A photo-op with Jair Bolsonaro, anyone?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Aerial view of a forest fire near the city of Cuiaba, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, 14 August 2020. [ROGERIO FLORENTINO / EPA-EFE]

The European Union must understand that a promise in a trade deal is no substitute for a deforestation control policy – something that’s awfully lacking in Brazil under its far-right regime, writes Marcio Astrini.

Marcio Astrini is the executive director of Observatório do Clima, a network of 63 Brazilian civil society organisations.

According to a famous quote misattributed to Albert Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The European Union’s desperate attempt to ratify a trade deal with the South American Mercosur bloc fits the definition perfectly.

Since 2019, some European leaders have been fooling themselves into believing that the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement would magically force Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro into protecting the Amazon rainforest, indigenous peoples, and the climate.

All they got for their wishful thinking were offences hurled at German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron (and his wife). And of course runaway fires and deforestation, which made Brazil the only big carbon polluter in the world to increase its emissions during the pandemic.

Since the trade deal was signed, in June 2019, more than 15,000 km2 of the Amazon rainforest have been devastated, according to the Brazilian real-time deforestation alert system Deter.

Faced with resistance from public opinion, the Parliament and member countries to giving Bolsonaro a vote of confidence – and pass an agreement that is not only toothless against deforestation but may actually increase it – the EU, under the presidency of the Portuguese, has come up with a change of strategy.

Some of its leaders are cooking up a joint political declaration with additional measures to increase the environmental safeguards of the deal and make it more palatable. This attempt to unlock the ratification process is however a sleight of hand, which will patently fail to protect the environment. There are two reasons for this.

First, no matter how stringent such a declaration may turn out to be, it will never be a substitute for domestic environmental governance. Right now, more than halfway through Mr. Bolsonaro’s term, Brazil has no deforestation control policy whatsoever.

In fact, the government is being sued in the Supreme Court for shelving the successful Amazon Deforestation Prevention and Control Plan, a key policy put in place 16 years ago that was instrumental in lowering deforestation rates by 83% between 2004 and 2012.

Environmental governance in Brazil is being dismantled by a juggernaut of extensive deregulation, budget cuts, harassment of civil servants, purges, and rigging of councils and committees. Without governance, and without a plan, there is no hope for a sustained drop in deforestation.

The Brazilian government is well aware of this. That is probably why, to hedge against international pressure for soaring forest emissions, Brazil submitted last December a new pledge under the Paris Agreement that reduces ambition, thus violating the Paris Agreement’s no-backsliding principle.

Under the “updated” NDC, Brazil commits itself to net emissions in 2030 that are between 200 million and 400 million tons of CO2 higher than stated in the original 2015 pledge.

The new submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change also does away with the promise, made in 2015, to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 – a policy that is at the heart of the Trade and Sustainable Development chapter of the trade deal with the EU. Brazil’s Paris commitment can now be met even if deforestation remains at today’s levels.

The second reason, of course, is Jair Bolsonaro.

While Europe defends the trade deal as a token of multilateralism and democracy, the President of Brazil issued four illegal decrees on the eve of the Carnival holiday, weakening gun control and proclaiming that if he had his way Brazil wouldn’t have “this regime” (meaning democracy).

With no regard to the efforts of European negotiators to find acceptable environmental safeguards for the free trade agreement, Mr. Bolsonaro has presented the Congress he now controls with a string of bill proposals that open up indigenous lands for commercial exploitation, legalize land grabbing and weaken the environmental licensing system.

Adding insult to injury, he called those bills his “economic priorities” (so much for “build back better”). The appalling set of legislative threats to the environment also include the abolition of Brazil’s national parks service and a massive revision of protected areas – which according to the President hamper Brazil’s development.

The world’s worst COVID leader doesn’t care for international treaties. His agenda for 2021 and 2022 is to accelerate setbacks and eventually organize political militias in order to stay in power.

If European leaders like Angela Merkel, who faces elections this year, and Emmanuel Macron, who will run for re-election next year, want to push ahead with ratification of the free trade agreement, they must be warned that by doing so the EU will become an associate of the Brazilian government’s trashing of the global climate system.

And they will have to pose for the photo-op with Bolsonaro – who, by the way, never wears a mask.

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