At the end of June 2015, President Barack Obama and President Dilma Rousseff put out a “U.S.-Brazil Joint Statement On Climate Change”. It’s good to see that the two Presidents put climate change at the top of their agenda when they met.
The World Resources Institute described the statement as “remarkable”, “unprecedented”, and an “important step forward”.
But reading through the statement, it’s clear that neither country is actually committing to addressing the cause of climate change: the continued drilling and burning of fossil fuels. The words “coal”, and “oil” do not appear in the statement. The word “gas” appears only the context of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, there is no mention in the statement of leaving fossil fuels underground.
Obama and Rousseff’s 2°C global warming goal is “highly dangerous”
Perhaps the most serious problem with the statement is that its target is too far off and too weak. (Of course, it’s the same target that the UNFCCC uses, which is also deeply problematic.)
The US-Brazil statement focusses on a 2°C warming limit:
Mindful of the long-term goal of limiting global temperature increase to a maximum of 2°C above preindustrial levels, they agreed that there should be strong nationally determined contributions, regular updating by Parties in order to promote greater ambition over time, and encouragement of longer-term strategies for transitioning to low-carbon economies.
In October 2014, David Victor and Charles Kennel argued in Nature magazine that we should ditch the 2°C goal. Victor and Kennel point out that the 2°C goal isn’t achievable because greenhouse emissions continue to rise. In 2013, concentrations of CO2 increased at their fastest rate for 30 years.
Victor and Kennel write,
Because it sounds firm and concerns future warming, the 2°C target has allowed politicians to pretend that they are organizing for action when, in fact, most have done little. Pretending that they are chasing this unattainable goal has also allowed governments to ignore the need for massive adaptation to climate change.
The 2°C target has long been controversial. In 2004, climate scientist James Hansen wrote that,
the 2°C scenario cannot be recommended as a responsible target, as it almost surely takes us well into the realm of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
And in a paper published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in July 2015, Hansen and colleagues wrote,
2°C global warming above the preindustrial level, which would spur more ice shelf melt, is highly dangerous.
When Obama and Rousseff talk about a 2°C “long term goal”, this is too little, too late.
Brazil’s “unacceptable” commitments
Here’s the text from the US-Brazil Statement on Brazil’s commitments, preceded by some waffle about “fair and ambitious”, and “highest possible effort”:
Brazil will pursue policies aimed at eliminating illegal deforestation, coupled with ambitious enhancement of carbon stocks through reforestation and forest restoration. For that purpose, Brazil intends to restore and reforest 12 million hectares of forests by 2030. In line with its goal to expand the use of renewable energy sources, Brazil intends that its total energy matrix reach, by 2030, a share of 28% to 33% from renewable sources (electricity and biofuels) other than hydropower. Brazil also intends to improve low-carbon agricultural and grazing land practices through the promotion of sustainable agriculture and productivity enhancement; to promote new, clean technology standards for industry; to further promote energy efficiency measures and to expand the use of non-fossil fuel energy sources domestically.
There are four commitments relating to forests: stopping illegal deforestation; reforestation of 12 million hectares; promoting biofuels; and promoting sustainable agriculture. A quick look at each of these reveals that Brazil’s commitments in the US-Brazil Statement amount to very little indeed.
On illegal deforestation, Brazil will aim to comply with its own laws. As Márcio Astrini of Greenpeace pointed out to the website China Dialogue, this is unacceptable:
“It’s unacceptable that the most ambitious commitment that Dilma has made to protecting forests and fighting climate change is just obeying the law.”
Brazil will restore and reforest 12 million hectares of forests by 2030. This sounds impressive. But it’s only half of the area required by the country’s Forest Code, according to Astrini.
Expanding the area of land devoted to biofuel plantations could have devastating impacts on Brazil’s cerrado, the most biologically rich savanna in the world. At least part of Brazil’s success in reducing Amazon deforestation has come at the expense of the cerrado.
In 2011, UK-based journalist Fred Pearce reported that,
In recent years, the rate of ecological destruction in the cerrado has been twice that in the Amazon. And while the majority of the Amazon rainforest survives, more than 60 percent of the cerrado’s former 200 million hectares has disappeared under the plow, mostly within the last two decades.
Part of this destruction took place to make way for sugar cane plantations, to provide ethanol for Brazil’s cars. The Amazon rainforest is too wet to grow sugar, but expanding the area of sugar cane plantations in the cerrado displaces cattle ranching and soy plantations to the Amazon.
Sustainable agriculture is similar to the myth of sustainable forest management. Rather than addressing the root causes of deforestation, in particular ever expanding consumption, proponents of sustainable agriculture (like WWF, for example) argue that environmental and social standards will make destructive industries sustainable.
One of the strategies of the “sustainable agriculture” lobby is to set up commodity roundtables, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Round Table on Responsible Soy, where “stakeholders”, including the industry and largely co-opted NGOs, can meet and agree “solutions”. The solutions invariably do nothing to prevent the continued expansion of the industry that caused the problem in the first place.
The contradiction of describing vast monocultures of plantations as “sustainable” is never addressed in these roundtables.
Don’t mention the oil
In 2006, Brazil announced the discovery of tens of billions of barrels of oil more than 200 kilometres off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. The discovery was supposed to help finance health care, poverty alleviation and education, and was to boost Brazil’s economy.
Instead, Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras, is mired in a scandal of debt and corruption. (Rousseff was chair of Petrobras from 2003-2010, but denies that she knew anything about the corruption.) The oil is in deep water, too far from the coast to be reached by most helicopters. It is one of the world’s riskiest oil drilling operations.
There are similarities to BP’s Deepwater Horizon operations in Macondo Prospect oil field in the Gulf of Mexico. On 20 April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and the resulting oil spill was the world’s largest.
A Brazilian government source told the Guardian,
“If there is an accident from this kind of well, nobody knows what will happen, but it would certainly be worse than the Macondo.”
Earlier this year, President Obama allowed Shell to start drilling an exploratory well in the Arctic Ocean. Even Al Gore criticised Obama over this decision. Gore told the Guardian that,
I think Arctic drilling is insane. The Deepwater Horizon spill was warning enough. The conditions are so hostile to human activity there. I think it’s a mistake to drill for oil in the Arctic. I think that ought to banned.
Last week, kayaktivists and Greenpeace temporarily blocked a Shell icebreaker from leaving port in Portland, Oregon. In May 2015, hundreds of kayaktivists protested in Elliott Bay in Seattle close to where Shell’s Polar Pioneer drilling rig is docked.
But when Presidents Obama and Rousseff produced their statement about addressing climate change, no one thought to mention the one solution that will stop climate change: leaving fossil fuels underground.
PHOTO credit: Shell No.