Climate and Energy

Brazil at a climate crossroads

South American country looks set to host 2019 talks as climate sceptic leads presidential race
<p>A pro-Bolsonaro rally in São Paulo (image: <a href="">Mídia Ninja</a>)</p>

A pro-Bolsonaro rally in São Paulo (image: Mídia Ninja)

Brazil’s bid to host international climate talks in 2019 (COP25) made significant progress this week, just as the country seems poised to elect extreme right-wing presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro, who has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and eliminate the environment ministry.

The country’s candidacy was proposed last November, and on Friday received the support of the presidency of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC), an essential step in the process. The group represents the region at the UN, from which Bolsonaro has also promised to withdraw Brazil.

Brazil’s host status is not guaranteed. The country is in political turmoil as it faces the most important election in recent history. Bolsonaro, a retired military officer, came close to winning the election in the first round last Sunday but will now run-off against Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party (PT) on October 27.

Bolsonaro’s statements on environmental protection and indigenous groups have shocked environmentalists. He has stated that Brazil pays too high a price to be a signatory of the Paris Accord in promising to maintain millions of hectares of preserved forests.

“If this continues to be a condition, I will withdraw from the Paris Accord,” he told journalists during a meeting with businessmen in Rio de Janeiro last month. “If our role is to hand over 136 million hectares of the Amazon, I’m out.”

Haddad was a former education minister under president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During Lula’s term, Brazil had its lowest rates of deforestation in recent decades.

But Haddad is having trouble convincing voters. His party’s image was destroyed by serious allegations of corruption. Lula is now in prison, convicted of corruption and money laundering.

COP 25 is an essential phase in implementing the Paris Accord, in which 195 countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global temperature increases to 2C annually. Since then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of UN commissioned scientists, has warned that warming must be limited to 1.5C.

The conference provides an opportunity to discuss how the host country is progressing in its domestic policies.

Next year’s conference will be held in November. Polish city Katowice will host this year’s conference (COP 24) from December 3–14.

Hosting the event would showcase Brazil’s history of strong environmental policies to the international community.

“The country that presides (over the conference) acts as a facilitator in the global process,” explains Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory. “At the same time, the conference provides an opportunity to discuss how the host country is progressing in its domestic policies.”

The opportunity comes as Brazil is vulnerable. Between 2005 and 2012, Brazilian emissions reduced by 52%. But progress did not continue. Then-president Dilma Rousseff (also of the PT) relaxed rules curbing deforestation as early as 2012. Since then, deforestation rates have slowed less and environmentalists warn that the country may not meet its national goals submitted to the UN that formed part of the Paris Accord.

Brazil has been the scene of political instability for more than four years, and has been home to one of the largest corruption investigations in the world, Operation Car Wash. In 2016 Rousseff was impeached, and her successor, current president Michel Temer, has been the target of two criminal accusations. Weakened governments have been unable to curb rampant deforestation in supposedly protected areas.

The crisis seems far from being resolved. Even with the support of GRULAC, Brazil’s role as the host of COP 25 is in doubt. GRULAC’s top officials still need to uphold the recommendation.

“If the secretary does not consider that country able to preside well over the conference, there are alternatives, even though they are unusual,” explains Rittl.

But Rittl considers the regional support for Brazil indicated by GRULAC to be a diplomatic victory. The relationship between different Latin American countries has been tense, given the extreme political polarisation caused by the severe crisis in Venezuela and political fervour in Brazil. There is hope that hosting the conference could bring the climate agenda closer to the center of the political discussion.

For decades, Brazil has been a regional leader in environmental policies. It was in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body responsible for overseeing climate negotiations, emerged.

Any loss of leadership would be detrimental to the region and the world. Brazil is the seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and should it begin to withdraw from the gloal stage, it could become an obstacle to the overall goals of the Paris Agreement, along with the US.

“We still have a lot to show,” says Rittl. “But at the same time, we have to confront our contradictions.”