With the remarkable climate announcement by Presidents Barack Obama and Dilma Rousseff this week, the United States and Brazil reinforced the urgency of tackling climate change, and jointly committed to work on overcoming challenges for an ambitious international climate agreement. The joint statement goes beyond research and development and embraces an unprecedented accord on climate targets, where both countries committed to increase the share of renewables (beyond hydropower) by 20 percent by 2030 in their electricity matrices. This means that the United States and Brazil will need to triple and double, respectively, their share of renewable energy in the next 15 years.

Being the second and the seventh top greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, respectively, the U.S. and Brazil commitments have significant implications on the global long-term transition to low-carbon economies. More broadly, the need for action declared in the U.S.-China agreement in November 2014, in the Brazil-China joint climate statement in May 2015, and in the new U.S.-Brazil statement shows that the world’s largest emitters are committed to accelerating efforts to create a strong international climate agreement in Paris later this year.

An Important Step Forward

Brazil-US scientific collaboration on climate change is not new, especially in the energy sector. Yet three areas of cooperation take this relationship even further, including:

  • Cooperation on sustainable land use, which includes the launching of a Binational Program on Forest and Land Sector;
  • Cooperation on clean energy, to expand research on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and deepening existing partnerships; and
  • Cooperation on adaptation to climate change to enhance collaboration related to adaptation planning and resilience, among others.

Additionally, an important but less covered outcome of the joint-statement was the recognition to manage and phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. The U.S. and Brazil have agreed to join efforts to prevent these potent greenhouse gas emissions, commonly used as refrigerants, from entering the atmosphere.

Implications for International Climate Action

The new bilateral cooperation also presents implications for the international climate agenda. Several countries like the United States, European Union, China, Mexico, and others have already submitted their post-2020 climate plans, otherwise known as “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs). In March 2015, the United States announced a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 as part of its INDC. While Brazil, has not yet released its own INDC, its commitments put forward in the joint announcement may provide an early sign of what’s to come. The country committed to eliminate illegal deforestation, restore and reforest 12 million hectares of forests by 2030, increase the share of renewable sources (beyond hydropower) in the energy matrix by 28 percent to 33 percent, among other measures.

Many experts argued that the announced commitments from Brazil are not ambitious enough, saying that reaching those targets won’t be a huge lift because of the direction in which Brazil is already moving. Since the country committed to present a fair and ambitious contribution that represents its best efforts beyond current actions, its INDC should include transformative actions in the energy sector. This means accelerating the shift to renewables and surpassing its existing commitments to minimize emissions from agriculture, known as the “ABC Plan.” Given that nearly half of the total GHG emissions from the energy sector come from the transportation sector, strong measures to reduce emissions from that could be key to increasing ambition.

In the case of the United States, the announcement to increase renewables in the country is an important acknowledgment of the increasing role of non-fossil energy sources in the U.S. electricity sector, and goes beyond the levels that the Environmental Protective Agency’s (EPA) modeling suggested would result from implementation of the Clean Power Plan. This target will be readily achievable given current market trends and the continuing increases in deployment of renewables. Meeting or even exceeding this target can be an important element in achieving the U.S. commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025.

Additional efforts will certainly be necessary to guarantee that these commitments move forward and that each country takes on its fair share of emissions reductions. The bilateral agreement signals progress towards global climate action, and creates momentum for stronger action by the United States and especially by Brazil, which has still to announce its INDC. This announcement provides a starting point for the two countries to reinforce their role as leaders in the global climate regime.