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Brazil Pledges Ambitious Emissions Reductions

New targets and deforestation numbers put Brazil in the spotlight.

The government of Brazil announced last Friday that it will reduce its emissions by at least 36% from business as usual by 2020. This dramatic (though non-binding) target came in the wake of news that Brazilian deforestation is currently at its lowest level since measurement began over twenty years ago. As the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen approach, what do these numbers actually mean?

A Look at the Numbers

First, it is important to clarify that the target is a 36 - 39% drop from "business as usual" (BAU), not from current emissions levels. (BAU levels are based on projections of future emissions if no action is taken.) This translates to a 15 - 18% reduction from 2005 levels. Even so, these numbers look relatively ambitious in the international context, especially considering that Brazil is a developing country and does not have a quantitative emission reduction obligation under the Kyoto Protocol. By comparison, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June would reduce U.S. emissions by 14% over the same period.

Brazil’s expected reductions by sector are shown in the table below:

Sector2005 (MtCO2e)1BAU 2020 (MtCO2e)2Targeted range for 2020 (MtCO2e)3Targeted change relative to BAU (%)4Targeted change relative to 2005 (%)5Planned interventions6
Land Use1139.31084415(24.7)(63.7)Reduction of deforestation in the Amazon by 80%; reduction of deforestation in the Cerrado by 40%
Agriculture and Ranching467.4627461 - 494(4.9 - 6.1)(1.4) - 5.7Recuperation of pastures, interated farming and ranching, no-till, biological nitrogen fixation
Energy354.3901694 - 735 (6.1 - 7.7)48.9 - 107Energy efficiency, biofuels, hydropower, alternative sources (e.g. wind)
Other61.39282 - 84 (0.3 - 0.4)33.8 - 37Substitution of charcoal from deforestation in pig iron production
Total2022.327031651 - 1728 (36.1 - 38.9)(18.4 - 14.6)

Over half of the proposed reductions are expected to come from efforts already underway to stem deforestation in the Amazon, which accounts for about two-thirds of Brazil’s total emissions. Yet it is unclear how much of the recent drop in deforestation is due to policy changes, such as the recent crack-down on illegal logging and enhanced enforcement of land licensing, versus the economic crisis, which has reduced global demand for the beef and soy production that has traditionally driven deforestation.

Another point of contention regarding the design of the target was the calculation of BAU emissions. The government has not released its methodology for the projections, and there is debate as to what economic growth rate should have been assumed in the calculations. Using a higher growth rate would result in higher estimates of BAU emissions, and an inflated BAU would make Brazil’s percent reduction target relatively easier to achieve. The Ministry of Environment had initially put forward an estimate based on a 4% economic growth rate, and the administration, in turn, suggested using 5% or 6%, which some environmentalists consider unrealistically high.

Reaction from Environmental Groups

Nonetheless, the reaction from Brazilian environmental groups has been mostly positive, with some reservations. According to João Talocchi of Greenpeace, "Two years ago, if you said the word 'target,' [the government] wanted to revoke your passport and deport you. This is a change that could help in the Copenhagen negotiations." But environmentalists are also criticizing the lack of transparency in the process of developing the target, and demanding that the government release its calculations, update the national inventory, enshrine in national policy the steps that will be taken to implement the goal, and include the target in the Copenhagen agreement, presumably because this may lead to international monitoring and verification of the results.

Developing Countries Take Action

Brazil’s announcement, three weeks before the December COP-15 climate negotiations, may help put pressure on wealthier nations to make similar pledges. Brazil is not alone; other major developing countries have stepped forward with significant proposals as well. Mexico has pledged to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. South Africa has presented a detailed plan to peak its national emissions by 2020. China has launched an effort to reduce energy intensity 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2010, and has said it will reduce its carbon intensity by “a notable margin” by 2020. (Most of these proposals are contingent on financial support from developed countries.) While it looks increasingly unlikely that a deal will be finalized in December, negotiations are expected to continue, and the question of how the mitigation burden should be shared both between and among developed and developing countries will continue to be contentious.

Brazil’s new agenda is a politically important step, and it is significant that the Brazilian government is now willing to take on a target (even a voluntary one). This is a real change in tone from the administration. Developed countries, and especially the U.S., will have to take note and put forward their own ambitious targets. Yet Brazil’s target will be meaningless unless significant steps are taken to implement it. This means continuing to improve the management of the Amazon by clarifying and implementing land tenure laws, addressing excessive fire outbreaks, and reducing subsidies to competing land uses that drive deforestation; tackling emissions from agriculture and ranching; and reversing the trend of increasing carbon intensity in the energy sector. The world will be watching to see how Brazil approaches these challenges in the years to come. In the meantime, other countries must step up to the plate and match Brazil's ambition.


  1. Cerri et al., “Brazilian Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Importance of Agriculture and Livestock. Sci. Agric. v. 66, n. 6, p. 831 – 843, Nov/Dec 2009 

  2. MMA et al., Cenários para Oferta Brasileira de Mitigação de Emissões, http://www.mma.gov.br/estruturas/182/_arquivos/cenarioemissoes_182.pdf, accessed 11/16/09 

  3. Calculated based on MMA et al. 

  4. MMA et al. 

  5. Calculated by author based on Cerri et al. and MMA et al. 

  6. MMA et al. 

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