Lula’s first year sees mixed results on climate and environment

Brazilian president’s COP28 visit underscores patchy record, with wins on Amazon deforestation but questions over fossil fuels and farming
<p>Brazilian president Lula da Silva (right) greets his environment minister Marina Silva (centre) and Rodrigo Pacheco (left), president of Brazil’s congress, at COP28 in Dubai. Having made gains on halting deforestation since returning to power, Lula drew criticism at the summit for announcements on oil. (Image: <a href="">Ricardo Stuckert</a> / <a href="">Palácio do Planalto</a>, <a href="">CC BY-ND</a>)</p>

Brazilian president Lula da Silva (right) greets his environment minister Marina Silva (centre) and Rodrigo Pacheco (left), president of Brazil’s congress, at COP28 in Dubai. Having made gains on halting deforestation since returning to power, Lula drew criticism at the summit for announcements on oil. (Image: Ricardo Stuckert / Palácio do Planalto, CC BY-ND)

On 1 December, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva posed with around 130 other world leaders for the official photo of the UN’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai. With Brazil set to host COP30 in the Amazonian city of Belém in 2025, Lula was one of only four given the privilege to speak at the summit’s opening, and used his address to tell delegates that “the planet is fed up with unfulfilled climate agreements”. It is time, he said, to “work towards an economy less dependent on fossil fuels”.

That same day, Brazil also took over the temporary presidency of the G20, the forum of the world’s largest economies. Lula has said that the country’s one-year mandate will serve to motivate its members to commit to a just energy transition.

However, the day also saw the Brazilian government confirm that it will join OPEC+, a coalition of oil producing nations allied with the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Rounding off an eventful 24 hours, the president of the country’s state oil firm Petrobras announced that it hopes to open a subsidiary in Saudi Arabia, after having also announced its intention to open a venture in China, the biggest consumer of Brazilian oil.

The contradictory events of the day were far from isolated incidents in the first year of Lula’s government. Although the climate agenda has gained new impetus after the destructive, denialist administration of Jair Bolsonaro (2019–2022), Lula’s discourse on fighting global warming has often been at odds with his government’s actions. Analysts have also described some of its announced policies as vague or insufficient to tackle climate change and the country’s socio-environmental challenges.

“Brazil is really going to have to make up its mind,” Márcio Astrini, executive director of the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian climate science network, told Diálogo Chino. “You can’t lead a climate agenda that needs to attack fossil fuels and, at the same time, join the oil club. You can’t have both at the same time.”

Deforestation in the Amazon

Astrini said that although oil is a priority issue, especially for a country hosting a COP, it is a relatively new one on the Brazilian environmental agenda, which has historically been focused on protecting forests. In 2023, it was no different: as early as 1 January, the newly inaugurated President Lula promised to bring deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to zero, with the region suffering from galloping rates of forest loss. During Bolsonaro’s term in office, there was a 60% increase in deforestation in the biome compared to the previous period, from 2014 to 2018, shared between presidents Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer, according to analysis by the System for Estimating Greenhouse Gas Emissions (SEEG) platform. This was the biggest increase in a single presidential term since measurements began in 1988.

Deforestation in the region has not only caused controversy for Brazil on the international stage, it also has impacts on local populations, biodiversity and the climate. According to SEEG data, changes in land use accounted for 48% of Brazil’s total emissions in 2022, with 36% coming from the loss of Amazon rainforest alone.

To tackle the problem, Lula has relaunched the PPCDAm, an action plan to counter deforestation, which helped to bring about an 83% drop in deforestation between 2004 and 2012. The government has resumed and expanded policies from that period, including firm enforcement actions, which had been weakened by the Bolsonaro administration.

So far, it has worked, with the drop in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon the main achievement that the country had to show at COP28. From January to November 2023, deforestation alerts in the Amazon fell by half compared to the previous year, helping the country avoid an estimated 200 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions – more than Peru emitted in one year. The government also revised upwards its national emission reduction targets, the so-called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris agreement, which had been reduced by the previous administration.

Agribusiness and emissions

Brazil is the world’s sixth most polluting country, according to data from the Climate Watch platform, with around 1.5 billion net tonnes of CO2 discharged into the atmosphere per year. Behind changes in land use, the second largest source of emissions is agriculture, with 27% of the total, according to SEEG. With this sector accounting for almost all of the deforestation caused in Brazil, this means that as much as 75% of Brazilian emissions could be linked to its activities, mainly from livestock.

