Brazil is upended. What about its climate goals?

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2016

With the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil is undergoing a seismic political shift that promises to transform everything from public spending to workers’ rights in South America’s largest country.

But the extent to which it will affect the nation’s climate diplomacy and domestic environmental agenda remains to be seen. Experts offer widely different views on everything from the quality of the Rousseff government’s environmental legacy to the likelihood of the new conservative government maintaining deforestation protections and international emissions commitments.

Whatever else happens, it’s clear that last week’s Senate vote to impeach Rousseff on charges that the president misappropriated government funds means a reshuffling of Brazil’s top policy players, including the forced departure of its environment chief, Izabella Teixeira.

Teixeira, who was fired last week following the Senate vote, played a major role in the run-up to last year’s historic Paris climate agreement. The French presidency tapped the Brazilian civil servant to help mediate the division of responsibility between the rich and poor world — also called “differentiation.”

She was instrumental in Brazil’s move to join the so-called High-Ambition Coalition that emerged from Paris, successfully advocating for an aspirational target of limiting postindustrial warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And she was mentioned as a possible candidate to lead the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, though Mexican diplomat Patricia Espinosa was selected for the open post.

French climate ambassador Laurence Tubiana told ClimateWire last week that Teixeira spent much of last year working to help deliver an agreement, offering an ambitious domestic target for Brazil while being a leader in the multilateral process.

“On a more personal note, I would like to add that her very warm, humane and yet energetic personality was a source of great comfort during some very difficult moments in Paris,” Tubiana said in an email.

Paulo Sotero, who directs the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, agreed that Teixeira deserved credit for her performance. That, he said, was “one of the few things in our foreign policy under Dilma that was really a topic of praise.”

Teixeira, who holds a doctorate in environmental planning, consulted broadly with a variety of political players in Brazil before delivering the Paris pledge to cut emissions 37 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025, Sotero said. That institutional process was not the norm for the Rousseff government, he said, but it means that the Paris pledge is likely to endure the regime change.

Sotero cast the Rousseff government as highly partisan and unconcerned about the environment — pointing to its support for controversial hydropower projects like the Belo Monte Dam.

Teixeira was the exception, he said, in part because she wasn’t a Workers’ Party official.

“She kept a space there for environmental policy — especially for climate policy — to be seriously addressed in the government,” he said.

Forest funding ‘has not been cut.’ Or has it?

In the domestic sphere, Teixeira became associated in her six years as minister of the environment with efforts to fight deforestation in Brazil’s resource-diverse Amazon forest. Kathryn Hochstetler, a professor of global governance at the University of Waterloo in Canada, said she introduced the wider use of environmental impact assessments in projects management. But those policies were often controversial on both sides.

“Her ministry spent most of her tenure caught between the critiques of environmentalists, who saw Teixeira as far too willing to facilitate licenses for the government’s planned big infrastructure projects, and the criticisms of other ministries and the National Congress, who argued repeatedly that environmental licensing was too slow and a major bottleneck for national development,” Hochstetler said in an email.

Teixeira, in an email to ClimateWire soon before she was removed, touted the progress Brazil had made in reversing its deforestation, which threatens the diverse plant and animal ecosystems of the Amazon and Brazil’s ability to meet its carbon targets.

The nation has set a target of ending illegal deforestation by 2030, and Teixeira said it was pursuing this goal through “one of the most sophisticated policy instruments in the world, which combines legal certifications, protected areas, land use policies, conservation, sustainable management of forests, reforestation, enhancement of forest carbon stocks, satellite monitoring, legal enforcement, and financial instruments.”

“The fight against deforestation is complex, and I am confident that we are using the full resources of the State to ensure we carry out this fight as quickly and forcefully as possible,” she added. “It is worth noting that even despite the current economic pressures in Brazil, the budget to tackle deforestation has not been cut.”

Advocates for Amazon forest protection see a variety of contradictions between this statement and what was actually occurring in Brazil, even before Rousseff was impeached.

Natalie Unterstell, a former Brazilian climate negotiator now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, noted that while rates of deforestation have decreased over much of the last decade — they’re down more than 80 percent compared with 2004 levels — there is evidence that they may be rebounding. Forest loss was up in 2013 and expected to rise again in 2015. Furthermore, between 2011 and 2014, the Rousseff government did respond to tight budgets by investing less in efforts like policing and enforcement designed to stop illegal logging.

Adriana Ramos of Brazil’s Instituto Socioambiental said that at the last meeting of the Amazon Fund, which uses international funds to protect the Amazon, Teixeira requested a rule change to allow the fund to cover surveillance and policing efforts. She cited Brazilian budgetary constraints. The request was made three weeks ago, Ramos said, around the same time Teixeira sent the email to ClimateWire in response to questions.

“I also followed very closely these policies in the last 20 years, and the majority of the initiatives within the Amazon plan for controlling deforestation in the Amazon that were responsible for the huge reduction of deforestation in the Amazon were significantly weakened during the last years,” said Ramos. The plan was initiated in 2004.

“I would also add that the Ministry of Environment in Brazil was an ally of the Brazilian Congress in making the forest legislation more flexible to landowners, what will certainly have impacts on forest conservation in the future years,” she said.

A legacy of ‘few achievements’?

But greens fear that forestry protections will erode further. Even before the impeachment, Brazil’s Legislature was advancing a proposed constitutional amendment that environmentalists say would cater to developers and agriculture interests at the expense of forests and ecosystems. Rousseff’s supporters say it will pass more easily now that she has been stripped of power, but Sotero said, “We don’t know that yet.”

Even under Rousseff, he said, there was always a “tension” between agriculture and forest preservation that led to policies of compromise. The best glimpse yet of what the new administration under Vice President Michel Temer might do came from its new Foreign Minister Jose Serra, whom analysts describe as an environmental ally.

“Brazil will assume the special responsibility it has on environmental issues, as home, in the Amazon, of the world’s largest tropical forest, of one of the planet’s largest reserves of fresh water and biodiversity, as well of an energy matrix clean and renewable — with the objective of playing a proactive and pioneering role in climate change and sustainable development negotiations,” Serra said in remarks in São Paulo last week. “If we do the homework, we will receive ample resources from international entities interested in helping preserve the planet’s forests, water reserves and biodiversity, areas in which Brazil makes a difference.”

Sotero said of those comments, “It’s a very strong position in terms of ‘we are going to make sustainability a key driver of foreign policy in Brazil.'”

Serra is one of the former environment ministers Teixeira consulted ahead of submitting Brazil’s nationally determined contribution to Paris, and several observers posited he might consider pushing for a tougher goal to show the new government if he wishes to remain a leader. But he also might encounter resistance from elsewhere in the administration.

“He will be facing the same broader context as Teixeira, however, and is a rare pro-environment voice in a new government that is, if anything, even less committed to environmental protection than Rousseff’s government was,” Hochstetler said.

The new right-leaning government may also shift alliances away from socialist South American countries like Venezuela and toward countries like Mexico and Argentina — a fact that could transfer over to the U.N. climate negotiations.

Hochstetler said Latin America’s largest country might become less committed to being a leader of the global south than it had been.

“The question is, will Brazil maintain its alliance with the BASIC countries?” asked Unterstell, referring to major developing countries that frequently negotiate together within the UNFCCC process. Other potential partners include the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean, which includes progressive countries like Peru and Costa Rica, or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is generally made up of developed countries.

Of Teixeira’s own legacy, Unterstell said, “there were many international appearances and a few achievements.” Her lasting impression on Paris “remains to be seen.”