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 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 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.
‘To fix such a distant deadline for an activity that is already illegal doesn’t make sense.’
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 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.
‘Energy in Brazil is being produced by removing rocks and diverting rivers, [not] cutting edge technologies.’
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 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.
‘Around 80 percent of the Ministry of Environment’s budget was cut this year.’
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 difficult to link how international support is helping reduce deforestation and to attribute the results of the financing to the decrease of deforestation.
ALSO FROM YALE e360What Lies Behind the Recent Surge of Amazon 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.