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Época is a Rio de Janeiro-based weekly print magazine. When it was founded, in 1998, it based its style on that of the German magazine Focus, with an emphasis on the use of graphics and images and in-depth reporting. From 2018, Época is distributed for free to subscribers of the O Globo and Valor Economico newspapers. It is part of the Grupo Globo media conglomerate.
Framer Ita watches as smoke rises from a fire in the Amazon Rainforest
Natalie Unterstell

With The Amazon At Stake, Biden And Bolsonaro Eye Green Deal

Would an agreement with the Americans make the Bolsonaro government change course?

RIO DE JANEIRO — Imagine for a moment that the United States declares that it's signed a major environmental agreement with the Brazilian government, as President Joe Biden has recently declared is a top priority. Imagine the U.S. government promises to pay if there is a reduction in deforestation in the Amazon this year. It would be a "carrot" for the government of President Jair Bolsonaro to act around the protection of forests, in addition to the "sticks' that he faces in the form of reduced business and investment. It could be the long-awaited deal that changes the course of Brazil's climate and environmental agenda.

But a "green" agreement without sensible conditions and dialogue could just serve as an early award to a Brazilian government that has so far shown no intention of changing the policies in question — which serve its political base.

If Bolsonaro's government wanted to act on the environment, there would already be no shortage of money. Germany and Norway donated the 2.9 billion reais ($534 million) to the Amazon Fund, but the money remains frozen at the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES). Why? In April 2019, Bolsonaro issued a Presidential Decree that undid the so-called Amazon Fund Guidance Committee – the governing body that involved civil society, regional governments and federal bodies.

To be clear, there is also no shortage of goals to meet. For example, Brazil was required by federal law to reduce carbon emissions by between 36.1% and 38.9% — by 2020. We are late.

There would be no shortage of money, but it remains frozen at the Brazilian Development Bank.

This law also says that Brazil had to decrease annual deforestation rates in the Brazilian Legal Amazon — which comprises the nine Brazilian states in the Amazon basin. Deforestation had to drop by 80% compared to the average rates of 1996 to 2005 — deadline: last year. This would have meant cutting deforestation down to 3,925 square kilometers per year. In 2020, the deforestation rate was 11,088 square kilometers, as estimated by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), or 2.8 times the target.

The fact that the Brazilian government didn't comply with these goals doesn't mean that it can simply abandon them. The Brazilian Supreme Court has already received an action for noncompliance, and one of its demands is that the reduction of deforestation in the Amazon be achieved in 2021.

Member of the Brazilian community in Toulouse, France protests against Jair Bolsanaro - Photo: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto/ZUMA Press

Brazil's federal government has goals to fulfill; it would have the resources to reach them; and a lot of work to do. Why look for cooperation with the US government then? For one, it provides an obvious smokescreen to divert attention. Another hypothesis is that they might set a looser goal.

Any cooperation mechanism involving forests and climate change should be subject to transparent and participatory governance, such as the Amazon Fund committee that the Presidential Decree disbanded in 2019. At minimum, any governing body would have to ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected and that the widely reported violations cease. But Bolsonaro never dared to sit at the table with the leaders of the indigenous movements to negotiate.

Bolsonaro and Salles have to be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

Would an agreement with the Americans make the Bolsonaro government change course? If Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who is in charge of the negotiations, really wants to preserve this agreement, here are some tips for how to win back the confidence of both Brazilians and Americans:

• The ruling on fines for environmental infractions is on hold. It is in the hands of the Environment Ministry to revoke the decree and other normative acts that generated this situation.

• Remote inspection operations, cheap and effective, have been discontinued — how about resuming them?

• The export control rules for timber have been weakened, yet another area to be quickly revised.

There are signs of a merger of the two main federal environmental agencies — Ibama and Instituto Chico Mendes — generating serious uncertainties about the future of environmental policy. Would he be ready to stop it? Besides, signs of law changes that could benefit those who promote recent deforestation remain strong. The Bolsonaro government would have to make a public commitment to no longer support illegal land grabbers, loggers and miners.

