Brazil at a climate crossroads

South American country looks set to host 2019 talks as climate sceptic leads presidential race  

Brazil’s bid to host international climate talks in 2019 (COP25) made significant progress last week, even as the country seemed poised to elect Jair Bolsonaro. The extreme right-wing presidential candidate has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and eliminate the environment ministry.

The country’s candidacy was proposed to the United Nations (UN) last November. On October 5 it received the support of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (GRULAC), which represents the region at the UN. Bolsonaro has also promised to withdraw Brazil from the group.

However, Brazil’s host status is not guaranteed. The country is in political turmoil as it faces its most important election in recent history. Bolsonaro, a retired military officer, came close to winning the election in the first round on October 7. He will now compete against Fernando Haddad of the Worker’s Party (PT) in the final round on October 27.

Bolsonaro’s statements on environmental protection and indigenous groups have shocked environmentalists. He believes that Brazil’s promise to maintain millions of hectares of preserved forests under the Paris Agreement is too high a price for the country.

“If this continues to be a condition, I will withdraw from the Paris Accord,” he told journalists during a meeting with businessmen in Rio de Janeiro in September. “If our role is to hand over 136 million hectares of the Amazon, I’m out.”

His opponent, Haddad, was a former education minister in the government of president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Under Lula, Brazil had its lowest rates of deforestation in recent decades.

But Haddad is struggling to convince voters to support him. His party’s image has been destroyed by corruption allegations. Lula is now in prison, convicted of corruption and money laundering.

This year’s conference (COP24) will be held in the Polish city of Katowice in December, with COP25 to be held in November next year. The summits are essential to implementing the Paris Agreement, in which 195 countries committed to limit global temperature increases to 2C above preindustrial levels. Since its creation in 2015, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of UN commissioned scientists, has warned that warming must be limited to 1.5C.

By hosting the event, Brazil hopes to showcase its history of strong environmental policies to the international community.

“The country that presides (over the conference) acts as a facilitator in the global process,” explains Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory. “At the same time, the conference provides an opportunity to discuss how the host country is progressing in its domestic policies.”

The opportunity comes at a difficult time for Brazil. Between 2005 and 2012, Brazilian emissions decreased by 52%, but progress stalled.

Then-president Dilma Rousseff (also of the PT) relaxed rules curbing deforestation as early as 2012. Since then, deforestation rates have slowed less and environmentalists warn that the country may not meet its national goals submitted to the UN that formed part of the Paris Accord.

Brazil has been the scene of political instability for more than four years, and has been home to one of the largest corruption investigations in the world known as Operation Car Wash. In 2016 Rousseff was impeached as a result, and her successor, current president Michel Temer, has been the target of criminal investigations. Weakened governments have been unable to curb rampant deforestation in supposedly protected areas.

The crisis seems far from being resolved. Even with the support of GRULAC, Brazil’s role as the host of COP25 is in doubt. The group’s top officials still need to uphold the recommendation.

“If the secretary does not consider the country able to preside well over the conference, there are alternatives, even though they are unusual,” explains Rittl.

But Rittl considers the regional support for Brazil indicated by GRULAC to be a diplomatic victory. The relationship between Latin American countries has been tense given the extreme political polarisation caused by the severe crisis in Venezuela and political fervour in Brazil.

There is hope that hosting the conference could bring the climate agenda closer to the centre of the political discussion.

For decades, Brazil has been a regional leader in environmental policies. It was in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body responsible for overseeing climate negotiations, emerged.

Any loss of leadership would be detrimental to the region and the world. Brazil is the seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its withdrawal from the global stage would become an obstacle to the overall goals of the Paris Agreement, along with the United States.

“We still have a lot to show,” says Rittl. “But at the same time, we have to confront our contradictions.”

This article was originally published on Diálogo Chino