Caution surrounds Brasilia’s ambitious targets
By Brian Beary in Washington | Monday 07 December 2009
The strategy of Brazil going into Copenhagen has been to make bold statements about emission reduction targets to prod or shame others, especially the United States, into following suit. The most audacious is a mid-term goal, announced on 13 November, of a 36.1-38.9% reduction in overall emissions by 2020. At least half of these reductions would come by lowering the rate of deforestation in Brazil, which currently accounts for over 50% of its emissions. The other half would come from actions taken by industry and farming. Brazil’s charismatic President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is making a deal in Copenhagen a personal quest and has been telephoning world leaders urging them to come.
To be the first developing nation to bring a concrete national target – albeit a voluntary one – to the table ups the political ante on the US, which until recently had been the only major developed country not to have announced a national target. But while this may improve the chances of a political agreement in Copenhagen, looking beyond the summit, Brazil’s ambitious targets should be viewed with caution. It has not yet said what the baseline year is (1990 or 2005). This matters because the choice makes a huge difference to how much effort a country has to make. According to one climate policy analyst, if it picks 2005, Brazil is already halfway there since it is currently 20% below 2005 levels. In addition, since Brazil is classified as a developing country under Kyoto, its emissions are not verified by a United Nations panel the way those of developed nations are. So the world largely has to take its word on what past and present levels are. Brazil is likely to resist pressure to subject itself to as stringent an emission verification regime as the EU and US, or to make its national targets legally binding in the new treaty.
That said, no one would deny that since about five years ago, the Brazilian government has made a real effort to tackle climate change. A notable game-changer was Marina Silva, the environment minister from 2003-2008, who is currently being touted as a future presidential candidate. A pioneer in conserving forests, she fought and won battles with other ministers on the issue, resulting in deforestation declining by 60% during her tenure. The government hopes to achieve minus 80% by 2020 and net zero deforestation by 2030. Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming since trees absorb carbon dioxide.
FUNDS FOR FORESTATION SOUGHT
Brazil is looking for funding from other countries to encourage it to further reduce deforestation. President Lula da Silva has asked them to contribute to an Amazon Fund he set up in August 2008, which he hopes will net over US$21 billion. This is an area where there is considerable international consensus. A new programme called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is being negotiated at the UN. Coal-dependent US states, like Wisconsin, for example, are voicing interest in offsetting their emissions by funding forestry projects in developing nations. This is all new since the Kyoto Treaty largely neglected the role that deforestation plays in causing global warming.
Turning to its emissions in the energy sector, Brazil is better poised than most as it is not so dependent on high-emitting fossil fuels like coal. Almost 50% of its energy comes from low-emission, renewable sources, such as hydropower and biofuels. Sugarcane ethanol accounts for over half the fuel consumed by its light vehicles. However, Brazil’s embrace of biofuels in recent years does not necessarily help it reduce its emissions. While sugarcane ethanol may emit less greenhouse gas when burned than petrol or diesel, net emissions may be greater if a forest is cut down to grow the sugarcane that produced the ethanol. To avoid this happening, the government, in September 2009, announced a new ‘sugarcane agro-ecological zoning’ policy. This bans cultivation of the crop on 92.5% of Brazil’s territory and provides for the proportion of land used for sugarcane cultivation to rise to 0.8% until 2017.