Last Wednesday (14), pressured by the American government on the eve of the environmental summit convened by Joe Biden for April 22, Jair Bolsonaro issued a wordy letter. The addressee is the American president, from whom Bolsonaro expects to receive a check in the coming days in exchange for cooperation against climate change.
In seven written pages, which sorely needed proofreading, the Brazilian president tried to paint his administration green. The result was a case of “Bolsonaro-as-usual”: an extensive list of distortions, omissions and lies on topics ranging from forest protection to alleged carbon credits.
The president claimed as his own results that had been achieved by environmental management during the PT administrations, omitted the environmental dismantling carried out by his very minister Ricardo Salles and committed himself to a goal of reducing deforestation that his own administration had deleted from the commitment made to the UN under the Paris Agreement.
Below we fact-check the main points in the letter sent to Joe Biden.
“I reiterate the commitment of Brazil and of my administration towards the international efforts to protect the environment, fight climate change and promote sustainable development (…) I wanted to share with Your Excellency what Brazil has done for the conservation of the environment.”
NOT REALLY TRUE
Amazon deforestation increased 34.5% in 2019 (the largest percentage increase in this century) and 9.5% in 2020 (the largest absolute figure in 11 years). No deforestation rate above 10,000 km2 had been recorded since 2008. In two years, 21,200 km2 of forest were destroyed, an area equivalent to the territory of Israel.
Data released by Global Forest Watch show that, in 2020, Brazil was once again the global leader in destruction of primary forests, deforesting 3.5 times more than the runner-up, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil has stepped back from fighting climate change, precisely because of the increase in deforestation.
According to Observatório do Clima’s Emissions Estimates System (SEEG), Brazil released 2.17 billion gross tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) in 2019, the first year of the Bolsonaro administration, an increase of 9.6% when compared to 2018. This corresponds to less than 4% of global emissions, but it still makes the country the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, only behind China (11.5 billion tons), the US (5.8 billion), India (3.2 billion) and Russia (2.4 billion).
The data shows that the trend of reduction of emissions in Brazil, verified between 2004 and 2010, is reversing course – in 2020, the country did not fulfill the goal established in the National Policy on Climate Change (PNMC). Brazil’s per capita emissions are also higher than the world average. In 2019, each Brazilian citizen emitted 10.4 gross tons of CO2e, compared to a global average of 7.1.
“The magnitude of the efforts that the Brazilian nation has made over the centuries to preserve our heritage is evident. We have 60% of our territory covered by native vegetation. In the Amazon biome, this figure amounts to an eloquent 84%. We allocate more than 30% of the national territory to environmental protection areas, and these lands, taken together, correspond to no less than 14% of the protected areas of the planet”.
According to a 2020 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Brazil has 12% of the world’s forests, not 14%. Combining Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units, Brazil has 216 million hectares under legal protection, which represents 25% of the country’s territory. It was only by including Environmental Protection Areas (APAs), a category that allows private properties, economic activities and deforestation, that the number of 259 million hectares, or about 29% of the country’s territory, could be reached.
Regarding the Amazon, data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) show that, currently, accrued deforestation corresponds to about 20% of the forest. 80% is left standing, and not 84%. Even if this figure were correct, this does not mean that the entire remaining forest is “preserved”, since there are vast expanses degraded by human activities. Nobody knows for sure, but a 2014 survey indicated that, by 2013, 1.2 million km2 of forest had been degraded. This means that 40% of the Amazon may be under some form of human pressure.
“Brazil has done the same with regard to the energy transition. In this regard, we have one of the cleanest matrices on the planet: 46% of our energy is generated from renewable sources, a rate that is more than four times higher than the average rates of OECD countries. If we look at electric energy alone, this figure rises to 82%, three times more than the rate in those countries”.
The 46% figure for energy generated by renewable sources is correct (45% in 2019, according to the Our World in Data website, based on BP energy statistics). Ditto for electricity. However, there has been no “energy transition”: the Brazilian matrix is clean due to historical circumstances, and not as a result of a conscious effort towards energy transition. The country does not have a plan to decarbonize the economy, does not have a plan to implement its goals under the Paris Agreement and heavily subsidizes fossil fuels: R$ 99.4 billion in 2019 alone, according to Inesc .
“In the major United Nations conferences on these issues, Brazil has been a promoter of the concept of sustainable development.”
The concept of sustainable development was coined in 1987 by an international commission led by then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland. Since then, it has been the basis of all multilateral environmental negotiations. There is nothing special about the Brazilian position on the subject. On the contrary, in 1972 Brazil defended pollution at the UN as an inseparable part of its right to development, a position that finds echoes in our diplomacy to this day.
