Brazil: Continued Political Turbulence

Brazil is the only developing country with absolute climate change mitigation targets, and can comfortably claim to be one of the countries that have the most ambitious plans for following up the Paris agreement.  

By Solveig Aamodt, CICERO 

However, the last five years have been politically turbulent with governmental changes, corruption scandals, civil society protests, and economic decline. This turbulent context entails higher than normal uncertainty for policy implementation, including climate policy. Brazil’s three large emission sectors – deforestation, energy, and agriculture - have different challenges ahead. 

The historically high emissions from deforestation and land-use change (LULUCF) decreased from 2005 to 2012. From 2012 onwards the rates flattened, but 2016 saw a steep increase in deforestation compared to 2015. Research shows that spikes in deforestation are common when the governmental administration changes because of the high turnover in administrative positions at all levels following a governmental change. It is still unknown whether the 2016 increase was a spike or a new trend,  but the regulating agency IBAMA argues that they do not have enough resources to control illegal deforestation in Brazil’s vast territory, and the understaffing of IBAMA is expected to continue in 2017. 

The Brazilian agricultural sector is large and diverse. When LULUC emissions are subtracted, agricultural emissions still amount to between one forth and one third of Brazil’s emissions. Most of the emissions come from cattle and fertilizers. The INDC has no new policies for reducing agricultural emissions, and large mitigation efforts will probably not be the sector’s main focus in 2017. The sector is however feeling the impact of climatic changes, and many agribusiness actors work actively to improve own performance and standards for their subsector in order to avoid large climate change impacts.  

According to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Brazil, half of the illegal deforestation is on public land where the authorities cannot blame landowners, but the authorities have so far been unable to control and sanction the illegal activities. Many areas are partly controlled by criminal interests, and civil-society forest protectors and governmental forestry officials were killed in 2016.  

Reducing LULUCF emissions is Brazil’s main mitigation measure, but saving the national economy is currently priority number one for Brazilian politicians. Agribusiness interests have traditionally been the main opposition to stricter forest regulations, and these interests are expected to keep their stronghold in Congress and government in 2017. The economic importance of agricultural products tend to increase when other sectors struggle economically, and a continued relatively high dependence on agricultural production may contribute to increased deforestation in 2017.  

Because of increases in transportation and fossil-fuel electricity generation, energy is Brazil’s fastest growing emissions source. Brazil’s energy matrix is currently 40 per cent renewables, and the INDC target is to increase this share to 45 per cent. Hydropower will continue to be the main electricity source, but changing temperatures and rain patterns increase the uncertainty for future hydropower production. 

Solar, wind, and biomass are all expected to increase in 2017 because of Brazil’s excellent natural conditions for both solar and wind power. However, the government sent mixed signals to the wind and solar industry by cancelling a renewable power auction in December 2016 

Environment and climate is of low priority to the Temer government. Any new renewables boosts in 2017 will most likely be a result of technology and price developments and not of government initiatives. The current low share of electricity from solar, wind and biomass is around 6 per cent. Electricity grid capacity is already a challenge so it will take time before these sources can contribute substantially to the electricity matrix. 

The Brazilian government was not prepared for the US election of Donald Trump. Brazil's economy is expected to improve somewhat in 2017, probably avoiding a deficit, but Trump’s unpredictability and his envisaged protectionism cause experts to worry about Brazil’s ability to recover economically. China has been the main investor in Brazil’s wind and solar energy projects, and Trump’s economic and climate policies may spur increased South-South cooperation between Brazil and China, especially on climate and energy related areas of mutual interest. 

The INDC’s mitigation measures are roughly a sum of the policies the government probably would have pursued regardless of the Paris Agreement. In the medium and long term policy implementation is mainly hampered by structural challenges such as inefficiency in the bureaucracy caused by high turnover, corruption and nepotism, and the lack of regulatory control in remote areas.  In 2017, the main short-term hampering factor is the government’s low willingness to prioritise mitigation measures if they are not seen as necessary to improve Brazil’s economy.