In Cancún, Brazil Touts Progress Stopping Deforestation

Brazil's delegation is heading to the COP16 meeting in Cancún with something to crow about.

At a ceremony Wednesday in Brasília, officials said that deforestation in the Amazon has reached its lowest level since satellite monitoring began, 23 years ago.

Brazil is likely to use the results to seek a bigger role in climate negotiations, especially as regards Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

Although the chance for a sweeping climate deal is low at Cancún, there's a greater chance countries might reach a deal on how to pay for REDD. That appears to be Brazil's big goal, because under such plans, it could get paid billions for slowing deforestation.

Brazil has also tried to act as a bridge between poor and rich nations that are still at odds over how much each should do to reduce greenhouse emissions. "Brazil will get to COP16 with elevated moral status. We proposed advanced targets and were a source of inspiration," Foreign Minister Celso Amorim recently was quoted as saying in the Guardian.

This year's decline in deforestation means Brazil is well on its way to meeting its self-imposed goal of reducing deforestation by 80% over historic highs by 2020. Officials said Brazil was about 5 years ahead of schedule. The nonprofit Imazon, which independently analyzes the same satellite data, has confirmed the downward trend.

According to satellite data, about 6400 square kilometers was wiped out between August 2009 and July 2010 in Brazil's Amazon. Although that is a large area, it is 13.5% smaller than the area of forest brought down during the previous 12 months. Officials claimed on Wednesday that the results could "raise the tone" of the Cancún climate meeting, which has been preceded by low expectation.

"The world needs to come up with answers at the level that Brazil is," said Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira.

Brazil's government isn't shy about using deforestation data for political gain. As recently as September, Brazil's government was indicating that the drop in deforestation could be much larger, about 47.5%. However, that estimate was based on preliminary low-resolution satellite data that only pick up huge clear-cuts.

The annual data released Wednesday, which comes from Prodes, a monitoring system run by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, has far higher resolution, capturing cuts larger than about 12 to 15 acres in size. Experts say the difference in the two data sets is easy to explain: Farmers in Brazil are now cutting a higher number of smaller plots, partly to avoid detection.

Whether countries like Brazil can accurately measure how much carbon emissions they are avoiding is one sticking point in REDD negotiations. But Brazilian officials are adamant that they are doing their share. By contrast, Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said at Wednesday's ceremony that advanced countries "are still not doing anything."