“Last December, we submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) an update of our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In this context, we have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2025 and by 43% by 2030, when compared to 2005 figures”.
The government is being sued by six young activists for reducing the ambition in the NDC presented in December. The new NDC was denounced by the Climate Action Tracker , which downgraded the country’s target rating from “insufficient” to “highly insufficient”. As a result, Brazil was left out of the Climate Ambition Summit , the summit that marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, on December 12, with the presence of more than 70 countries. The condition to participate was the submittal of more ambitious goals.
The NDC is the document in which each country describes its strategies and results to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals of stabilizing global warming, which must be updated and intensified every five years. Brazil’s original goal was submitted in 2015 at the UN by then President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil pledged at the time to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2025, compared to 2005 levels, and indicated that it could reach a 43% reduction by 2030.
None of this was conditional on external funding. The new NDC proposal confirms the indicative target for 2030. It does not change the percentage commitment to cut emissions, but it does change – by a lot – the calculation basis. In the new proposal, the level of emissions in 2005, the base year of the target, was adjusted from 2.1 billion tons to 2.8 billion tons. In the 2015 NDC annex, the indicative 43% reduction target meant emitting 1.2 billion tons of gases by 2030. In the version presented in 2020, the same target represents 1.6 billion tons in the atmosphere. In other words: Brazil would reach 2030 emitting around 400 million tons of CO2 equivalent more than what had been promised in 2015, according to an analysis by Observatório do Clima . To maintain the same absolute level of emissions indicated in 2015, Brazil should have adjusted the percentage reduction in its NDC to 57% with the change in methodology.
“Although it is one of the largest economies on the planet, Brazil is still responsible for only 1% of historic greenhouse gas emissions, and less than 3% of the total current global emissions. We have adopted absolute emission reduction targets that exceed those of many developed countries, which, however, carry much greater responsibility for climate change.”
The idea that Brazil is one of the countries that have contributed the least to the verified warming comes from a study from the 1990s, carried out by Brazilian government scientists and submitted by the country at the Kyoto conference, in 1997. In addition to being outdated, the data from the original proposal only took into account carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuels. Since the late 1970s, however, Brazilian emissions have been dominated by deforestation in the Amazon. Later studies have shown a very different picture: in 2014, for example, a group of scientists calculated all gases and included land use, which showed that Brazil was responsible for the fourth largest absolute historical contribution to global warming and for the seventh largest contribution per capita. In 2015, physicist Luiz Gylvan Meira Filho, the lead author of the original Brazilian study, showed the OC a revised calculation according to which Brazil’s historic contribution to the warming seen in 2005 was 4.4% when all gases were considered. In addition, the discourse that the country today emits only 3% of the world total emissions disregards that, even so, Brazil is the fifth or sixth largest emitter of greenhouse gases among the 197 nations that are part of the Climate Convention.
“We are committed to the long-term goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2060 (…)”
Brazil’s new Nationally Determined Contribution brings an “indicative commitment” to climate neutrality. This is quite different from a long-term objective, because it is not legally binding – the government cannot held accountable if doesn’t deliver. In addition, the country has not yet presented a long-term plan to reduce emissions, something that all countries were invited to do under the Paris Agreement.
“Currently, production units covering more than 50 million hectares (123.5 million acres) already adopt low-carbon production technologies, such as those that integrate farming, livestock and forestry. We have already recovered 28 million hectares (69.1 million acres) of degraded pastures. And we have the potential to expand these technologies to over 98 million hectares.”
The government has never detailed how it reached the figure of 50 million hectares, but one possibility is that it was by incorporating all low-carbon production technologies – including no-till, a technique that has been adopted since the 1990s (long before the country had any climate targets), which, alone, covers 30 million hectares.
The Low Carbon Agriculture Plan (ABC), created in 2010, was responsible for the recovery of 10 million hectares of degraded pastures between 2010 and 2018, according to an Embrapa survey published in June 2020 – and not 28 million, as Bolsonaro’s letter claim.
The government is unable to determine whether these practices are actually benefiting the climate, since the country does not monitor the ABC Program, nor does it compute in its emission inventories the carbon emitted by degraded soils or the carbon kidnapped by well-managed pastures. Emissions from the agricultural sector are increasing, although progress has been made towards sustainability.
The ABC Program, from the Ministry of Agriculture, finances low-emission agricultural practices. But it corresponds to only 1% of the financing assigned every year to conventional agriculture. In the last 10 years, an average of R$ 1.7 billion per year has been assigned to the ABC Plan within the Safra Plan, which finances agriculture and livestock. The entire Safra Plan had an average of R$ 170 billion per year.
“I recognize, for example, that we have a major challenge before us, with the increase in deforestation rates in the Amazon, which has been occurring since 2012”.
