Unpacking Brazil’s Copenhagen Commitments

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Published on December 2nd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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In Brazil, we trust our politicians even less than you do north of the Rio Grande. With rather more reason: if there were an Olympics for stealing public money or deliberate deceit of the electorate, we could put out a gold medal team of politicos. When they speak, we don’t so much listen as look for the catch. Distrust and verify is our motto.

So it is worth looking at Brazil’s recent commitments on climate change and emissions reduction in the run-up to Copenhagen through Brazilian eyes, with all the cynicism and low political expectations that implies. What are these commitments, really — where’s the catch? Second, once we find the catch — and there are a number of them —  what does it all mean?

Surprisingly, while our cynicism has some justification, there is also much in the meaning of it all that speaks to the sunny side of our national character. Brazil’s commitments could really be the beginning of something new and positive.

So — what did Brazil promise to do? It assumed a “voluntary commitment” to reduce carbon emissions in 2020 by “between 36.1% and 38.9%.” (Memo to Brazil’s bureaucrats — hire a marketing agency! Would saying “between 35% and 40%” kill you?) These reductions are to come largely from reductions in deforestation in a) the Amazon (by 80%, accounting for one-half of the total reduction in emissions); and (b) the Cerrado savannas of central Brazil (deforestation reductions by 40%). The rest of the reduction would be achieved by increased energy efficiency, expanding biofuels, increasing the proportion of hydroelectricity in Brazil’s energy matrix and so forth.

So where’s the catch? Sure enough, there are a number in the fine print. The most egregious is that the proposed emission reductions don’t necessarily involve an absolute reduction. Our leaders have used as the baseline a projection of what our emissions would be if our economy grew at an annual average rate of 5-6% between now and 2020.

Now, as any manager knows, the best way to ensure you hit a production target is to set it as low as you can in the first place. Six percent looks reasonable as a projection for next year’s economic growth, and even for a year or two beyond that, but a historic annual rate of GDP growth would be closer to 3-4%. With a lower rate of economic expansion carbon emissions would be proportionately lower, and a reduction of 36.1 to 38.9% against a baseline set at 6% growth consequently rather easier to achieve.

All this deviousness is in striking contrast with the straightforwardness of the commitments already made or shortly to be made by most developed countries. The impending commitment the United States is likely to take to Copenhagen, for example, will be a straightforward percentage reduction in current emissions levels. Our political culture, in contrast, abhors straightforwardness as nature abhors a vacuum, and this is faithfully reflected in our Copenhagen commitment.

So let’s put it in terms that everyone, rather than just our government, can understand. Brazil’s commitment boils down to getting its carbon emissions in 2020 back more or less to where they were in 2004, not that different from where they are today. As a commitment that’s a good start. It’s certainly way ahead of the other major emerging economies, userbin, China, India and Russia. But it’s not the significant reduction in current levels of emission that our congenitally devious leaders have presented it as – and that the United States appears likely to make in Copenhagen.

There are a number of other issues in the fine print that make us go “hum” (Portuguese for “hmmm”). Let’s make the very big, even ginormous assumption that we do get deforestation  down as planned. That still leaves a little under half of our emissions reduction to be achieved by means such as:

  • More use of biofuels. Works in theory, but in practice if you convert habitat to grow biofuels crops you have a negative carbon balance. Current legislation allows most of landholdings outside the Amazon to be converted, and there is currently no monitoring or certification system in place to document whether biofuels are being grown on converted land or not.
  • Expanding hydroelectricity. Brazil has a clean energy matrix, but it is (very inconveniently for the posturing of our politicos in Copenhagen) about to get dirtier. Licenses were recently issued for a number of coal-fired power plants, because they are the only way to increase electricity supply quickly in the short term, and our burgeoning economy needs more power now, not in the decade it takes to get dams and hydro plants licensed, built and plugged into national grids. The fact we suffered the largest blackout in our history this month just ratcheted up the pressure on this several notches. You don’t win Brazilian elections with Rio and São Paulo browning out.
  • Replacing primary forests by planted as a fuel source for pig-iron plants. In progress of sorts, our steel companies accepted some time ago that chopping down tropical forests and turning them into charcoal to feed pig-iron plants posed insuperable PR problems in a world preoccupied simultaneously with the fate of the Amazon and global warming. So now there is a massive program to plant eucalyptus for said charcoal, and it’s about to get more massive. With the added advantage, according to our leaders, that eucalpytus absorbs carbon as it grows. And there are technologies to scrub the carbon emissions from the plants — sound familiar? If you thought clean coal was problematic, how about clean charcoal? It doesn’t seem to have occurred to our leaders that charcoal-fired pig-iron plants are a concept belonging more to the Soviet era than a modern country, and in terms of  industrial policy this one’s all pig and precious little lipstick.

There are other quibbles:

  • Brazil’s new oil discoveries, conspicuous by their ubiquity in other government thinking on Brazil’ s future, were not even mentioned.  We can presumably count on Chinese and American reluctance to consider their global carbon footprint to get us off that particular hook. We might look to Norway for funding conservation in the Amazon — but we’re certainly not following their example of offsetting the carbon emissions in our oil exports, thank you very much!
  • It’s also more than  a little inconsistent to spend so much time loudly insisting on the need for a binding international framework for emissions reduction, as we continue to do, and then come up with a “voluntary commitment.” If everyone followed our example, as we claim to want, we still wouldn’t have what we’ve set as our objective at Copenhagen.

But in the end, all these details come down to…well, details. A very interesting thing happened shortly after the government made its announcement. The São Paulo state government, overwhelmingly the most important state for emissions and headed by José Serra, candidate for president next year, passed into law (not a “voluntary commitment”) a state plan that commits to a 20% cut in state emissions by 2020. In other words, a virtuous circle of competing commitments on emissions has begun, with political commitments made. As surely as night follows day, in a democracy this strengthens the hand of those pushing for actions, like reducing deforestation, that bring carbon emissions down.

So this really is the start of something new. Picking holes in anything our leaders say, is frankly, like shooting fish in a barrel. But this time around, it’s not the details that matter. It’s the fact that all levels of our government are making commitments to emissions reduction for which we, the electorate, can hold them to account.

And since even our politicos can’t get their snouts in the trough without our approval, that is not an insignificant thing. If deforestation rises, if our energy matrix gets dirtier, there is a political price to pay and it will increase as our younger and much more environmentally aware generations start to vote. There are tectonic forces moving under our politics, and sooner or later the dinosaurs in our agriculture, energy and infrastructure ministries will have to get on board or pay the political price. That’s the true meaning of our Copenhagen commitment.

(Image: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil. Credit: World Economic Forum/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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