An awkward juxtaposition

Helen Burley

Brazil’s new president must value the country’s natural resources, photo: Zhu via, creative commons licence

As scientists warned that we have just 12 years to stabilise the global climate and prevent catastrophe, Brazilians were waking up to the near-certainty of a Bolsonaro presidency — and the likelihood that environmental laws are likely to be relaxed, weakening existing protection for the country’s forests.

This is bad timing — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and the related global greenhouse gas emission pathways makes it clear that we need to increase, not decrease, forest cover. But Jair Bolsonaro has called for the opening up of indigenous reserves and for less protection in the Amazon. He has also said he wants to revise Brazil’s commitments to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Some 46 percent of the Brazilian population voted for Bolsonaro’s promise of tax cuts and a crack-down on crime. It is a platform that clearly appeals to large parts of an electorate who feel that the current system is not working for them.

Facing up to Brazil’s sustainability challenges

Brazil faces many problems, not least among them, the challenge of how to sustainably manage the development of the country’s agricultural sector in the face of growing global demand. Agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation in the country, including illegal deforestation in areas currently protected by Brazilian law.

Bolsonaro’s proposal to merge the ministries of Environment and Agriculture, which is likely to put the agricultural lobby in charge of forest protection, can only be bad news for the Amazon and Brazil’s other important biomes. Yet these have a crucial role to play in delivering the global target of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

The IPCC’s special report spells out the risks to our planet’s climate, but our forests, our oceans, our rivers, our grasslands — and the species that live on them — are also under threat. We are stripping away the planet’s assets while choking it on our waste. This approach is not just threatening future generations — the effects are being felt now.

These environmental costs are increasingly understood. By timely coincidence, as the world’s media digested the IPCC report, the pioneering environmental economist, William Nordhaus was one of two winners of the Nobel prize for economics for his work integrating climate change into economic models which addressed “pressing questions about how we create long-term sustained and sustainable economic growth”.

By focusing on expansion in parts of Amazonia and Cerrado rather than protecting the natural environment, Bolsonaro is tied to an old economic model, which was built on the idea of abundant fossil fuels and natural resources. That model is not sustainable.

We need to understand that we depend on natural resources. Forests play a crucial role in flood prevention, water cycles and regulating the climate. That is why we need to manage our economy with respect to the natural resources that it depends upon.

Ignoring the environmental costs is no longer acceptable.

Resisting change

Change almost always triggers resistance. Particularly among those who have a vested interest in the status quo, and who see that change as a threat. But when the flood waters are lapping at your ankles, change is necessary. If not overdue.

So what does this mean when it comes to ending deforestation?

For the companies involved in forest-risk supply chains — including the Forest 500 — it means facing up to their responsibility to ensure that their sourcing policies are not driving forest clearance. Many have already made commitments to do this — but there is now added pressure to deliver on the promises they have made.

And for the financial institutions that lend to, or invest in these companies, there is a pressing need to recognise deforestation as a climate risk.

The pressure is on to change the way the world does business — a Bolsonaro government may resist recognising this change, but the global business community cannot afford to let this opportunity disappear.