Lula’s New Term Gives the Amazon a Fighting Chance

Climate action wasn’t the main reason Brazilians voted in a new leader, but Lula might just allow the Amazon rainforest to keep its carbon locked away

Amazon Rainforest Is Being Destroyed At Fastest Pace In 15 Years.
By Zahra Hirji and Akshat Rathi
November 01, 2022 | 10:42 AM

Bloomberg — Every election is now a climate election. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s narrow win over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to be Brazil’s newest president this past weekend is no exception.”Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon Forest,” Lula, 77, tweeted on Sunday. (Bolsonaro has not yet formally accepted the election results.)

Brazil, home to Latin America’s largest economy, has an outsized influence on the global environment. More than 40% of the country is still covered in rainforest that’s home to some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. The Amazon also stores enough carbon, which if fully released would be an estimated 730 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent – that’s enough to account for 20-years of global emissions at current rates.

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And under the recent presidency of Bolsonaro, 67, acting on climate change has not been a priority. Bolsonaro has significantly undermined environmental regulations and deprioritized the rights of indigenous people. That’s accelerated the deforestation of the Amazon, in large part due to illegal deforestation from cattle ranching. In tandem, greenhouse gas emissions have risen. In campaigning for the latest election, Bolsonaro continued to advocate for further development of the Amazon even if it meant increased deforestation. It still remains to be seen what Lula will be able to accomplish for the environment as president, but climate advocates already see his election as a move in a better direction.

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“I feel like deforestation was an actual policy goal of the Bolsonaro administration because they were so focused on developing the Amazon,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the nonprofit Brookings Institution. “So this election was huge for the future of the planet and for the future of the Amazon. No question.”

If the planet gets too hot, the Amazon is one of the world’s major climate tipping points that’s vulnerable to unstoppable conversion from forest to savannah through a process called dieback, according to a recent paper in the journal Science. Accelerated deforestation could trigger a tipping point even sooner, setting off the release of vast amounts of that stored carbon.

“We’ve already seen places where there’s localized dieback going on,” said study author David Armstrong McKay, a climate-biosphere scientist at Stockholm Resilience Centre and the University of Exeter. The good news is “we’ve not got to the point of there being a sort of large-scale dieback across large regions being self-sustaining.”

Preventing such a fate, McKay said, requires “both stopping deforestation and stopping emissions as soon as possible.” That’s much closer to Lula’s vision for Brazil than Bolsonaro’s. In his victory speech and on Twitter, Lula pledged to work towards “zero deforestation” of the Amazon.

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The international response was swift. German and Norwegian officials have already said they want to work with Brazil again to reopen the Amazon Fund, an international conservation initiative they both helped launch in 2008 and later halted in protest of Bolsonaro’s policies. “We welcome Brazil back as a global partner in efforts to reduce deforestation,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s minister of climate and environment, said on Monday.

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Over the summer, members of Lula’s campaign said he’d consider appointing a climate envoy, akin to John Kerry’s position in the US, if elected. Lula is planning a meeting of regional leaders to an Amazon forest summit in 2023. And he wants to make a deal with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are also home to huge rainforests, to ensure they have a united front in negotiating deals with wealthy nations for forest protection.

Lula had said that, if elected, he would update the country’s nationally determined contribution, a formal climate pledge to the Paris Agreement, Izabella Teixeira, his environmental campaign lead and Brazil’s former environment minister, told Climate Home News. The country’s current NDC is less ambitious than Brazil’s initial one submitted in 2016, according to a Climate Action Tracker analysis.

And, yet, for all the climate implications of Lula’s victory, climate action wasn’t the main reason why Brazilians voted for him. In fact, even as Lula’s first two terms as president between 2003 and 2010 were marked with a reduction in deforestation, he isn’t willing to go against agricultural businesses that make up 28% of Brazil’s economy. In July, Lula’s centrist running mate was sent to soothe ranchers and farmers.

Lula’s previous presidential stint was marked with a boom in the commodity cycle, boosting income for Brazil’s exports of everything from coffee to beef. The windfall gave Lula the ability to pay for social policies, such as housing, welfare and education, lifting tens of millions out of poverty. The start of the new term in 2022 is instead marked with high inflation, increasing hunger, and rising poverty rates.

Only three years ago, Lula was in prison for a corruption scandal that led to a deep recession in Brazil. His sentence was overturned and allowed him to make one of the most remarkable political comebacks. In the mean time, however, almost half the seats in Brazil’s Congress have gone to pro-agrobusiness lawmakers. That’s likely to make Lula’s job at keeping his environmental promises harder still.

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The urgency to act is only increasing. Countries are on track to blow past the Paris Agreement goals and trigger catastrophic climate change, according to a pair of UN reports published last week. Any impact Lula might have on climate action won’t be immediate. “Because this election is happening right before the COP, it probably won’t make much of a difference in the kinds of promises that Brazil makes at the COP,” said Gross.

Nonetheless, most of the delegates from 200 countries set to assemble at the COP27 summit in Egypt would welcome a climate ally, with Lula signaling openness to working on reducing deforestation. “That’s a huge improvement,” she said.

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