COP26: Don’t Be Fooled by Bolsonaro’s Pledges

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Fires near Novo Progresso, Brazil on August 23, 2020, burned land deforested by cattle farmers.
© 2020 Andre Penner/AP Images

(Sao Paulo) – Brazil’s climate commitments and policies fall far short of what is needed to address the environmental and human rights crisis in the Amazon rainforest. Brazil’s delegation arrives in Glasgow for the global summit on climate change with a national climate action plan that is less ambitious than its previous one, and with forest conservation plans that either lack deforestation reduction targets or set them at far less ambitious levels than Brazil’s prior commitments. 

On October 25, 2021, Environment Minister Joaquim Leite announced a “National Green Growth Program” to advance sustainable development and promote forest conservation, touting Brazil’s potential to be a “leader of the new global green agenda.” Vice President Hamilton Mourão said that the government would pledge to eliminate illegal deforestation by 2027 or 2028 at the global climate change summit in Glasgow.     

“The Bolsonaro government now wants the world to think it is committed to saving the rainforest,” said  Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “But this commitment cannot be taken seriously given its disastrous record and failure to present credible plans for making urgently needed progress in fighting deforestation.”

The new program does not require adoption of an operational plan for its implementation until September 2022, and while “protecting biodiversity” and “reducing greenhouse gas emissions” are among its stated objectives, it does not include an explicit commitment to reduce deforestation, the main driver of Brazil’s emissions.

Since taking office in January 2019, the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro has weakened environmental law enforcement, effectively encouraging criminal networks that drive deforestation and that use threats and violence against forest defenders. Those responsible for these attacks are rarely brought to justice.

Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon increased dramatically during Bolsonaro’s first two years in office. While preliminary estimates suggest a slight drop in deforestation in 2021 compared with 2020, the dire trend has hardly been reversed. With 10,800 square kilometers having been clear cut last year, Brazil is far from meeting its prior commitment of reducing deforestation in the Amazon to 3,925 square kilometers per year by 2020.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is pushing the rainforest toward an irreversible tipping point that, if crossed, could cause it to dry out, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide, disturbing weather patterns across South America, and decimating agriculture.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic organization, cancelled a discussion about upgrading Brazil’s status on its environment committee because of President Bolsonaro’s policies, negatively affecting Brazil’s ambitions to join the organization as a permanent member.

Several European leaders have said they would not ratify a pending trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, unless Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation and forest fires. A billionaire fund stopped selling assets from the Brazilian meat giant JBS in 2020 due to the high risk of illegal deforestation in its supply chains. A group of 15 United States senators signed a public letter in April stating that US military and economic cooperation with Brazil—including support for Brazil’s OECD bid—should be conditioned on Brazil demonstrating results in reducing deforestation and ending impunity for crimes against local forest defenders.

After two years of downplaying the Amazon crisis and dismissing calls for action, the Bolsonaro administration changed the tone of its public statements in 2021. In April, at the climate summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, Bolsonaro pledged for the first time to curb deforestation and increase resources for environmental law enforcement. In September, at the United Nations General Assembly, he acknowledged acknowledgedthat Brazil had “environmental challenges” and said the government was combatting illegal deforestation.

The plans announced in late October and those previously adopted by the Bolsonaro government since 2020 lack concrete short- and long-term goals to measure progress in curbing deforestation, however. The two forest loss reduction plans previously presented by the government either lack deforestation reduction targets or set them at far less ambitious levels than Brazil’s prior commitments.

The national climate action plan the Bolsonaro government presented in December 2020, which is supposed to outline how the country will meet the Paris Agreement on climate change goals to curb emissions  to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, includes emissions reduction targets that are less ambitious than the plan Brazil presented in 2016, in violation of its obligations under the agreement. The new plan also removed the commitment in the previous plan to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030.

The Bolsonaro government’s chief negotiator at COP26 told the press they would be unveiling a new national climate action plan at Glasgow today. However, according to the information available at the time of writing, this plan, while an improvement from the one submitted in 2020, would still result in smaller emissions reductions than the ones originally pledged in 2016.

Brazil’s international partners should press the Brazilian government to take immediate steps to reverse the environmental destruction encouraged over the past two years. Specifically, Brazil should:

Submit a reviewed national climate action plan – Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC – to the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that is more ambitious than its 2016 plan and aligns with the goals of the Paris Agreement;
Produce a plan with concrete, operational steps and measurable targets to dramatically reduce deforestation, protect forest defenders, and prosecute environmental crimes and related acts of violence.

“Brazil is completely out of step with the growing international consensus on the need to preserve forests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Acting Director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of making empty pledges, it needs to produce specific, time-bound targets for reducing deforestation and concrete operations plans for meeting them.”

Brazil’s Empty Promises
Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions
In April, President Bolsonaro pledged that Brazil would reach climate neutrality in 2050 instead of 2060, which would be an improvement compared with its 2020 plan, but the commitment has not been formalized in law or policy. Nor are there policies detailing intermediate, short-term targets that would enable Brazil to reach that goal. Instead, its emissions have sharply risen, including during the pandemic, according to the most recent estimates.

Brazil’s emissions in 2020 were higher than any other year since 2006. Land use change activities, including converting forests to agriculture fields or pasture for cattle, accounted for 46 percent of Brazil’s emissions in 2020, according to an analysis by the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimates System (SEEG), a collective of scientists from Brazilian and international environmental organizations. Emissions from deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado wooded savannah made up 90 percent of emissions from land use change.

