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WikiLeaks: Two reasons why Brazil matters to the US

The US diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks provide a fascinating glimpse into US climate policy relating to Brazil. The country is important to the US for two reasons: Brazil controls 70% of the Amazon rainforest and “plays a pivotal role” in the UN climate negotiations.

A cable dated 8 January 2009 (09BRASILIA28) outlines why the US considers Brazil to be crucial to the US in the climate negotiations:

Brazil has a central role in the climate change arena, not only because it controls 70% of the Amazon rainforest, but also because it plays a pivotal role in the on-going UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. USG efforts to have India and China assume binding targets under the UNFCCC may hinge on the Government of Brazil (GOB)’s position in these talks.

The key, according to the US mission in Brasilia is “an active campaign” to persuade Brazil that “a post-Kyoto agreement will expose them to potential trade sanctions or other punitive measures”. Brazil’s primary interest, according to the cable is “Growth, growth, growth.”

A heightened emphasis on growth at the expense of environmental concerns was led to the departure in May 2008 of former Environment Minister Marina Silva (considered an inflexible, absolutist on key environmental issues) and her replacement by the more pragmatic Carols Minc. The GOB does not consider climate change an immediate threat to Brazil, and is not willing to sacrifice other priorities to address the problem.

Clearly, the message that runaway climate change could result in the Amazon forest going up in smoke had not reached the Brazilian government. Perhaps by now that has changed. (For an ongoing discussion about the dangers of fire to the Amazon rainforest, see Science, 17 December 2010.)

The US government’s position is clear:

While it would be ideal to have the GOB working side-by-side with the USG in the international negotiations on a post-Kyoto agreement, it is more important that the GOB does not block a deal satisfactory to the USG.

Among the “tools” that the cable suggest that the US could use to encourage Brazil “to adopt a more helpful approach in these negotiations,” are technology transfer, financial assistance, a 2007 MOU on biofuels, “action to persuade influential players in Brazil’s elite circles to weigh in for a more constructive approach,” and helping Brazil tackle its deforestation problem through technical exchanges with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Another tool is that of divide and rule. The cable notes the

divide between the more forward leaning state governors of the Amazon region and the federal government. The governors have been working on climate change and environmental initiatives that are more aggressive than those of the federal government. Their efforts demonstrate a growing sentiment within Brazil that more can be done to combat climate change. These governors could be potential partners with the USG in efforts to influence the GOB’s position.

This puts Governor Schwarzenegger’s REDD deal, signed in November 2010, just before COP-16 in Cancun, with governor of Acre in a very interesting light. The governors may or may not be working on initiatives that are more “aggressive” than those at federal government level, but what makes them more interesting from the US perspective is the fact that these initiatives are pro-carbon trading.

During the COP-15 UN climate meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009, Brazil announced that it planned to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 36.1% and 38.9% by 2020 compared to business as usual. Brazil was critical of the US government’s failure to agree to targets on reduced emissions in Copenhagen, and Brazil’s Environment Minister Carlos Minc criticized US President Barack Obama. According to a diplomatic cable dated 23 December 2009 (09BRASILIA1516) Minc “urged Obama in the upcoming negotiations ‘to do something or return the Nobel prize.'”

But for the US, such criticism is irrelevant, as long as Brazil accepted the Copenhagen Accord:

President Lula, his team, and the Brazilian press left Copenhagen frustrated and disappointed. They attributed much of the lack of progress there to what they viewed as a modest proposal on mitigation by the United States that did not improve over the course of the conference. Nonetheless, Brazil accepts the Copenhagen Accord and is proud that it was part of the small group that negotiated it. Despite the grumbling, Brazil is neither disowning the Copenhagen Accord nor backing away from its ambitious proposals on mitigation.

On 29 January 2010, Brazil informed the UNFCCC of its Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). A US diplomatic cable dated 3 February 2010 (10BRASILIA108) includes Brazil’s letter outlining the following NAMA’s:

– Reduction in Amazon deforestation (range of estimated reduction: 564 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Reduction in “Cerrado” deforestation (range of estimated reduction: 104 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Restoration of grazing land (range of estimated reduction: 83 to 104 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Integrated crop-livestock system (range of estimated reduction: 18 to 22 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– No-till farming (range of estimated reduction: 16 to 20 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Biological N2 fixation (range of estimated reduction: 16 to 20 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Energy efficiency (range of estimated reduction: 12 to 15 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Increase the use of biofuels (range of estimated reduction: 48 to 60 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Increase in energy supply by hydroelectric power plants (range of estimated reduction: 79 to 99 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Alternative energy sources (range of estimated reduction: 26 to 33 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
– Iron & steel (replace [char]coal from deforestation with [char]coal from planted forests (range of estimated reduction: 8 to 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020)

While the US might be happy with Brazil’s role in the climate negotiations, in particular that Brazil is behaving “in accordance with the Copenhagen Accord”, Brazil’s proposed actions raise a series of serious concerns – many of which are the same as those outlined more than two years ago on REDD-Monitor.

The proposals focus on deforestation, but forest degradation also a serious threat to Brazil’s forests – especially when the risk of increased fire is accounted for. The baseline for deforestation rates is “business as usual” and as WWF and Greenpeace have pointed out, the proposed reduced rate of deforestation under the Amazon Fund is still 5,000 square kilometres a year.

No-till farming is often a front for increased use of herbicide resistant genetically modified industrial crops (herbicide is used to kill weeds, instead of ploughing).

The massive increase in the use of biofuels threatens forests and other ecosystems with replacement by monocultures.

More hydropower dams means more deforestation – as in the case of the proposed Belo Monte dam.

And the proposal to change the fuel for the iron and steel industry means more fast-growing tree plantations, such as those established by Plantar in in Minas Gerais. This neither reduces emissions nor benefits local communities. The reality for people living near plantations is destroyed livelihoods and streams and rivers sucked dry by the plantations. The few jobs created are dangerous, poorly paid and often seasonal.

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  1. Both of the following strategies named above include development of plantations of genetically engineered eucalyptus trees.

    • Alternative energy sources (range of estimated reduction: 26 to 33 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020);
    • Iron & steel (replace [char]coal from deforestation with [char]coal from planted forests (range of estimated reduction: 8 to 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2020)

    In Brazil, as in the US, industry is looking toward dangerous invasive, water-sucking, non-native GE eucalyptus plantations as the feedstock for energy production, even though the idea that burning trees for energy production reduces carbon emissions has been widely debunked. The deforestation to make room for these expanding plantations will also have climatological, social and ecological consequences–some of them completely unpredictable.