- Brazil is the eighth largest global economy, and the seventh largest national producer of greenhouse gases, with significant emissions due to deforestation, especially in the Amazon.
- Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Brazil committed to cutting 37 percent of its carbon emissions by 2025, and 43 percent by 2030.
- However, the anti-environmental, climate change and deforestation policies of President Jair Bolsonaro are putting those goals at serious risks, say experts.
- Environmentalists are especially suspicious of a September deal between Bolsonaro and US President Trump to promote private-sector sustainable development in the Amazon via a $100 million biodiversity conservation fund.
Brazil is still over a decade away from its pledged deadline for delivering on its Paris Climate Agreement carbon reduction commitments, but it may already be too late for the country to honor its promises, experts interviewed by Mongabay say.
The surge in Amazon rainforest fires in August graphically illuminated how Brazil is moving in the opposite direction of its climate change targets, which include, among other criteria, zero illegal deforestation by 2030.
“There is no chance, in my opinion, for Brazil to meet [its] Paris Agreement’s goals, both in terms of reducing illegal deforestation and reforesting 12 million hectares [46,300 square miles] of forests,” says Paulo Artaxo, a noted scientist and climate change researcher at Brazil’s University of São Paulo.
Deforestation lies at the center of the problem, with President Jair Bolsonaro publicly expressing opposition to many of Brazil’s existing climate policies. Despite backing off from his most extreme campaign pledge of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Bolsonaro’s lax environmental stance and his administration’s push to open indigenous reserves and protected areas to mining and agribusiness in violation of the country’s 1988 Constitution, has made achieving Brazil’s Paris pledges more remote, say analysts.
Add to that Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric, which critics contend encouraged ruralists to actively deforest the Amazon since the president took office in January, and to burn the cut trees this August to convert large areas to cattle lands – acts that resulted in major fires which caught the world’s attention.
The Bolsonaro / Trump alliance
Of particular concern to environmentalists, was a September 13 meeting between Ernesto Araújo, Brazil’s current Foreign Minister, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At that gathering, the Bolsonaro and Trump administrations pledged to promote private-sector sustainable development in the Amazon, and committed to a US $100 million biodiversity conservation fund. Though no agreement details were offered, conservationists expressed worry at the use of the term “development” in connection with the world’s greatest rainforest.
The appointment of Araújo, a climate change denier, to the Foreign Minister post, shows Bolsonaro’s dramatic shift away from the country’s previously successful climate and environment policies, according to Andrea Santos, Executive Secretary of the Brazilian Panel on Climate Change (PBMC), a political-scientific organization that synthesizes and discloses information on climate change and proposes actions and solutions for the Brazilian government.
Minister Araújo – who almost immediately upon his appointment, abolished the office dealing with climate change within his ministry – firmly stated at the September event held at Washington DC’s Heritage Foundation that “there is no climate change catastrophe.”
Santos responded: “Brazil was a global leader on climate change, now it’s seen as a villain. The growth of this anti-science movement is frightening, and this government is irresponsibly moving forward with this agenda.”
Her organization (PMBC) was created in 2009 to support Brazil’s government, but is now struggling to find funding; the Ministry of Environment eliminated 95 percent of the budget’s climate change-related activities in May.
Now the Panel is out of the conversation and no longer guiding governmental progress toward meeting Paris Agreement objectives. And although Brazil’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles claimed the country is “doing very well” in its effort to fulfill the accord, the data is kept under wraps and Santos is skeptical: “I would love to know what are the foundations of this argument. From where I can see, we won’t achieve the goals.”
Mongabay contacted the Ministry of Environment for comment but did not receive a response.
Paris Agreement goal increasingly unattainable
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Brazil committed to cutting 37 percent of its carbon emissions by 2025, and 43 percent by 2030, which means reaching annual total emissions of 1.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent within six years and 1.2 GtCO2e within 11 years. (GtCO2e, or “gigatons equivalent of carbon dioxide” is a simple way of expressing all greenhouse gas emissions whether from CO2, methane, etc.).
To achieve its targets, Brazil, under the accord, intends to adopt measures that include: raising the share of renewable sources in the country’s energy mix to 45 percent; increasing energy efficiency in the electricity sector by 10 percent; achieving zero illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 2030 and compensating for greenhouse gas emissions from legal suppression of vegetation by 2030; restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares (46,300 square miles) of forests; and restoring an additional 15 million hectares (57,915 square miles) of degraded pasturelands by 2030 and enhancing 5 million hectares (19,305 square miles) of integrated cropland-livestock-forestry systems (ICLFS) by 2030.