The emissions from agriculture and cattle-raising, the leading drivers of deforestation in the country, accounted for 27 percent of overall emissions and increased by 2.5 percent from the previous year, reaching its highest level ever measured, even as the government carried out a plan intended reduce pollution from the sector, SEEG found.

Regressive Climate Action Plan
In its December 2020 climate action plan, Brazil reiterated the same emissions reduction goals as in its  2016 plan, rather than establishing more ambitious targets, as the Paris Agreement required. Moreover, the plan increased the baseline value against which reductions are calculated, allowing Brazil to appear to meet its targets while making significantly smaller emissions reductions than originally pledged.  

The 2020 plan also removed the commitment in the previous plan to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030. In April 2021, President Bolsonaro pledged that Brazil would reach climate neutrality in 2050 instead of 2060, which would be an improvement over the 2020 plan. But the commitment has not been formalized in law or policy, and the latest estimates show that Brazil’s emissions have sharply risen, contrary to this stated objective.

The Bolsonaro government’s chief negotiator at COP26 announced the delegation would unveil an updated plan at Glasgow that would review the baseline value, but the latter would still be higher than in the 2016 plan, enabling Brazil to still make smaller emissions reductions than originally pledged the 2016 submission, according to the information available at the time of writing.  

The Climate Action Tracker, which provides independent scientific analysis, rates Brazil’s overall plan “highly insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If all other countries had plans similar to Brazil’s , warming would reach over 4°C by the end of the century. 

Inadequate Environmental Plans

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© INPE PRODES

In the lead up to COP26, President Bolsonaro and several of his ministers announced a “National Green Growth Program” on October 25 at an event in the presidential palace. The program, officially adopted through a presidential decree, states its aim as promoting “the conservation of forests and the protection of biodiversity” and “reduc[ing] greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the decree provides that an operating plan to carry out the program would not have to be adopted until September 30, 2022, potentially postponing implementation for a year.

In April, the Amazon Council, a body created by presidential decree in February 2020 and headed by the vice president, adopted a plan to reduce deforestation to 8,670 square kilometers annually in the Amazon by 2022. This would be a reduction from the last official estimate of 10,800 square kilometers in 2020. However, it is still 15 percent higher than deforestation in 2018, before Bolsonaro took office, and nowhere near the 3,925 square kilometer mark that Brazil was to reach in 2020, based on prior climate commitments. No formal commitment has been made to continue to reduce  deforestation by a specific figure after 2022.

Preliminary figures suggest that deforestation may drop 5 percent in the Amazon from 2020. However, preliminary figures usually underestimate final estimates by several thousand square kilometers.

Period

August 2015 – July 2016

August 2016 – July 2017

August 2017 – July 2018

August 2018 – July 2019

August 2019 – July 2020

August 2020 – July 2021

 

DETER Preliminary Deforestation Estimates in the Legal Amazon, Brazil (sq km)

 

5377.08

4639.37

4570.63

6843.91

9215.88

8792.89

 

PRODES Final Deforestation Estimates in the Legal Amazon, Brazil (sq km)

 

7893

6947

7536

10129

10851

N/A

Sources: Brazil’s National Space Research Agency (INPE) Deforestation of the Legal Amazon Satellite Monitoring Project (PRODES) and Real-Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER). The final estimates are provided as a consolidated annual figure for the period August through July.

In May 2020, the Environment Ministry published a national plan through 2023 for “controlling” illegal deforestation in all biomes. The plan did not establish targets to reduce deforestation, however. The operational plan to carry out the commitment,  published almost a year later, did not set such targets either. It stated “reducing deforestation and perfecting environmental enforcement” as an objective. The only indicator noted to track progress was the number of environmental law enforcement actions conducted by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio)–one of the Environment Ministry’s agencies–in lands designated as federal conservation units, and not whether deforestation in these areas actually diminished.

While protecting conservation units is important, these lands accounted only for 12.4 percent of all deforestation in Brazil in 2020, and the plan fails to establish actual goals for reducing deforestation even in these areas. The plan also does not provide short- or long-term goals to measure progress in reducing deforestation in other areas under pressure, such as undesignated public forests or Indigenous territories.

Violence and Intimidation Against Forest Defenders
Indigenous peoples and local communities have always played an important role in efforts to protect the environment. However, the retreat of environmental enforcement officials during the Bolsonaro administration and impunity for environmental crime put front-line communities at greater risk as criminal networks use violence and intimidation against forest defenders who report or oppose their activities.

In the Tapajós basin, an epicenter of illegal gold mining in the Amazon, Munduruku communities that oppose extractive activities in their lands have faced threats and intimidation. In May, for example, people engaged in illegal mining sought to impede an environmental law enforcement operation and set fire to houses belonging to an Indigenous leader and her family.

Public officials, Indigenous leaders, and other local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch in October said that the situation of forest defenders in the Amazon has worsened under the Bolsonaro administration, as many criminal groups feel empowered to pursue their illegal activities.

In Indigenous territories, which are protected areas,  illegal invasions, logging, land grabbing, and other incursions in Indigenous lands increased by 137 percent, in 2020, compared with the year before President Bolsonaro took office, according to the Indigenist Missionary Council, a non-profit organization with offices across Brazil.

Under this administration, deforestation in Indigenous lands is the highest its been in during the past decade, and 2019 marked the worst year in Indigenous territories at least since 2008, according to official data.

 

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