At the same time, however, agribusiness accounts for almost a quarter of Brazil’s GDP and has strong bases in the country’s congress in Brasilia, represented by powerful rural benches that are mostly aligned with Bolsonaro.

So far, Lula’s government has often found its hands tied when trying to advance environmentally progressive policies. The most notable dispute has been over the so-called marco temporal or “time limit” – a proposal that would only recognise Indigenous communities’ claims to territories if they were occupying the lands in 1988, the year of Brazil’s current constitution. Agribusiness and rural benches of the congress have strongly backed the bill on the grounds of increasing legal certainty for land ownership. In October, Lula had used a presidential veto to block parts of the bill that would have set these limits, but this was overturned by a vote in congress last week.

Commenting on the imminent defeat of the bill ahead of the vote, while still at COP28, the president compared pro-agribusiness representatives in congress as “foxes guarding our hen house”.

Almost simultaneously, the Brazilian senate approved a proposal dubbed by critics as the “Poison Bill,” which speeds up the registration of pesticides in the country. The text had to be negotiated by Lula’s government with the opposition as a bargaining chip for the approval of its economic measures. Meanwhile, the pace of new pesticide registrations under the current administration is reportedly already on a par with that of the Bolsonaro government and exceeds that of any previous mandate of Lula’s Workers’ Party, according to the Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

Despite recent reductions in the Amazon, deforestation rates remain high in the Cerrado. Between August 2022 and July 2023, the loss of 11,000 km2 of forest in this biome, where the country’s agricultural frontier is advancing, led to the emission of 159 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Next year, the government is planning to launch a strategy similar to the one implemented in the Amazon. Even so, there is still a lack of more concrete proposals to significantly change the trajectory of agricultural emissions, according to a report by the Talanoa Institute, a Brazilian environmental policy organisation, which took stock of the country’s progress on climate in 2023.

The paper mentions the announcement of the 2023/24 Safra Plan, a government programme offering a record 435 billion reais (US$88 billion) in funding support for agribusiness and family farmers, though only 0.5% of this budget has reportedly been reserved for low-carbon agriculture. The report also points to slowness around a low-carbon fertiliser policy that remains under discussion, as well as a need to boost commitments to cut methane emissions, which still lacks a concrete plan. Talanoa highlights that livestock continues to be the main source of emissions from Brazilian agriculture, with cattle digestion releasing methane, a gas that can be more than 80 times more potent than CO2 in its warming effect.

During COP28, Brazil launched its eagerly awaited Ecological Transformation Plan, which was also said to lack substance. “I think this is the fourth or fifth time this year that we’ve heard that it has been launched,” said Natalie Unterstell, president of Talanoa, adding that it was once again “a vague announcement”.

“We don’t know what it is, how much it costs, who is going to do it, how, when, for what. So it doesn’t have the necessary elements of a public transformation policy,” Unterstell said.

Meanwhile, the beef lobby was in the spotlight at COP28. Ahead of the conference, the Guardian reported that giants in the sector, including Brazil’s JBS, the world’s largest meat company, were reportedly planning a to have a large presence at the conference, aiming to present an image of sustainability.

There’s no point in agribusiness coming to COP28 and signing a load of paper, when they go back to Brazil and do away with legislation, and support the destruction of the forest
Márcio Astrini, executive director of the Climate Observatory

The Guardian noted that at last year’s COP27 summit, JBS gained access to the negotiations because it arrived as part of the Brazilian delegation under Bolsonaro’s government. This year, despite the change of government, the same thing happened: agribusiness lobbyists travelled as part of the official delegation, including representatives from JBS, who took part in the launch of a government plan.

“I think it’s great that Brazil is integrating everyone into the delegation,” said André Corrêa do Lago, the country’s chief negotiator at COP28, at a press conference a few days before he left for Dubai. “This has always been extremely useful.”

Márcio Astrini said that climate discussion should be open to everyone who wants to present solutions – but that is not what he sees in the actions of Brazilian agribusiness: “There’s no point in them coming here [to COP28] with 500 people and signing a load of paper, because everyone knows that when they go back to Brazil, their actions in the environmental area are to do away with legislation, to support environmental crime, to support the destruction of the forest. They are a constant torment for the protection of forests in Brazil.”

