In a surprise move last week, Brazil’s beleaguered President, Dilma Rousseff, signed the Paris climate agreement at the UN in New York. As the impeachment process against her accelerates, critics lambasted the trip as a cynical move to muster international support for her rapidly expiring presidency.
During President Dilma’s UN speech she focused on climate change and only briefly referred to the ‘grave’ moment facing Brazil while thanking leaders for expressing their solidarity to her. Dilma gave no indication of when the agreement might be ratified but simply stated her commitment for its prompt entry into force.
She described Brazil’s national climate plan including its goals to reduce emissions by 37 percent by 2025 and 43 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. To meet those goals, Brazil proposes to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon and intends to achieve a ratio of 45 percent of renewables in the energy mix by 2030, including expanding the use of renewables other than hydropower in the total energy mix to between 28 percent and 33 percent by 2030.
Brazil’s support of the Paris Agreement matters for the world and its own citizens
Despite the deep crises confronting Brazil and its ailing president, the signing of the Paris Agreement and the ratification process are of vital importance to all Brazilians, and the international community.
As one of the world’s top ten emitters representing 2.48% of global emissions, Brazil can make a significant contribution to the agreement’s entry into force which requires ratification by at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of total global emissions. The US and China which represent roughly 38% of global emissions have confirmed their intention of ratifying the agreement this year which gives it a good chance of entering into force within the next couple of years.
Brazil’s decision to back the agreement sends an important message to investors that the country is supporting action on climate change. Its potential for solar and wind is massive which could mean more investment and jobs; something the country urgently needs as it confronts a dire economic crisis.
However, despite this positive step, Brazil’s low-carbon transition remains elusive. The government may support the Paris Agreement but its climate and energy policies are lackluster.
Brazil’s national climate pledge won some praise for including an economy-wide emissions reduction target yet it has various shortcomings. The target of 37 percent reductions by 2025 means only a 4 percent reduction over the next decade. There is already existing legislation to stop all illegal deforestation across Brazil so a pledge to enforce the law (and only in the Amazon not nationally) over the next 15 years is inadequate. While the expansion of non-hydro renewables is welcome, the 45 percent share for renewables could be more ambitious given it is close to current levels.
The target does little to signal how the country will invest in solar and wind, and diversify its power sector away from a reliance on hydroelectricity, which is vulnerable to drought. The plan lacks details on the role of cities even though transport represents nearly half of Brazil's energy sector emissions. The pledge is a good starting point but its goals should be revised and increased prior to being resubmitted to the UN before 2020.
Some recent examples suggest Brazil has much to gain from backing a shift to a low carbon economy. It has been among the top ten developing countries for its ability to attract capital for clean energy. The New Development Bank announced it will provide $300 million to Brazil’s Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Economico e Social to help build 600 megawatts of renewable energy capacity. In December 2015, Brazil also approved its latest Ten-Year Energy Expansion Plan, which includes new solar energy targets for 2024 that are roughly double those of earlier plans.
Brazil’s economic and political crises and impeachment process raises questions about who might replace Dilma and what this could mean for the climate agenda. Brazil’s Vice President, Michel Temer, the man most likely to succeed Dilma, is closely aligned with the Federation of Industries of Sao Paulo (FIESP); a powerful player known for opposing strong action on climate change.
The political conditions for ratification are tough but not futile
Any attempt to guess how the situation in Brazil might unfold is speculative. However, following the government’s decision to sign the Paris Agreement, procedure demands that it now goes to the National Congress where the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate will discuss ratification.
This week Minister of Environment Izabella Teixeira said the government hopes ratification could happen this year stressing that Brazil has commitments on climate change that go beyond any specific government. But it is unclear whether members of Congress appreciate the strategic opportunity for Brazil presented by the climate agenda and will support ratification.
The ratification process could be gobbled up by various committees led by conservative forces which are against action on climate change or left to collect dust given the focus on impeachment and the recession. The economic crisis could encourage politicians to push for carbon-intensive initiatives to stimulate economic growth. This would undermine emission reduction goals and also serve to strengthen the voices of those opposing a low-carbon transition which could undermine interest in the Paris Agreement and national climate policies.
Lawmakers aligned with the Vice President are moving ahead with measures that could sabotage a low-carbon transition. A well-known case is the so called “Agenda Brasil” that proposes to weaken environmental protection legislation to implement ‘fast track’ environment licensing procedure for large infrastructure projects.
Brazil’s elusive low-carbon transition runs the risk of fading further from sight. Yet, the signing of the Paris Agreement has opened a small yet invaluable window to generate a national conversation around the benefits of action on climate change and pressure Congress to start the ratification process.
The battle will therefore be to persuade lawmakers that the Paris Agreement and the necessary transition to a low carbon economy represent an opportunity for Brazil to build prosperity rather than a constraint.
The Paris Agreement is a vital tool to construct a cleaner and more resilient future for countries around the world. Brazil’s National Congress should act boldly to ratify the agreement and make that future a reality.