Brazil’s general election, which takes place in two rounds over the course of October 2022, is coming not a moment too soon for the climate. President Jair Bolsonaro’s four years in power have been characterised by a callous disregard for environmental regulations, cynicism of climate science and a championing of big business interests over sustainable development. 

“Bolsonaro’s presidency has been horrendous for Brazil’s climate movement,” says Thiago Kanashiro Uehara, a Brazilian research fellow at the think tank Chatham House. “Not only have emissions increased, but the associated economic growth has benefitted big business owners or consumers in the West taking advantage of cheap imports, rather than local or indigenous Brazilian populations.” 

The sun sets over the Amazon as smoke from illegal fires lingers in the air in Pará, Brazil. (Photo by Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Until Bolsonaro took office in 2019, Brazil was often celebrated as a frontrunner in environmental diplomacy and climate policy. The international convention on climate change that resulted in the annual Conference of Party (COP) climate meetings was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Brazil is also the largest emitter, the largest economy and the largest consumer of energy in South America: what happens in the country is significant to the entire region. 

Even before he took office, Bolsonaro threatened on several occasions to pull out of the Paris Agreement, and he retracted Brazil’s offer to host the 25th UN Conference of the Parties (COP25) meeting in 2019, which then had to be held in Chile. Upon Bolsonaro assuming office, the foreign ministry eliminated its Climate Change Division, which had until then spearheaded Brazil’s climate efforts at the UN. Ministers began to dismiss climate diplomacy as neo-colonial efforts from the West to obstruct Brazilian access to its own territory, agricultural practices and natural resources. 

Destruction of the Amazon

In any conversation around Brazil’s climate performance, what is happening in the Amazon Rainforest will be at the top of the agenda. The vast majority of the rainforest – the largest in the world – is located in Brazil, and it absorbs tens of millions of tonnes of carbon each year.

Each year of Bolsonaro’s rule has seen deforestation in the Amazon region increase, shows satellite data tracked by Brazil’s environment ministry. Some 3,988km2 of the Brazilian Amazon – an area the size of New York City – was lost in the first six months of 2022 alone. Beef production is the main driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, followed by soybeans and animal feed. 

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Over the last four years, Bolsonaro has weakened existing environmental protections, scaled back efforts to reduce illegal logging, and allowed big mining and agricultural companies to operate in the region without restrictions. It is a marked contrast to the trend seen from 2003–10, when left-wing President – and current presidential frontrunner – Lula da Silva was in charge. Deforestation hit a peak in 2004 before declining by three-quarters by the end of the decade. Deforestation then remained low under Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s Workers’ Party colleague, in the years that followed. 

Brazil failed to meet a 2020 commitment to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80% from 1996–2005 levels. Its latest nationally determined contribution (NDC) submitted to the UN includes a pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2028, something that “will not be achieved” without much stronger regulation, says Celeste Gonzalez from nonprofit Climate Analytics. 

“Climate action has been non-existent in Brazil under Bolsonaro,” says Ana Toni, executive director of the Brazil-based non-profit Instituto Clima e Sociedade. “Instead of putting an end to deforestation, Bolsonaro has incentivised people to deforest, both legally and illegally.

“Emissions from Brazil increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021 as the Amazon burned, and there has been no reforestation programme introduced, despite pledges to do so in Brazil’s NDC.”

A mixed energy transition

Regardless of the climate-sceptic tendencies of Bolsonaro, it would take a lot for there to have been no significant shift in the country’s electricity mix over the past four years. This is due to economics: utility solar and wind power are much cheaper sources of electricity than traditional fossil fuels. 

In Brazil, though, hydropower has long provided the majority of the country’s electricity. While typically classed as a renewable power source, big hydropower plants are not without controversy, due to both human rights and environmental concerns. Brazil has seen many examples of how things can go wrong: the last big dam to be completed, the Belo Monte in 2016, saw indigenous people forcibly removed from their lands, significantly disrupted river flow patterns and was the target of hundreds of lawsuits.

A combination of market forces, difficulties attracting new dam investors, as well as concerns over drought limiting the effectiveness of hydropower plants, has all meant that Brazil’s electricity supply has diversified significantly over the past four years. Solar and wind have made particular progress, with cumulative capacity respectively growing from 4.5GW and 15.4GW in 2019 to 21.1GW and 23.3GW in 2022. 

