Part II:  Amazon Hydroelectrics, the UN Climate Treaty and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – will greed and corruption derail the international climate negotiations?

Santo Antônio Dam under construction in the state of Rondônia, Brazil, 2009 | Photo: Wiki Commons

Brazil’s climate change negotiators are trying to throw the best hope for at-scale finance for stopping deforestation under the bus to ensure a big payday for bogus carbon credits from Amazon dams and other Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects  — benefitting the scandal-plagued national power company Eletrobrás at the expense of the Amazon. (See EDF and Brazilian partners report.) There are far better ways to combat climate change.

A Better Mousetrap

One of the best examples of how to do it, ironically, is what Brazil and Amazon states have actually done in reducing Amazon deforestation since 2004. Government ramped up enforcement, recognized indigenous territories and protected forests for other communities, and consumer goods companies like Walmart told their suppliers they needed zero-deforestation commodities. The result was a 70% reduction in deforestation by 2016 that kept 3.65 billion tons CO₂ out of the atmosphere – on the order of what the European Union achieved, only in one developing country. But positive incentives for forest protection called for repeatedly in legislation never materialized, so pushback from the big ranchers’ and farmers’ caucus in the Congress has put all of these gains at serious risk, and deforestation started to tick up again.

There is a lot at stake here, for the atmosphere as well as the forest. New research shows that much more cost effective climate change mitigation than anyone suspected – 11 billion tons of CO2 per year till 2030 — can come from “natural climate solutions”, mostly from stopping tropical deforestation and forest degradation. This is almost 40% of the mitigation needed by 2030 to have a 66% or better chance of keeping warming below 2°C, according to the authors.

Bringing jurisdictional reductions in deforestation and forest degradation into carbon markets could generate the funds that Brazil needs to end Amazon deforestation and effect the transformation to low-carbon sustainable agriculture. 

Reducing and ultimately stopping large-scale deforestation is fully feasible. We know this because Brazil and the Amazon states have done it. They have taken reductions targets below historical levels, and made world-leading reductions while increasing cattle and soy production – historically the major drivers of deforestation (Figure 1).  Making emissions reductions at the scale of a state or region or country is much more like the EU or California cap-and-trade systems than an offset project. It’s actually systemic climate change mitigation. Bringing jurisdictional reductions in deforestation and forest degradation into carbon markets could generate the funds that Brazil needs to end Amazon deforestation and effect the transformation to low-carbon sustainable agriculture. Transparent accounting, rigorous double-entry bookkeeping to avoid double counting, and fair benefit sharing will be critical to making it work, but are also completely feasible. Doing sustained, large-scale deforestation reduction would also allow Brazil to call for more ambitious goals for other big emitter countries, and create cost-effective opportunities to make that happen. A revamped CDM could then channel funds to the least developed countries that most need them.

Figure 1. Brazil annual Amazon deforestation, soy and cattle production 1996 – 2016 (source: Stabile, M. 2017. Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM); Brazil National Space Research Institute – INPE/PRODES; Brazilian Geographical and Statistical Institute – IBGE PPM and PAM, Amazon Fund.

Operation Car Wash and Chico Mendes

So why wouldn’t any country with a lot of forest to protect, and potentially a lot to gain from it, want to continue a winning streak? Well, as Brazil’s experience shows, there’s a lot less opportunity for corruption in reducing deforestation than there is in, say, building dams. Carbon credit for Amazon dams fits right in with the massive corruption, “Operation Car Wash”, super-sketchy side of Brazil. World-leading emissions reductions from controlling Amazon deforestation are an example what we could call the Chico Mendes side of the country. Brazil has always had these two sides. Corruption is endemic but so is innovative public policy. Brazil’s world-class AIDs program, which has kept infection rates far below other early hotspots; the sugar cane ethanol program that gave Brazil the biggest flex-fuel automotive fleet in the world; internationally recognized high-tech remote sensing monitoring of deforestation; and former President Lula’s poverty reduction programs are all examples.

Brazil has an exceptional opportunity to become an economic/environmental innovator and global leader of truly transformative impact – a 21st century environmental/economic superpower — if it succeeds in creating real economic value for living forests. What Acre Governor Tião Viana calls “the low-carbon, high social equity economy” shows the way to zero deforestation, sustainable commodity and family farmer agriculture, and sustainable, prosperous forest communities.

Which side of Brazil’s Jekyll-Hyde political character will win? When Chico Mendes was alive, most people would have probably picked the Car Wash side. Along with ever-increasing numbers of Brazilians, I’d pick Chico’s side.

Both sides are on display at the international climate negotiations, where Brazilian negotiators are pushing hard for deeply flawed CDM projects including Eletrobrás’s Amazon dam boondoggles. Which side wins won’t only affect Brazilians. It will make a real difference to the atmosphere, and to us.

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