South American giant straddles the rich-poor divide at UN talks and could build bridges at COP21
By Alex Pashley
In the crafting of a new climate pact, Brazil straddles developed and developing worlds.
The South American heavyweight embraces greenhouse gas cuts, but remains a cheerleader of countries’ right to development.
It refuses to stump up cash to a UN climate fund like America or the European Union, but will share its tropical forest expertise with poor nations to slow deforestation.
The seventh-largest economy and a significant carbon polluter, Brazil’s stance on the spread of climate commitments matters, as countries aim for a deal in Paris next month.
It is an important example to the likes of China, India and Indonesia, whose shares of the emissions space are growing as industrialised nations cut back.
The dismantling of a firewall exempting countries classed as “developing” in 1992 from carbon cuts will be critical to an agreement between 195 nations this December. So says Raphael Azeredo, head of Brazil’s delegation to UN climate talks.
His team in 2014 proposed a way for countries to choose their level of contribution to a Paris deal, reflecting their capacities, that has mostly been followed.
The wealthy OECD club of countries have promised absolute emissions cuts covering their entire economies.
Higher middle income countries are targeting carbon reductions from business as usual or for each unit of economic growth. Poorer states set out policies for certain sectors, like transport or energy.
“Brazil is an example, signalling that differentiation should be there, but be flexible, dynamic in ways countries feel they are being supported by the regime,” Azeredo tells Climate Home by phone from capital, Brasilia.
Under Brazil’s “concentric differentiation” proposal, countries gravitate towards a core of economy-wide cuts as they develop.
The proposal is one example of the country’s adroit diplomacy, which helped rescue 2011’s Durban talks from collapse, surprised observers with an offer of emissions cuts at Copenhagen in 2009, and proposed the “clean development mechanism” in the Kyoto Protocol.
For all those diplomatic contraptions, Brazil has regularly been a “spoiler” in talks, says Timmons Roberts, a professor at Brown University.
In 2013, its revival of a mechanism to gauge “historical responsibility” to share the burdens of climate action backfired after it garnered little support.
The country has long failed to bring Latin American partners on board, rooted both in historical rivalries and an uncompromising foreign ministry.
“Its negotiators have been seen as playing to score points. Brazil is seen as not the most cooperative internationally, and I think that hasn’t helped it,” Roberts adds.
In the build-up to this year’s summit, there have been cracks between Brazil’s unity with the developing world.
Environment minister Izabella Teixeira last month berated Singapore, Qatar and South Korea for lacklustre plans, in contrast with Brazil’s.
In September, it became the first developing country to outline an absolute emissions cut, rather than linking one to forecasts of future growth.
The state of 206 million people pledged to cut greenhouse gases 37% by 2025 from 2005 levels, possibly rising to 43% by 2030.
Eliminating illegal tree-cutting in the Amazon, restoring forests roughly the size of Pennsylvania and boosting renewable energy’s share of power generation would meet the aim.
Those plans will make emissions fall back to 1990 levels of 1,300 million tonnes (MtCO2) of carbon dioxide by 2030, rather than rise to 3,400 MtCO2 without action.
“Our goals are just as ambitious, if not more so, than those set by developed countries,” President Dilma Rousseff said as she unveiled it at the UN in New York.
But the “intended nationally determined contribution” in climate lingo, is hardly exemplary, said analysts.
Held up against other countries it’s not a bad start, but it doesn’t go far enough, Carlos Rittl, head of the Climate Observatory, a coalition of NGOs, tells Climate home from Sao Paulo.
“What Brazil is putting on the table doesn’t represent a real shift in our economy. There is no revolution in any sector,” he says.
According to environmental think tank WRI, the country has already met targets to derive 45% of energy generation from renewable power.
Pledges to ban illicit tree-cutting by 2030 were previously envisaged for 2015. Nor does it enable finance to tackle unsustainable agriculture and cattle ranching, says WRI country director Rachel Biderman, which are responsible for a third of its emissions.
Paulo Moutinho, at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, says another highway through the Amazon could wipe out achievements of the past five years, while a hydroplant push is a separate concern.
“Brazil is different from India or China. It can do a lot with land use and agriculture.”
It can be hard for climate change to stay on the agenda amid the country’s fractious politics.
President Rousseff is fighting off calls for impeachment, while members of her cabinet are under investigation in the country’s biggest ever corruption probe.
GDP is forecast to contract over 3% this year, the OECD says, as slumped Asian demand for commodities and economic mismanagement weighs on growth.
“So much energy is being focused on the survival of the administration,” adds Brown University’s Roberts.
On a visit to London in October, environment minister Teixeira said the US isn’t the only one with a Congress resistant to stronger climate policies.
And provincial governments do not always help. Authorities in the Amazon region of Rondonia have handed out logging permits exceeding its total forest cover, she said.
“It’s always a complicated country. The foreign ministry, the space agency, the states all give contrasting accounts,” says Gustavo Silva-Chavez of NGO Forest Trends.
Still, Carlos Klink, secretary of the climate change unit at the environment ministry, insists the country has seen huge advances, bringing the private sector on board with its climate plan.
“Production but protection” is the refrain uttered by Klink and officials at a London event to promote its Amazon Fund, a forest protection scheme financed by Norway.
At the UN talks, Brazil negotiates with China, India and South Africa in the BASIC grouping, and the 134-strong developing G77 bloc.
BASIC appears less assured as China has struck bilateral agreements with the US and EU.
Tensions flared at a preparatory meeting in Bonn as the G77 protested a draft agreement didn’t guarantee finance for climate impacts, among other thorny issues.
“Brazil will also be a strong supporter of BASIC and the G77, but the solution will have to come from bridging the distances that are sometimes more theoretical than actual,” says diplomat Azeredo.
If countries want to strike an elusive global warming accord in Paris, expect “strange bedfellows” as countries leave behind their comfort zones, he adds.
Will Brazil follow its own advice?
“We’d like to think of ourselves as bridge builders,” says Azeredo, but “of course we are very protective of the convention because it does come from Rio 1992”.