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As Brazilians head to the polls, what does it mean for green?

by Claudio Angelo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 24 October 2014 00:15 GMT

Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (center) talks to supporters of Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) Presidential candidate Aecio Neves during a march in his support in Sao Paulo on October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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Climate and environment issues have been largely absent from Brazil's campaigns - even as environmental crises grow

The good news about Brazilian presidential elections, to be decided in voting this Sunday, is that both incumbent President Dilma Rousseff and challenger Aécio Neves have formally committed themselves to building a low-carbon economy.

The bad news is they haven’t said a whole lot yet about how they intend to get there.

Even as southeastern Brazil bakes under record-breaking temperatures and a freak drought – last Friday, the city of São Paulo hit an all-time high of 37.8 degrees Celsius, and water shortages already affect millions – climate change and other environmental issues have been largely absent from the campaign.

If anything, they have been portrayed as a liability: When green candidate Marina Silva said she would study energy alternatives to unconventional oil production in the country’s deep-water pre-salt layer, she was attacked by her adversary Rousseff, from the Worker’s Party (PT).

One of the Worker’s Party television ads showed children’s schoolbooks being swept clean of words and pictures, as the speaker warned that Silva’s proposal would rob children of their future (most royalties from unconventional oil are destined by law to fund public education).

The former environment minister was eventually defeated in the first round of the elections, held earlier this month.

ROUSSEFF'S FOUR GREEN PARAGRAPHS

In a 42-page draft of her government platform, Rousseff has outlined her proposals for the environment in four paragraphs. The document says Brazil would maintain its commitment to emission reductions and strongly engage in climate negotiations toward a 2015 climate deal in her second term in office.

It also promises to “strengthen production restructuring towards a low-carbon economy” – without fleshing out how.

Environmentalists, however, criticize the president’s track record on environmental issues.

“Judging from what she did so far, we can’t quite rely on the promise of a low-carbon economy”, said Adalberto Veríssimo, a senior researcher at Imazon, an environmental think-tank in Belém.

Deforestation in the Amazon saw a 29 percent spike in 2013 after a four-year drop, and preliminary figures produced by Imazon from satellite images suggest deforestation rates are unlikely to drop in 2014. (It remains true, however, that, despite the apparent reversal of the trend, Amazon deforestation rates were the lowest in recent history during the current administration.)

During Rousseff’s first term, few protected areas were created – and eight of them were pruned so as to accommodate a string of hydropower dams.

In 2012, Congress passed a controversial Forest Code, which reduced the amount of natural vegetation to be preserved or replanted in private areas. The move was orchestrated by the powerful bancada ruralista (rural caucus), which includes most parties that form Rousseff’s base.

The President was also blamed during the current campaign for subsidising gasoline to keep inflation in check, a policy that started before her term and spelled disaster for the country’s longstanding biofuel industry.

Fossil energy is also on the rise in an electricity mix once dominated by hydropower. With a drop in deforestation rates from 2005 onwards, emissions from energy have surpassed those from deforestation and land use change for the first time in 2010.

Two severe droughts in 2013 and 2014 that affected hydropower generation forced the government to increase the use of oil and gas-fired power plants.

“The environmental agenda is not something she’s keen on, and no one close to her prioritises the issue”, said Tasso Azevedo, a consultant who headed Brazil’s Forest Service under Silva and helped write her government plan.

BETTER FROM NEVES?

For keenness on environmental issues, Neves, from center-right party PSDB, might be a better pick, analysts say. Although Neves himself has no personal love for the subject, some key people around him do.

His top advisor on sustainability is Fabio Feldmann, a well-known environmentalist and former congressman who served on the board of Greenpeace International and helped organize the Rio 1992 “Earth Summit”.

Neves also takes counsel from ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who, as a member of the group The Elders (with Gro Brundtland and Jimmy Carter, among others), has been debating climate change as a top concern for humankind.

The PSDB has outlined a 30-page government plan for sustainability. Its proposals include resuming the creation of protected areas, pumping up the production of sustainable timber through increasing forest concessions, a package for stimulating energy efficiency, and putting a price on carbon emissions.

Some of the ideas are fairly advanced, such as acknowledging planetary boundaries on things like nitrogen and phosphorus use in agriculture. And no targets or timetables are given in the document.

“We have been advised by our economy team to take targets away because the next two years will probably be (economically) dire and we don’t want to make promises we may not be able to keep,” said Feldmann.

But the nod towards sustainability has helped Neves win the support of Silva in the ballots.

Neves and his party also have their own environmental Achilles’ heels. His home state of Minas Gerais, which he has governed for two terms, is a frequent leader in deforestation of the country’s remaining pockets of Atlantic Forest. And PSDB, which has been governing the state of São Paulo for 20 years, has been blamed for worsening water shortages currently affecting South America’s most populous region.

Like the President, the PSDB candidate also has close allies in the bancada ruralista. That might mean trouble for forest conservation and for indigenous lands, which are currently the main target of the rural caucus.

Feldmann said he doesn’t fear there will be backsliding on indigenous rights should Neves be elected. “But there will be struggles,” he predicted. “The ruralistas are very strong and elected many representatives this year.”

“There’s always been a strong rural lobby”, agreed Imazon’s Veríssimo. “The question is how the President sets the tone of conversation with them.”

Claudio Angelo is a Brazilian journalist interested in climate change and other environmental issues and author of the 2008 book “O Aquecimento Global” (Global Warming).

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