Is Brazil losing the chance to become a climate leader?

Amazon seen from above with large swathes that have been cleared and are covered in industry
(c) luoman

Dr Alexandre Koberle, Research Associate at Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, considers Brazil’s potential to be a climate leader, and the impact of the political crisis.

Brazil has been on the news a lot lately, and not for the best reasons. A deep economic crisis has deprived Brazilians of 10% of their income over the past 3 years, some 11 million people are unemployed (about 11% of workforce), and the news of widespread political corruption has added political turmoil to the situation.

The election of Jair Bolsonaro as President heralds challenging times ahead for environmental conservation and climate action. For starters, the President-elect has already reneged on the commitment to host COP25, which was slated to take place in Rio in late 2019, and has promised to roll back environmental regulation and open up the Amazon for exploitation. His appointment of a climate denier to the post of Foreign Relations Minister has yet more nefarious implications, since climate negotiations fall under his auspices.

A potential climate leader

To deny the scientific reality of climate change is not just irresponsible, it fails to acknowledge the sweeping opportunities that a low-carbon world could bring to Brazil, and the country’s potential as a climate leader. For one, its vast territory and tropical climate is ideally suited for low-carbon agricultural production, and there is ample opportunity for sustainable intensification of farming practices. In short, agricultural competitiveness can go alongside climate and environmental leadership.

Secondly, forest preservation and afforestation programmes could make the country an enormous carbon sink. From the mid-2000’s, a combination of government and civil society efforts reduced deforestation in the Amazon to the lowest levels in decades. This caused emissions of greenhouse gases in Brazil to fall sharply since their peak in 2004, even as agricultural production more than doubled.

Protecting forests has instrinsic value beyond just reducing emissions. For one, the Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet – conserving it is essential. A healthy Amazon also plays an important role in local climate regulation, particularly in regulation of rainfall patterns. As Brazilian agriculture is predominantly rain-dependent (only about 10% is irrigated), any uncertainty in the timing and volume of rainfall has economic implications for farmers. In addition, forests support the livelihoods of millions of people dependent on the forests and rivers not only for their food, but also for their culture and way of life.

The “bovine caucus”

Jair Bolsonaro, President-elect of Brazil, making the heart sign with his hands
Jair Bolsonaro, President-elect of Brazil (c) Marcos Brandão/Senado Federal

However, Jair Bolsonaro’s election has emboldened those who see environmental concerns as a nuisance standing in the way of economic development. Of particular note are members of Congress collectively known as the bancada do boi, roughly translated as the “bovine caucus”. Known for virulent opposition to any environmental regulation, the bovine caucus dominates agricultural sector representation in Congress – and one of their members has just been appointed Environment Minister. These developments add a grim realism to the outlandish claims by the new Foreign Relations Minister that climate change is a Marxist fabrication to transfer power to China, or an excuse to usurp Brazilians of Amazon sovereignty. Such populist rallying cries have strengthened the nationalist tendencies that led to Bolsonaro’s election earlier this year. Now, the “Tropical Trump” is threatening to follow the United States and signal its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (though whether he is able to do it or not remains to be seen given that the Agreement was ratified almost unanimously by the Brazilian Congress).

An uncertain future

There are signs that the new government may not wholly follow the populist rhetoric of its leader. Already, the President-elect has changed his mind about a proposed merging of the environmental ministry into the agriculture ministry. However, it is difficult to remain positive. During Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign, rates of deforestation jumped, and are now at their worst level for ten years. This doesn’t bode well: in Brazil, even with strong regulation, loggers find ways to defraud the system and miners operate illegally in protected areas. Bolsonaro’s disregard for environmental protection may just open the floodgates to predatory exploitation of one of the country’s most valuable resources: its natural environment.

Dr Alexandre Koberle is part of the Imperial College London delegation at COP24. Find out more about their activities.

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