US-Brazil climate pledge “unacceptable” and “unambitious”, say experts

Despite welcome pledges to increase non-hydro renewables, deforestation targets spark consternation

The much-anticipated joint declaration on climate change by Brazil and the US has prompted conflicting reactions from academics and environmentalists. During an official visit to Washington on Tuesday, Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Barack Obama announced targets for the next round of climate negotiations, or COP21, in Paris in November.

According to Obama, the most important of these objectives was to increase the share of renewables to between 28% and 33% of total energy generation – not including hydropower. Meeting such an increase requires more wind, solar and biomass.

“I see it as positive,” said Guy Edwards, Co-Director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University in the US, “speaking about such an increase while excluding hydroelectricity is very important as it’s not as clean as people think. You have to remember that a lot of vegetation is cut down to create reservoirs. And the emissions that this creates aren’t always taken into account.”

For Jose Marengo, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE in Portuguese) and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the content of the declaration was generally good; “an increase in the use of renewable energy is an important part of achieving carbon reduction,” he said.

But Carlos Rittl, Executive Secretary of the Brazilian Observatorio Clima, argues that renewable energy targets are ill-planned and not particularly ambitious; “even if there is an increase in the share of renewables, it is not clear what source of energy would be replaced, fossil fuels or hydroelectricity. And energy demand will increase significantly between now and 2030,” he told Diálogo Chino.

The US produces only 10% of energy by domestic renewable sources; hydroelectric, solar power, wind, biomass and geothermal. In Brazil this figure is 43%. However, hydro alone accounts for 77% of electricity generation.

Disappointing deforestation pledge

Dilma Rousseff also affirmed that the country would commit to eliminating illegal deforestation by 2030, a highly controversial statement for environmentalists: “It’s unacceptable that the most ambitious commitment that Dilma has made to protecting forests and fighting climate change is just obeying the law,” said the coordinator of public policy from Greenpeace , Márcio Astrini.

Andre Nahur, Climate Change and Energy Program Coordinator at WWF-Brazil also takes issue with this aspect of the agreement; “ending illegal felling is a necessity and it has to be done as soon as possible with efficient tools to regulate the land and create alternative forest economies,” he said.

One of the reasons Brazil does not push more ambitious climate commitments is the influence of the powerful ruralista (agribusiness) lobby, according to Rittl. He says that it has played a “key role” in diluting or changing environmental legislation in recent years.

Furthermore, Brazil’s agribusiness sector was directly responsible for 27% of gross Brazilian greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, according to Observatorio Clima research. And this figure rises to 60% when taking into account emissions from forest conversion to crop fields and pastures.

As part of the efforts to limit global temperatures to a maximum 2°C above pre-industrial levels, Brazil promised to reforest 12 million hectares by 2030. Trees help to “clean” the atmosphere since they absorb carbon whilst they grow. However, according to Greenpeace, promised restoration only corresponds to about half that required by the existing Forest Code.

And Rittl adds that the 2008 National Plan on Climate Change already promises “zero net deforestation”, another controversial element of the statement which skates over the fact that such a target should be met this year. All the new pledge does is delay that by 15 years, Rittl says.

Given that present levels of deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado are around 5,000km2 per year, reaching “zero net deforestation” could take 20 years as existing legislation already requires the restoration of 240,000km2, says Rittl. As such, he summarises, “zero net deforestation means zero ambition for Brazil.”

Jose Marengo indicates that targets are important for policy orientation, but the lack of details on some issues is notable; “what is the criteria for illegal clearing? The ideal is zero deforestation, in its legal as much as illegal forms,” he said, adding; “nature doesn’t care if it’s illegal or not. The important thing is to protect forests.”

Another agreement, made a day earlier and which could have further negative impacts on Brazilian forests, also caught the eye: the increase in beef exports to the US. “This can lead to a change in the dynamics of agricultural production, pushing farming boundaries and having an additional impact on Brazilian biomes, especially in the Amazon and Cerrado,” says Nahur.

Paris momentum

The declared intention to increase the use of renewable energy sources can drive investment in Brazil, given the potential for wind and solar generation, says Edwards.

And for Elbia Gannoum, the Executive Director of the Brazilian Association of Wind Energy (Abeeólica in Portuguese), Dilma Rousseff made “a good statement” in Washington, but offered few advances for the industry, “it’s in line with the needs and resources that Brazil has and the plan to reduce emissions. We knew that Brazil was heading in this direction,” she said.

Evaraldo Feitosa, one of the vice-presidents of the World Wind Energy Association (WWEA in Spanish), believes that the objectives declared by the Brazilian head of state fall short of matching its potential; “in Brazil, we have so much more than this, we can reach 40% wind and solar generation for half the year and up to 70% in some months of the year,” he said.

Wind energy was prohibitively costly in Brazil up until 5 years ago, at which point the country’s economy was in danger of overheating, “there’s no country that has had growth rates like Brazil’s,” said Feitosa.

The disclosed plans stipulate that wind can generate 10% of electricity by 2020. It currently produces 5%. “The targets given by Dilma Rousseff are achievable, since the country’s resources are large and competitive,” says Gannoum.

The hope now is that the joint declaration will somehow influence a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gasses that will be negotiated at the COP21 in Paris.

Despite some negative assessments of the US-Brazil climate change pledges, Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Insitute is at least encouraged by the impetus it gives climate negotiations; “Brazil and the US recognise the threats that climate change presents and have decided to work together to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. The commitment of Presidents Obama and Rousseff to work with other partners towards an ambitious agreement in Paris increases the likelihood of success,” she said.