SÃO PAULO — Brazil announced to much fanfare this week plans to zero illegal deforestation on its territory by 2030 and restore an area of rainforest the size of Pennsylvania. But experts say the plans are unambitious and activists called the promises “a crushing disappointment” that mounted to nothing more than targets already stipulated by Brazilian law.
Climate change was among the headlining issues in a joint declaration made Tuesday by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and US President Barack Obama at the White House.
“We have committed to reach … a zero illegal deforestation rate between now and 2030,” Rousseff said, describing climate change as “one of the world’s central challenges for the 21st Century.”
Rousseff also vowed Brazil would restore 120,000 square kilometers (46,330 square miles) of forest over the same period.
The United States and Brazil additionally announced a joint goal to increase their share of renewable energy sources, excluding hydropower: Brazil’s goal is 28 to 33 percent of its total energy mix.
For Brazil, where nearly 70 percent of power is generated by controversial hydroelectric dams, this will mean a doubling of non-hydro renewables, according to the declaration.
Brazil has yet to formally announce its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC, which it is required to submit ahead of December’s United Nations climate change negotiations in Paris.
But Brian Deese, a senior White House adviser focusing on climate change, told reporters the pledges were “a big deal” and a “strong commitment … to reaching an ambitious climate-change agreement.”
Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said, “We have already achieved a lot, but want to do more. We are committed to significantly increasing Brazil’s potential for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
Representatives from Brazil’s agricultural sector hailed the climate change pledges.
The Brazilian Association for Vegetable Oil Industries (ABIOVE), which represents producers of soybean — a key Brazilian commodity — said the pledges proved Brazil’s commitment to tackling deforestation.
“The announcement marks another important step in the strong, comprehensive reforms undertaken by the government over the last ten years to combat illegal logging,” ABIOVE secretary-general Fábio Trigueirinho told VICE News.
Agriculture Minister Kátia Abreu, famous for defending Brazil’s major landowners, or “ruralistas,” said the climate change commitments would help “sustain Brazilian agriculture” as officials backed a doubling of the use of biofuels.
However, a thumbs-up from Abreu, known as the “Golden Chainsaw” by environmentalists who accused her of championing farmers’ interests over concerns about the environment, was perhaps not the ringing endorsement Brazil sought for its climate pledges.
Commentators pointed to a fear of challenging the ruralistas, as well as President Rousseff’s weak political standing, as an obstacle to greater ambition, and environmental experts were also less than upbeat about the pledges.
“Rousseff’s announcements were overly timid,” Paulo Moutinho, a leading Amazon deforestation expert and executive director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute told VICE News. “Brazil has shown it has all the necessary tools — including legislation and technology — to cut illegal deforestation to zero far more quickly than 2030.”
Environmental organizations also said targets on non-hydro renewable energy sources barely required Brazil to lift a finger.
“One positive point was the promise of greater cooperation in technology and science, which have proven vital, particularly remote surveillance and satellite tracking (of deforestation),” Moutinho said.
As experts sought the positives, activists accused Rousseff of abandoning the fight against deforestation.
“The government’s proposals are a crushing disappointment,” Márcio Astrini, Brazil public policy coordinator at Greenpeace, told VICE News. “Over her five years in office, Rousseff has failed to demonstrate the environment is important to her.”
Environmentalists said Rousseff’s pledge to restore 120,000 square kilometers of forest amounted to half that achievable by simply adhering to Brazil’s contentious 2012 Forestry Code — under which a 210,000 square kilometer target had already been slashed from 500,000.
“The President hasn’t presented a single new tool to reduce reforestation … or unclean energy sources,” Astrini said. “She has simply promised to follow what’s already been set down in law.”
Maíra Irigaray, Brazil program coordinator at Amazon Watch, labeled Rousseff’s pledge a “greenwashing statement” in line with a “very flexible code that allows deforestation at many levels.”
“Rousseff cannot claim her most ambitious commitment to fight climate change is to fulfill the law: that is her minimum duty as President,” Irigaray told VICE News.
Brazil has made great strides against deforestation — down 70 percent between 2005 and 2014 — even as land-hungry soybean and beef production expanded.
But now the country is witnessing an escalation in illegal logging, which rose 29 percent in 2013.
Experts say Brazil has had no lack of proposals to combat the practice.
Brazil’s decade-old “soy moratorium” was the first voluntary zero-deforestation agreement under which soybean traders agreed not to buy produce grown on illegally deforested Amazon land.
“Producers now must register and adhere to environmental legislation to access both the significant markets and central bank credit,” Trigueirinho said. “If the producer doesn’t comply, they’ll be out of pocket one way or another. And while inspections were difficult, technology is making the process much more effective.”
The moratorium was due to be replaced by the Forestry Code, but delays in registering producers means the initiative will remain in place until at least May 2016. With the United States looking at re-opening its market to Brazilian beef, it is hoped Brazil’s meat markets could follow a similar model.
A more recent proposal has taken a different approach to combatting illegal logging: A draft bill that would in effect nationalize the Brazilian rainforest, guaranteeing both the state’s stake in Amazon resources and ensuring environmental protections by regulating activities in the globally-important biome.
Companies wanting to operate in the areas would require state approval and a share of the proceeds — similar to oil royalties — would be payable.
A spokesperson for Rio federal deputy Sérgio Zveiter, who penned the proposal, told VICE News the draft bill was currently awaiting a special commission, which must clear the proposal before it can go before Congress, and was still far from becoming law.
Meanwhile environmentalists are hoping a change of heart will come when the government sets down its INDC for December’s conference.
Brazil’s Climate Observatory has even offered its own ambitious targets, such as limiting emissions to one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2030, as a yardstick for the government.
Moutinho says signals from the government suggest Brazil’s formal climate change pledge could be “more robust.”
“It’s now a question of political will.”