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The fight against climate change at Lula's campaign and its contradictions.

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

The Brazilian environmental and climate agenda has suffered unimaginable blows during the Bolsonaro government. The dismantling of the state apparatus for environmental protection along with the deterioration of environmental regulation is one of the trademarks of the current federal administration. According to data from the National Association of Public Environmental Servants (ASCEMA), the Bolsonaro administration took 721 measures against environmental protection, including 76 institutional reforms. In 2021 alone, there was a 27.4% drop in the anticipated federal budget for environmental inspection and wildfires. The cut occurs precisely when there is an increase in deforestation and fires in the Amazon and other biomes. Experts say that the dismantling of environmental public policies is such that it is safe to say that it took away more than 30 years of institutional building.

In the midst of such a dramatic scenario, it is normal to expect that any other government will bring a considerable improvement to Brazil’s environmental standing. However, it is important to put the facts in perspective so that expectations are realistic. In order to do so, we at Interface Advocacy have developed an analysis of Lula's government proposal plan, as he will be the likely winner of presidential elections next October according to most pools. To which extent can we expect a truly environmentally friendly administration or, on the contrary, a government likely to benefit from greenwashing?

Lula’s campaign seeks to position itself as an antithesis to the current administration in everything that concerns environmental policy; from land use to energy transition and climate justice. It capitalizes on the political polarization Brazil is suffering and the shifts on the international arena, which has geared towards the climate agenda in recent years.

The proposals presented were, in some ways, so distant from the policies implemented by the Workers Party’s (PT) four previous administrations (2002-2016) that voters, activists and analysts wonder if they are for real. Afterall, these administrations considered the enormous oil and gas discoveries off the coat of Rio, in 2006, as a "passport for the future"; they yielded to the approval in 2012 of the much weaker New Forestry Code; and built the Belo Monte, Jirau and Madeira hydroelectric plants in the heart of the Amazon throughout their mandates. Will they, six years after being impeached out of power, truly promote a rapid energy transition in which oil and gas will become energies of the past and the energy mix will be 100% renewables and deforestation will drop to zero by 2030, as committed on the Paris Climate Accord and subsequent COPs?

Of course, there is a big gap between what is proposed in the so-called “candidacy directives”, which are not even a proper government plan, and what is actually presented, approved and finally implemented. Even so, the campaign directives make clear the contradictions that a third Lula mandate would have on the environmental and sustainable development agendas. We will present and explore these contradictions below.

Looking back

PT’s most important environmental credential is, without a doubt, the unprecedented fight against illegal deforestation carried out during Lula’s two mandates and Dilma’s first. Thanks to a policy that integrated environmental monitoring, policing, prosecution and sanctions on public and private lands, with negative incentives such as a ban on rural credit to offenders, we saw a drop in deforestation of 27.7 thousand km2 in 2004 to only 4.6 thousand km2 in 2012. On the other hand, the same administration that ensured this environmental success, lost environmental consistency with the dispute surrounding the construction of large hydroelectric dams in the Amazon.

During Lula’s second mandate, the then Minister of Environment, Marina Silva, insisted on applying environmental law and defended the technical independence of Ibama, the body responsible for environmental control in Brazil, which did not expedite environmental licenses for the works of the Jirau and Santo Antônio hydroelectric dams on the Madeira river, a major tributary to the Amazon river. In the clash between the classic visions of development supported by the then Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff, and new visions of sustainable development, supported by Marina Silva, the former prevailed. Marina Silva later resigned from the ministry, left the PT and ran the 2010 presidential elections for the Green Party against Dilma herself.

Dilma won the 2010 presidential elections and was able to complete not only Jirau and Santo Antônio hydroelectric dams, but also Belo Monte, the fourth largest hydroelectric plant in the world in terms of power generation capacity. It was built in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, affecting one of the main Amazon rivers and thousands of indigenous people and traditional communities that depended on it.

Another major environmental setback during the PT administrations, credited not to the party itself, but to the multiparty coalition that granted it governability, was the approval of the New Forestry Code, which gave amnesty for many environmental crimes committed until 2008. The New Forestry Code not only legalized public land grab previous to 2008, but also relaxed various protections for environmental assets on private lands. Ironically, many analysts attribute the unprecedented mobilization of the recently created "rural caucasus" in the National Congress to the success of the policies to combat illegal deforestation, which threatened those who did not accept the constitutional principle that the land has a social function and that forests generate ecosystem services without which agriculture itself becomes unviable.

It is important to keep in mind that the PT administrations continued to echo the mantra of hydrocarbon nationalism, and presented the discovery of the enormous oil and gas deposits off the coast of Rio as the "passport to the future." Time has passed, the climate has changed, science has advanced, but the rhetoric remains the same: the pre-salt oil and gas reserves and the state-owned Petrobras continue to be a passport to the future according to the directives presented.

Finally, we must remember that the PSB, the center-left party of Lula’s vice-presidential candidate Geraldo Alckmin, is one of the most advanced in the implementation of successful environmental policies in the states it has governed, such as Espírito Santo, besides having some of the most respected environmental defenders in Congress. However, Geraldo Alckmin is recognized for his easy dialogue with the most conservative agribusiness groups and had as secretary of the environment in his government in São Paulo state, none other than Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s disastrous environment minister, which shows the priority the vice-presidential candidate seems to give to the environmental agenda.

Passport to which future?