Although deforestation in the Amazon has been facing a general upward trend since 2012, during the Bolsonaro administration the rate of deforestation reached a whole new level. The average between 2012 and 2018 was 6,300 km2 per year. In the two years of the Bolsonaro administration it was 10,600 km2, an increase of 68%. It is a consensus among experts that the leap was due to the dismantling of environmental governance by the current government, with repeated nods to environmental crime, the shelving of Deforestation Prevention and Control Plans in the Amazon and the Cerrado and the reduction of Ibama’s power of action.
“We want to reaffirm at this time our unequivocal support to the efforts made by Your Excellency and our commitment to eliminate illegal deforestation in Brazil by 2030”.
Brazil had indeed undertaken this goal in the 2015 Paris Agreement NDC annex. However, it was removed from the new NDC, submitted in December by Minister Ricardo Salles. The difference is that the government now conditions the reduction of deforestation to the collection of USD 1 billion per year, as declared by Salles to Estadão. Part of these funds would be used to pay allowances to military police officers – creating a kind of “B-side Ibama”, or a parallel supervisory body in the Amazon , while the existing environmental bodies are dismantled.
“Achieving this goal, however, will require substantial resources and comprehensive public policies, the magnitude of which forces us to seek all possible support (…) In this context, of course, the support of the United States government, private sector and civil society, will be very welcome”.
Brazil reduced the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 83% between 2004 and 2012 without receiving a penny from abroad. The Amazon Fund, established in 2008, compensates the country for results already obtained in reducing deforestation. The country’s Nationally Determined Contribution, presented as a national target under the Paris Agreement in 2015, included in its annex the objective of zeroing illegal deforestation by 2030, and did not condition this goal to any external contribution. In doing so now, Bolsonaro reduces the ambition of national commitments, in violation of the Paris Agreement.
“Like us, Americans will be able to appreciate that the main causes of environmental degradation are rooted in poverty and in a lack of opportunities (…)”
The great deforesters in the Amazon are farmers, miners and land grabbers. Deforestation is expensive: it costs from R$ 200 to R$ 2,000 per hectare felled. Poor farmers, who only rely on their own labor, are unable to log large areas, according to UFMG researcher Raoni Rajão. According to him, deforestation in properties covering up to 6.25 hectares did not exceed 7% of the total deforested area. On the other hand, the culprit for the increase in total deforestation in recent years has mainly been those properties between 25 and 100 hectares and those larger than 100 ha, according to the professor. In addition, an analysis of the profile of the properties in the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) show that 2% of medium and large properties concentrate 62% of all potentially illegal deforestation after 2008 in the Amazon and the Cerrado.
“It is for the same reason that we cannot fight deforestation with just command and control measures. My mission, with regard to the Amazon, includes creating economic alternatives that unequivocally reduce the appeal of illegal activities, concomitantly with repression. My government has been developing realistic actions in this regard, contemplating five specific axes – not only the aforementioned command and control actions, which are insufficient in and of themselves, but highlighting the urgency of carrying out land regularization; implementing the necessary ecological-economic zoning in the region; promoting the long-awaited bioeconomy; and increasing the volume and intensity of payment for environmental services, directly linked to the effective functioning of the mechanisms described in article 6 of the Paris Agreement.”
The Bolsonaro administration practically stopped land regularization in the Amazon. It has registered the lowest level of definitive land titling in the decade: 553 in 2020 and only one in 2019, according to researcher Brenda Brito . The average in the period had been 3,190 titles/year. In 2019, the government began an attempt to change the legislation in order to extend amnesty to land grabbing.
Ecological-Economic Zoning (ZEE) is an environmental management instrument established in 1981 as part of the law that created the National Environment Policy. In 2002, a presidential decree defined the guidelines, responsibilities and methods to be adopted in the building of the ZEE at the national level. The Federal Government is responsible for the National ZEE and for the ZEEs of macro-regions. Each State is responsible for its own state-wide or regional ZEE.
In the case of the Amazon, the Ecological-Economic Macro-Zoning of the Legal Amazon (MacroZee of the Legal Amazon) was carried out and approved by presidential decree back in 2010, with the objective of guiding the formulation and spatialization of developmental, territorial zoning and the environmental public policies, as well as decisions by private agents.
No bioeconomy policy has ever been adopted by the current administration. And what would be the largest payment program for environmental services (PSA) in the country, Floresta +, created with international resources from GCF (Fundo Verde do Clima), has been stalled for two years because Minister Ricardo Salles did not want to distribute benefits to indigenous people, maroons (“quilombolas”) and small farmers, as determined by the main lines of action of the program, which so far has not disbursed a penny. In direct opposition to what the president says, PSA does not rely on market mechanisms to work – so much so that Brazil received USD 96.5 million from GCF for this purpose.
