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Weekly Report - 04 November 2021 (WR-21-44)

Isolated Bolsonaro fails to convince with climate push

When it emerged at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow this week that Brazil would be part of a global deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions and target zero deforestation by 2028, it was celebrated by some as a victory, a breakthrough. Others, however, remain sceptical.

“In the fight against climate change, we have always been part of the solution, not the problem,” President Jair Bolsonaro said in a videotaped message for the summit on 1 November. “We will act responsibly, seeking real solutions to a transition that is urgent,” Bolsonaro added.

Could this really be a sign that Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, was having a change of heart after having promoted wildcat mining, slash and burn farming, and even the encroachment on indigenous territories for years?

Doubtful. He did tell Germany’s outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, in private at the G20 leaders’ summit days before, however, that he is not as bad as he is often portrayed in the press. Also, the announcement came on the heels of other political U-turns by Bolsonaro that left pundits scratching their heads. There was the reversal of his long-standing opposition to the sale of state-controlled oil giant Petrobras. He also embraced the social welfare programme Bolsa Família that for long he has blasted as a breeding ground for do-nothings, rebranding it and boosting its budget to the point of shredding a debt ceiling that was held dear by financial markets.

Opinion surveys may explain much of that. Elections are now only 11 months away and former president Lula da Silva (2003-2011) is leading the polls by a wide margin. Encouraged by his political aides, Bolsonaro is trying to regain ground by boosting welfare spending for an impoverished, pandemic-stricken population, and blaming Petrobras for unpopular fuel hikes.

Quite another story are climate negotiations, which, by all accounts, Bolsonaro is not terribly interested or involved in. In fact, with the departure of the environment minister, Ricardo Salles (2019-2021), and the foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo (2019-2021), earlier this year, the government lost two of its fiercest right-wing ideologues and climate change deniers.

That paved the way for environmental policy to be shaped by more moderate Brazilian diplomats backed by a progressive farm and business lobby eager to boost the country’s green image. But, according to most climate experts, while that new policy may be less obstructionist it is neither more ambitious nor more convincing.

As part of the global deal agreed in Glasgow, Brazil is to increase its greenhouse gas emission cuts to 50% from 43% by 2030, and to slash deforestation to zero by 2028. Brazil also announced it would co-sponsor the global pledge to slash methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Other commitments include recovering 30m hectares of degraded pastures and replanting 18m hectares of forest within the decade.

But experts at Observatório do Clima, a local network of more than 50 NGOs, say the emissions target is misleading because previous targets were based on an altered 2005 baseline and, at best, matches ambitions under previous administrations. In addition, they say there is no concrete action plan to carry out zero deforestation or methane reduction, a target the government has yet to adopt formally.

Moreover, there are no real signs that the government is following up its new-found zeal to curb emissions or logging by reversing measures that had stripped environmental authorities of funds and technically experienced employees, according to Fernando Gabeira, an environmentalist and a long-time politician for the Partido Verde (PV).

The incumbent environment minister, Joaquim Leite, this week reiterated that the government was boosting resources to combat illegal deforestation. But government data compiled by the NGO Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos shows that the government environmental enforcement and conservation agencies, Ibama and ICMBio, together only spent R$83.5m (US$15m) of the R$384.9m available through September of this year.

A survey by O Globo newspaper in July showed that Ibama had just over a quarter of the staff needed to monitor the various ecosystems and that this year it would have more vacant than occupied posts.

Indeed, after nearly three years of climate change denial and policies that led to an acceleration of deforestation and increased emissions, it is hard to see a change in attitude from the government, according to Carolina Pasquali, the executive director of NGO Greenpeace Brasil.

On the contrary, efforts by Bolsonaro supporters continue to undermine indigenous territories, favour wild cat mining, and ease environmental licensing rules, she says. “Believe me, I’d love to say there’s a sign of change here - and if I’m wrong I’ll be really happy - but there’s really no ground for that,” Pasquali told this publication from Glasgow. “None of these proposals are backed up by what is actually happening in Brazil, in congress, with the farm lobby, and Bolsonaro.”

