Unfortunately, I appear to have been mostly right, at least in the short run: Today, Climate Change News reports that “political convulsions and the worst economic slump in 25 years are stopping the major carbon polluter [Brazil] from getting to work on its pledges.” Brazil’s economy is expected to contract 3% this year, and inflation is approaching 10%. With Dilma focused on jumpstarting the economy, and Congress debating whether or not to impeach her, forest protection initiatives are paralyzed.
I wrote last week that responsible environmental governance is unlikely to survive prolonged economic difficulties, and at least for this year, that is the case. There is a silver lining, of course: Climate Change News remarks that Brazil’s recession is “shrinking industrial activity and exploitation of its carbon-rich rainforest,” which may help the country cut GHG emissions without policy interventions or financial outlays. But the job and income losses that accompany such outcomes make the human cost of combating climate change too high - and certainly politically unsustainable.
Another silver lining relates to state action: Mato Grosso – one of Brazil’s largest deforesters and a soy-producing state – committed to zero illegal deforestation in 5 years at COP21, while according to Climate Change News “other Amazonian regions like Pará and Amazonas are drawing up their own strategies.”
It may appear from this statement that states love trees, while the federal government is indifferent. But this is not the case.
First, as a major beef and soy exporter, Mato Grosso had already cleared most of its forests to increase production in the 1990s and 2000s, and today must provide a veneer of sustainability to continue to sell its commodities abroad. In 2009, China purchased 53% of Brazil’s soybeans (see this Nature Conservancy report, p. 4), and did not require sustainability certifications. But since then, China’s demand has contracted (Brazil's total exports to China fell by 19% from January to July 2015), and so Mato Grosso may need to diversify its export destinations to regions - like the European Union - that require certifications. According to the State Secretary of the Environment, Ana Luiza Peterlini, “We aim to make Mato Grosso a territory free (of deforestation), so that the buyers of our products have guarantees linked to sustainability.” (“Pretendemos que Mato Grosso seja um território livre (de desmatamento), para que os compradores de nossos produtos tenham garantias ligadas à sustentabilidade.”)
China’s slowdown means that, like the rest of Brazil, Mato Grosso is now managing stagnation and contraction, rather than growth. This means that policies to reduce deforestation coincide with lower producer demand to deforest in order to expand. In short, deforestation should decline even without a state plan. But there is money to be made now in sustainability, and not just from diversified export destinations: According to IPAM, Mato Grosso’s plan – which involves preserving 60% of the native vegetation that currently exists in the state, and recovering 2 million hectares of Areas of Permanent Protection (APP), among other actions – will require a major cash infusion of US$10 billion from outside the state. There is nothing wrong with making money on environmental protection, but the expressed need provides Mato Grosso with an out: If the money does not materialize, the state government can junk parts of its plan, arguing that the international community did not come through.
Second, while Amazonas and Pará may be drawing up zero deforestation plans, it is unclear that these states will deviate from federal trends and actually invest in sustainability in the next few years. As I mentioned briefly last week, Amazonas enacted sustainable development policies in the 2003-10 period that vastly increased the amount of protected land in the state. In 2007, the state also implemented Bolsa Floresta, a (small) minimum income given to families living in state protected areas on the condition that they do not cut trees. But the state’s commitment to sustainability was never deep: The bulk of the state's GDP is generated from consumer goods manufacturing in the capital, Manaus, and the rural economy is relatively small. The state's policy actions – including protected area creation and management – and new environmental institutions – including employees of the Secretariat of Sustainable Development (SDS) – were largely funded by international grants, and when the grant periods ended in and around 2010 the SDS lost much of its personnel (Author interviews with several current and former SDS employees, Manaus, AM, 2011-2012).
Retrenchment did not end there: In March 2015, the governor of Amazonas cut the state's environmental budget again, eliminating 8 of the SDS’ 12 departments – including the State Center for Conservation Units (CEUC), the department responsible for managing the state’s 43 protected areas; the State Center for Climate Change (CECLIMA); and the Agency for Sustainable Development (ADS) – and reducing SDS personnel by 30%.
Given its shallow commitment from the start, and its retrenchment last year, if Amazonas achieves zero illegal deforestation, it will likely be because it already has very low deforestation rates – and/or because it loosens regulations to increase legal deforestation.
Brazil is a country of great plans and ambitious laws. But implementation requires continued international attention and pressure – and is not likely when the country is mired in recession and political crisis. The states, which are as concerned with economic growth and job creation as the federal government is, are more likely to follow the federal lead than they are to present rays of hope in an otherwise dark tunnel.
Now, more than ever, Brazil needs a fast growth model that is consistent with forest preservation and reductions in GHG emissions – green growth. But as the authors of Can Green Sustain Growth? (of which I am one) make clear, this is more easily said than done.