“To do so, we want to hear from indigenous third-sector entities, traditional communities and all those who are willing to contribute to a constructive debate and really committed to solving problems.”
The Bolsonaro administration has a sobering track record of dialogue with the third sector. In one fell swoop, the president brought to an end practically all environmental entities that had third-sector participation; he is currently being sued before the Supreme Federal Court for excluding civil society from the National Environment Council; he recreated environmental bodies only to stack them with political appointees, assigning, in some of them, a para-state body controlled by the Minister of the Environment (the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change) as the only representative of civil society; he has referred to NGOs operating in the Amazon as a “cancer” that he “can’t kill”; he has send secret agents to the Madrid Conference to spy on them; he has been accused by indigenous people of crimes against humanity; and Minister Ricardo Salles is in the habit of sending court notices to his critics.
“Another initiative worth noting is our ‘Adopt a Park’ program, which allows private national or foreign actors to ‘adopt’ one of the 132 federal conservation units in the Amazon, which comprise 15% of that biome. And here it is not a question of (sic) financial transfers to the Brazilian State, but rather goods and services to be applied directly by the private sector in these protected areas.”
The government suspended the largest initiative to support Brazilian conservation units, the Arpa Program, which had 15 years of experience and operated under the technical guidance of public servants, and created Adopt a Park two months ago to raise funds from private companies in exchange for environmental marketing. Meanwhile, the Chico Mendes Institute, the governing body of federal conservation units, is about to collapse due to a lack of financial resources .
“With regard to carbon, to which I was just referring, there is another piece of information that I wish to highlight: within the scope of the REDD+ pay-for-results program, an instrument of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Brazil has certified 7.8 gigatons of carbon equivalent (sic) in emission reductions from avoided deforestation, which is equivalent to USD 133 billion, if calculated based on the value of carbon credits negotiated in California. This volume is equivalent to no less than five years of net emissions in the country.”
NOT REALLY TRUE
With the rise of deforestation under Bolsonaro, the government rendered unfeasible the biggest REDD+ initiative in the world, the Amazon Fund, created in 2008. According to the rules of the fund, the country receives international resources in exchange for the reduction of emissions resulting from deforestation. However, deforestation upper limit for the allocation of resources in the 2016-2020 period was 8,143 km2. Under Bolsonaro, deforestation reached 10,129 km2 in 2019 and 11,088 km2 in 2020, well above the cut line. Therefore, Brazil is no longer entitled to payments according to the rules created by the BNDES for the fund. Worse: as explained by the forest engineer Tasso Azevedo, who conceived the Amazon Fund, every time the rate increases and exceeds the contribution limit, the country needs to compensate for this increase in the following year with a reduction in deforestation. During the two years of the Bolsonaro administration, the accrued “debt” in the Amazon Fund is 4,933 km2. In other words, if the fund were to be resumed this year, Brazil would need to end 2021 with 3,206 km2 of deforestation in order to be eligible to receive new donations for the fund.
Brazil has R$ 2.9 billion already donated by Norway and Germany to the fund, which has been frozen since 2019 by decision of Minister Ricardo Salles – the government is being sued before the Federal Supreme Court (STF) for this reason. Salles tried to change the composition of the fund’s committees in order to control them, but donor countries refused the change. The committees were then dissolved and, to this day, the R$ 2.9 billion, which could be used to reduce deforestation and fires, are frozen in a BNDES account.
The president’s argument about the supposed “credits”, moreover, has three problems. First, in the legal framework of the Climate Convention, there is no “certification” for reductions of emission from deforestation. What does exist are national reports, which do not undergo any audit to qualify as “credit”; they are simply accepted by the Convention. Second, Brazil adopted a baseline for reducing emissions from deforestation, called Frel (Forest Reference Emission Levels), anchored forever in 1996, when deforestation was very high – 18 thousand square kilometers. Thus, for results obtained between 2006 and 2010, the baseline is the average deforestation between 1996 and 2005; for results from 2011 to 2015, the baseline is the average deforestation from 1996 to 2010, and so on, always having the year 1996 as the starting point.
This is different from the operation of the Amazon Fund, in which the baseline is movable, based on the average of the previous decade and reviewed every five years (1996-2005, 2001-2010, 2006-2015 and 2016-2025).
Besides, Bolsonaro’s argument that the country would have past reductions (which, by the way, would have occurred during PT administrations) to receive, actually involves a degree of “accounting trickery”: the country has already claimed these reductions from 2011 to 2015 in order to obtain USD 96.5 million from the Green Climate Fund in 2019. In other words, in addition to selling land on the Moon, Bolsonaro tries to sell the same plot twice.