Brazil: Spoiler or Leader?

Post published on REDD+ Monitor

November 2015

On 28 September 2015, Brazil issued its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), committing to decrease its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 37% below 2005 levels in 2025 and by 43% by 2030.

This may sound very ambitious for a developing country that is no longer “taking off” in terms of economic growth, as the Economist reported two years ago. A deeper look into Brazil’s targets is crucial to understanding how the country, since Dilma Roussef became president, is playing the spoiler, not the leader, when it comes to climate change.

Brazil is Latin America’s largest emitter of GHG emissions and the seventh biggest emitter in the world. In 2009, still under President Lula’s administration, the country established a national voluntary GHG reduction target, largely based on reducing deforestation rates. The federal government then developed a suite of sector-specific mitigation actions that it estimated would result in a reduction of 36.1% to 38.9% below a projected hypothetical baseline in 2020. Although framed as voluntary at the international level, this pledge is enshrined in Brazil’s National Policy for Climate Change, which mandates the development of sectoral plans to implement specific mitigation actions.

Deforestation has declined since 2004

On top of that, Brazil’s emissions from deforestation have declined considerably in the last decade, largely due to policies and measures established since 2004. In practice, deforestation reduction was based on increasing monitoring and command and control. Because of the voluntary commitments assumed in 2009 and this sharp reduction on deforestation levels, over the past decade Brazil has gained recognition from the international community for its role as leader in mitigating climate change. It also allowed Brazil to benefit from “readiness” and performance based funding for REDD+, such as the Norwegian Initiative for Climate and Forests.

Brazil is no longer governed by its president Dilma Roussef – who is becoming an increasingly tragic figure with each day that passes and is risking an impeachment due to several corruption scandals. The current administration is focused on models of development that represent national values of financial capital accumulation that just increases wealth of national and forming elites in the country, such as infrastructure companies and large landholders. Although forest emissions have reduced, emissions from agriculture and energy have increased. Emissions from agriculture and energy now both exceed forest emissions. But public debates in Brazil do not link the on-going droughts and floods across the country to climate change.

Money laundering, corruption

Moreover, the economic and ethical crisis that has dominated Brazil this year resulted in an 80% cut of the Ministry of Environment annual budget and in the climate change issue falling off the agenda.

Eduardo Cunha, the President of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, is currently under investigation by the federal police, as part of the so-called “Operation Carwash” – a huge money laundering and corruption scheme involving the Brazilian Oil Company Petrobras and politicians. The Chamber of Deputies has been working with a strong focus on the ability of well-qualified entrepreneurs. These actors have the capital needed for large-scale investments but there is a growing consensus about their environmental incompatibility, social limitations and economic risks.

As a consequence, Dilma’s first mandate (2010-14) was marked by the most backward in social and environmental issues since the end of military dictatorship. The softening of the forest legislation, with the approval of the new Forest Law – that includes an amnesty for landowners that have previously deforested – and the regulation of constitutional rights through Complementary Law 140 – which accelerates the environmental licensing process – are among the worst cases.

Another important setback is that under Dilma’s presidency no new protected areas have been created. In fact, Brazil has seen the unprecedented reduction of several protected areas in the Amazon, contrary to the Federal Constitution and Brazil’s international commitments.

There are also significant deadlocks concerning the allocation of public land use rights to traditional peoples and communities. This is linked to the National Congress efforts to deconstruct indigenous peoples’ right to exclusive use of their lands in order to authorise the implementation of mining and dam projects.

Commitments to rights: Mere window dressing

The preamble to the INDC on Brazil’s commitments to human rights and minorities is therefore – as we say in Brazil – “para inglês ver”, an expression Brazilians developed back in the slavery time for dealing with British expectations (despite all their expertise and as smart as they might think they were, the British could still be fooled by the “Brazilian way” of doing things).

Because of all this context, civil society organizations have already critiqued the Dilma administration’s environmental and social claims. For example, the Climate Observatory (a platform of 37 civil society organizations) recently wrote that,

President Dilma Rousseff’s administration is doing a poor job on safeguarding forests, on protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and traditional communities, on allowing cash flows to subnational governments and on ensuring transparency and accountability in REDD+ rules.

Nevertheless, the country managed to submit its Forest Reference Emission Level in 2014 – the first of its kind submitted to the UNFCCC – and its summary of information explaining how the Cancun safeguards will be addressed.

These processes, however, did not include any participation from civil society, which was also excluded from the formulation of Brazil’s INDC. It appears that they were produced just to fulfil UNFCCC requirements.