More recently, however, Bolsonaro has signalled he is interested in developing more big dams, putting both river communities and the natural Amazon habitat more at risk. Data from GlobalData, Energy Monitor’s parent company, shows there are 10GW of new hydropower projects in the pipeline. Local reports from earlier in 2022 suggest that 31 hydropower plants are in the planning stages in the Amazon, in addition to 32 that already exist, while a further 57 sites have been identified as “highly promising” by Brazil’s Electricity Regulatory Agency. 

Beyond renewables, Bolsonaro has championed fossil fuels. He has extended the lifetime of coal plants and coal generation subsidies up to the year 2040 and also rapidly pushed to expand the country’s gas and oil industries. 

Following low hydropower generation during the intense droughts of 2021, the Bolsonaro administration has sought to significantly boost natural gas imports and infrastructure, adds Patricio Calles, research assistant at the nonprofit Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). Brazil was the top buyer of US liquefied natural gas (LNG) in September 2021, beating all European buyers that were preparing for winter. At the end of the year, state oil company Petrobras announced that LNG imports were up 200% on the previous year

The rush for gas is not only to meet short-term energy needs: data from GlobalData shows Brazil is currently in the process of building six new LNG terminals, more than doubling its existing LNG import capacity. 

An emerging oil major

The International Energy Agency’s net-zero pathway, released in 2021, stated outright that no new oil and gas fields should be developed if the world is to reach net zero by mid-century. Brazil has not heeded this warning.

Following the discovery and development of major oil fields off the south-east coast, the volume of oil and gas extracted in Brazil has rapidly expanded over the past decade. Brazil is now the ninth-largest oil producer in the world. The country produces more oil than petrostates like Venezuela, Nigeria and Kuwait, according to data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. 

Petrobras's spending plans up to 2026 do not include any efforts to diversify energy production, according to an analysis by the SEI’s Calles, with all capex directed towards new fossil fuel extraction. The company – which is 50% owned by the Brazilian state – has explicitly said it is wary of diversifying completely away from its oil and gas assets because it doesn't have the technical skills to be successful in new sectors. Instead, the Bolsonaro administration has said it plans to increase oil production by 70% by the end of the decade. 

A crucial election

If Brazil is to meet its ambition of reducing emissions to net zero by 2050, then October’s general election must change the country’s current trajectory of environmental destruction and fossil fuel expansionism. “Whether it be Lula or Bolsonaro who comes to power, Brazil has an obligation as the world’s seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gases to change tack,” says Climate Analytics’s Gonzalez.

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There are reasons to be hopeful. “The issue of climate change, and in particular in relation to the Amazon, has been a topic of debate for the first time in a Brazilian election” says Instituto Clima e Sociedade’s Toni. “For the first time it is appears to be a key issue for the electorate.” 

The other major reason to be hopeful from a climate point of view is the fact that former President Lula da Silva looks likely to be re-elected to replace Bolsonaro. Polls have regularly placed him with a lead of ten-points or more in both the first and second round of the election.

Lula would not be a panacea for all of climate scientists' worries around Brazil. For starters, he has said he will continue to support oil and resource extraction, unlike Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, who recently said he will ban new oil exploration because of environmental concerns. However, unlike Bolsonaro, who plans to sell off more of Petrobras to the private sector, Lula has pledged to keep it in public hands and vowed to use profits to develop other sectors of the economy. 

Most crucially from a climate perspective, Lula has made ending rampant deforestation a policy priority in the election. He has vowed to create a ministry for native peoples and to rebuild the country’s decimated environment agency. He has also pledged to clamp down on illegal mining prospectors in the region, and said he would be willing to accept international help protect the forest – something Bolsonaro vehemently opposes. 

A Bolsonaro defeat would return Brazil front and centre to the climate diplomacy table. “Brazil is awash with brilliant civil servants and diplomats eager to once again make the country a powerhouse in environmental diplomacy,” says Chatham House’s Uehara. “Having the powerful middle income nation of Brazil pushing for greater and more equitable climate action will be good news for all countries in the Global South.”