With Lula set to take over, what role can Brazil play on climate?

Minas Gerais, Brazil – Just hours after Brazilians elected Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the country’s next president, the first signs of international enthusiasm and hope for the country’s return to the climate action game were already visible.

International leaders said they looked forward to working with Lula’s government, particularly on the environment; Norway and Germany announced an openness to renewing the Amazon Fund, a multilateral mechanism to help safeguard the rainforest; and Lula himself pledged to do more to combat climate change.

“In his first speech, Lula made it clear that the climate agenda will be central in his government,” Izabella Teixeira, who served as Brazil’s minister of environment from 2010 to 2016, told Al Jazeera in a brief phone interview.

The president-elect, who will take office in January, has promised to create an Indigenous ministry and a special climate emergency secretariat, and to get Amazon deforestation in Brazil down to zero. He is also travelling to Egypt this week to attend the COP27 United Nations climate summit.

But after four years of environmental degradation during the administration of Lula’s predecessor, the journey ahead will be anything but easy. Under the far-right leader, President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions rose to the highest level in nearly two decades, deforestation in the Amazon also hit a record high, and illegal invasions of Indigenous lands tripled.

“This election has put Brazil back into multilateralism. There are great expectations for the country to become a prestigious player in world climate negotiations again,” said Stela Herschmann, climate policy expert at the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a network of civil society groups.

“But if we are to win that prestige, we will have to do our homework,” she told Al Jazeera.

Why does Brazil matter?

Home to the world’s largest tropical rainforest and the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, Brazil has a key role to play in controlling climate change.

If deforestation in the Amazon, for example, hits 25 percent of its original coverage, changes in the rainfall regime will permanently affect its ability to regenerate – a point of no return where the forest will produce more carbon dioxide than it can absorb.

“Without the Amazon, it is impossible to keep alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels,” said Marcio Santilli, founding partner of Instituto Socioambiental, a civil society group dedicated to defending Brazilian socio-environmental diversity.

How Brazil chooses to deal with environmental issues internally has worldwide impacts, but the country also has a diplomatic role to play, environmentalists say. “Today, the climate agenda has a more central role worldwide than it did during Lula’s two terms [from 2003 to 2010] – when Brazil already acted as an international broker,” said Herschmann.

At COP27, Brazil will be present in three different spaces: the official governmental pavilion, an Amazon pavilion created by state governors from the region, and the Brazil Climate Action Hub, a space dedicated to civil society.

Herschmann said Brazil is in a privileged position to hold talks with powerful economies – especially on issues such as climate finance and a push for wealthier countries to compensate developing ones for losses and damage caused by the crisis – because the country has a deep understanding of the reality lived by developing nations.

She added that Brazil, which managed to reduce deforestation rates by 70 percent during Lula’s two terms in office and has one of the greenest energy matrices worldwide, should also “lead by example”.

“Research we conducted … shows that Brazil could become carbon negative by 2045. We have the potential to become a great, decarbonised economy,” she said.

Challenges ahead

But according to Santilli, the situation today in Brazil, particularly in the Amazon, is vastly different from what it was when Lula first took office nearly 20 years ago.

According to Human Rights Watch’s 2022 submission (PDF) to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, Bolsonaro’s government debilitated environmental agencies, greenlighting the actions of criminal networks and boosting destruction of the forest. Violence has skyrocketed – particularly in the sprawling Amazon.

Santilli said the region has seen a growing presence of organised crime groups, including drug trafficking gangs from other states, that make use of the logistics and infrastructure set in place by illegal miners. “[The] 2022 Amazon is not the same as [the] 2002 Amazon,” he said.

Lula’s coalition government also will face hurdles in enacting stricter environmental policies and reversing some of his predecessor’s policies. With 247 pro-Bolsonaro parliamentarians elected, Congress will be a challenge – especially as the chamber uses the final days of the current government to fast-track pending bills set to hinder the demarcation of Indigenous lands and allow mining activities.

Last week, the Brazilian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also warned that a “frantic race” of destruction was under way in the Amazon in anticipation of the change in government in Brasilia. “The new government will have a lot of work to do to put the country back on track, to put an end to the perception that the Amazon is a lawless land,” WWF-Brasil’s Raul do Valle said in a statement.

Natalie Unterstell, president and co-founder of Talanoa, a Brazilian think-tank dedicated to climate policy, told Al Jazeera that against this backdrop, reviving old plans won’t be enough.

“In the past, the main pillars of environmental policies were monitoring and control, which will have to be resumed, as well as the demarcation of Indigenous and protected lands,” she told Al Jazeera.

But, according to her, fomenting a sustainable economy, which has never been a priority, will have to quickly become one. “It will be fundamental to prevent people on the ground from remaining hostage of illegal exploitative activities,” Unterstell said.

For Herschmann, Lula’s administration will have to act energetically from day one if it is to show seriousness, and that starts by updating the country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reducing greenhouse gases. The NDC was amended under Bolsonaro in a way that actually allows more emissions than when it was first submitted in 2016, drawing condemnation from environmental activists.

“Right now, the international community is showing leniency toward Brazil. But their patience won’t last forever,” Herschmann said. “The world has no time to waste on empty promises.”

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