda. He [Bolsonaro] can’t really change his mind until he gets into office. I think we can bring him along to see these opportunities.”

However, such assertions aren’t always well received by new governments. In the U.S., former Vice President Al Gore, one of the world’s leading environmentalists, believed he could reason with Trump and convince him that leaving the Paris Agreement would be bad for the country and bad for business. He was ignored.

So today, Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have built a coalition of 3,600 cities, states, universities and businesses who aim at sticking with the carbon-reduction goals of the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States. A similar subnational initiative is already forming in Brazil.

“Absolutely, we have a contingency plan if we need it,” said Sirkis with the Forum on Climate Change. “We will register the forum as an association of civil society and link it to subnational governments. We have about six or seven [of 26] state governments that will be in. But our states are not as powerful as those in the U.S. We don’t have a California.”

Baretto, with Imazon, explained further: “Brazil’s government is more centralized. So the balance of forces is way different [than in the U.S.] Part of the solution will be to aggregate some national units. But most likely the solutions will come from the private sector, led by agribusiness.”

Mostly, though, Baretto appeared to be speaking for many a committed Brazilian environmentalist when he said, “I am preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

So is Latin America. Shortly after his election, Bolsonaro reneged on Brazil’s offer to host the climate summit next year. United Nations officials have been scrambling to find another host.

Costa Rica Environmental Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez confirmed to reporters Friday, the final official day of COP24, that his country and Chile are giving serious consideration to hosting COP25.

Rodriquez noted that the estimated US$100 million that it costs to host an international summit that draws more than 30,000 attendees would be beyond the grasp of either Costa Rica or Chile to afford themselves. International assistance would be required, he said, adding that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change hopes it can decide on a 2019 venue within a month or two.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, is covering his fifth UN climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

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