Would Bolsonaro and Salles be willing to face this brief list of immediate changes? I, for one, don't think so. And therefore, the two politicians have to be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.

Brazil should improve its climate goals and reestablish its environmental management system to get rid of its present pariah status in the world. It is more important than that: It can ensure global warming slows down.

But a "green" agreement between Brazil and the United States, if it comes out without concrete commitments, would do justice to the famous phrase by de Tomasi di Lampedusa, in The Leopard: "Everything needs to change so that everything can stay the same."

At a gas station in São José dos Campos, Brazil, on March 2
Green Or Gone
Natalie Unterstell

Brazil, The Price Of Becoming The Saudi Arabia Of South America

Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil and gas company, may post big numbers but it has a backward strategy.

BRASILIA — The year was 2009. On prime-time Brazilian TV, an ad celebrated the country's energy self-sufficiency and the blessing that pre-salt oil had been. Politicians in the National Congress avidly debated how to use the proceeds from offshore oil exploration.

Meanwhile, another critical negotiation was taking place at the UN: the 15th Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. While the conference was widely regarded as a failure, Brazil presented an ambitious proposal to reduce deforestation and cut emissions by 2020. It was the first time that the country had committed to such a goal on the international stage and enshrined it into law. Not a word about the oil, gas or fossil fuel industries.

At that time, Brazil's anti-deforestation policies were succeeding, leading to an all-time low deforestation rate, as measured by National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE) in the Amazon. A question was starting to emerge: could Brazil also manage to change its emissions profile in the coming decades?

The economic sectors associated with fossil fuels scratched their heads. For years, they had tried to remain the world's main source of energy by counting on the vigorous PR campaigns at the international level, while hiding behind the very high deforestation rates at the national level. But how long would that work?

The challenge materialized in the public arena. A law passed by the Brazilian Congress on December 29, 2009, included guidelines to gradually abandon fossil fuels. It meant keeping the country's energy matrix clean and decarbonizing the economy.

But the president at the time — Luiz Inácio da Silva, known as Lula — vetoed the article. He said that Brazil had already done much to prioritize the use of renewable energy sources and clean technologies.

You could almost hear Brazilian fossil-fuel companies breathing a sigh of relief. Between 1990 and 2008, oil and gas emissions had increased 115%. Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil giant, defended itself by saying that, despite the dramatic growth, the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions per ton of oil produced had dropped by about 32% — the result of increased efficiency in industrial processes and leak prevention.

Petrobras HQ in Rio de Janeiro, on March 10 — Photo: Fabio Teixeira/ZUMA

In the following years, Brazil strongly stimulated consumption and investment in the oil chain. The government de-prioritized biofuels. Pre-salt oil was presented as the next great opportunity for national development. If it was confirmed that Brazil held reliable reserves, it could become the Saudi Arabia of South America as one of the world's top oil and gas holders.

But 12 years later, the future looks quite different. Petrobras has, in fact, become the world's second largest oil corporation after Saudi Aramco. However, as the world economy pivots to alternative energy sources, pre-salt has not allowed Brazil to make an economic leap. It has not given us a passport to a new, emission-free economy, nor has it helped to consolidate our economy.

The world's largest oil and gas companies are already investing heavily in renewable energies. The Italian oil and gas company Eni plans to cut absolute emissions by 80 percent over the next 30 years, while BP aims to be carbon-neutral in its upstream production by 2050.

But Brazil continues to subsidize the oil and gas sector with approximately $98 billion per year. We direct more taxpayer resources to subsidize the Oil and Gas sector than will be saved with the Pension Reform. In Brazil, at a time when even Saudi Arabia is steering away from fossil fuels and planing a post-oil economy, Petrobras' investment plan for the period 2021-2025 sets aside just $1billion — of the $55 billion available — to finance renewable sources and emission mitigation actions.

Brazil needs to consider the gradual abandonment of intensive sources of greenhouse gases. Petrobras can do more than just be an oil company for another 30 years. It wouldn't mean trying to turn the clocks back 11 years, it would mean leaping ten years into the future.