The endless discussions between countries' representatives at the United Nations climate conference COP27 in Egypt got interrupted by an unexpected but welcomed guest. Brazil’s newly elected president Lula da Silva, who won’t be taking office until January, attended COP to convey a strong message on climate action.
Lula will be replacing Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president, and in terms of the environment, it seems to be a complete U-turn. During his time in office, Bolsonaro introduced policies to boost the cattle and agricultural sector, which in turn meant increasing deforestation and threatening wildlife, indigenous communities, and the global climate. But all that is about to change, said Lula, as he vowed strong environmental policies.
Speaking with ZME Science, Marina Silva, Lula’s former environment minister, and a strong candidate to take the same position now, said Brazil will look for a new development model that supports people’s economies while preserving the environment. Brazil has woken up from the nightmare of Bolsonaro, she said.
“The Amazon has a political, strategic and symbolic importance for the world. It’s a point of equilibrium for the planet that is now being destroyed,” Silva said. “We’ll gain back Brazil’s credibility in the climate negotiations. Everyone here at COP is willing to work with us and help Brazil to get back on track in the first year of the government.”
Walking into a room of supporters chanting his name, Lula promised to restore the Amazon rainforest and prosecute environmental criminals. Brazil is home to a large part of the Amazon, one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. The rainforest has millions of animal and plant species that play a key role in regulating the overall global climate.
"We will do whatever it takes to have zero deforestation and the degradation of our biomes,” said Lula. “Brazil is ready to join the efforts to build a more sustainable and fairer planet. The survival of the Amazon and of the planet depended on the results of the elections in Brazil. We are ready to cooperate with the rest of the world in this.”
For Lula, Brazil has already shown it can tackle deforestation, which is actually true. During the past two decades, when Lula was in office, Brazil was described as a poster child for conservation. In 2004, the Amazon lost over 28,000 square kilometers of native forests, but by 2012, that figure had dropped to 4,600 square kilometers.
However, Bolsonaro changed all that in just a few years. About 17% of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, according to a 2021 report. If that figure reaches 20% to 25%, scientists believe that parts of the ecosystem could dry out and become a savanna. This means they would be largely releasing carbon emissions instead of capturing them.
But that's about to change.
The way forward
Lula said the Amazon deforestation will be something of the past. He vowed to boost all monitoring systems and environmental agencies dismantled by Bolsonaro and to prosecute those carrying out illegal activities such as mining and deforestation. He also promised to protect indigenous communities by creating a specific ministry for them.
While the next climate summit is already set to be held in Dubai next year, the one in two years doesn’t have a specific location – yet. Lula said Brazil would be interested in hosting COP in 2025 in an Amazonian city as a way to highlight its importance to the rest of the world. This should be decided by the UN in the coming days in Egypt.
Lula said on Twitter he met with US Climate Envoy John Kerry and China's chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua, posting photos with both of them. At the COP summit, he gave two separate speeches, one on the role of the Amazon and one on his climate plans. People waited in line for up to three hours to enter the room he was due to speak.
Carolina Genin, Climate director at the World Resources Institute Brasil, told ZME Science that the air at COP is “electric with hope” due to Lula’s visit. He recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis and the economic opportunity of increasing the agricultural output without felling trees, Genin said, saying “it’s time” to reverse course and take action.
Meanwhile, Carlos Nobre, a well-known climate researcher from Brazil, told ZME Science that a “new economy” of the Amazon can be developed by increasing regenerative agriculture, which now has a minimal role. He said to be optimistic over the first steps taken by Lula, claiming that a full stop to deforestation in Brazil is feasible.
At COP, Brazil has the second largest delegation with over 500 people, only behind the United Arab Emirates with over 1,000 people – the next hosts of the climate summit next year. Brazil has three pavilions at COP. One is from the Bolsonaro government, fully focused on the country’s green energy and without any references to the growing deforestation.
The other two pavilions are from civil society, called the Climate Action Hub, and from a group of governors from Amazon states. This is where Lula has been spending most of his time. Since he hasn’t taken office yet, his visit clashes with the presence of representatives from the Bolsonaro administration, who are at COP as part of Brazil’s delegation.
While Brazil’s changing politics is a piece of welcoming news, considering the role played by the Amazon for the entire world, it won’t be easy for Lula to pull it off. Bolsonaro’s party is still powerful in Congress and will likely block any legislative changes by Lula. The country is also in need of funds to protect the Amazon due to an economic crisis and the pandemic.