（2014-12-04）Over the past two decades, Brazil has developed a tradition for helping move international climate negotiations forward at critical moments. However, in the face of climate emergency, lack of ambition and a set of shy measures towards carbon emission reductions can neutralise the best ideas and great diplomatic role played by the country.
At the time of the Kyoto protocol, Brazil came up with the idea of a clean development fund, now the clean development mechanism, for helping developing countries engage in cutting emissions . It has also put on the table a bold, if controversial, proposal for burden-sharing based on historical responsibilities for the warming we’ve seen so far.
At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, Brazil showcased a significant voluntary target that delivered real CO2 reductions from controlling deforestation. In Durban, Brazilian diplomats used a smart twist of phrase to break a deadlock over the legal form of the 2015 climate agreement.
Brazil’s newest diplomatic contraption was submitted to the UN shortly before the Lima climate conference, which opened on Monday. It is a mechanism called “concentric differentiation”, which allows for every country to collaborate in the effort towards the target of limiting temperature rises to 2C above pre-industrial levels.
Its graphic representation consists of a series of three circles, the innermost of which should be occupied by developed countries with absolute, economy-wide targets; the middle one, by emerging economies, with intensity, per capita or relative reduction targets; and the outer circle, by other developing countries, with non-economy-wide targets. Every country should move towards the centre in time, according to its respective capabilities.
Brazil’s ‘concentric differentiation’ approach to emission reductions. Photograph: UNFCCC
While the proposal is certainly interesting for differentiating among developing countries, it still may leave major emitters such as Brazil and China off the hook, by allowing them to set targets that are not measured in absolute reductions for the post-2020 period. That would be a tragedy for the climate and also detrimental to the Brazilian economy.
Brazil is far from being an innocent bystander of climate change – even by its own metric of historical responsibility. According to a recent peer-reviewed study, thanks to deforestation in the latter 20th century, the Latin American country is probably the fourth top contributor to the observed global warming, responding for about 7% of the total temperature change. Therefore, while still a developing country, it is among the nations that should deliver ambitious emissions pledges (‘nationally determined contributions’ in the UN jargon) for a post-2020 climate agreement.
There are reasons to believe that the emission cuts the country has achieved over the past decade may now be waning. According to data released by the Climate Observatory, a coalition formed by Brazilian civil society organisations, Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown 7.8% in 2013 in spite of a very low economic growth, with major contributions coming from land use and energy.
Deforestation control is no longer taken for granted. Last year there was a 29% increase in the rate of forest clearing in the Amazon, and the 2015 data is pointing towards another increase.
The country’s energy mix is also getting dirtier: 70% of the planned investments on energy will go to fossil fuel in the next 10 years. After swearing off coal a few years back, the Brazilian government has helped it stage a comeback last month, by awarding a contract for its first new coal power plant in nine years. If Brazil is serious about the 2C goal, then it must revert to its former pathway on coal.
The Climate Observatory’s assessment for an equity-based 2030 climate target suggests that Brazilian non-land use emissions should peak well before 2025, and overall emissions should decline to significantly less than 1bn tons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030. Achieving that would not be too hard for the country and can even be done while the economy grows – in fact, it can help set Brazil’s struggling economy back to a growth trajectory.
In 2008, the country committed itself to zero net deforestation by 2015. It could increase its planted forests area from 7m to 17m hectares by 2025. Just by implementing measures that are already in place, it could also cut emissions in the agricultural sector by one-third in 2020 – or even reach zero emissions from farming and cattle ranching if the Low Carbon Agriculture plan could be expanded to the whole set of yearly investments in agriculture.
Brazil could also double its ethanol production by 2020 just by providing clear policies for the sector while reviewing its current policy of gasoline subsidies. With solar photovoltaic energy faring nearly as cheap as coal in the latest bids, and wind energy much cheaper than any fossil fuel, there is no reason for Brazil not to become again a renewables superpower. It actually might be helped in such quest by the current oil supply shock, which drove prices down and made Brazilian ultra-deep-water oil unattractive.
While other big emitters, such as the EU, China and the US, start showing their cards on the climate table and betting big on renewables, Brazil seems to be holding itself back.