Brazil Has Climate Summit Shot at Redemption

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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro needs no introduction at this week’s virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden. He rode into office in 2019 threatening to quit the Paris Agreement on climate change, courted miners and loggers and blew off international donors Norway and Germany rather than hear them harp about the fate of the Amazon rainforest. With an eye on reelection in 2022, he has habitually dissed any who would put trees before the stump.

Until now. Gone is the mercurial foreign minister who dismissed climate change as a globalist ruse. Logger-friendly Environment Minister Ricardo Salles is making nice with U.S. climate envoy John Kerry. And Bolsonaro wrote a seven-page letter to Biden, heralding the sustainability agenda and extolling Brazil’s green credentials.

This isn’t contrition so much as an existential reset. With Brazil’s fiscal accounts at a tipping point, a parliamentary inquiry looming over his handling of the world’s second deadliest Covid-19 outbreak, and a record 100-plus petitions of impeachment weighing against him, Bolsonaro has seen his approval ratings combust. His bellicose environmental agenda, which drew sharp rebuke from leading U.S. Democrats, has made matters worse. With even the sympathetic business and agribusiness lobby losing faith, Bolsonaro knows he must pivot or turn pariah. “Brazil needs to get in line, and not because Europe says so,” said Pedro de Camargo Neto, a farmer and cattleman and an outspoken critic of government environmental policy. “We need to comply with the law, full stop. What’s illegal is illegal.”

The good news is that Brazil can bring plenty to the table on sustainable development. Its grain belt is built on high-tech agriculture that avoids turning over the soil, thereby reducing erosion and keeping carbon in the ground. Hydropower lights up most homes and industry, with wind and solar quickly gaining on the grid. Clean-burning ethanol distilled from sugarcane helps scrub tailpipe emissions. Even the mistreated Amazon is showing some promising green shoots. Played smartly, Brazil’s environmental assets could win back much of what 27 months of incendiary Bolsonarismo have menaced: aid, investment, strategic partnerships, international credibility and what remains of Brazilian soft power.

Hopes rise in unlikely places. Start with Mato Grosso, a sprawling frontier state almost three times the size of Germany that straddles three signature tropical ecosystems: the cerrado or savanna, the Pantanal wetlands and the Amazon’s high rainforest. Once rued as a crucible for habitat destruction, a legacy that won a former state governor Greenpeace’s golden chainsaw award in 2005, Mato Grosso has shown it can sharply curb deforestation even as the Amazon region as a whole has not. The state’s success owes to policy penitence, technology, vigilance and boots on the ground. After putting properties on a statewide digital grid, authorities monitored forest cover through satellite images and dispatched police and forest inspectors to keep farmers honest and catch scofflaws. In 2020, forest police seized 157 tractors, 11 trucks and a helicopter, and arrested 492 people for bootleg logging and forest cutting. More than 1,500 infractions have been heard this year, triple the amount from all of 2020.

Ramping up that system took years of commitment and cooperation between officials and producers. It also meant scything through red tape and jumbled land titles — some 80% of Mato Grosso’s 150,000 rural properties overlapped — and ditching the patchy federal forestry data bank for the state’s own system. Mato Grosso hired 50 data analysts to rake through the records. The result: Outlaws are on the run, licensed deforestation rose five-fold, and overall felling is down by 33.7% from 2019, on top of a dramatic decline of 88% between 2005 and 2012.

Mato Grosso is one of only two Brazilian states to parlay its forestry stewardship into international compensation for slashing greenhouse gas emissions, part of the sustainability rewards outlined in the Paris accord. Tapping $8 million from the carbon credits for computers and forest monitoring technology, Environment Secretary Mauren Lazzaretti projects Mato Grosso will eliminate clandestine clear-cutting by 2030.

Mato Grosso can’t fix Brazil’s forest problem — climate treaties are agreements between national not local governments — but it can blaze a trail. “Mato Grosso shows that subnational states can develop their own compliance mechanisms, and that you don’t need to wait eternally for the federal government to act,” said Marcos Jank, a professor of global agribusiness at Insper, a Sao Paulo business school. “Complying with the law matters and will garner preferential treatment by the markets.” This week, 24 of Brazil’s 27 governors penned their own sustainability pledge to stop “the climate emergency” by slashing greenhouse emissions.

Plenty of spadework remains. Brazil’s government argues, reasonably, that controlling the plunder depends on sorting out the tangle of property titles that constricts governance in the Amazon. Complying with the national Forestry Code — passed in 2012, but mostly tied up in litigation since — is crucial. Landgrabbers still want to game the code, yet without it, the Brazilian frontier would still be at the mercy of pirates and chainsaws.

Yet even the most judicious forest code means little in land where government has gone AWOL. Illegal forest cutting is off the charts on public lands. Most of the clandestine destruction plays out on so-called “non-designated” territory; that’s legal speak for 50 million hectares of forests (an area the size of Spain) owned by the government but controlled by no one. “Essentially, they are no-man’s lands,” said Rodrigo Lima, managing partner of Agroicone, an agriculture consultancy and think tank.

Brazil could score an easy win in any climate compact by taking charge of such woodland blind spots, whose despoliation profits only bandits, bringing down the Amazon and the country’s name. “Why not seize the opportunity to announce that we are converting say 10 million hectares of non-designated area into conservation areas, preserve it, and then use it as collateral for the carbon market?” said Lima. “That’s a lot different from going to Washington and saying, hand over the money and we’ll take care of our forests.”

If Bolsonaro misses that smart cue, Brazil risks ending up with less of both dollars and trees.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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