Reforesting cleared land to store carbon is a key strategy of Brazil’s new climate strategy.

Reforesting cleared land to store carbon is a key strategy of Brazil’s new climate strategy.

Kate Evans/Center for International Forestry Research/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Brazil’s climate targets draw lukewarm reviews

Replanting forests, restoring degraded pastureland, promoting low-carbon farm practices, and ending illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Those are four key ingredients in Brazil’s recipe for combatting global warming over the next 15 years, according to a new national plan unveiled on 27 September at the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit in New York City. But critics say the plan lacks imagination and is a modest extension of what Brazil has already been doing.

Expectations were high for Brazil President Dilma Rousseff’s announcement at the summit, as the plan’s details had been kept tightly under wraps. Brazil, the world’s seventh largest economy and seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases, according to World Resources Institute data, vowed to reduce its overall emissions by 37% in the next 10 years and by 43% until 2030, compared to 2005 levels. "It's our effort to contribute to something that is crucial to humanity," Rousseff said.

The targets are known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which every party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is supposed to submit by 1 October in preparation for the Paris climate summit in December. Brazil’s numbers are more ambitious than many here had expected, and even more ambitious than what most developed countries have promised so far. (The U.S. target is a 26% to 28% reduction by 2025.) But they fall short of what Brazil could theoretically contribute, according to some climate policy experts.

“We could do a lot more,” was the initial reaction of Eduardo Assad, a senior climate change researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation in Campinas. Most commitments outlined in New York City, he said, are extensions—or restatements—of what Brazil had already promised at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, when former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made a voluntary commitment to reduce emissions between 36% and 39% by 2020, compared with a business-as-usual scenario. For example, the recovery of 15 million hectares of degraded pastureland, outlined in the INDC as a target for 2030, has been a goal of the federal government’s Low-Carbon Agriculture program since 2012. 

But Adriano Santhiago, director of the Ministry of Environment's climate change department, said at a press meeting today that the new commitments are additional to previous ones. “Paris is not the end, it’s the beginning,” he said. “There are several innovations compared to what has been presented before.”

“If that’s the case, great, it’s a very ambitious plan,” Assad said after being informed of Santhiago’s remarks. But Assad warns against simply adding together Brazil's new and past targets. For example, he notes, Brazil has so far achieved just 10% of the original 15 million-hectare goal for pasture restoration (meant to be reached by 2020), so the two targets won’t necessarily add up to 30 million hectares of restored pastureland by 2030.

Other targets announced by Rousseff include 12 million hectares of reforestation, 5 million hectares of crops-livestock-forestry integration, the end of illegal deforestation, and meeting 45% of the country’s energy needs with renewables—up from a 40% share today—largely thanks to hydroelectricity and sugarcane ethanol.

Tasso Azevedo, an emissions specialist at the Brazilian Climate Observatory, applauded the INDC overall, calling it a “phenomenal” move in the right direction, but he also said the targets could be bolder. “If you take away deforestation, our emissions are still going up.”

Britaldo Soares-Filho, an environmental modeling expert at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, says the emission targets are ambitious, but the measures outlined to reach them are not. “Those commitments seem too modest to reach the emission reductions they are proposing,” he says. Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, executive secretary of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change and a director at the Coppe/UFRJ engineering research institute in Rio de Janeiro, calls the targets “plausible.” It will require some effort to reach them, he says, “but it’s an effort that we are already committed to since Copenhagen.”

A more ambitious set of targets could benefit Brazil’s economic growth, adds Rosa, through the expansion of new economic activities devoted to “green” technologies, such as solar and wind power. “It’s perfectly possible to grow economically and reduce emissions at the same time.”

That’s precisely what Brazil’s INDCs are meant to achieve, according to Rousseff. “Our targets are ambitious because we think it’s essential for our growth to be sustainable,” she told reporters at a press conference in New York City. Questioned about the environmental impacts of building large hydroelectric power plants in the Amazon, she said Brazil cannot relinquish hydropower yet—“It would be like giving up fracking in the U.S.”—but she hopes solar and wind power generation will take its place overtime.

In the proposed baseline year, 2005, Brazil emitted approximately 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases. Those emissions fell to about 1.3 billion tons in 2010, thanks to a sharp drop in deforestation rates, according to the latest national inventory, which is yet to be released. “That’s about a 36% reduction already,” Assad says. By 2012, the drop was even sharper: about 41%, as estimated by the federal government. So meeting the new 2025 target would essentially freeze emissions at the current level, and the size of that challenge will largely depend on how the economy behaves in the next decade.

Land-use change and agriculture are by far the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, as forests and savannas are cut down for cattle pastures and cropland. From 2004 to 2014, deforestation in the Amazon declined by 82%, giving the government a good head start on its new targets. Rousseff said it’s important to remain vigilant, though, as it only takes “one blink” for the chainsaws to start buzzing again.

Paulo Moutinho, a senior climate researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brasilia, says 2030 is “too late” to stop deforestation, and that the current level of 5000 square kilometers being cleared per year is still too high to preserve ecosystem services. “We are killing the forest more slowly, that’s all.”

*Update, 29 September, 8:30 a.m.: This item has been updated with reaction to Brazil's plan.

*Correction, 30 September 10:58 a.m.: An earlier lead misstated the timeframe for Brazil’s climate commitments. They cover the next 15 years, to 2030, not 25 years.