Brazil's new far-right president Bolsonaro risks turning environmental champions into ‘climate rogues’, experts say

Rising levels of deforestation and climate-sceptic government among major concerns at international summit

Brazil’s heritage as one of the world’s countries leading the fight against global climate change is being rapidly eroded ahead of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration as president on 1 January, 2019.

According to several sources at the UN’s 24th Conference on Climate Change in Poland, Brazil’s new administration is already making progress increasingly difficult on many issues and has embarrassed the Brazilian negotiating team.

Despite hosting the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which laid the foundations of international efforts to recognise and combat man-made climate change, Brazil announced just before this summit kicked off that it was pulling out of hosting the next one, despite its successful bid.

The country’s withdrawal as the host nation for the next summit has also been read as a further move away from action to tackle the causes of climate change under Mr Bolsonaro.

The country has also seen rising levels of deforestation undermine recent progress and Mr Bolsonaro plans to remove protection for the Amazon rainforest.

  • Brazil's new far-right president Bolsonaro risks turning environmental champions into ‘climate rogues’, experts say

Mr Bolsonaro repeatedly said during his campaign he wanted to follow Donald Trump’s example and also pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement – he has since backtracked on the statements, but his criticism has prompted a fringe event at the climate summit to address the implications if he went ahead.

“[The withdrawal of the COP nomination] is the first stone he put in the wall of the shame he promises for the environment,” said Marcio Astrini, coordinator of public policies for Greenpeace in Brazil, in an interview ​with Spanish newspaper El Paísthis week.

He also pointed out between 2004 and 2014, there was about an 80 per cent reduction of deforestation in the Amazon, but that Mr Bolsonaro’s campaign promised to remove power from conservationists and change laws regarding land rights for indigenous populations.

“It’s as if [Brazil] was saying that it doesn’t want to help with solution, but with the problem,” he said.

The NGO Climate Action Network, which is reporting on the summit, named Brazil the “fossil of the day”, after pulling out of hosting the next summit, and said of the country: “A so far trusted broker of the Paris Agreement negotiations is about to become one of the world’s climate rogues.”

This week the group published a story in their newsletter titled: 3 billion reasons to freak out about Brazil, which said Mr Bolsonaro “has already embarrassed Brazilian delegates here in Katowice by backtracking on hosting COP25”, and detailed the implications of rising deforestation in the country.

The organisation said: “Deforestation has already increased by 32 per cent between August and November. According to Brazilian scientists, it could climb to mind-boggling 25,000 square kilometres (nearly one Belgium) a year, with resulting emissions of 3 billion tons of CO2. This would be like adding nearly 10 Polands to the atmosphere – and a sure blow to any chance of the world staying below 1.5 degrees.”

President-elect Mr Bolsonaro is an avowed climate sceptic who has said he will strip power from government environment agencies, and build a motorway through the Amazon rainforest.

His appointment of Ernesto Araújo as foreign minister, who believes climate change is a Marxist tactic to instil fear, stifle the economic growth of western countries and benefit China, has also raised fears.

Achala Abeysinghe, principal researcher on climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) told The Independent: “It is crucial that Brazil continues to stay committed to the Paris Agreement.

“From the beginning Brazil has been a leading force in uniting countries behind this agreement and in the fight against climate change. The vast majority of governments recognise that there are many more opportunities gained from green technologies and clean development than in pursuing an outdated path dominated by fossil fuels and forest destruction.”

Georges Schnyder, president of environmental campaign group Slow Food Brazil, said: “If the promises made by President Jair Bolsonaro during his election campaign – reduction of environmental protection measures, the end of protected areas and of land reserved for indigenous peoples, reduction of sanctions against environmental crimes – were to come true, the consequences would be catastrophic for the world climate. It would be a disaster of global proportions.”

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Analysts have also suggested climate change denial groups have been emboldened by Mr Bolsonaro and Mr Trump’s outspoken scepticism.

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