Thursday, July 2, 2015

Is Brazil Down with the Climate Program?

Maybe President Obama meant it when he declared his intention to make climate change a main focus of his second term. (It was hardly visible at all for the first term, but that's old news.) In any case, after his historic agreement in China last fall, his rhapsodic--though rather thin on specifics--encounter with India's prime minister Modi last winter, now it's Brazil's turn. President Rousseff was in Washington to celebrate a 'US-Brazil climate partnership' whose purpose seems to be to maximize Brazil's INDC proposal for the Paris conference. Brazil's plan will reportedly commit to generating up to a third of its power by renewable sources by 2030, a sizable step though less than the global goal of 40%.

But as with any large economy--and Brazil is the largest greenhouse gas emitter after the US, China, and the EU--the story is a complicated one. Brazil has reduced its emissions considerably over the past decade, partly by slowing deforestation in the Amazon. But its current commitment is to eliminate illegal deforestation while permitting landowners to cut 20% of their trees. Reforestation of the 750 million hectares cut down since 1970 is proceeding at a minuscule rate, and the problems of illegal cutting are well-documented. Critics note that Brazil is also making little effort to curb growth in its burgeoning transportation--read: private auto--sector, while exploitation of large off-shore oil reserves continues apace. In short, the problem of rapidly developing economies whose energy consumption rises a lot faster than conversion to renewables is epitomized in Brazil.

Can the US partnership help move Brazil toward greener solutions? We may see an answer in the formal submission of Brazil's INDC in  October, but really the answers will more likely come later, after Paris, after the US has a new president--and after more weather disasters like Brazil's current drought add urgency to the question.

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