With Lula poised to take over, what role can Brazil play on the climate?

With Lula poised to take over, what role can Brazil play on the climate?

Minas Gerais, Brazil – Just hours after Brazilians elected Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the country’s next president, the first signs of international enthusiasm and hope for the country’s return to the climate action game were already visible.

International leaders said they looked forward to working with Lula’s government, especially on the environment; Norway and Germany announced their openness to the renewal of the Amazon Fund, a multilateral mechanism to help safeguard the rainforest; and Lula himself has pledged to do more to fight climate change.

“In his first speech, Lula made it clear that the climate agenda will be at the heart of his government,” Izabella Teixeira, who served as Brazil’s environment minister from 2010 to 2016, told Al Jazeera in a brief phone interview. .

The president-elect, who takes office in January, has promised to create an indigenous ministry and a special climate emergency secretariat, and to reduce Amazon deforestation in Brazil to zero. He is also traveling to Egypt this week to attend the UN climate summit COP27.

But after four years of environmental degradation under the administration of Lula’s predecessor, the road ahead will be anything but easy. Under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions have reached their highest level in nearly two decades, deforestation in the Amazon also reached an all-time high and illegal invasions of indigenous lands tripled.

“This election has put Brazil back into multilateralism. There are high expectations for the country to once again become a prestigious player in global climate negotiations,” said Stela Herschmann, climate policy expert at the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of civil society groups.

“But if we want to earn that prestige, we’ll have to do our homework,” she told Al Jazeera.

Why is Brazil important?

Home to the largest rainforest in the world and the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Brazil has a key role to play in the fight against climate change.

If deforestation in the Amazon, for example, reaches 25% of its original cover, changes in rainfall patterns will permanently affect its ability to regenerate – a point of no return where the forest will produce more carbon dioxide. carbon than it can absorb.

“Without the Amazon, it is impossible to keep alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” said Marcio Santilli, founding partner of the Instituto Socioambiental, a group of civil society dedicated to the defense of Brazilian socio-environmental diversity. .

How Brazil chooses to deal with environmental issues internally has global repercussions, but the country also has a diplomatic role to play, environmentalists say. “Today, the climate agenda has a more central role in the world than it did during Lula’s two terms in office. [from 2003 to 2010] – while Brazil was already acting as an international broker,” Herschmann said.

At COP27, Brazil will be present in three different spaces: the official government pavilion, an Amazonian pavilion created by the governors of the states of the region, and the Brazil Climate Action Hub, a space dedicated to civil society.

Herschmann said Brazil is in a unique position to hold talks with powerful economies – particularly on issues such as climate finance and a push for wealthier countries to compensate developing countries for losses and losses. damage caused by the crisis – because the country has a deep understanding of the reality experienced by developing countries.

She added that Brazil, which managed to reduce deforestation rates by 70% during Lula’s two terms and has one of the greenest energy matrices in the world, should also “lead by example”.

“The research we’ve done…shows that Brazil could become carbon negative by 2045. We have the potential to become a large carbon-free economy,” she said.

Upcoming challenges

But according to Santilli, the current situation in Brazil, particularly in the Amazon, is very different from what it was when Lula took office nearly 20 years ago.

According to Human Rights Watch’s 2022 submission (PDF) to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, Bolsonaro’s government has weakened environmental agencies, giving the green light to the actions of criminal networks and accelerating the destruction of the forest. Violence has skyrocketed – especially in the sprawling Amazon.

Santilli said the area has seen a growing presence of organized crime groups, including drug gangs from other states, who use the logistics and infrastructure set up by the illegal miners. “[The] 2022 Amazon is not the same as [the] 2002 Amazon,” he said.

Lula’s coalition government will also face obstacles in adopting tougher environmental policies and reversing some of its predecessor’s policies. With 247 pro-Bolsonaro lawmakers elected, Congress will be a challenge – especially as the chamber takes advantage of the last days of the current government to fast-track pending bills aimed at obstructing the demarcation of indigenous lands and allowing mining activities. .

Last week, the Brazilian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also warned that a “frenzied race” for destruction was underway in the Amazon ahead of the change of government in Brasilia. “The new government will have a lot of work to do to get the country back on track, to end the perception that the Amazon is a land of lawlessness,” WWF-Brazil’s Raul do Valle said in a statement.

Natalie Unterstell, president and co-founder of Talanoa, a Brazilian think tank dedicated to climate policy, told Al Jazeera that in this context, reviving old plans will not be enough.

“In the past, the main pillars of environmental policies were monitoring and control, which will have to be resumed, as well as the demarcation of indigenous and protected lands,” she told Al Jazeera.

But, according to her, fomenting a sustainable economy, which has never been a priority, must quickly become one. “It will be fundamental to prevent people on the ground from being held hostage to illegal logging activities,” Unterstell said.

For Herschmann, the Lula administration will have to act aggressively from day one if it is to be serious, and that starts with updating the country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reducing greenhouse gases. The NDC has been amended under Bolsonaro in a way that actually allows more broadcasts than when it was first submitted in 2016, drawing condemnation from environmental activists.

“Right now, the international community is showing indulgence towards Brazil. But their patience won’t last forever,” Herschmann said. “The world has no time to waste on empty promises.”

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