Figures from the fossil industry also arrived at COP28 in droves, with more than 2,400 representatives, including at least 68 from Petrobras, according to Kick Big Polluters Out, a coalition of more than 450 international organisations. The number is almost than seven times higher than that of those representing Indigenous people, says the coalition, which counted 316 delegates.

Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s first Minister for Indigenous Peoples, told the conference that this representation was a “step forward”, pointing out that a third of the Indigenous people present were from Brazil. “Of course, this is still small given the size of the Indigenous population in the world, and the work we do to protect the environment, but we are making progress.”

A representative government?

Guajajara, who took over the new ministry in January, emphasised that Indigenous people today are now better represented in the country than before, with leaders occupying positions in the legislature, the so-called “headdress caucus”, and in the executive branch.

Brazil president Lula with a group of people in front of a large crowd
During his inauguration in January 2023, President Lula walked up the ramp of Brasilia’s Planalto Palace accompanied by representatives of various ethnic and social groups. However, diversity in leadership positions has so far changed little during his administration. (Image: Tânia Rego / Agência Brasil)

But for a president who, at his inauguration, walked up the ramp of the Planalto Palace in Brasilia accompanied by representatives of various social groups, the result of a year in office is, for many observers, frustrating: the proportion of women and Black Brazilians in positions of power in the Lula administration remains the same as during the Bolsonaro administration. No data was found for Indigenous representation.

Indigenous leaders who supported Lula’s election are continuing to call for closer attention on their populations. Indigenous leader and activist Beto Marubo says that there are “good intentions and more dialogue” in the new government, but that there are also “inconsistencies”, such as giving up on environmental agendas and alliances made with controversial politicians, such as Helder Barbalho, governor of the northern state of Pará, which will host COP30 in 2025, but is also a deforestation record holder.

In January, a government delegation landed in the Javari Valley in the Amazon, Marubo’s homeland and where Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in 2022. The delegation promised a greater state presence in the region to advance social development and fight organised crime. “But things haven’t moved forward so far – on the contrary, the state has only taken very specific actions, even in the face of a situation that has had international repercussions,” said Marubo.

The situation is similar for the Yanomami people, who are facing a humanitarian crisis linked to the advance of illegal mining into their territory. In January, authorities, including President Lula himself, went to the region promising firm action. Although inspection operations drove thousands of miners out of the region in the first few months of the year, they are already beginning to return and threaten some villages.

Gold miners “are seeing the weakness of the Brazilian state,” Indigenous leader Júnior Hekurari said at a public prosecution hearing last week. “In a little while they’re going to take over the Yanomami Indigenous territory again and stop us from providing healthcare to these communities.”

Lula’s backing for oil

While the government has lacked the political wiggle room to promote Indigenous rights in the face of the more conservative agribusiness agendas, in the case of oil exploration, the Lula administration has been directly involved in pushing it forward.

Oil is a familiar area for the president, who backed oil exploration in the deep pre-salt layers that skirt the coastline of Brazil during his first two terms in office between 2003 and 2011. “This is the greatest reason for our pride, more than carnival, more than football,” Lula said in 2010, during the inauguration of the first commercial pre-salt platform. The country’s offshore oil reserves have since attracted attention from international investors, including from China.

Despite opposition from within his own government, Lula has defended research into oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon River, which could pose risks to biodiversity and even cancel out Brazil’s emissions gains from reducing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The energy sector is currently the country’s third largest source of emissions, according to SEEG data, accounting for 18% of total CO2 equivalent emissions in 2022.

Days before COP28, Petrobras launched its strategic plan to increase oil production, while in the days after the climate conference, Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency auctioned off 192 areas for oil and natural gas exploration, including in the Amazon.

Such actions saw the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva – recently picked as one of the world’s most influential environmental voices by Nature and Time magazines – spend much of her time at COP28 repeatedly responding to questions over Brazil’s dilemma on oil and the climate.

“Brazil, like all countries that are oil producers, faces this contradiction,” Silva told Globo News TV channel at the beginning of COP28, adding that the country does not want to “promote the imbalance of the planet, to the point of compromising life, economic processes and this environmental Armageddon that is climate change.”