On May 16, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of native forest was approved by 268 votes in the Brazilian House of Representatives. Supported by the current president Michel Temer, this measure reduced the protection level of large stretches of native forest to legalize activities with great environmental impact, such as timber exploitation, mining and agriculture, which may intensify deforestation in Brazil. The proposal approved by Brazilian congressional representatives also facilitates the privatization of public land, allowing private ownership of government protected areas.

This decision of just one of several attacks that the environmental policy has been suffering from the Brazilian Executive and Legislative branches over the last years. Both in Congress and in the government, there are proposals to loosen environmental licensing and demarcation of indigenous lands and conservation units, weaken the control against illegal deforestation and reduce the rights of rural workers. In common, these proposals aim to reduce rights, guarantees and protections related to the environment and forest conservation.

In Espirito Santo, stacked eucalyptus logs await pickup. Plantations of this non-native species have replaced 7.5 million acres of forest, becoming the world’s biggest source of eucalyptus pulp for paper.
Photograph by Mark Moffett

Despite commitments made abroad in climate change and biological diversity, the Brazilian government is increasingly leaning towards the irresponsible exploitation of its natural resources. For a few cheap short-term gains that favor just a few, we are sacrificing important long-term gains that favor all of us.

An obvious example of the discrepancy between external commitments and internal wills – and which is directly associated with the proposal approved by Congress last week – is the implementation of Brazil’s nationally determined contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, the accord signed at the end of 2015 as the main international instrument to fight climate change in the next decades.

Within the broad goal to contain Earth’s global warming by 2 degree Celsius, doing its best to keep it at 1.5 degree Celsius, Brazil has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 37% circa 2025 (compared to 2005), with possible emissions reduction of 43% by 2030. In order to facilitate this commitment, the Brazilian government listed some tasks for the coming years, such as the restoration of 12 million hectares of forest and the elimination of legal and illegal deforestation in the Amazon region.

Everton Lucero negotiates for Brazil at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Brazil has had their priorities on forests and REDD+.  Photo: IISD

In the last decade, Brazil has gained international prominence due to the reduction of Amazon deforestation. Between 2004 and 2015, the rate of deforestation was reduced by 79% in this region, which resulted in a 41.1% decrease in Brazilian GHG emissions in the same period 0 from 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) to 1.2 billion. Considering that Brazil did not have obligatory international commitment at the time, this significant emissions reduction gave to Brazilian government great prestige at the international negotiations on climate change.

In the new context of the Paris Agreement, in which Brazil has official reduction goals over the next decades, we expected that the federal government would seek ways to decarbonise its economy, expanding the forest areas under conservation, encouraging low-carbon agriculture, facilitating the emergence of a forest-base industry. We also expected that the government would strengthen control measures to reduce deforestation, improving satellite surveillance systems and supporting inspection teams on the ground.

However, none of this happened: Brazil has taken the opposite direction. Instead of

investing in clean sources of energy, we continue to think about the exploitation of fossil sources such as pre-salt oil. Rather than expanding conservation units, we are reducing the native forest preserved areas and weakening the level of protection of the remaining ones. Instead of strengthening institutions and public policies to combat deforestation, we are reducing its budget and, in some cases, outsourcing this task.

Brazil is home to the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests,[1]and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world, with an estimated 390 billion individual trees divided into 16,000 species.
In this photo, 2 boys ride a canoe in the Amazon. Photo: Jacques Jangoux

We are wasting opportunities that could put Brazil in a leading position on the international climate agenda, on a path to a real sustainable development, and the consequences of this failure are already palpable to us.

According to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE, acronym in Portuguese), between August 2015 and July 2016 the rate of Amazon deforestation, which had stagnated in the middle of the decade, grew robustly by 29% in relation to the previous 12 months, consuming an area of almost 8,000 km².

Following the rise of deforestation in the largest Brazilian forest, our country’s emissions also went up. According to the Climate Observatory’s GHG Emission Estimate System (SEEG), Brazilian emissions grew by 3.5% in 2015, despite the fact that Brazil’s GDP fell 3.8% in the same year. While China, a former “villain” in the global climate change debate, sees its economic performance peeling off its GHG emissions (that is, the economy grows without emissions growing together), Brazil remains attached to a logic of carbonized economic growth.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil. (© luoman)

Unfortunately, there is no reason to be optimistic in the short term. With the reduction of forest protection, deforestation is expected to grow not only in the Amazon, but also in the Cerrado and the Atlantic Rainforest. Along with deforestation, emissions associated with land-use change (the sector that gave the reputation of climate leader to Brazil over the last decade) should also increase, rising up the country’s total emissions.

To change this scenario, we must return to the direction of action. If we are to effectively achieving a low-carbon economy, which facilitates limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius this century, we need to stop legal and illegal deforestation and to encourage the economic use of the resources provided by the intact forest. We also need to recover areas of degraded forest and to expand our conservation zones and invest in clear energy and low-carbon productive practices in agriculture and industry.

The fight against climate change and for sustainable development is not superfluous. In Brazil and the rest of the world, only the conscious and responsible action by governments, businesses and citizens will enable us to avoid the most dangerous negative effects of climate change and conserve the natural resources needed for future generations. Opportunities for action still exist, but the clock is running faster against us.

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This article was originally published in Portuguese at Página22 magazine website.

Bruno Toledo

About Bruno Toledo

Bruno Toledo Hisamoto is a Brazilian journalist specialized in sustainability and climate change issues and Ph.D candidate in International Relations at University of São Paulo (USP).