23 Nov 2015: Interview

Why Brazil’s New Pledges On
Carbon Emissions Fall Short

Brazil has won international acclaim for curbing deforestation. But Brazilian forestry expert Maria Fernanda Gebara says her country has not gone far enough in its pledges to cut carbon emissions and continues to have a dismal record on developing wind and solar power.

by diane toomey

In recent years, Brazil has been widely praised for reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 70 percent from 2005 to 2012. But with United Nations climate talks set to begin next week in Paris, analysts are taking a closer look at Brazil’s pledges to cut deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, with some saying there is less there than meets the eye.

One of the more outspoken critics of the country’s forestry and CO2-reduction policies is Brazilian political scientist Maria Fernanda Gebara. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Gebara — a research
Maria Fernanda Gebara
Maria Fernanda Gebara

associate in the Department for International Development at the London School of Economics — says that Brazil’s policies will do little more than stabilize emissions for 15 years, fail to clamp down hard on illegal logging, and allow continued deforestation and development of the country’s massive savannah region, the Cerrado. Gebara, who consults with the Center for International Forest Research, also takes a dim view of Brazil’s renewable energy targets, describing her country as “in the Stone Age” when it comes to the development of solar and wind power.

As Brazil struggles with a deep recession and political scandals, Gebara says environmental initiatives have fallen off the country’s priority list. “Even people from the Ministry of Environment say clearly to civil society, ‘We can't do more than what we are doing already — we don't have funding for that, we don't have political support for that,’” says Gebara.

Yale Environment 360: You've written that Brazil is playing the spoiler not the leader when it comes to its national climate plan. Let's begin with greenhouse gas reductions. Brazil pledges to reduce those emissions by 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and by 43 percent by 2030. Those reductions imply a reduction in deforestation and those targets have gotten praise in certain quarters. But you are not so impressed. Tell me why.

Maria Fernanda Gebara: It does not really add too much to what has been done already in terms of reducing emissions in the country. In
To fix such a distant deadline for an activity that is already illegal doesn't make sense.’
practice, the country is committing to emit in 2025 up to 1.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent, and in 2030 up to 1.16 tons. In 2012 [the year with the lowest rate of deforestation] we were already emitting 1.2 gigatons. This means that we are just committing to stabilizing our emissions just a bit below levels achieved already in 2012. It's saying that we can't do anything more than stabilizing these emissions in the next 15 years, which I don't think is ambitious.

e360: Brazil also pledges to end illegal logging in the Amazon by 2030, however. This isn't the first time Brazil has made such a pledge. Under a previous administration, it once had committed to ending illegal logging this year. But you seem to think, given the current political makeup of Brazil, including its Congress, it won't even manage to stop illegal logging in 15 years.

Gebara: To fix such a distant deadline for an activity that is already illegal doesn't make sense. There is the already suffering because of this due to the ongoing droughts that are linked to deforestation in the Amazon, according to a lot of studies. And this just corresponds to the Amazon, as you already said, and doesn't include other biomes such as the Cerrado that occupies around 204 million hectares [504 million acres], which is between 20 to 25 percent of the national territory. The Cerrado has also been the focus of increasing deforestation.

e360: You bring up the drought in Sao Paulo. Does everyday conversation in Brazil turn to deforestation when talking about that drought?

Gebara: Not really. I think the population is blaming the government and not really linking it to deforestation in the Amazon. There is a very good documentary that was done with crowd-source funding. They are doing a very good job in trying to bring the topic to the public because the media and other sources are not really doing this. They are also organizing debates after the movie about the changes to the forest code [approved in 2012] and how it affected deforestation.

e360: In its climate plan, Brazil has committed to restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares of forested land and 15 million hectares of degraded pastures. However, there is a multiple-use clause in that section that concerns you. Talk to me about that.

