Amazonian fires and the Paris agreement

The new Brazilian administration cares little for the commitments Brazil assumed with the Unites Nations Convention on Climate Change.

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Deforestation and livestock breeding have historically been the greatest sources of the South American contribution to climate change. In contrast to what happens in the rest of the world, where more than 70% of emissions come from Energy, in South America this proportion is much less (42%), and livestock, together with changes in the use of land, occupy a greater portion than other regions (23% and 19% respectively).


In the specific case of Brazil, the situation is far more extreme: 47% of the total of emissions come from Deforestation, 24% from Agriculture, and only 21% from the Energy sector. As one can easily appreciate, any attempt to reduce emissions in a significant way in Brazil should prioritize policies to detain deforestation and diminish the emissions from livestock.


At the moment the Paris Agreement was signed, Brazil presented a commitment to reduce emissions that had some significant characteristics. In the first place, Brazil presented an absolute limit of emissions, that is to say, in contrast to the majority of countries that presented indicators relative to the growth of their GDP or to a scenario of projected trends of future emissions, Brazil promised to reduce the total emissions of greenhouse gases by 37% for 2025 and 43% for 2030, both percentages with respect to their emissions in 2005. This gave a concrete value to the total of emissions that the country should have in a fixed number of years that could be measured in tons of carbon emitted.


Other countries chose other routes. Some fixed their reductions in percentages with respect to an imaginary scenario, in which they projected a growth of future emissions if they were not to take any kind of measures. Others established percentages of reduction with respect to other indicators, such as the growth of GDP or the quantity of electricity generation. Unlike what occurs with the Brazilian Contribution, this kind of commitment is less trustworthy with respect to tons of carbon reduced, since it depends on the evolution of other variables in the economy.


Secondly, Brazil announced that its commitments would be assumed utilizing its own resources and without having recourse to international cooperation funds. Again, this differed from the majority of other countries that expressed part of their contributions in an unconditional manner and another part conditioned to receiving funds from abroad. Thus the Brazilian promise was more trustworthy than others, inasmuch as it would depend only on itself to be fulfilled.


At the moment of signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, Brazil already had data on the evolution of its emissions since 2005, the year that it chose as the base for calculating its future reductions. A good part of the achievement of these Brazilian goals of reduction were to be centred on a reduction of the rates of deforestation. The rate of deforestation of the Amazon had diminished by 82% from 2004 and 2014, hence fixing a reduction of emissions with a base in 2005 ensured Brazil that a good part of the achievement had already been obtained. For the presentation of National Contributions, countries had the possibility to choose a base year that they would take as a reference and against which they could verify the fulfilment of their commitments. Brazil chose 2005, aware that their emissions derived from deforestation had been reduced by nearly 58%, passing from 2,049 MtCO2 in 2005 to 886 MtCO2 in 2015.


In terms of totals, that is to say adding up the contribution of all sectors, the Brazilian emissions had been 2,968 MtCO2e in 2005 and had fallen to 2,024 MtCO2e for 2015, that is to say a reduction of 32%, a percentage that left them very close to the 37% promised for 2025. The Brazilian Contribution was important and ambitious in the international context, but it had already advanced along a path that allowed it to assume this level of commitment.


Nevertheless, what was not foreseen was the possibility of a 180 degree turn in the environmental policies that could come from a change of government. The arrival of Jair Bolsonaro to the Presidency of the country brought about a radical change in the former policies on climate change. The changes in the downward trajectories of deforestation and its respective emissions had suffered a change even before the last Presidential elections. In 2016 and 2017, the emissions from deforestation had increased to 1,010 and 995 MtCO2 respectively. The emissions of the Amazon diminished a little in this period but they were compensated with an increase of emissions from the Cerrado, the second principal biomass of Brazil.


Nevertheless, this year this tendency has intensified if one looks at the number of “burnings” that have so much moved world public opinion in recent days. The quantity of fires, that had been less than 90 thousand in 2018, had already reached a register of 139 thousand between January and September 2019, which are an indication that the emissions of deforestation will take a significant jump this year. Considering, in addition, that these burnings have as their objective to implant new livestock activities in the zone, it is foreseeable that there will also be a future increase in emissions derived from this production.


It is well-known that the new Brazilian administration cares little for the commitments assumed with the Unites Nations Convention on Climate Change. The President has expressed this clearly even before being elected. But it is certain that there is no way that Brazil could achieve its commitments of reduction expressed in its National Contribution with these policies on forests and livestock. Without a doubt there will not only be greater emissions from deforestation, but also the former forests, now non-existent, will cease to absorb carbon as they did when they were alive. To this one must add the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide that will be added by cattle breeding and the new agriculture installed over the burned forest.


For the next evaluation that the Convention on Climate Change will undertake on the achievement of the international pledges to attain the stabilization of temperature increases below two degrees centigrade, they will have to write off the Brazilian promise. We will not be able count on the reduction of approximately 800 MtCO2 that Brazil promised for 2025, or at least not a good part of it.


This reality indicates the limits of the United Nations system as a means of reaching common goals and its powerlessness to enforce a commitment that is already in itself quite weak such as the Paris Agreement. The tensions between the rights that national sovereignty confers on governments and the obligations that international jurisprudence can impose, added to the absence of penalties for lack of compliance in the framework of the Paris Agreement, mean that our expectations on the scope of their results shrink further every day.



(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)



- Gerardo Honty is a researcher with CLAES (Centro Latino Americano de Ecología Social).

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Crisis Ambiental

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