According to a civil society organization, Observatório do Clima, or Climate Observatory, Brazil emitted about 2 gigatons of CO2 equivalent gases in 2017, well above the 1.3 gigaton initial goal. This 2 gigatons represents just over 2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, making Brazil the seventh-largest emitter on the planet.
The data, released at the end of 2018 shows that almost half (46 percent) of Brazilian emissions were from deforestation (land use), followed by 24 percent of emissions from agricultural activities and 21 percent from the energy and transportation sectors.
The Climate Observatory report noted that greenhouse gas emissions slightly dropped in 2017 when compared to 2016 levels, which was celebrated by the Michel Temer government at the time. That milestone reflected the strides Brazil had made in slashing the rate of forest loss.
However, since then, Amazon deforestation has been on the increase, and under Bolsonaro’s policies, there is a growing risk of reversion now.
Gustavo Baptista, a geographer and satellite-imagery professor at the University of Brasília, warns the country will reach a record high deforestation rate in 2019. He is another skeptic of the country’s potential for achieving its Paris Accord goals: “We have people in charge of the environmental agenda denying anthropic interference. This is just irresponsible.” In fact, even before taking office, Bolsonaro announced his plan to withdraw Brazil’s offer to host COP25 at the end of this year, the most critically important United Nations climate meeting since Paris.
Mr. Salles goes to Washington
On September 18th, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles arrived in Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings to discuss the Amazon crisis and bolster Brazil’s sagging image abroad. He was received at the US Chamber of Commerce by protestors who called him a “terrorist” and a “traitor.”
He had a meeting scheduled for the 19th with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a conservative American advocacy group and think tank that has long denied the climate crisis, according to Brazil’s Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. But it ended up being cancelled following the immediate condemnation by environmentalists. After another meeting with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Salles announced the creation of a new investment fund for the Amazon, according to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. The minister said that the structure of the mechanism is still being studied and did not provide further details such as which countries in the region will contribute and the amounts invested by the private sector.
Salles’ visit to Washington precedes the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday, September 23, in New York. But unlike previous years, Brazil will not stand in the spotlight. The country will not have a representative making a speech, said UN Special Secretary-General Luis Alfonso de Alba, because “Brazil has not submitted any plans to increase its commitment to the climate,”
The anti-science discourse put forth by the current administration is a “huge setback, and it’s all Bolsonaro’s responsibility,” according to Alfredo Sirkis, director of the Brazilian Climate Center, a think tank. Until May, he was the head of the Brazil Forum for Climate Change, an institution created to formulate the country’s Paris Agreement commitment plan. He was fired by Bolsonaro.
“During his campaign, he signaled to environmental criminals that he would dismantle the existing law enforcement structures and he is keeping his promises,” says the environmentalist.
Sirkis believes the country is unlikely to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets if Bolsonaro’s climate policies remain, but says there is still hope: “Right now we are in the total opposite direction, but one of the advantages is that deforestation can be quickly reduced and help Brazil with its emissions reduction targets. We have been able to reduce [deforestation] by 80 percent over 8 years [in the past]. So, it is not impossible to revert it, even after a negative period. It will all depend on the political scenario.”
A major outstanding question after the Amazon fires is whether the international community and global consumers will put pressure on Brazil to live up to its Paris promises through sanctions, commodities boycotts and/or delays in ratification of the recently agreed to, but still unratified, mega-trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, the Latin American trade bloc.
Beyond the Amazon
Brazil’s carbon emissions reduction pledge goes beyond deforestation, all experts interviewed by Mongabay agree. They stressed the importance of working to reduce emissions in other areas, such as Energy and Transport.
“Globally, 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are due to tropical deforestation. The other 90 percent of emissions are due to the burning of fossil fuels. If you do not reduce these [fossil fuel] emissions, the planet is lost,” warned scientist Paulo Artaxo.
The only way to succeed globally is through international cooperation and coordinated action, said José Marengo, director of the Brazilian Monitoring Center for Natural Disaster Alert (Cemaden), a governmental research institution.
“Protecting the Amazon isn’t the only solution,” concludes Artaxo. “If the US and China continue to burn fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement will have no effect at all. It’s like a football game: Brazil is only one player, there are another ten.”
Banner image caption: The Amazon rainforest ablaze near the city of Porto Velho, Rondônia state in August 2019. Image by Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets worldwide to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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