The contradictions contained in Lula’s government proposal plan are not new and repeat ipsis litteris the decisions that already had to be made on its previous administrations: some beneficial for sustainable development, such as the exemplary fight against illegal deforestation; other harmful ones, such as the promotion of hydrocarbon exploration and "fossil fuel nationalism"; others can be considered a kind of intermediate path, such as the construction of hydropower dams in the middle of the Amazon, which, although it is a renewable source, caused massive socio-environmental impacts on rivers, forests and traditional communities.

Let’s take a closer look at those major hydropower plants built on Amazon rivers. Their electricity supply capacity is questionable because they do not have large dams, eliminating most of the energy storage capacity in the dry season. This means a minimum or no generation when the country most needs it, as the Amazon dry season coincides with that of Brazil’s center-south, considered the "water reservoir" of the national power system, mostly hydroelectric.

Imagine if between 2011 and 2016 the same R$ 40 billion (invested in the Belo Monte dam had been invested in wind energy in the Northeast region, whose peak production period coincides with the dry season in the rest of the country? That would greatly increase the energy security of the national power grid with 100% renewable sources. This inconsistency didn’t go unnoticed, as the “Brazil 2040” study, a project financed by the federal government in 2013 and shelved two years later, clearly showed the lack of economic and environmental viability of Belo Monte dam, given its high costs and seasonal water flow variability, due to increase further with climate change. By the way, we didn’t have to wait for long to see the effects of climate change on the Xingu River where Belo Monte sits. In 2019 it had its worst drought on record and energy production was close to zero for months.

Since the beginning of the construction of these dams, wind and solar power have become even more competitive and today they are the cheapest in the generation market. It is already understood that Brazil can and should have 100% of its energy mix renewable, using existing hydroelectric plants as a battery and base source to remedy the variability of solar and wind energy, whose, again, maximum production in the Northeast coincides with the dry season in the southeast, bringing an enormous potential for complementarity.

Lula's candidacy proposals indicate the understanding that the energy transition and sustainable development are urgent and a priority (guidelines 10, 13, 15, 29, 40, 48, 49, 50, 53, 63, 64, 65, 70, 74, among others). However, by mentioning "energy sovereignty" related to increased refining capacity (Directive 75) and the strengthening of investments in exploration and production by Petrobras (Directive 77), the guidelines point to a clearly unsustainable path.

If there is a real commitment to energy transition and international agreements already signed, so as not to warm the planet beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, PT’s directives should make it clear that Brazil’s energy sovereignty will not come from the increase in the production of oil, gas and its derivatives , but rather from the decrease in consumption resulting from the electrification of the transport sector and the increase in sustainable renewable power. To make matters worse, the directives define natural gas as a bridge fuel to a sustainable energy mix, which makes no sense in a country that does not use coal or oil as considerable electric power sources.

There is no energy transition to a clean energy mix by investing more in fossil fuels, especially when it comes to projects with a lifespan of several decades. Why not address the problem of high oil prices volatility by supporting the implementation of a national electric fleet? With the fifth largest automotive industry in the world in terms of production capacity, why is Brazil the only major global producer without concrete policies to support the consumption and production of electric cars? More importantly, why is this not clearly stated in the proposals of a candidate that promises to return Brazil to the global environmental vanguard?

If even the president of the United States, Joe Biden, has made the electrification of transport a priority, if 16% of European Union and Chinese cars are already electric and the sale of combustion cars will not last more than 12 years in these markets, it is no longer possible to believe that a total transport electrification is an environmentalist pipedream. Brazil’s center-left should look no further than Colombia and Chile to get some valuable “green new deal” ideas.

It's a new dawn, it's a new day....or is it?

Much of the environmental policy of a future Lula/Alckmin government will depend on the new composition of the National Congress and how the Bolsonaro government transitions away from power. Most analysts indicate that, thanks to major budgetary handouts currently given to Congressional supporters and a considerable increase in direct cash handouts to voters in the middle of the electoral period, the amount of political renewal in Congress will be much lower in 2022 than in 2018. If this scenario is confirmed, the difficulties of implementing policies that truly protect the environment and put Brazil on the path of energy transition and sustainable development will be considerable.

The fight will be even greater in the faraway corners of the country, such as in the agricultural frontier of the Amazon, where Bolsonaro's speech strengthened violence against minorities, in practice legalized environmental crime and corroborated a limited vision of extractive development, where short-term profits remain in the hands of a few and a devastated land is soon left behind. Furthermore, Brazil is likely to move out of the international spotlight and international money for third sector projects will be directed to other regions of the Global South.

Therefore, if Brazil is serious about protecting its rainforests and promoting a truly sustainable economy, it is essential that corporate sectors that benefit directly from a sustainable economy and civil society involved in broader environmental causes articulate themselves around the promotion and defense of public policies that go beyond what was already implemented before the current administration.

While during Bolsonaro’s years Brazil’s civil society has fought defensively to barricade further deterioration of its environmental protection policies, in a new Lula-Alckmin administration, the fight should be propositional, with possible entries and dialogue. The challenge will be to convince the most conservative sectors of the new government that a new paradigm of sustainable development is not only real, but also generates competitiveness in international markets and more social development.

By now, it is clear that good arguments are not enough to get this job done, the key to success is through mobilization of coalitions, awareness campaigns and strategic political pressure to counter well established predatory lobbies.

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