Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Brazil's Climate Challenge

Brazil is not just one of the 195 nations participating in the UN Paris conference. As one of the largest and most rapidly developing economies in the world, Brazil stands for--and may speak for--a crucially important category of countries whose populations and energy use will expand in coming decades, pushing up greenhouse gas levels no matter what the wealthy nations do. For that reason it is worth looking closely at the vagaries of Brazil's national plan (INDC) just filed on Monday with the UNFCCC. Some highlights and complexities:

  • Brazil promises a net reduction of GHG emissions of 37% over 2005 levels by 2025, with greater reductions by 2030. In one sense this is no news at all: it has already reduced by 41%, so this proposal actually envisions a small net increase.
  • Nuances count: Brazil is the first rapidly developing country to file a plan for its entire economy instead of making proposals for certain sectors. As such its plan commands respect, and promotes Brazil's leadership of this important group of countries. (South Africa is another, whose filing was concurrent with Brazil's.) By using a 2025 target date, with more reductions to follow by 2030, Brazil is also advancing its proposal for 5-year reviews, a really important article to include in the Paris agreement, since all agree that it will not by itself be adequate.
  • Deforestation: Brazil's stewardship of major portions of the Amazon rain forest may be its most significant card to play. Its steep reduction in GHG emissions over the last 10 years is attributable mainly to its crackdown on illegal forest clearance. The small increase in its INDC plan reflects a small upturn in deforestation, and the resulting release of carbon, caused by recent relaxation of forestry controls.  Brazil's hydro-driven, highly renewable energy sector is a great asset, but its forests are a 2-edged sword: a great resource, one of the world's best carbon sinks, but also a great temptation for every developer and government agent to exploit.
  • And why all that deforestation? Look in the mirror, America, and wipe that ketchup off your face--it's our appetite for cheap burgers that makes the market for those Amazon-basin cattle ranchers, but no one seems to be holding us accountable.
Is Brazil's assumption of leadership in the UNFCCC process important? Yes--the pivotal role of the rapidly developing nations, both to contain their own emissions and broker agreements between richer and poorer states, is one of the key dynamics of any global agreement. Is Brazil exercising wise leadership? The mixed results of its forest stewardship point both ways, but yes--Brazil is taking its role seriously. Is it enough? NO--but neither are the rest of the world's proposals. The challenge for the US, China, the EU and the other major players is to keep the Brazils moving in the right direction--and to inspire them by making greater efforts themselves. That's a lot of challenge for all of us here in Denial-land.

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