Environmental advocates are worried that President-elect Donald Trump will try to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement — and a recent scientific analysis says that if he does and other major countries follow suit, the consequence could be dire, tipping the world toward a dangerous level of global warming.
But what other countries might also fail to keep their promises to the world under that agreement? Recently, concerns have grown about the seventh-largest emitter, Brazil, which seems to be seeing some environmental backsliding as it battles a fierce recession and reels from a tumultuous impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff.
In September, environmentalists praised Brazil’s decision to ratify the Paris climate agreement — a significant move for the global climate, given Brazil’s high rank among emitters of greenhouse gases and the fact that it is home to the world’s largest tropical rain forest. But now rising deforestation and proposed environmental policy changes have some experts worried that the nation might not live up to its climate pledges after all.
Recent data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research indicate that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest between August 2015 and July 2016 increased by 29 percent from the previous year. That followed a similar uptick in deforestation between August 2012 and July 2013.
This is big news for a country that, until recently, had been making strides in its efforts to curb deforestation. While large tracts of the rain forest are still being cleared each year, these losses reached a historic low in 2012.
Preserving the forests serves many environmental interests, such as safeguarding biodiversity, protecting water quality and upholding the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon. But it’s especially important for the global climate. Forests are important carbon sinks, but they release this carbon into the atmosphere when they’re destroyed. Much of Brazil’s carbon emissions are actually the result of deforestation — and if forest losses continue to grow, it would be nearly impossible for the nation to meet its climate commitments.
Under the Paris agreement, the Brazilian government has agreed to reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2025, with a possible extra goal of getting them down to 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. As part of this goal, the government aims to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030, as well as restore 12 million hectares of forest by then.
According to experts, much of the problem of deforestation has to do with a lack of resources for enforcing the nation’s environmental laws.
“I think there is a risk of backsliding, because unless governments invest in enforcement, it’s very difficult to comply with our commitment,” said Rachel Biderman, Brazil country director at the World Resources Institute. According to Biderman, preventing illegal deforestation in the Amazon depends heavily on adequate surveillance of the forest — and currently, there just isn’t enough money allocated for it.
“We have very good laws,” she said. “The problem is that they’re not enforced.”
Many environmentalists are also worried that some of the nation’s environmental policies may soon be changing. A recent bill has proposed an overhaul of Brazil’s environmental licensing laws, which require industrial projects to undergo environmental evaluations before proceeding, according to reporting by the Guardian. The new bill would make these licensing procedures more flexible and even allow exemptions for certain activities. Additionally, a draft decree from the government has proposed new limitations on the way indigenous reserves are created.
These initiatives, if they take hold, “will certainly make it impossible for Brazil to meet its commitments under the Paris agreement,” one environmentalist told the publication.
Thomas Lovejoy, a professor at George Mason University who has worked in the Brazilian Amazon for decades, largely agreed with that analysis in an interview with The Post. Both of these proposals could contribute to even more deforestation, further weakening Brazil’s ability to meet its climate commitments, he said — but he held out hope for a different outcome.
“As long as those [proposals] don’t actually come into legal status, and as long as there is some recognition at the ministerial level of the importance of all of this, I think we could have a desirable outcome,” he added.
But for the time being, data suggest that Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions may be on the rise along with its deforestation. Recent reports from an initiative of the Brazilian Climate Observatory suggest that Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.5 percent in 2015.
And if Brazil backslides on its climate pledges, Lovejoy said, there’s a risk that other nations may begin to take the Paris agreement less seriously as well.
“If a country as significant as Brazil begins to essentially miss its commitments, it creates all kinds of opportunities for others to follow suit,” he said.