The threat of political bargaining to climate mitigation in Brazil

The paper we published in Nature Climate Change in 2018 took us to a new level of scientific exposure, increasing our responsibility to continually improve our work, but at the same time improved our confidence in continuing to carry out more ambitious and relevant research into the future.

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“In exchange for political support, the Brazilian government is signaling landholders to increase deforestation, putting the country’s contribution to the Paris Agreement at risk. The President of Brazil has signed provisionary acts and decrees lowering environmental licensing requirements, suspending the ratification of indigenous lands, reducing the size of protected areas and facilitating land grabbers to obtain the deeds of illegally deforested areas2. This could undermine the success of Brazil’s CO2 emission reductions through control of deforestation in the previous decade…”

By Alexandre Szklo and Roberto Schaeffer

COPPE, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 21941-914 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

 The paper in Nature Climate Change is here: https://go.nature.com/2CbnMph

More than two years ago we published “The threat of political bargaining to climate mitigation in Brazil” in Nature Climate Change (NCC) (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0213-y), co-autored with other Brazilian researchers, including colleagues from the universities of Brasília and Minas Gerais, and also from our own department in the Graduate School of Engineering (COPPE) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The paper was based on the development and use of an original set of integrated assessment models (IAMs) for energy and land-use, aiming at identifying and quantifying the impacts of a weak environmental governance in Brazil at that time on the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We also explored the consequences of this weak environmental governance on different emissions mitigation strategies as a result of various possible public policies and private actions.

At that time we were under a transient condition in Brazilian politics, in which a transitional government, after a traumatic process of impeachment of an elected president, thence with a clear fragility, sought support in political sectors by favoring a more lenient control of deforestation in the country. The article aimed exactly at exploring how much a weakened environmental governance could negatively affect the domestic economy, and how difficult it was to justify this position according to technical-economic criteria, not to mention environmental concerns.

As an immediate impact, first, the study received an unprecedent media coverage, both in Brazil (including prime-time TV and major newspapers) and abroad (twice in the “The New York Times”, for example), which, through successive reports, summarized the critical messages of our work. We would like to believe that the study helped to argue, at that time, against certain actions planned by the government that would have caused even more relevant impacts on land-use change in the country, if carried out with more intensity by the federal administration.

Following the repercussions of our study, we presented our work to various industry associations in the country (oil industry, chemical industry, etc.), which proved to be permeable to the threats pointed out in our paper: the increase in deforestation in the country would burden these sectors through different transmission channels, to the extent that, assuming that the country would continue to honor its commitments under the Paris Agreement in the future, increased deforestation would inevitably lead to a proportional reduction in GHG emissions in other sectors of the economy, even at higher costs than those that would be necessary to maintain the forest standing, in addition to the undeniable environmental services provided by that.

Two years later the subject of our paper could not remain more current. Under the new (current) administration installed in 2019, GHG emissions from deforestation have grown substantially, even higher than what we had foreseen in our paper, and for this reason Brazil is being strongly criticized abroad. Deforestation in the Amazon grew by 9.5% between August 2019 and July 2020 compared to the previous period, between 2018 and 2019 - in total, 11,088 km² of forest were cut down in that time interval. The deforested area is the largest in the last decade, according to consolidated data from Prodes (Project for Monitoring Deforestation in the Legal Amazon by Satellite), from INPE (the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research), which were released on 30 November 2020 at the institute's headquarters in Sao José dos Campos, Sao Paulo. The amount is provisional and the definitive number will only be presented in 2021.

In 2019/2020, after the publication of our paper, other industrial and financial associations in the country have also approached our lab (http://www.cenergialab.coppe.ufrj.br), as well as companies that came to us to help them quantify and better understand the risks of a weakened environmental governance for the country in general and for their activities in particular. Moreover, in 2020, our lab, together with the World Resources Institute (WRI), co-authored a study called A New Climate Economy for Brazil (https://wribrasil.org.br/pt/publicacoes/new-economy-brazil-efficient-resilient-build-back-better), using the tools applied in our paper, exactly to show that a green development (actually, a green recovery) is an economic opportunity for the country – and not the other way around.

In a way, our paper gave us the necessary visibility to be able to contribute, in a tangible, clear and precise way, with the demonstration of the lost opportunities that Brazil imposes itself by not controlling the deforestation caused by illegal activities in its territory. This is particularly relevant to the world given the role of Brazil in controlling GHG emissions, particularly from deforestation, but also the relevance of the country to other sustainable development goals (e.g. biodiversity, food, water, etc).

But in addition to the visibility our group received because of the paper, we also obtained a new level of scientific credibility, to continue to carry out our various research projects. The paper also attracted new researchers to our lab and strengthened our international scientific partnerships and reputation, especially within the integrated assessment modeling community (https://www.iamconsortium.org/), so that today we have a laboratory with many more important partnerships, which is helping us to improve our scenario modeling tools and better train leading researchers in Brazil and even in Latin America. This is not a small task in a country outside the OECD: to keep a rich agenda of research activity over the years, to establish and expand partnerships with centers of excellence and private companies all over the world, and to try to contribute objectively and scientifically with the sustainable development of a country whose biomes are at risk.

In sum, the paper we published in NCC took us to a new level of scientific exposure, which, on the one hand, increased our responsibility to continually improve our integrated assessment tools and our studies, and on the other hand, increased our confidence in continuing to carry out increasingly ambitious and relevant research for the years to come.

Roberto Schaeffer

Full Professor of Energy Economics, COPPE/UFRJ

Integrated Assessment Modelling, Low-carbon mitigation pathways

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