Headline: Biofuels and nothing else? Brazil’s contribution to the Paris Agreement under Bolsonaro

Sugarcane is used as a raw material for biofuels.
Sugarcane is used as a raw material for biofuels. AdobeStock/jolkesky

Even before taking up office, the new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro called into question the country’s role in the global climate protection regime. He caused considerable alarm when he withdrew the Brazilian offer to host the 25th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, just days before the start of COP 24. On top of this, it was revealed that Bolsonaro’s pick for the role of Minister for Foreign Relations considers global warming a plot by “cultural Marxists”. These announcements and other controversial statements by members of the incoming administration cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of environmental governance and climate policy in Brazil.

Brazil has a long history of promoting biofuels

The only key component of the Brazilian Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement that the incoming administration seems to be committed to are the well-established biofuel policies. They have been part of the country’s energy policy since the 1970’s when ethanol production was incentivised in response to the oil crisis. The introduction of flex fuel vehicles (which run on any blend of gasoline and ethanol) 15 years ago boosted demand for ethanol and was followed by several increases in the level of mandatory blending for biodiesel. In 2016, the Brazilian government led the creation of Biofuture Platform, an international multi-stakeholder initiative to promote a modern bio-economy, including the use of renewable liquid fuels in the transport sector. Finally, about one year ago, Congress approved the National Biofuel Policy, also known as RenovaBio, a market-based instrument that is expected to provide incentives for the recovery of the sugarcane industry. The policy’s implementation is set to begin soon following the launch of a certification system that will underpin the issuance of tradable certificates.

Oddly, RenovaBio was built around targets to reduce the greenhouse gases emissions intensity of liquid fuels used in the transport sector. Biodiesel and bioethanol are expected to emit significantly less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. However, the net impact on emissions must take into account the emissions observed in the agricultural process, including changes in soil carbon stocks due to land conversion. The policy provides an incentive structure in the form of tradable certificates to promote more efficient biofuels production pathways and secure life-cycle emissions savings. Without a climate mitigation driver, the programme loses its raison d’étre - at least according to its formal objectives. Nevertheless, representatives from the biofuels sector have expressed their confidence that RenovaBio will be implemented regardless of Brazil’s commitment to the Paris Agreement. While this could be an attempt to convince investors that there is a reliable scenario for market development, it reveals a serious degree of policy incoherence.

Mixed signals impair efforts to address sustainability issues

In a side event organized by the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association at COP 24, Evandro Gussi, who authored the bill of the National Biofuel Policy, highlighted Bolsonaro’s support for RenovaBio and expressed his conviction that the president would reverse his stance on the Paris Agreement. However, a couple of days later, Bolsonaro confirmed his view that the Paris Agreement could pose a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty. It remains unclear what the final stance of his government will be.

While it is possible that RenovaBio will be implemented anyway, these mixed signals call into question the programme’s actual contributions to climate protection and nature conservation. There are important sustainability issues related to biofuels production worldwide, namely their direct and indirect impacts on land use, biodiversity, and water availability. In an attempt to address direct land use and biodiversity impacts, for instance, RenovaBio establishes eligibility criteria, such as compliance with legislation, including the Forest Code and Sugarcane Agro-Ecological Zoning, a territorial planning tool intended to shape the expansion of the sugarcane industry by excluding areas with native vegetation and areas in the Amazon and Pantanal biomes.

Integrated policies and robust governance to protect the environment are necessary

The extent to which these safeguards will effectively prevent negative environmental impacts – including indirect impacts – depends to a large degree on command and control instruments as well as on the expansion dynamics of other agricultural commodities. Experts on land use in Brazil argue that the main driver of illegal deforestation in Brazilian Amazon is land grabbing, a criminal activity that should be tackled by law enforcement agencies. However, the rate of deforestation is also alarmingly high in Brazil’s savannah eco-region, where the extent of land protected under the Forest Code and land use zoning laws is much lower than in the Amazon. Command and control instruments should accordingly be complemented by economic incentives to conserve native vegetation, thereby addressing both illegal and legal deforestation.

Robust governance will be crucial for monitoring the implementation and impacts of several intertwined policies, among them RenovaBio. Unfortunately, many of the elements that underpin environmental governance in Brazil could be jeopardized in the years ahead as the congressional rural caucus – which has traditionally sought to weaken environmental licensing procedures, reduce the size of protected areas, and facilitate land grabbing – extends its influence in Bolsonaro’s government.

Paths ahead to build common ground

A conciliatory pathway between agricultural production and forest conservation has been strongly advocated by the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture. Since 2015, the group convenes important organizations representing the agricultural sector, industry, civil society and academia to bridge economic interests and climate change mitigation. The document “Vision 2030 – 2050: The Future of Forests and Agriculture in Brazil” suggests, for instance, that sustainable production practices, such as the intensification of production in degraded areas, integrated Crop-Livestock-Forestry and Agroforestry systems, will be the standard in Brazil by 2050.

Also at COP, Alfredo Sirkis, the executive coordinator of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change, expressed the intention to continue operating even if the body is dissolved by the new government. The Forum is a collegiate body established by the government in 2000 to raise awareness and mobilize civil society to address climate change. After the Paris Agreement, it promoted crucial discussions on economy-wide mitigation pathways and adaptation to climate change, which resulted in proposals for the implementation of the Brazilian NDC and the development of a long-term strategy to decarbonize the Brazilian economy by 2060.

These are just two examples to illustrate that there will be arenas where common ground can be sought although the outlook is not promising for enhancing climate ambition and strengthening environmental safeguards in Brazil. Whether the dialogue with representatives of the new administration will succeed is hard to foresee.

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