Gebara: Yes, I think there is a big difference between restoration and reforestation. You need to restore the native vegetation that was previously
Energy in Brazil is being produced by removing rocks and diverting rivers, [not] cutting edge technologies.’
there. I think when it comes to reforestation it's a problem because that can include industrial tree plantations, especially now that Brazil has accepted the commercial use of a genetically engineered type of eucalyptus.

e360: When President Obama met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff a few months ago, they released a joint statement in which each country pledged to get 20 percent of its electricity by 2030 from renewable, non-hydro sources. Obama called the target very ambitious and said the commitments would contribute to a "strong outcome in Paris." How do you view that target of 20 percent considering that Brazil now only gets about 2.5 percent of its electricity from solar and wind?

Gebara: I don't think it's ambitious because Brazil is a country with vast potential for other types of renewable energy because of the amounts of sun and wind in the country.

e360: You've even said Brazil is in the Stone Age when it comes to the issue of renewables.

Gebara: When you think about where we are in terms of renewable energy and solar revolution, yes, we are still in the Stone Age. Energy in Brazil is being produced by removing rocks and diverting rivers while you have the cutting edge technologies of the solar and wind revolution, in Germany for example. This becomes really tragic when you look at the consequences of the Belo Monte Dam, for example, which is one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world. It's a source of energy that is considered very expensive. Diverting the Xingu, one of the largest rivers in the country, destroys biodiversity. It's also the basis of the livelihoods of indigenous people that live there and other communities as well. There are a lot of big contractors involved in the construction of Belo Monte and
Around 80 percent of the Ministry of Environment’s budget was cut this year.’
these are the guys that are benefiting from this whole process, and not the people who are being displaced, and not the people who will lose their livelihoods.

e360: What’s more, a recent study done by the Brazilian government found that, based on climate models, droughts are expected to worsen. So hydro power might be severely limited.

Gebara: Yes, exactly.

e360: In that joint, U.S.-Brazil statement, Brazil said it would commit to "the highest possible effort beyond its current actions." Given that it’s in a severe economic recession and wracked with political corruption scandals, is climate change action too much to ask of Brazil right now?

Gebara: Even people from the Ministry of Environment say clearly to civil society that we can't do more than what we are doing already — we don't have funding for that, we don't have political support for that. They’ve even asked civil society in recent meetings that I’ve been to for help in raising funding and raising awareness. I've never seen that before. I think this is probably the last thing that the Brazilian administration is focusing on now with so many economic issues and scandals.

e360: How severe have the cuts been to the Ministry of Environment and how is that affecting enforcement of forestry regulations?
The people who are being punished for deforestation are the poor and not the large landholders.’

Gebara: Around 80 percent of its budget was cut this year.

e360: How is that affecting enforcement of forestry regulations?

Gebara: It's directly affecting it and I think deforestation will increase in the coming years. It is already increasing according to some satellite images and analysis by IMAZON, a research institute in the Amazon. So I think enforcement, which was already difficult in previous years, it's even more challenging especially now that the Chinese and U.S. beef markets have just opened up to Brazil. I think there will be a lot of illegal deforestation going on to feed these markets with Brazilian beef.

e360: Brazil's emissions reduction targets states that it doesn't need international support to meet its targets. In a recent National Public Radio story on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, a prominent and powerful politician said, "If the Amazon is the lungs of the world, they're going to have to pay us to breath" — “they” being the international community. Do you think that's the prevailing attitude in Brazil?

Gebara: Brazil has this very territorial way of dealing with the Amazon — it is ours and we do whatever we want with it. I think in terms of financial support when it comes to the forest, although we have this position that we can take care of the forest ourselves, I think the country also thinks that it needs international support, especially when it comes to REDD+ [Reducing Emissions from Deoforestation and Forest Degradation], for example. The Amazon Fund was created with this purpose. But it's very


What Lies Behind the Recent
Surge of Amazon Deforestation

Philip Fearnside
After declining by more than 70 percent in recent years, deforestation in the Amazon is soaring. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, scientist Philip Fearnside explains what’s driving the clearing of the Amazon and what needs to be done to once again bring deforestation under control.
difficult to link how international support is helping reduce deforestation and to attribute the results of the financing to the decrease of deforestation.

e360: Brazil in some ways has been the poster child for environmental success, reducing deforestation by a tremendous amount since 2005. Do you think that there is an element of resting on its laurels here— that Brazil thinks that despite what some might consider these weak targets, it will enter the Paris talks resting on that deforestation rate laurel?

