Last Sunday at the informal United Nations climate talks in New York, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff announced unprecedented commitments to cut her country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Brazil’s pledges to cut its 2005 level of emissions by 37 percent by 2025 and intensions to cut a further 6 percent by 2030 are notable on several fronts.
The South American country is the 7th largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the first developing country to commit to a global body to enact an absolute reduction in emissions. As home to the largest portion of the Amazon rainforest as well as huge and long-standing renewable energy and fuel industries, Brazil knows a thing or two about both national and global environmental issues.
It has also justifiably been portrayed as both a place of environmental sustainability and major ecological crime. Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmental activist.
Brazil: A difficult nut to crack
Rousseff herself has made some ethically questionable — though obviously politically motivated — appointments to ecologically sensitive governmental posts. As with other nations, both developing and industrialized, Brazil’s economy has much to gain in the long run by modernizing its evolving energy and agricultural sectors.
However, there are powerful corporate interests that are constantly pushing in the wrong direction. It would be foolish to think that the discovery of large offshore oil fields hasn’t influenced Brazil’s energy policy. Fortunately Brazil is in the fortunate position of having a long established and successful sugar cane ethanol industry as well as quotas enforcing a minimum percentage of biofuel in all gasoline sales.
Rousseff’s tenure has also seen advances in efforts to slow and ultimately prevent illegal deforestation, including increased policing of the Amazon, the nationalization of forestland and even engaging the soy and beef industries in market-driven, zero-deforestation agreements.
While Brazil’s deforestation rates have been on the rise this year, from 2004 to 2011 deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by an impressive 77 percent. This helped secure a tidy 39 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2010.
It could be argued that Brazil — especially as an emerging economy — has had much to brag about over the past decade or so.
Brazil receives tentative praise
While positive steps should be welcomed, environmental groups must keep pressure on major countries — both developed and developing — to make more and more significant efforts in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Environmentalists – in fact, most people (84 percent by a recent poll) – in Brazil don’t think tolerating illegal deforestation until 2030 is a good idea, and for good reason. If deforestation is not extinguished in the next few years, the combination of global climate change and deforestation will lead to severe local changes in the climate.
(Source: Environmental Defense Fund)
What needs to change
Specific criticisms of Brazilian environmental policy include the fact that it is making such large investments in the fossil fuel industry. A total of 71 per cent of the country’s total energy investments from 2014 – 2023 are dirty. That balance should be in favor of renewables.
Yet in contrast to other major emitters like China and the United States, in Brazil it is deforestation and farming that are the main sources of emissions.
Land-use change and agriculture are by far the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, as forests and savannas are cut down for cattle pastures and cropland. From 2004 to 2014, deforestation in the Amazon declined by 82 percent, giving the government a good head start on its new targets. Rousseff said it’s important to remain vigilant, though, as it only takes “one blink” for the chainsaws to start buzzing again.
In light of the above, Brazil’s stated goal of surpassing the United States as the world’s largest food producer may come into conflict with its pledge to cut emissions.