Brazil’s Bolsonaro Shows Little Progress at Climate Summit

View from inside the Amazon rainforest near Manaus

Brazil, home to some of the most globally important ecosystems, failed to demonstrate leadership and doubled down on weak goals during the Leaders Summit on Climate.

Taking the screen while Biden was briefly called away, President Jair Bolsonaro reiterated Brazil’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) targets: reducing emissions by 37% by 2025 and up to 43% by 2030. Brazil’s NDC targets use a carbon trick maneuver—they don’t change the percentage mitigation pledge but drastically change the baseline. In other words, by 2030 Brazil pledges to emit around 400 million tons more of CO2 equivalent than what they indicated in 2015. By moving the baseline numbers, Brazil can appear to make larger emission reductions than it actually does, all while the Amazon continues to burn.

Bolsonaro also claimed that the country would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 (ten years earlier than previous deadlines) and committed to eliminating illegal deforestation by 2030 with full and prompt enforcement of the already existing forest code. To achieve these goals, he argued, would require contributions from businesses, and collaboration from the international community—a “fair payment” for the environmental services provided to the rest of the world from Brazil’s biomes.

Bolsonaro’s changing rhetoric (moving the carbon neutrality target by 10 years, or even acknowledging that climate change is real) is almost certainly a result of international pressure to end deforestation and increase Brazil’s commitments to tackling climate change. While his remarks were relatively vague, it still doesn’t take much critical thinking to be skeptical of anything Bolsonaro says in regard to the environment.

To summarize, Bolsonaro reiterated outdated promises, vaguely mentioned strengthening environmental enforcement agencies (agencies that he has actively been dismantling) and asked for financial assistance from other countries based on Brazil’s 15 year track record which he has spent the last two years actively pulling apart.

In what was perhaps a Freudian slip, Bolsonaro (or the translator) at one point said “we are a company – umm a country.” For a leader happily nicknamed “Captain Chainsaw” who is intent on pushing development at all costs, running the country as a company would seem to be the goal.

An Untrustworthy Track Record

Forest burning outside of the municipality of Labrea in the northwest Brazillian Amazon

Under Bolsonaro’s government, in power since 2019, Brazil has seen massive spikes in deforestation. It has also seen targeted attacks on civil society, environmental defenders, and Indigenous and Black communities. Not to mention, Bolsonaro’s disastrous COVID-19 response has caused the country to be second in the world in COVID related deaths. While Bolsonaro and Trump enjoyed a friendly relationship, Bolsonaro’s record on the environment and human rights has garnered him fewer friends in the Biden administration.

However, with 60% of the Amazon rainforest within Brazilian borders, and deforestation on the rise, the question remains of what and more importantly how international pressure can push to end deforestation (often caused by demand from the global north) in one of the most globally important biomes. Sadly, new figures showed Amazonian deforestation reaching 810 square km, 216% higher than March 2020. To mitigate this deforestation and in anticipation of the Leaders Summit on Climate, high level officials from the Biden administration began talks with the Bolsonaro administration in an attempt to seek common ground.

Civil society leaders, activists, and celebrities strongly urged the Biden administration to avoid any deal with Brazil by the summit, despite the hopes of a “last chance” for Bolsonaro to take action to fight climate change. Any deal, being brokered with Brazilian Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles, who is intent on procuring funding without necessarily producing results, would have been antithetical to the Bolsonaro resistance in Brazil, and give the administration more leverage and power to continue deforesting and attacking human rights. Salles, who has recently come under fire for defending loggers who were caught with the country’s largest seizure of illegally logged timber, is far from an environmental defender.

Bolsonaro’s Lack of Climate Action Prompts New Initiative

Perhaps partially due to the precarity of trusting the Bolsonaro administration, a new public-private coalition was launched on April 22nd to mobilize more than USD$1 billion to protect tropical forests and enhance global climate action. The Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition counts on initial participation from Norway, the United Kingdom, the US and companies including Amazon, Airbnb, Bayer, Boston Consulting Group, GSK, McKinsey, Nestlé, Salesforce and Unilever. The coalition will work to end tropical deforestation by 2030, raising global climate ambition and contributing to tropical forest protection by supporting high-quality emissions reductions from tropical and subtropical forest countries and enabling efforts to reduce and end deforestation. Ultimately, this new fund will give an opportunity to states and civil society to compete for funding, rather than funneling money through a government antithetical to climate progress.

About the Authors

Jessica Carey-Webb

ACLS/Mellon Public Fellow, Latin America Campaign Advocate

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