Gebara: Yes, I think so. What people don't really know is what is behind the reduction in the deforestation levels. This reduction was mainly because of the increase in command and control in the Amazon, which means that you have more people being punished for deforestation. But the people who are being punished are the poor and not the large landholders. Of course, they have a role in deforestation because there are a lot of poor people in the Amazon. I'm not saying that they don't need to change their ways of using the land. I would say that enforcement would be more important for large landholders because they have the technologies to change the way they produce. They have the money.

POSTED ON 23 Nov 2015 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Forests Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Central & South America 


Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview, is a regular contributor to Yale Environment 360. Toomey is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report, and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She currently is an associate researcher at the PBS science show NOVA.



The Moth Snowstorm: Finding
True Value in Nature’s Riches

Journalist Michael McCarthy has chronicled the loss of wildlife in his native Britain and globally. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why he believes a new defense of the natural world is needed – one based on the joy and spiritual connection it provides for humans.

For A Bird Nearing Extinction,
An Indian Doctor Seeks a Cure

Numbers of the great Indian bustard are down to about 250, the result of hunting and habitat loss. But a young physician-turned-conservationist is working with herders in the desert of northwest India to stop this magnificent bird’s slide into oblivion.

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.


MORE IN Interviews

The Moth Snowstorm: Finding
True Value in Nature’s Riches

by roger cohn
Journalist Michael McCarthy has chronicled the loss of wildlife in his native Britain and globally. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why he believes a new defense of the natural world is needed – one based on the joy and spiritual connection it provides for humans.

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

by diane toomey
Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

by diane toomey
Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.

At Ground Zero for Rising Seas,
TV Weatherman Talks Climate

by diane toomey
John Morales is part of a new breed of television weather forecasters seeking to educate viewers on climate change and the threat it poses. In South Florida, where sea level rise is already causing periodic flooding, he has a receptive audience.

Unable to Endure Rising Seas,
Alaskan Villages Stuck in Limbo

by diane toomey
As an advocate for Alaska’s Native communities, Robin Bronen points to a bureaucratic Catch-22 — villages cannot get government support to relocate in the face of climate-induced threats, but they are no longer receiving funds to repair their crumbling infrastructure.

Why CO2 'Air Capture' Could Be
Key to Slowing Global Warming

by richard schiffman
Physicist Klaus Lackner has long advocated deploying devices that extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to combat climate change. Now, as emissions keep soaring, Lackner says in a Yale Environment 360 interview that such “air capture” approaches may be our last best hope.

Bringing Energy Upgrades
To the Nation’s Inner Cities

by diane toomey
Donnel Baird has launched a startup that aims to revolutionize how small businesses and nonprofits secure funding for energy efficiency and clean energy projects in low-income neighborhoods. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, he talks about how he plans to bring his vision to dozens of U.S. cities.

From Mass Coral Bleaching,
A Scientist Looks for Lessons

by katherine bagley
For climate scientist Kim Cobb, this year’s massive bleaching of coral reefs is providing sobering insights into the impacts of global warming. Yale Environment 360 talked with Cobb about the bleaching events and the push to make reefs more resilient to rising temperatures.

For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate

by katherine bagley
Climate scientist James Hansen has crossed the classic divide between research and activism. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he responds to critics and explains why he believes the reality of climate change requires him to speak out.

How Ocean Noise Pollution
Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life

by richard schiffman
Marine scientist Christopher Clark has spent his career listening in on what he calls “the song of life” in the world’s oceans. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains how these marine habitats are under assault from extreme—but preventable—noise pollution.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.