Cancun Climate Summit: Will Brazil Step Up to the Plate?

Relatively defenseless in the face of global warming, developing countries are looking for a champion. Who will speak up for them in Mexico?
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The following article was co-authored by Guy Edwards, whose bio appears below

As the world awaits the upcoming climate change summit in Mexico, developing countries are wondering who will speak up for them. With only a token agreement in Copenhagen, the stakes are high for Cancun as nations attempt to make progress on climate finance, deforestation, adaptation, technology transfer and emission reduction targets.

Relatively defenseless in the face of global warming and extreme weather events, developing countries are looking for a champion but have unfortunately come up short. While left-leaning nations belonging to the ALBA group (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) including Bolivia, and Venezuela, which have been pushing a more radical climate critique, the bloc does not possess sufficient geopolitical clout at the top table.

Elsewhere in Latin America, Brazil has emerged as a political and economic juggernaut which could wield significant influence upon the global warming debate. In the 1990s, Brazil added a strong voice at climate negotiations which led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as well as the Kyoto Protocol. Brazil was key in helping to establish the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities;" that is to say, binding targets for industrialized countries and the Clean Development Mechanism designed to develop projects to reduce carbon emissions in poorer countries. In the first round of this year's presidential elections, Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered an astonishing 19% of the vote, clearly showing that environmental consciousness is alive and well in Brazil.

Frustrating the hopes of many in civil society however, Brazil has not sought to become a key environmental leader on climate change. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers the government's high level ties to agribusiness which is closely linked to Amazonian deforestation. Although touting a whopping $1.5 trillion GDP, Brazil's economic surge has come at considerable environmental cost as demonstrated by its position as the third largest global greenhouse gas emitter. The anticipated global warming nightmare of the future will come largely from developing countries such as Brazil, India and China, which are voraciously consuming fossil fuels and cutting down forests.

Despite this, Brazilian officials downplay their country's own role in the mess. Brazil's new President Dilma Rousseff, declared in 2009, rather breathtakingly, that "Brazil is no longer part of the [climate change] problem and has assumed a respected position as the galvanizer of negotiated solutions." In advance of Copenhagen, Rousseff slammed the industrialized nations while declaring that her own country had done its share. "Stopping global warming is a common responsibility, but each group of countries plays a different role. We cannot demand equal sacrifices from those who have participated unevenly in the process of industrial development throughout the centuries," she wrote.

To be sure, Brazil has carried out some positive environmental initiatives. In an effort to appease critics, the country provided satellite imagery to its Latin American neighbors as well as some African nations to help assess deforestation. In addition, Brazil passed on its knowhow to poor countries on utilizing ethanol as a substitute for fossil fuels. Most importantly perhaps, Brazil made big promises in advance of Copenhagen: the government announced it would reduce emissions by almost 40% by 2020, mainly through reducing deforestation. The reductions, Rousseff remarked, were a "political gesture" designed to press rich countries into making deep carbon cuts.

In the wake of Brazil's innovative pledge, some observers surmised that Brazil might be interested in forming new geopolitical alliances. By promising to ambitiously cut its greenhouse gases, Brazil seemed to be aligning itself more closely with the European Union and other nations such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, all of which had adopted specific emissions targets. It appeared as if Brazil was moving away from the Group of 77, a coalition of more than 130 developing nations, as well as China and India, two countries which had resisted setting any binding limits on carbon emissions. Perhaps too, Brazil's decision to announce national emissions targets was related to internal politics. Indeed, the government's announcement coincided with Green Party candidate Marina Silva's rise on the national stage. Public opinion as well as a large percentage of businessmen also favored the adoption of a low-carbon economy.

Unfortunately, however, Brazil's proposed cuts are voluntary and do not constitute binding targets. Brazil argues that developed countries should be the only ones obliged to observe mandatory targets. While environmentalists praised Brazil's offer, they also declared that the country should assume "concrete targets" by formally enacting a law or decree. Overall, environmentalists say, the Lula government has adopted an ambiguous posture: on the one hand it has made progress on climate change but on the other has caved in to landowners bent on deforestation.

If the world hoped that Brazil would continue its green giant posturing at the Copenhagen summit, such expectations were dashed at the last minute as Brazil joined forces with China, India and South Africa to form the BASIC group to limit greenhouse gas reductions. Brasilia argued that it could not be held to the same environmental standards of the Global North and duly prepared an alternate draft agreement with different targets for developed and developing countries. Scuttling any hopes for a progressive deal which would halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and set a 2020 deadline for a peak in world emissions, BASIC proclaimed that rich nations needed to do much more.

Hoping perhaps to mollify critics, Lula announced during Copenhagen that BASIC would set up climate funds to help developed countries. However, in a move which stirred suspicion amongst countries vulnerable to climate change, BASIC lobbied successfully against binding emissions caps. Indeed, it was Brazil which helped draft an accord along with 29 other countries but principally the U.S. and BASIC. Produced at the eleventh hour, the agreement was slammed by the ALBA nations for leaving the majority of countries out of the negotiating process. Bolivia was particularly opposed to the Copenhagen deal. Since the summit, the Andean nation has gone on to lead the charge for a much stronger climate initiative. "Our objective is to reduce climate change to [under] 1C," says President Evo Morales. "[Above this] many islands will disappear and Africa will suffer a holocaust ... the real cause of climate change is the capitalist system. If we want to save the earth then we must end that economic model." It's difficult to imagine Lula da Silva or Dilma Rousseff for that matter making any such statement and indeed behind South America's "Pink Tide" to the left climate change could become a key political fissure in the future.

