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Climate policy

Thank you, Copenhagen

by Juliana Radler de Aquino
In spite of its meagre result, the UN climate conference in Copenhagen (COP 15) has made an important difference for Brazilian policymaking. The country has awoken from environmental inertia. [ By Juliana Radler ]

Before Copenhagen, Brazil was an inflexible country, unwilling to accept targets for cutting greenhouse emissions. Today, South America’s largest country is much more engaged. It has become aware of its key role for building a new global economic model that will reconcile human development with environmental requirements.

Shortly before the talks began, Brazil pledged to cut greenhouse emissions by 36,1 % to 38,9 % compared with the business-as-usual scenario by 2020. Soon after, China, India and South Africa announced goals too.

Ten days after the conference, the Brazilian goals became national law. Though the National Policy on Climate Change is less than civil-society organisations had demanded, it is nonetheless a huge step in the right direction. Thanks to the legal commitment, it will be possible to monitor all efforts and thus make sure that the targets are met. A presidential decree is expected in February. It should spell out targets for agriculture, energy, transport and other sectors.

Even though there is no new international climate agreement, Carlos Minc, Brazil’s environment minister, recently reconfirmed the policy: “The goal is to cut at least 1 billion tons of CO2 by 2020.” He also pointed out that, in the next 10 years, Brazil will give $ 5 billion to the poorest countries in Africa and Latin America. The money will be spent on adaptation to – and mitigation of – global warming.

In the past 15 years, Brazil emitted 2.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases. From 1990 to 2005, emissions rose by 62 %. Deforestation accounts for 57.5 % of total emissions. Agriculture (22.1 %) and energy (16.4 %) come next. The Brazilian government knows it will have to impose emission limits on the productive sector. The challenge is to do so without affecting the country’s annual GDP growth rate of around six per cent per year.

No doubt, there is a lot to be done. Forestry should be part of the solution, but in Brazil, deforestation, which is mostly caused by cattle ranchers, accounts for the largest share of the problem. Beef exports have grown dramatically in recent years. It is estimated that one in every three tons of red meat consumed in the world is from Brazil. Protecting the forests is therefore one of the greatest challenges.

With some success, the government has started to fight illegal deforestation. A satellite system, which provides real-time data about fires, has proven useful. Last year’s deforestation rate was the lowest in 21 years. So far, however, only some parts of the government have become environmentally responsible. Many government bodies still prioritise economic growth at any cost.

The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDS) is an example. Major environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, accuse it of “sponsoring” deforestation by funding beef-related investments without taking into account illegal ranch practices. Luiz Dalla Costa, of the Brazilian branch of La Via Campesina, the international peasants organisation, agrees. He says the BNDS is “responsible for a pattern of development that only benefits the large national and multinational companies with low generation of jobs and terrible social and environmental impacts”.

The debate about the appropriate development model has gained momentum in Brazil. These issues will have an impact on the presidential elections this year. Leading candidates are aware of this, as was evident in their presence in Copenhagen: Dilma Houssef, the candidate of President Lula da Silva’s Workers Party, and Jose Serra, the main opposition candidate both attended COP 15, and so did Marina Silva, the former environment minister and candidate of the Green Party.

Copenhagen drew public attention to climate matters, and that helped to wake Brazil from its inertia. By defining national goals for reducing emissions on a voluntary basis, this country has made an important step towards aligning economic development to environmental necessities.