There Is No Reason To Trust Brazil’s Climate, Deforestation Pledges

During a speech Monday at the United Nations’ climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, President Joe Biden called on world nations to do their part to avert catastrophic planetary warming.

“This is the challenge of our collective lifetimes, the existential threat to human existence as we know it, and every day we delay the cost of inaction increases,” Biden said. “Let this be the moment when we answer history’s call. … Let this be the start of a decade of transformative action.”

As Biden concluded his speech, John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, took to Twitter to applaud Brazil for its new climate commitments, including pledges to end illegal deforestation by 2028 — two years ahead of its previous target — and slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade.

“This adds crucial momentum to the global movement to combat the #ClimateCrisis,” Kerry wrote. “Looking forward to working together!”

The U.S. has held on-again, off-again talks with the Bolsonaro government over climate and deforestation since the beginning of the Biden administration, which sees its attempts to bring Brazil back to the table on environmental concerns as a centerpiece of its efforts to reestablish the United States’ own leadership role in global climate efforts.

But Brazil’s “new” pledges are far less ambitious than they seem at first glance, experts say.

The emissions goal is “just a correction” to a previous policy that far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s government outlined in December, said Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of São Paulo-based Climate Observatory.

The 2020 target would’ve allowed Brazil to emit 400 million additional tons of carbon than it would have under pledges the country made in 2015. The new pledge merely puts Brazil back on the same path it had already plotted six years ago, when then-President Dilma Rousseff signed the country onto the Paris Climate agreement.

“They just aligned the numbers to have the same emissions pledges for 2030 that the country already had in 2015,” Astrini said. The Bolsonaro government, he added, is “running to the past while the world is no longer the same, the climate emergency has [worsened] and countries are being called to look to the future.”

Aerial view showing smoke billowing from a patch of forest being cleared with fire in the surroundings of Boca do Acre, a city in Amazonas State, in the Amazon basin in northwestern Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019.

LULA SAMPAIO via Getty Images

On Tuesday, more than 100 nations, including Brazil, the U.S., Canada and Russia, signed an initiative to halt deforestation by the end of the decade. The international pledge is backed by nearly $20 billion in public and private funds, and includes countries that collectively represent 85% of the world’s forests.

There is little, if any, reason to trust that the Bolsonaro administration is serious about curbing greenhouse gas emissions or stopping the razing of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. Much like former President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has turned his nation into a global pariah on climate issues. He didn’t even show up for COP26 in Glasgow.

Once a global leader on climate, emissions reductions and the environment, Brazil has dramatically reversed course under Bolsonaro, a climate skeptic who has rolled back protections for the Amazon rainforest and presided over record outbreaks of fires and destruction in the Amazon, the tropical wetlands of Brazil’s Pantanal, and the Cerrado, a biologically rich savannah and major carbon sink that has been destroyed to make way for beef and soy production.

Safeguarding forests like the Amazon is key to limiting future warming, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned. An alarming report this year found that the Brazilian Amazon is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it’s absorbing.

Krimej Indigenous Chief Kadjyre Kayapo looks out at a path created by loggers on the border between the Biological Reserve Serra do Cachimbo and Menkragnotire indigenous lands, in Altamira, Para state, Brazil.
Krimej Indigenous Chief Kadjyre Kayapo looks out at a path created by loggers on the border between the Biological Reserve Serra do Cachimbo and Menkragnotire indigenous lands, in Altamira, Para state, Brazil.

One way Brazil could achieve its promise to end “illegal deforestation” is by simply legalizing it — something Bolsonaro has actively tried to do.

“The Bolsonaro government’s pledge to reign in illegal Amazon deforestation, which it has allowed to explode under its watch, rings particularly hollow in light of the legislative assault it is currently waging on the country’s environmental framework, which will essentially open the floodgates to continued devastation,” said Christian Poirier, program director at ​​environmental nonprofit Amazon Watch. “This legislation includes an effort to slash environmental licensing and land tenure standards, which will in effect legalize deforestation that is currently considered illegal.”

He added: “The world cannot trust the word of a government that has facilitated the wholesale destruction of the Amazon while forest guardians are left increasingly vulnerable to a mounting wave of violence.”

Deforestation has surged during Bolsonaro’s tenure, as loggers, miners and agricultural interests emboldened by his policies move deeper into the jungle. So have violent raids on Indigenous tribal lands — conflicts that have resulted in the killings of several Amazon tribal leaders.

“While you are closing your eyes to reality, the land defender Ari Uru Eu Wau Wau, my friend since I was a kid, was murdered for protecting the forest,” Txai Suruí, an Indigenous activist from Brazil’s Amazon, told world leaders at the United Nations conference on Monday. “Indigenous peoples are on the front line of the climate emergency, and we must be at the center of the decisions happening here.”

Satellite data from Brazilian monitors shows that deforestation rates in July hit their highest point since 2012. Earlier this month, environmental organization AllRise filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity for “fueling the mass destruction of the Amazon with his eyes wide open and in full knowledge of the consequences.”

On a call with reporters Monday afternoon, senior Biden administration officials were asked to weigh in on new early pledges at COP26. One official commended Brazil for its updated deforestation and emissions-reduction targets.

“We see movement from key countries like Brazil in these crucial days here, in this crucial decade,” an administration official said.

That Kerry and the U.S. celebrated Brazil’s purported progress, Astrini said, is likely a result of the low expectations the world has for “what this government can actually deliver.”

“Anything from this government, even bullshit, will be applauded by some,” Astrini said.

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