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Brazil's Global Warming Agenda

Brazil has turned its international climate commitments into national law, but that’s only the beginning.

Since Copenhagen, over fifty countries have pledged greenhouse gas reduction targets to the UNFCCC. Brazil has gone a step further and turned its commitment into national law. This is a positive development, but if the reduction target is to be met, Brazilian lawmakers will need to provide further legislative details and make key decisions regarding the country’s newly-found oil reserves.

Brazil’s National Climate Change Policy

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed the National Climate Change Policy (PNMC) just days after the closure of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. This is a crucial part of upholding Brazil’s international commitment.

<p>President Lula da Silva, photo credit: World Economic Forum</p>

President Lula da Silva, photo credit: World Economic Forum

The PNMC is far-reaching and ambitious, addressing how Brazil will tackle its current and future greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Beyond providing an explanation of thirty-two emissions reducing activities currently being implemented in Brazil – such as the expansion of its hydroelectric power-generation capacity and the continuation of the National Ethanol Program – the PNMC also lists additional activities in the conception phase. While the plan is rather comprehensive in its economy-wide coverage, many of the proposed activities are in an early stage of development, recommended rather than mandatory, or lacking specific targets or implementation measures.

New Legislation Fills in Many Gaps

The PNMC became national policy through Lula’s signing of Brazilian law 12.187, which also establishes a national reduction target and discusses the process to move the PNMC towards implementation.

Most notably, law 12.187 officially adopts Brazil’s voluntary national greenhouse gas reduction target of between 36.1% and 38.9% of projected emissions by 2020. This in itself is a vital step for Brazil that many doubted possible. “A year ago, we didn’t have a climate plan or emissions goals, even though Brazil is the fifth or sixth largest emitter,” said Carlos Minc, Brazil’s Minister of Environment.

The new law also requires Brazil’s mitigation actions to be quantifiable and verifiable, meaning that international officials will be able to review and confirm whether or not emissions reductions have truly taken place. This will lay to rest doubts raised in the U.S. and elsewhere that developing countries might not allow their reductions to be subject to outside verification.

Although it does not specifically address all key issues, law 12.187 fills in many gaps. It provides more details on how Brazil will finance its climate change policies. It also estimates the necessary emissions reductions per sector, and states that an executive decree will further specify reduction targets in the future. These targets will be based on the second Brazilian Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, which will be finalized this year.

The Presidential Veto and Brazil’s Oil Reserves

President Lula signed the law legally sanctioning the PNMC, but with an important veto. Lula rejected language calling for a “gradual abandonment” of the use of fossil fuels after pressure from the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The original text would have made it difficult for Brazil’s future economic growth to depend on energy that, while predominantly hydroelectric today, is increasingly generated from fossil fuels.

Whether and how Brazil uses oil money to finance sustainable development and low-carbon growth will be a key issue to watch in coming months.

With this veto Lula avoided, at least for the time being, contradictory issues playing out between Brazil’s climate concerns and the planned extraction of its recently discovered vast offshore deep-water oil reserves. The tensions are clear in a recent bill calling for the creation of social fund, financed by Brazil’s projected oil revenues, to support poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability programs, among other initiatives. Whether and how Brazil chooses to use oil money to finance sustainable development and low-carbon growth will be a key issue to watch in coming months.

The Meaning of a “Voluntary Target”

Although Brazil has generally been praised for passing the PNMC, a good deal of speculation exists regarding what a legislated voluntary target means. Minister of the Environment Minc told Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo that the target will be met since it has been passed into law. “In my head, the word ‘voluntary’ does not mean that the commitment is not mandatory, just that the motivation is independent,” said Minc. If its climate change commitment is to ultimately be taken seriously, Brazil will need to provide further details on how it will implement and enforce a law with a voluntary target.

The PNMC and International Negotiations: What’s Next?

At the recent international climate talks in Copenhagen, Brazil’s strong PNMC proposal and reduction target gave the country a powerful presence. Brazil eventually drafted an accord with the U.S., China, India and South Africa to commit to internationally verified emissions cuts. By enacting the PNMC immediately after the international talks, Brazil showed its serious dedication to combating climate change.

Environment ministers from the BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – held their first meeting on January 25th to further develop details of the Copenhagen Accord. The meeting initiated the establishment of a fund to spur technology transfer to address global warming in poor countries. Future meetings, which will be held every three months, will work towards defining their voluntary emission reduction pledges. BASIC countries “have the obligation to be the first to submit climate action plans,” said South Africa’s environment minister, Buyelwa Sonjica.

Just like every country, Brazil must navigate some complicated domestic issues to implement its Climate Change Plan. How it approaches these challenges will determine whether Brazil can continue to be a leader in international climate action.

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