Deforestation in the Amazon has surged since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, reaching 10,851km2 in 2020, according to data cited by Observatório do Clima. According to the same source, Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions grew by 9.5% in 2020 to 2.16bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Gt CO2e), mainly due to increased deforestation. This is the highest level of emissions since 2006, and it came as worldwide emissions plummeted by nearly 7% in 2020 due to the pandemic.

A sense of scepticism was reinforced by the absence of any high-level Brazilian official at the climate summit so far, though Leite is expected to attend next week.

Indeed, the perception that Brazil will have to do far more than issue statements of good intention to regain the world’s trust became evident at the G20 leaders’ summit in Rome only days before, when Bolsonaro was shunned by most world leaders. He was the only one who held no bilateral talks. During the group photograph he stood awkwardly on the fringes like an outsider; at the coin tossing with fellow leaders at the Fontana di Trevi, Bolsonaro was absent, having gone the day before on his own.

One of the few moments which Bolsonaro seemed to enjoy on his tour of Italy, beyond the occasional cheers from sympathetic bystanders, was when he was named honorary citizen in the town where his ancestors came from and when he met far-right politician Matteo Salvini.

Weighing Bolsonaro’s appearances in Italy with his government’s proposals in Glasgow, journalist Vera Magalhães wrote an opinion piece in the national daily O Globo, entitled: “After Italy, is it possible to believe in Glasgow?”

Unease

Video footage at the beginning of the summit showed President Bolsonaro looking at a loss as to what to do in a room with the world’s 20 most important leaders, finding nobody to talk to until he unsuccessfully tries to chat to the waiters. He then turns around and asks his entourage for help before he finds Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both ignore a brief moment of interest from Olaf Scholz, likely to be the next leader of Germany, who then turns away.

Salvini meeting

President Bolsonaro met Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini during a commemoration in a cemetery in Pistoia in the northern region of Tuscany for 500 Brazilian soldiers who lost their lives in the Second World War. Neither the local mayor Alessandro Tomasi nor the regional president Eugenio Giani turned out to meet Bolsonaro, and the ceremony was boycotted by the local bishop.

Too green to be true?

President Bolsonaro’s track record on environmental matters precedes him, but he is not the only Latin American head of state whose commitment to combat climate change has been questioned. Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is another standout example who, like Bolsonaro, opted against attending the COP26 in Glasgow, allowing his country to be represented at a lower level.

The position of Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández on the environment, meanwhile, has been equivocal. But he saved a big announcement for the press conference at the COP26. Fernández announced that Australian group Fortescue Future Industries was planning to build a US$8.4bn green hydrogen plant in Sierra Grande, near the Atlantic coast of the Patagonian province of Rio Negro. Politicians love making big announcements on these occasions.

The plant would use renewable electricity from wind farms to power an electrolyser splitting hydrogen (H2) from seawater (H2O). The location has been chosen because of the high winds in the area.

Fernández described the project as “the biggest clean energy investment in Argentina’s history”. The giant H2 plant would eventually ramp up to producing 2.2m tonnes of green (zero-emission) hydrogen by 2030, creating 15,000 direct jobs and 40,000 indirect jobs.

The announcement even had a celebrity component – the presence of Agustín Pichot, a former captain of the Pumas, Argentina’s national rugby team, who is now a significant businessman in his own right, as well as the Latin American head of Fortescue.

The project, which has not yet completed a feasibility plan, nevertheless came in for a barrage of sceptical comment. Some government officials told website La Política Online (LPO) that the plan was “science fiction” because a series of details were not specified, including the likely high production and transport costs and the fact that hydrogen tends to corrode natural gas pipelines. Pichot himself acknowledged that Argentina’s deep political divisions raise risks for long-term investors, and that exchange rate volatility is a significant problem.

Some analysts say that instead of pursuing high-cost green hydrogen, Argentina could concentrate instead on blue hydrogen, made from natural gas-powered electrolysis, with the gas extracted from the massive shale deposits in the Vaca Muerta formation, also in Patagonia.

Burning blue hydrogen emits carbon dioxide, but at lower levels than natural gas. Economists suggested that the high capital cost of US$8.4bn could earn higher rates of return elsewhere in Argentina. However, the counter view is that green hydrogen production costs, like wind-generated power, will become more competitive over time.