ALBA, however, was not the only bloc to express displeasure with Brazil and BASIC. As the Copenhagen summit got underway two separate blocs, the Least Developed Countries or LDC's as well as the Alliance of Small Island States or AOSIS expressed reservations about the draft proposal presented by BASIC. In the event, AOSIS states particularly exposed to rising sea levels drafted their own proposal separate from BASIC. In a shot across Brazil's bow, the small island nation of Tuvalu proposed opening discussions on a legally binding agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which would set greenhouse gas emissions targets for emerging economies starting in 2013. Tuvalu proposed amending the UN climate treaty so as to oblige nations to keep the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Tuvalu's move, which constituted the first serious breach within the G-77 united front, was backed by dozens of the poorest countries exposed to climate change including the Cook Islands, Barbados, Fiji and some African nations such as Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Cape Verde. "Our future rests on the outcome of this meeting," Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry declared. Needless to say, Tuvalu's proposal was shot down by Brazil, China and India. "Tuvalu has a very legitimate preoccupation for a most ambitious possible agreement," declared Sergio Serra, Brazil's climate ambassador. "But we would not agree on a mandatory reduction target. This is not something Brazil is ready to discuss."

What was the end result of Brazilian intrigue, which so upset smaller island nations? The Copenhagen Accord itself has been criticized by many as inadequate: though most nations agreed to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the agreement was non-binding and did not spell out how reductions in greenhouse gases should be achieved. The UNFCCC has warned that if global temperatures rise two degrees Celsius more that the world could witness catastrophic rise in sea levels, thus inundating island nations and coastal cities. Incredibly, however, even after pushing for a lackluster agreement at Copenhagen, Brazil and BASIC dragged their feet when it came time to meeting climate goals. Reportedly, the group grew concerned that a ringing endorsement of the Copenhagen Accord could undermine the 1992 U.N. Climate Convention stating that prosperous nations must lead the charge on global warming. Perhaps fearing that island nations and others would not welcome such a position, and that a negative PR blitz might ensue, BASIC members reasoned that political differences might be bridged by creating a fund to help vulnerable countries deal with climate change. By pushing for technical and administrative assistance, they argued, BASIC could improve its negotiating strength and bring along most members of the G-77 to boot. Brazil had long argued for the creation of a climate change fund for poor nations, but at the end of the day BASIC failed to agree to the South American nation's proposal.

All of these logjams do not bode well for the upcoming Cancun summit. By their own admission, BASIC negotiators declare that reaching a binding climate deal will be difficult. Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, they grumbled once more about developed nations not doing enough to curb emissions. Needless to say, BASIC nations could not come up with their own specific proposals on emissions reductions to be presented at Cancun, and even went so far as to argue that no legally binding deal could be struck until a further climate meeting in 2011 in South Africa. "Cancun will be another step towards a final result," says Brazilian climate ambassador Sergio Serra. "The final things will come in South Africa." Such statements, however, do not go over well in other parts of Latin America. Luis Gonzáles de Alba, Mexico's climate change negotiator, says that the region wants to forge a common bloc. Brazil, however, is "playing in other networks" such as BASIC and does not seem interested in developing a unified position.

Does Brazil want to go down in history as one of the chief obstacles to climate change progress at Cancun, or alternatively as a great savior? AOSIS has made it clear that it seeks a legally binding agreement at Cancun. "This [the upcoming negotiation] is about our survival," remarks Collin Beck, a native of the Solomon Islands who serves as vice-chair of AOSIS. If Brazil is uncooperative, the South American nation could suffer in the eyes of small island states and even jeopardize its wider political cooperation with the Global South. At issue is wider unity within G-77, which seems to be fraying. "If we can't deliver in Cancun and we are shown the road to Cape Town or any other cities, it will be unfortunate, it will be tragic, it will be a Holocaust," says Quamrul Islam Chowdhury of Bangladesh, the main negotiator for the G-77. Perhaps sensitive to criticism, Brazil has invited some G-77 representatives to attend BASIC meetings as observers in an effort to foster a so-called "BASIC plus" bloc which would allow for consultations with other countries and groups "in order to facilitate the resolution of contentious issues in the negotiations."

Ostensibly, BASIC plus is designed to foster transparency though it's unclear whether such a PR strategy can work for Brazil in the long-term. At Cancun, Brazil could come under pressure from its Latin American allies not to mention climate change activists who want it to take a bolder stance on the climate negotiations. Will Brazil's new president Rousseff continue Lula's middling agenda or chart a more ambitious course? Rousseff was molded by the ideas of developmentalism and industrialization and did not prominently feature environmentalism in her campaign. Yet, in light of Marina Silva's impressive showing in the first round, Rousseff may live to regret ignoring Brazil's rising environmental constituency.

When asked what kind of role Brazil would like to assume on climate change in the future, Environment Minister Isabella Teixeira responded, "We don't stress the idea of environmental leadership." Playing down its environmental role on the world stage may appear logical given Brazil's strong and independent stance on its right to develop, yet such a position may not win it many friends in the long term. Its assertive foreign policy illustrated by its peacekeeping mission in Haiti, strong bid for a seat at the United Nations Security Council and diplomatic ties to Iran demonstrate Brazil's goal of achieving an independent and strong foreign policy. However, a more constructive stance on climate change may prove more beneficial to Brazilian foreign policy goals than the South American nation's current strategy.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan). Visit his blog,

Guy Edwards is a research fellow at Brown University's Center for Environmental Studies and the creator of Latino Cambio, a website dealing with climate change in Latin America.

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