Brazil Can Reduce Its Carbon Footprint as Part of Its COVID-19 Economic Recovery Program

Brazil Can Reduce Its Carbon Footprint as Part of Its COVID-19 Economic Recovery Program

In the last Climate Scorecard report for Brazil, we discussed how Land Use and Land Cover Changes (LULCC) are a pressing concern for Brazil’s commitment to emission reductions targets in terms of climate mitigation. In particular, the agribusiness and logging industries and consequential large-scale tropical deforestation (motivated by the extraction of high-profile wood such as the mahogany tree) is quite a big challenge.

Some 80% of global deforestation is a result of agricultural production, which is also the leading cause of habitat destruction worldwide. Animal agriculture is a significant driver of deforestation, and is also responsible for approximately 60% of direct global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Overall, emissions from the food system, including production and consumption, represent up to 37% of total global human-induced GHG emissions. The wood industry is also a massive source of uncounted carbon emissions. Increased rates of deforestation in Brazil due to logging, commodity driven agriculture, and cattle ranching have led to loss of biodiversity, ecological services, and indigenous culture. It is extremely important that legislation in Brazil addresses these sectors in relation to climate mitigation strategies precisely because they are such a massive part of Brazil’s economic strategy.

One might argue, however, that Brazil already has its hands full with tackling the coronavirus pandemic[1] and planning for the financial recovery of industries that will be affected by COVID-19. This is mainly because the handling of the crisis has been problematic from the beginning (as addressed in a previous Climate Scorecard post). In consistent behavior over the past few months, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has continued to fiercely criticize measures to shut down non-essential businesses and keep residents indoors to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, claiming that the economic damage being done is worse than the health risk itself.

However, many specialists are attempting to bring awareness that, contrary to the pattern of environmental benefits associated with the pandemic seen across the world, the new coronavirus will likely lead to accelerated deforestation rates in the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. The expectations for preserving forest cover in 2020 were already not promising earlier this year but, with the pandemic, the chances are quite high that deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon will reach records never seen before.

This calls for an urgent discussion on creating climate guidelines for Brazil related to the LULCC sector and, in particular, to steer the logging industry towards more sustainable production. First, it is necessary to explain that there are three main factors related to the pandemic that encourage deforestation:

  1. Decreased international pressure for conservation measures: Other countries, international companies, and institutions are among the main agents that have been acting for environmental protection of the Amazon during the government of Jair Bolsonaro. This is because the current government appears to somewhat respond only to market-based incentives. For example, the Brazilian president was extremely slow to take measures to fight forest fires last year[2]. It was only after it gained huge prominence in the media around the world and led international actors to put pressure on the government that this issue began to be (even though still reluctantly) addressed. This type of pressure, however, is bound to fade while the entire world is focused on fighting the spread of the new coronavirus. That is to say, with the coronavirus on everyone’s mind, the price of short-term international reputation that Brazil will pay for not containing deforestation will likely decrease.
  2. Fewer army resources available: As an attempt to increase monitoring, enforce the already existent conservation policies and respond to the international pressure, in addition to keeping troops in the Amazon for two months in 2019, Brazilian authorities were debating a longer intervention this year, starting in March. However budgetary resources and attention that could be devoted to the Amazon will now have to be used to combat COVID-19. Bolsonaro, for example, asked the Army to use its facilities and personnel to produce hand sanitizers and hydroxychloroquine capsules – which Bolsonaro claims is a very effective method of treating coronavirus patients, despite its effectiveness not having been proven by scientists.
  3. The effects of the economic crises:
    1. At the regional and local level: Regional authorities are already largely opposed to strict environmental control operations, complaining about the impact on local economic activity. With the next recession that will likely ensue because of the COVID-19 outbreak, there will likely be more local pressure against environmental control operations in the Amazon, which can have severe consequences if large-scale deforestation activities remain active. However, the effects of an economic crisis on deforestation are not yet entirely clear: On one hand, the fall in economic activity in the midst of the recession could potentially reduce the demand for new land, which is obtained through clearing the forest. More likely though, the crisis can lead many people to poverty, which would increase the propensity for them to engage in illegal activities (including the commercialization of mahogany and other high-profile timber wood) to earn more income.
    2. At the Federal level: The current government has expressed its commitment to promote deforestation for agriculture conversion (mainly in terms of export-oriented commodities) and to make way for cattle ranching. These activities are intended to increase Brazil’s exports. In light of an economic crises, it should not be surprising that the government would begin to actively encourage deforestation and the growth of this industry. In fact, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles recently called on the government to push through further deregulation of environmental policy while people are “distracted by the coronavirus pandemic”. This quote from the Minister is from a video from a government meeting that surfaced on the internet after the supreme court ordered its release following corruption charges made on President Bolsonaro.

Environmental economists are challenging the belief in the tradeoff between conservation and development. There are alternatives to encouraging economic growth without costing the loss of forests. This point is crucial in understanding the possibilities for policy intervention in the post COVID-19 Amazon.

Currently in Brazil, there is an opportunity of aligning agricultural growth with protection of natural resources to promote economic development in a sustainable way. Economists say it is possible to more than double Brazil’s logging production in already available areas, without deforestation and suppression of native vegetation. Instead of increasing the logging through more deforestation, the modernization of production techniques would provide Brazil with the same result as well as help Brazil recover financially from the COVID-19 economic turmoil.

Brazil’s new Forest Code goes beyond the protection of remaining forest areas. The code would guarantee that Brazil’s production is in compliance with sensible environmental regulations – a condition that is valued in international trade. On the other hand, by establishing restrictions to the expansion of areas designated for agriculture in rural establishments, the Code will stimulate technological and innovative development in production in the agribusiness sector and the logging industry.

Activity Rating: ** Standing Still

Brazil has the potential to address climate mitigation and the reduction of its carbon footprint in a COVID-19 related economic recovery plan targeted at reducing deforestation while also increasing production in the logging and agribusiness sector. The only impediment for Brazil to make the transition to this low carbon approach to development is the government’s unwillingness to do so.

Take Action

Please send the following message to the policymaker(s) below.

Dear Minister,

The coronavirus presents the perfect opportunity to reduce Brazil’s carbon footprint while still promoting economic recovery. We urge you to consider the effects of climate change and to steer Brazil’s logging and agribusiness sector in a more sustainable direction.


Ricardo Salles

Minister of Environment


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This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager Luiza Martins Karpavicius

[1] At the time of writing this post, Brazil was the second country with the most cases of COVID-19.

[2] The interested reader may refer to Climate Scorecard’s posts of December 2019 and March 2020 for more information on the wildfires in Brazil.

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