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Facing climate change
José Pedro Martins
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Environmentalists and government divided ahead of Copenhagen conference.

Brazil will have a key role at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen this December, but environmentalists have split with the government over its proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Brazil is often heralded for having one of the world´s cleanest energy productions. Hydroelectricity powers 80 percent of Brazil. A large percentage of Brazilian vehicles are fueled by sugar cane ethanol.

Brazilian experts both in and out of the government are divided over the best development plan for this country of 190 million people, many of whom are still living in poverty.

The exploitation of the Amazon rainforest is a major issue. Its deforestation is Brazil´s main source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Close to 18 percent of the Amazon has been deforested, some 700,000 square kilometers, for the expansion of livestock and soy farming. In the 2000-2005 period alone, deforestation in the Amazon, which is shared by eight countries, totaled an area close to the size of Venezuela, according to a report released this year by the United Nations Environment Program.

Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace advocate zero deforestation, but the Brazilian government will present the UN summit with a proposal to reduce deforestation by 80 percent by 2020.

In September, Environment Minister Carlos Minc launched a plan to halt deforestation in the Cerrado biomass, which he said generates the same amount of greenhouse gases as Amazonian deforestation.

"It´s highly important that the deforestation monitoring extends to other biomasses," Minc said.

Untouchable Amazon?
Where the government splits with environmentalists is its failure to declare the Amazon region "untouchable," despite having a plan to counter deforestation there.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva´s government has pushed for special zoning for sugar cane production, sending a bill to Congress this September that would ban the crop´s farming in the Amazon and Pantanal.

Large farming businesses are pressuring the government to pass a bill backed by the Agriculture Ministry that would reduce from 80 percent to 50 percent of what´s known as the Legal Reserve, the area on private properties that includes original forest that must be preserved.

Minc, who advocates maintaining the 80 percent preservation level, replaced Sen. Marina Silva, who left the post in 2008 after clashing with the government over its policies.

In early October, a group of environmental organizations and other civil society groups met in Belem, capital of the Amazonian state of Para, on the government´s policies. They warned that large-scale infrastructure projects in the region are only deepening the problems that caused climate change in the first place.

The Belo Monte hydroelectric project on the Xingu River will affect 13 municipalities and 18 indigenous communities, threatening traditional ways of life for the native Amazon peoples, said participants, including Friends of the Earth-Brazil, the Landless Workers´ Movement and the National Council of Extractive Populations in a joint statement.

Others said the Brazilian government should reject proposals in Copenhagen such as the UN´s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries initiative, or REDD, that allows countries with high greenhouse gas emission levels to compensate by investing in deforestation reduction programs.

"We reject the use of market-based mechanisms as tools to reduce carbon emissions based on the firm conviction that the market cannot be expected to take responsibility for life on the planet," they said in a separate statement. "The Conference of the Parties (COP) and its ensuing results showed that governments are not willing to take on consistent public commitments and that they tend to transfer the practical responsibility for achieving (notoriously insufficient) targets to the private initiative. As a result, public investments in and control of compliance with targets falter, while the expansion of a global CO2 market is legitimized as a new form of financial capital investment and a means to ensure the survival of a failed production and consumption model."

Land takeover
Environmental groups slammed the government for the norm in June that was backed by Lula to legalize 60 million hectares of the Amazon region that had been occupied illegally, meaning that deforestation caused there would be forgiven.

The lack of daring proposals in the National Climate Change Plan and the delayed emission totals are also highly criticized by environmentalists, who worry that Lula may support nuclear energy to fight global warming.

"That position is unacceptable because nuclear energy is expensive, dangerous and doesn´t contribute to reducing emissions," said Sérgio Dialetachi, a leading anti-nuclear activist  and energy consultant for the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

But while the federal government is bearing most of the criticism, some states are preparing their own initiatives. In mid-October, São Paulo became the first Brazilian state to approve a statewide climate change policy that calls for a 20-percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020.

"Brazil´s average temperature has already risen by 1ºC in the last 50 years," said environmentalist Fábio Feldmann, a former lawmaker and ex-environment secretary for the state.

"That increase shows that the country must step up its emission reduction plans," Feldmann said, pointing to new climatic phenomena in the country such as deadly tornadoes in the southeastern Santa Catarina state, which were unheard of only a few years ago.

Feldmann, head of the Sao Paulo Forum on Climate Change and Biodiversity, notes that while Brazil has an enormous renewable energy potential, Lula´s government has invested in the oil exploration program of the huge offshore Pre-Salt Reservoirs, a fuel that is one of the largest sources of global warming.

"Brazil is debating Pre-Salt, while the world is discussing renouncing from fossil fuels," he said.

Brazil will arrive in Copenhagen with several vulnerable spots in its plan, despite having the resources and potential to lead the world in sustainable development and renewable energy.
—Latinamerica Press.


Amazon deforestation is a major source of an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Greenpeace)
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