Brazil’s climate commitments – good or bad?

Despite the current political and environmental context in Brazil outlined above, some observersbelieve that the country’s commitments are an improvement, because the targets are now an absolute reduction pledges of Brazilian emissions.

This is indeed an improvement over the relative reduction in previous commitments, especially in a post 2012 context. However, there are a number of factors that show the pressure for increasing emissions, such as the recent opening of the United States and Chinese markets to Brazilian beef, as well as uncertainties in terms of economic expansion.

I would argue that Brazil’s INDC purely reflects the current government’s expertise: reshaping actions that are already in place into climate discourse at international level. To make matters worse, in most cases these actions are compulsory under national legislation.

Brazil’s targets are not at all “ambitious”

The word “ambitious” is the wrong adjective to describe Brazil’s target. Specifically, it raises the question of how additional the proposed targets are, since they are based on measures that are already being implemented and, more importantly, in conflict with development initiatives under way in the country.

In practice, as already argued by other political scientists in the field, as the current emission levels are around 40% lower than they were in 2005, Brazil is committing only to residual reductions over the next 15 years.

Brazil is pledging to emit up to 1.30 Gt of CO2 equivalent in 2025 and up to 1.16 Gt in 2030. In 2012, the year with the lowest rate of deforestation, Brazil was emitting 1.20 Gt. The country is proposing to stabilize emissions in the coming years only slightly below the level it was in 2012 (less than 10%). Deforestation increased in 2013 and is likely to continuing increasing.

Moreover, applying the 37% and 43% reductions announced in Brazil’s Second National Communication implies absolute emissions of 1.44 Gt for 2025 and of 1.30 Gt for 2030, which do not correspond to the absolute targets announced.

To reach the target, Brazil is supposed to increase the share of renewable sources in the Brazilian energy matrix by 45% (less than the average of the past decade). This involves (as already predicted in Brazil’s ten-year energy’s plan) large hydropower dams that destroy Amazonian rivers and forests displacing several traditional populations. It also includes nuclear power plants with all its inherent risks.

Forests in the INDC: A step backwards

The forest sector most clearly highlights how unambitious Brazil’s targets are. In its INDC, Brazil pledges to restore and reforest 12 million hectares (Mha) of forests for multiple purposes and aims to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030.

The restoration pledge is notably lower than the target already set out in Brazil’s new forest legislation, which mandates a restoration of 21 Mha of natural vegetation by 2036. This target is a reduction of 58% of the previous legislation’s target for restoring degraded areas.

Moreover, there is a huge difference between restoration and reforestation and each of them should have gained pledges and more specific details about their implementation. The “multiple purposes” of reforestation calls for great caution. “Reforestation” could mean establishing industrial tree plantations. Even more caution is required since Brazil recently authorised the commercial use of genetically engineered eucalyptus.

The zero illegal deforestation goal is actually a step back from the country’s previous commitmentsthat envisaged reaching zero-illegal deforestation by 2015.

On 7 October 2015, Greenpeace Brasil and other civil society organisations – including indigenous peoples – delivered to Congress a petition with 1.4 million signatures (collected over the past three years) in support of a popular bill initiative to stop deforestation across the country.

This process looks like deja vu, since eight years ago (also with Greenpeace’s support) a zero deforestation pact was launched by multiple non-governmental organisations in Congress.

Accepting illegal deforestation

Carbon Brief points out that the target in Brazil’s INDC effectively means accepting illegal deforestation for the next 15 years. In any case, the current proposition has little chance of becoming a law, given the actual configuration of the Congress, which is dominated by large landholders, and the political influence and interests of the Chamber of Deputies presidency. Brazilians call the Chamber of Deputies the “house of Cunha”, after its President.

Moreover, Brazil seems to assume that the end of illegal deforestation in the Amazon and the implementation of the offset market of environmental reserve quotas (CRA) are going to be enough to drastically reduce the country’s total emissions from the land sector. But some analysis of these policies shows otherwise.

Depending on pending regulatory choices, the offset market could be flooded with 14 Mha of low-cost titles from private lands inside already protected areas and 38 Mha from Legal Reserves of small properties that are already protected by the Forest Code, meaning that no additional forests are saved. This allows farmers with forest debt to purchase cheap offsets while others can legally clear their own land.

Finally, Dilma’s cabinet modifications this year truly reflect her agenda priorities, with Katia Abreu – nicknamed the “chainsaw queen” – as minister of agriculture and Aldo Rebelo – the main author of the Forest Code changes, known as a climate skeptic – as minister of science, technology and innovation.

