An aerial view of a deforested portion of the Amazon rainforest
Saving the Amazon: Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has said he will do ‘whatever it takes to have zero deforestation’ © Michael Dantas/AFP via Getty Images

The Amazon rainforest is often portrayed as a giant carbon sink for the world, soaking up emissions generated elsewhere. So it may come as a surprise that Brazil, home to 60 per cent of the rainforest, is the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of CO₂ — with more than two-thirds of those emissions coming from agriculture, forestry and other land use.

Those numbers highlight how the country’s path to reaching its target of net zero emissions by 2050 has little in common with that of most other countries, where energy, industrial processes and waste are the biggest problems.

“The challenges and opportunities are different for Brazil to most other countries,” says Arthur Ramos, who leads Boston Consulting Group’s climate practice in Brazil. “While power generation is 90 per cent renewable, deforestation and agriculture are the biggest issues to tackle as they account for 70 per cent of emissions. Deforestation alone accounts for 50 per cent.”

Even before taking office at the start of the year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signalled his commitment to Brazil’s pledge of net zero emissions by 2050 by attending the COP27 climate summit in Egypt and announcing that his administration would “do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation”.

Destruction of the Amazon rainforest had surged under Lula’s far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, and the new government has restored resources for environmental agencies that had been cut back. It has also taken quick action to fulfil an existing pledge to halt deforestation completely by 2028.

“In the first eight months of this year, the Lula government has achieved a 48 per cent reduction of deforestation,” says André Aranha Corrêa do Lago, secretary for climate, energy and environment at Brazil’s foreign ministry. “If you take into consideration the atypical profile of our emissions . . . this means we are close to reducing more than 20 per cent of our emissions in one year.”

Almost all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is unlawful, the result of illegal logging, mining and ranching. Land grabbers also seize forest to convert it to pasture for farming or land speculation.

Ilona Szabó, president of the Igarapé Institute, an independent think-tank based in Rio de Janeiro, believes “Brazil will probably be the country which most reduced emissions in 2023, simply because of the result in reducing deforestation”.

On agriculture, the government intends to present a plan at COP28 in Dubai to recover degraded pasture by offering farmers financing to buy or lease unproductive land and improve it. Brazil currently has about 200mn head of cattle on 200mn hectares of land — a low level of productivity that the government believes could be doubled with better technology.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soyabeans, poultry, coffee, sugar cane, frozen beef and orange juice, and has long been a technological pioneer in boosting crop yields, but its cattle ranching is relatively low tech.

Its farm exports, however, face a threat from a new EU law adopted this year banning the import of many farm products from recently deforested land. Farmers will need to supply traceability data showing their supply chain is deforestation-free.

“Cattle farming is the biggest challenge within the agricultural sector,” says Ramos. “As well as the conversion of land for ranching, there is also the question of methane emissions, which can be reduced by changing the feed given to cattle and increasing the productivity of land used.”

In the energy sector, Brazil has both challenges and opportunities. The country’s high proportion of renewably generated electricity — the result of decades of investment in hydroelectric dams and recent solar and wind projects — could allow it to compete in emerging global markets such as green hydrogen. 

However, the country is also engaged in a big build-up of its oil industry, with the government aiming to turn Brazil into the world’s fourth-biggest producer of crude by 2029, thanks to the development of giant offshore fields.

“The Brazilian government and [state-controlled energy company] Petrobras must stop the country’s colossal expansion of oil and gas,” argues Martin Dietrich Brauch, a researcher at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment in New York. “This expansion is inconsistent with climate action and with the role that the country wants to play in emissions reduction.”

Brauch’s call is unlikely to be heeded, though. The Lula government is committed to the expansion of oil, arguing that it needs the revenues to fund social justice and pay for better infrastructure and a shift to clean energy.

Nonetheless, with Brazil set to host COP30 in 2025, there is optimism that the country can build on its strengths in renewables, halt deforestation and improve agricultural technology. “Brazil knows it has to do more, but it’s not reaching the [negotiating] table timidly — it is coming with results,” says Szabó.

The Brazilian delegation at COP will insist on a stronger multilateral approach to combating climate change, says Corrêa do Lago at the foreign ministry: “The lack of trust that exists among countries today is acute. We have to fight that.”

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