Six key issues the US-Brazil climate change announcement could have addressed, but didn’t

The United States and Brazil today made a joint announcement on climate change following a meeting between Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Barack Obama at the White House. Beyond the positive step of these two major leaders talking again, what can we make of it?

Today’s announcement is important because the United States and Brazil are the two countries that contributed most to greenhouse gas emissions reductions in absolute terms since about 2004. During the press conference, Obama rightly said that “the negotiations on climate change can only succeed with Brazil as a key leader.”

As with the U.S.-China announcement in November 2014, the announcement today again shows how climate targets can be “differentiated” between countries. Developed countries can have more absolute targets, whereas developing nations have put forward targets of other sorts.

Beyond a bunch of joint research and trade initiatives, there are two top-line announcements. Both countries will pledge to bring online 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy—beyond hydropower—by 2030. For Brazil that would be a doubling of non-hydro renewables, above the power it already gets from its huge hydroelectric dams built over the past 60 years. Brazil is also promising by 2030 to restore and reforest 12 million hectares of forest, inside and outside its Amazon region.

Today’s statement also includes language about adaptation—managing and reducing climate risks that include extreme weather events and droughts. Both countries will attempt to work together on sharing experiences on national adaptation planning and building climate resilience in areas such as biodiversity and ecosystems; infrastructure; food security; and water resources. In the wake of catastrophic droughts across many parts of the U.S. and Brazil, this language is encouraging and moves the bilateral debate beyond what would otherwise be a myopic focus on reducing emissions.

At first blush, the numbers in the joint announcement sound decent, but looking closer, the devil is in the details. There are six key issues that we hoped would be clarified today, but were not:

  1. Brazil’s target for 20 percent non-hydro renewable energy electricity generation by 2030 is heading in the right direction, but it is not terribly impressive given that such electricity generation is already near 9 percent. With the country’s vast potential for wind and solar energy, as Brazil plans massive hydroelectric and other infrastructure projects, it could be making a genuine effort to diversify its energy away from fossil fuels and drought-vulnerable hydropower.
  2. It is disappointing that Brazil is not rolling out a full economy-wide target for emissions reductions, nor stating a year by which its emissions from fossil fuels will peak and begin dropping.
  3. A sector-specific target on transport is missing, despite the sector being responsible for nearly half of Brazil’s energy sector emissions. This could present a big missed opportunity given the potential for carbon reductions and co-benefits to reduce air pollution and improve mobility and production. Brazil is bringing online natural gas plants and hundreds of thousands of new automobiles are swarming its cities’ already congested streets.
  4. There was no zero net deforestation pledge. Rather, President Dilma’s announcement and her press conference described a “zero illegal deforestation” pledge, wording that provides lots of wiggle room. Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of Brazil’s Climate Observatory, stated shortly after the event that Brazil already had in 2008 called for zero net deforestation in its national climate change plan by 2015. He points out that there is already a legal obligation for Brazil to reforest/restore 24 million hectares per year by 2015. And with over 75 million hectares deforested since 1970, the 12 million promised today is simply paltry. Deforestation at a rate of about 4-6 million hectares a year is likely to continue.
  5. Brazil’s huge offshore “Pre-Salt” fossil fuel reserves are turning the country into a major oil producer and exporter. Given the finite capacity of the atmosphere and oceans to absorb our emissions, these fossil fuel discoveries are regarded as one of the world’s “carbon bombs.” There was no mention of the pre-salt in the joint statement.
  6. Any mention of a target for emissions per person was entirely missing from today’s statement.   

These six points are major ones, and Rittl summed up Brazil’s announcement as “disappointing in all areas…Zero net ambition.”

In the end, we are left to take Brazil’s word that they will submit a pledge that “represents its highest possible effort beyond its current actions.” What country would not say that?

One of the most interesting things is the U.S. and Brazil being more coordinated at the negotiations. We’ll see if that holds up when the rubber hits the road in the tough parts of the talks, but a bilateral working group on climate change could shift this dynamic in interesting ways. Brazil is expected to submit its full pledge to the U.N. sometime in October, right on the deadline.

Last week, the 37-member umbrella organization, the Brazilian Climate Observatory, launched a proposal outlining how the priority is to freeze the expansion of fossil fuels and increase solar, biomass energy, and wind energy. We think it merits consideration by Dilma’s administration and the Brazilian Congress.

President Obama commended Brazil for its strong mitigation results, principally through curbing Amazonian deforestation. This recognition of Brazil’s efforts is important, as it can create a tailwind for further action. Indeed, Brazil’s reduced emissions since 2004 are having a global impact. A major push on renewables in Brazil could simultaneously contribute to an economic recovery there. Brazil should be acknowledged by the international community when it does so, to encourage further action with its forests, transport, and energy sector.

There are few precious months left in which Brazil can reconsider its level of ambition before it submits its pledge to the United Nations. The devil, however, will be in the details, and Brazilian citizens and business and the international community will need to be savvy and constructive observers to push Brazil to reaffirm its climate leadership. 

This blog was updated on July 1 to correct minor errors in points 1 and 3.