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Brazil just ratified the Paris climate agreement. Here’s why that’s a really big deal

A village of indigenous Yanomami is seen during Brazil’s environmental agency operation earlier this spring against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil. (Reuters/Bruno Kelly)
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RIO DE JANEIRO–Brazil, the country that’s home to the largest tropical rainforest on Earth, ratified the Paris climate agreement Monday — making it the third-largest country for emissions, after the U.S. and China, to have done so.

“We are following a path Brazil started on long ago,” President Michel Temer said during a ceremony announcing the agreement in the capital Brasilia. “The climate issue is for the state. It is an obligation for all governments.”

Temer has only just succeeded Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached last month amid a massive corruption scandal in the country.

Brazil’s ratification is significant because in order for the climate agreement to enter into force, 55 separate countries, accounting for 55 percent of global emissions, must sign and then ratify or otherwise approve it. Currently, according to the World Resources Institute, 27 countries have done so, representing 39.08 percent of those emissions (this total does not include Brazil).

However, the majority of those are small countries that don’t contribute much global carbon pollution (though the total also includes a few moderate sized countries like Norway and Peru). And then there are the U.S. and China, which just joined the agreement and account for a whopping 38 percent.

Brazil, however, accounts for a very significant 2.48 percent of global emissions — making it the globe’s 7th highest emitter, and also a rather unique one in that so many of its emissions are due to deforestation of the Amazon, rather than the burning of fossil fuels.

“This should spur other countries to join and help galvanize global action,” said David Waskow, who directs the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.

The Brazilian government’s decision to ratify the agreement shows that on the environment issues, Temer wants continuity with his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff. He was Rousseff’s vice-president but the two are now bitter enemies.

Rousseff was removed from office last month after an eight-month impeachment process, ending 13 years of rule by her leftist Workers’ Party. She and her supporters have attacked the impeachment process as a parliamentary coup and Temer as a traitor who plotted against her.

In a speech in June 2015 during a U.S. visit, Rousseff said Brazil aimed to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030 and restore 12 million hectares, or 46,332 square miles, of its forests — about the size of England — by 2030. Some environmentalists said then that these promises did not go far enough.

The country has reduced deforestation by 80 percent since 2004 — but significant portions of the vast Amazon rain forest are disappearing every year, and after a steady decline in deforestation rates from 2005 onwards, deforestation rose in both 2013 and 2015.

Since taking over as interim president in May, Temer has moved Brazil’s government to the right with plans for austerity measures and ambitions to get its stumbling economy out of a deep recession and back into growth. A bill that aims to free up rigorous and lengthy environmental licensing procedures had led to fears that Brazil would roll back protection of its vast forests.

The bill is still being discussed in the Brazilian congress. But in ratifying the Paris agreement Brazil has made a step forward and committed to cut greenhouse effect gas emissions in 37 percent by 2025, with a possible 43 percent reduction by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. The country first presented its commitment in September last year. Under the Paris agreement, every country must submit, and regularly update, its plans for reducing its emissions.

“Signing the Paris Agreement will help the country’s development by guiding growth without damaging the environment,” Brazil’s Environment Minister, José Sarney Filho, said at the ratification ceremony Monday.

Foreign Minister José Serra said the Paris climate agreement created a milestone for efforts to reduce climate change.

“Few international instruments have had such widespread support,” Serra said.

The only remaining countries that emit more than Brazil, but have not yet ratified, are Russia (7.5 percent of emissions), India (4.1 percent), Japan (3.79 percent), and Germany (2.56). If all four of those countries also ratified this year, the agreement would easily enter into force.

But other countries could also contribute to tipping the world into an officially active Paris regime, including Canada (1.95 percent), South Korea (1.85 percent), Mexico (1.7 percent), the U.K. (1.55 percent), Indonesia (1.49 percent), South Africa (1.46 percent) and Australia (1.46 percent).

Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, has called world leaders to the U.N. headquarters on the 21st of this month for a ratification ceremony for the Paris agreement. Some 175 have already signed, and along with the recent move by the U.S. and China, Brazil’s move just considerably increased the likelihood that there will be something to celebrate.

“It’s an important signal, and continues the momentum going into next week in New York,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Staff writer Phillips contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro; Chris Mooney from Washington.