Many São Paulo residents took fright on the afternoon of August 15 when, suddenly, the sky turned completely dark. “Day turns night,” headlines went. A cold front combined with smoke from burning forests in Brazil’s Amazon region had caused the unnerving effect.
The burning of the forest soon became international news and an international concern when images of the extensive fires reached television screens. Brazil’s president claimed that NGOs had started the fires because resources meant for environmental protection had been withdrawn. He was quickly condemned and ridiculed by media outlets as he had no proof to back up his claim. Federal prosecutors said that the main cause of the fires and the recent rise in deforestation is illegal stockbreeding.
President Macron of France threatened to block the EU-Mercosul trade agreement if the Brazilian government did not take measures to stop the burning and halt deforestation. His position, expressed right before the G7 summit, ultimately weakened when other EU countries, including Germany, distanced themselves from the move and took the view that the trade agreement and the Amazon question should be treated as separate discussions.
Bolsonaro nevertheless made a statement where he affirmed that “the protection of the forest is our duty” and that the government is “acting to combat illegal deforestation and any other criminal activities.” The statement came after pressure from the agribusiness lobby and its fear that exports of agricultural products might take a hit.
Bolsonaro responded to the criticisms from world leaders by saying that they challenged Brazil’s sovereignty and that discussing the Amazon question at the G7 meeting without the countries immediately concerned, on whose territory the forest is located, showed a “colonial mentality”––a point that was somewhat lost among less mature remarks.
The diminishment of Macron’s threat to vote against the EU-Mercosul agreement does not mean that Brazil is free of environmental responsibility. The trade agreement includes a chapter on sustainable development where the EU and the South American trade bloc commit to implementing the Paris Agreement.
Bolsonaro promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement during his presidential campaign but refrained from doing so once elected after appeals from agribusiness interests. He has nevertheless described the agreement as an infringement on Brazil’s sovereignty.
The trade agreement between the EU and Mercosul, however, is important to President Bolsonaro’s political agenda as it is a key victory in his promise to liberalize the Brazilian economy and distance his politics from those of former governments. Bolsonaro sees the Amazon and other large forests important to the ecosystem––such the Cerrado and Mata Atlântica––as land ripe for exploitation, wanting to significantly reduce the areas set aside for reservations. But if his priority is indeed international trade, he will most likely have to compromise on that aspiration.
The Paris Agreement lets each signatory country determine its own emission targets, a so-called Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which contradicts Bolsonaro’s argument that the agreement undermines Brazilian sovereignty. Brazil’s NDC cites as its first step “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37% below 2005 levels in 2025.” Brazil, like so many other countries, has not presented a formal plan to achieve this goal. It has, however, almost reached this goal in the past.
Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions went down 42% between 2005 and 2009, but the NDC uses a more comprehensive metric called Global Warming Potential (GWP). Emissions lowered 33.7% measured this way, which is not far from the goalpost. Decreased deforestation accounted for the majority of this reduction. Some important measures that helped reach those results were clear territorial delimitations so that intrusions were easy to spot, tougher monitoring with appropriate equipment, and an increased priority given to prosecution cases involving land intrusion and related illegal activity.
Production did not decrease despite reduced access to land. “Instead of expansion in new areas, we are looking at how to produce more in the same areas,” the president of the Brazilian Rural Society, a lobbying organization, was quoted as saying in a 2014 National Geographic article. The article noted that land output had increased in the preceding years.
Emmanuel Macron, in addition to threatening the EU-Mercosul trade agreement, said that the internationalization of the Amazon is open for debate. The Brazilian government’s spokesperson responded that “Brazilian sovereignty is not under discussion.” The French president’s comment was seen as a direct challenge by the Brazilian government, while Macron has been frustrated by the insults of a president he perceives as not up to the job.
The government also questioned the interests of the G7 countries in offering USD 20 million to help combat Amazon fires, suggesting that there were hidden motives behind the initiative. Bolsonaro conditioned accepting the money on Macron retracting a statement he had made a few days earlier, that Bolsonaro had lied to him about respecting the Paris Agreement during the EU-Mercosul trade negotiations.
The spat between Bolsonaro and Macron is the loudest, but the relative silence of the other parties to the EU-Mercosul agreement does not mean that they are not listening or that they do not care. The climate has quickly become one of the most urgent questions on the international agenda and Brazil’s actions will not go unnoticed. If Bolsonaro is serious about the trade agreement he will have to commit to the environmental goals his country has set out. The good thing is that if he does, there is a clear path already laid out for him.