Brazil faces political roadblocks to hosting climate talks

Regional and domestic political disagreements could scupper Brazil's attempts to host the UN's COP25
<p>Brazilian Environment Minister, José Sarney Filho (image: <a href="">flickr </a>)</p>

Brazilian Environment Minister, José Sarney Filho (image: flickr )

Latin America’s fraught regional politics and Brazil’s domestic woes seeped into the recent UN climate change talks in Bonn, Germany. During the conference, the Brazilian Environment Minister, José Sarney Filho, announced Brazil’s interest in hosting the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) in 2019. Brazil is currently the only country to declare its interest to the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to host the negotiations, which are slated to take place in a Latin American and Caribbean country.

Following diplomatic protocol, aspiring COP presidents submit letters to the UNFCCC and then the UN regional group, in this case the 33-country strong group for Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC), discuss the issue before reaching a decision via consensus. While GRULAC has regular meetings during the COP, discussions about future COP presidencies can be lengthy. Both informal and formal meetings take place among GRULAC representatives in New York, among diplomats at the COP and through countries’ individual diplomatic channels.

Despite GRULAC’s failure to reach a decision among its members in Bonn, on the last day of the talks a draft decision on “Dates and venues of future sessions” named Brazil as the COP25 host in 2019. But later that day, the adopted version of the decision failed to mention Brazil and requested that the UN climate talks next April consider the issue.

A UNFCCC staffer said that they had received communication from GRULAC’s monthly rotating president—Paraguay—confirming Brazil’s COP25 candidacy. They then received a separate communication from Paraguay stating that the issue was in fact not yet settled. Two anonymous sources said that Paraguay informed the UNFCCC that GRULAC had apparently endorsed Brazil’s COP25, which provided the green light to include it in the conference decision.

But that didn’t mean that GRULAC had reached a decision. On viewing the draft conference decision, Venezuela and Brazil raised concerns that the group was not ready and that further discussions would take place among GRULAC representatives in New York.

In GRULAC’s defense, during the fast paced and hectic two weeks of talks, mistakes can happen. Over-burdened delegates charged with negotiating for their countries, also have to shepherd ministers or presidents and attend bilateral meetings. At the COP, GRULAC meetings also occur at lunchtime, ensuring delegates may be caught in the negotiations or coordinating in smaller groups simultaneously. In this environment wires can get crossed and important messages can be sent too late, too early, or simply misinterpreted.

On an issue of this magnitude, however, it is possible that the incident may have been more than a simple mistake. It is possible that Paraguay may have sent the letter to the UNFCCC with confirmation of GRULAC’s support for Brazil’s bid since it wished to curry favor with its powerful neighbor so as to avoid a lengthy and potentially inconclusive discussion within GRULAC.

Latin American and Caribbean regional politics are at the most fractious they’ve been for some time due to the crisis in Venezuela. In August, foreign ministers of several countries including Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Argentina signed the Lima Declaration, which strongly criticized the Maduro regime and the breakdown of democratic order in Venezuela. Adding to the tense state of affairs is the fact that seven Latin American countries will elect new presidents in the next year, which could be creating a flap across ministries as they attempt to conclude their agendas given the customary overhaul of ministers and civil servants.

Anticipating that Venezuela may not want to support Brazil’s COP bid, Paraguay could have acted to try and push through the confirmation quickly to avoid any clashes within GRULAC. Venezuela may have been particularly unwilling to accept Brazil’s bid due to its own interest in hosting the conference following a failed bid in 2014 to host COP20, which it lost to Peru.

In the event that GRULAC cannot reach consensus on a COP host, the UNFCCC would skip the region’s host year and organize the conference in another region.  This worst-case scenario would be the second time the Venezuelan crisis has undermined a major regional event. Responding to the escalating situation, the Grupo de Lima in August called for the postponement of the summit between Europe and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

With protracted and likely prickly discussions between GRULAC representatives, Brazil’s candidacy is by no means in the bag. Brazilian domestic politics could also pose a problem.

Brazilian environmental organizations spearheaded the effort to host COP25. In a significant victory, Environment Minister José Sarney Filho, who is seen as a climate champion and ally of these groups, accepted their proposal. These groups argue that during a time of various setbacks for Brazil’s climate and environmental agenda, hosting a COP could be a way to lock-in attention on these issues, especially in the context of the 2018 presidential election. For example, last year, Brazil’s greenhouse gases emissions are estimated to have risen 8.9%, the highest level since 2008, mainly due to an increase in agriculture and illegal deforestation.

There is hope that with increased international exposure, President Michele Temer’s administration and the presidential candidates will give greater attention to the environment and climate policies. Drawing on Brazil’s well organized and technically savvy civil society and engaged press, the COP could be used to deter further setbacks and gain greater support from the international community to pressure Brazilian leaders to push  climate change and environmental issues up the agenda. Brazil’s next president, who will take office in January 2019, would be holding a major international event, providing these groups and environmentally concerned policymakers with an opportunity to advance more ambitious climate and environmental goals in the government’s first year in office.

Organizing a COP also provides an opportunity for Brazil to re-establish its presence on the international stage following a period of introspection and a low-key foreign policy. Historically, advancing global climate change governance has been one of Brazil’s main foreign policy strengths.

But with the ongoing crises in Brazil this could prove a risky strategy. Observers were immediately reminded that the Temer administration has not demonstrated strong commitment to tackling climate change. On the same day that Brazil made its COP25 offer, it won the Climate Action Network’s Fossil of the Day Award, an award given to environmental laggards, for a bill sent to Congress by President Temer that would subsidize new oil development by about $300 billion.

Brazil’s cabinet is set to undergo a major shakeup in the coming weeks, which could also interfere with its COP bid. Environment Minister Filho will likely stay put until next March or April before resigning to run for the Senate. It is hoped that while he remains in office he can use his position to encourage cabinet colleagues to fight to secure the nomination. It is not confirmed whether Brazil’s foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes, will stay on or leave office. While his successor would probably continue to support the COP25 bid, the political upheaval of a cabinet reshuffle raises concerns that the Temer administration might not be able or willing to work to secure the nomination, especially if other countries are not overly supportive.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry is said to be uneasy about the bid. Brazil is scheduled to host the 11th BRICS Summit in 2019, which could be seen as more important than the COP to project Brazil’s foreign policy goals and credentials.  Cost is also a concern. The hosting of a COP with 20,000 participants and the diplomatic capital required to pull it off comes with a hefty price tag.

Hosting a successful COP also requires adeptly facilitating the process, building trust among countries, demonstrating strong domestic climate action, and massive planning and organization. As COP25 is set to be one of the most important events since the 2015 Paris Agreement, Brazil would be faced with an enormous task.

COP25 is especially important because in 2020, countries are due to submit revised national climate change plans. The 2017 UN Emissions Gap Report shows that countries’ current targets to reduce emissions would lead to a temperature rise of roughly 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. To meet the Paris temperature goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, emissions must peak by 2020 and then drop steadily. Brazil is one of the countries whose pledge is currently incompatible with the Paris goal. Pressure is mounting on all countries (especially future COP presidents) to raise the ambitions of their targets before 2020.

With high levels of domestic political volatility and regional politics at a decidedly difficult juncture, the odds are long that Brazil’s COP25 bid pans out. Brazil, however, appears keen to take that gamble.

Note: The governments of Paraguay and Venezuela did not respond to requests for comment.

This article was originally published by The Global Americans