Will Brazil new climate ‘sheriffs’ get Paris pledges on track?

A reshuffle in the environment ministry could spur vital progress on the country’s climate objectives, but big barriers lie ahead

By Natalie Unterstell 

Work is piling up in Brazil’s sluggish climate office.

The South American heavyweight has a backlog of policy decisions to clear, and demanding carbon-cutting targets to hit.

A sudden reshuffle of its leadership this week offers a chance to revive the secretariat.

Jose Miguez, a former engineer at state oiler Petrobras has taken the reins in Brasilia, replacing ministry number two Carlos Klink.

Thelma Krug, a respected climate scientist, is now the country’s deforestation ‘sheriff’, succeeding Francisco Oliveira who held the post since 2012.

Both are old hands in Brazil’s negotiating team at UN talks and close to its influential foreign ministry. But to shake up the sleepy secretariat, they will require new levels of diplomacy.

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Economic turbulence and a flawed governance structure present big challenges. Brazil is mired in recession, and its Congress is gridlocked. Its politics is fraught.

Hitting the country’s pre-2020 emissions-reduction targets and laying the groundwork for its 2025 and 2030 goals will dominate the duo’s time.

Brazil has pledged to cut emissions equivalent to 15-18% fall on 2005 levels by 2020. Five years later that rises to 37% and by 2030, 43%.

They cannot play safe and wait for the political landscape to become more favourable. Brazil’s emissions are set to rise rather than fall in its industry and transport sector. Early action is vital.

Another key issue is making the overall pledge, or INDC, consistent with a longer-term low carbon strategy. Around 71% of all energy investments set for the next decade are locked in fossil fuels.

Here a transparent review process is key.

The private sector and civil society groups are working collaboratively and since 2013, roundtables with policymakers in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Sao Paulo have been held to talk through low-carbon scenarios.

Yet the Paris climate pledges were decided with little public consultation.

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The official national plan to meet the 2020 target, meanwhile, is on standby. Lawmakers should have assessed it by 2012. Officials were given a 6-month extension, but never reported back.

No relevant overarching plan is in place, save an out-dated 2008 version. That was made before its Copenhagen or Paris commitments.

What is more, the delay between writing anti-deforestation laws and implementing them is widening.

This matters in the world’s largest custodian of tropical rainforest. Tree-cutting in the Amazon has risen for the last two years after falling dramatically from 2004 – boosting emissions. Brazil has promised to halt illegal deforestation by 2030.

Zero Amazon deforestation by 2025 is possible with political will, say experts (Pic: David Evers/Flickr)

Zero Amazon deforestation by 2025 is possible with political will, say experts (Pic: David Evers/Flickr)

The Anti-Deforestation Plan for the Amazon for 2012-2015 was launched halfway through the period of implementation.

President Dilma Rousseff released a forest-protection strategy (REDD+) after a five-year lag last year at the Paris talks.

Its Committee on Climate Change is similarly slow. Its governing body, the Executive Group chaired by the ministry hasn’t met in two years. Opaque discussions that decide international policy are the norm.

Amid little transparency, Brazil’s plan so glowingly received by international partners could become meaningless.

For a significant emitter this is unnerving.

It now lies with Miguez and Krug to force those changes in the public space. They have the authority to get underway the decarbonisation of a major climate power.

Natalie Unterstell is a former Brazilian climate negotiator and currently Louis Bacon Environmental Leadership fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

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