Brazil’s proposed energy mix: carbon intensive and destructive

According to the World Resources Institute, 71% of the energy investments planned for the 2014-2023 decade have been allocated to fossil fuels, demonstrating a persistent dependence on carbon intensive activities. Brazil also committed to expand the share of non-hydropower renewables in the total energy mix to 28-33% and to obtain a 10% efficiency gains in the sector.

As reported by the Energy International Agency, in 2012 the hydropower sector covered 87% of renewable electricity net generation. The hydropower sector in Brazil, however, is anything but sustainable. The country has never seen such a great displacement of financial and natural resources and people (mainly indigenous) as in the construction of the Belo Monte hydropower dam, for example.

While the global cutting edge energy technology is based on quantum physics and a semiconductor revolution, Brazil – a country with vast potential for solar and wind energy – continues to insist on old school sources of renewable energy. In other words, when it comes to renewable energy it looks like Brazil is still in the Stone Age.

Market mechanisms and the private sector

Brazil’s INDC explicitly re-affirms the federal government’s negative position in relation to the possible use of any market mechanisms that may be established under the Paris agreement.

Reflecting on the role of the Brazilian private sector on reducing emissions, the INDC shows that collaboration between countries and different sectors nationally are not likely.

Due to the current economic crisis it seems wildly optimistic to expect that the private sector will engage in climate related investments without any further incentive. Collaborative governance between countries and different sectors nationally, on the other hand, is instrumental for tackling climate change.


When it comes to adaptation, Brazil’s contribution highlights that the social dimension should be at the core of the country’s strategy for adaptation, bearing in mind the need to protect vulnerable populations from the negative effects of climate change.

The situation is already serious. The Civil Defense reports that more than 24% of Brazil’s municipalities (1,400 of them) have declared a state of emergency or disaster this year due to climate events.

On top of that, the National Adaptation Plan lost its main subsidy in March 2015 when the coordination of the largest study ever done in the country – “Brazil 2040” – was shelved during in its final elaboration phase. The study was aimed to be the basis for public policy adaptation in the energy, infrastructure, agriculture and water resources. Nearly a dozen research groups in the country were working on it. The analysis, if not interrupted, was suppose to be ready in April 2015, and would have brought bad news on the climate change impacts of the expansion of Brazil’s hydropower sector.

The cancellation of the study is illustrative of the decrease in the importance of climate change in the federal government agenda, precisely at a time when this agenda is high on the ladder of political leadership priorities worldwide.

It also puts the lie to the claim that the government gives particular attention to the poorest populations. In fact these populations are constantly being displaced and their capacity to contribute to local development have been mostly disregarded by environmental and social initiatives, especially when it comes to the Amazon. Particularly egregious are the high levels ofillegal slavery (or bonded labour) across the country that are directed linked to the production of the main commodities that drive the countries’ economy.

International support: Needed or not?

Brazil states in its INDC that targets are not contingent upon international support, but most of the government arguments for lack of innovative action concerning mitigation and adaptation are based on a lack of financial and human capacity.

The contribution has a specific concern related to the implementation of REDD+ activities and the need for international support for the permanence of their results. But in practice it is hard to argue that Brazil is being paid for its REDD+ performance on reducing deforestation levels. This is because the country has been going back and forth in terms of linking its REDD+ actions to results in reducing deforestation. It is extremely challenging, not to say impossible, to attribute deforestation emissions reductions to REDD+ payments, even with a high-level monitoring system in place.

The Amazonian state governments, for example, recently expressed their disappointment in aletter in which they complain about the lack of recognition of their role in helping to reduce around 4.2 billion tons of CO2 emissions over the last decade.

Good news on agriculture

On the positive and hopeful side of Brazil’s national contribution is the strengthening of the Low Carbon Emission Agriculture Plan (ABC) as the main strategy for sustainable agriculture development. According to the INDC this includes the restoration of an additional 15 million hectares of degraded pasturelands and enhancement of five million hectares of integrated cropland-livestock-forestry systems by 2030. Integrating cropland-livestock-forestry systems is essential in order to meet the increasing demand for commodities without deforesting.

The word additional suggests that this is in addition to the targets in ABC of restoring 15 million hectares of degraded pastures. This could potentially lead to mitigation of around 55 MtCO2e per year. ABC investments, however, are paralyzed due to the current economic crisis.


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