Analysis: 'Just numbers': Brazil's new climate pledge draws skepticism

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SAO PAULO/GLASGOW, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Of the more than 100 countries that committed to ending deforestation by 2030 in Glasgow this week, one country was particularly welcome: Brazil.

Not only is the Latin American nation home to 60% of the world's largest rainforest, but the destruction of Brazil's Amazon has soared since far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019.

If there is to be any prospect of meeting that 2030 target, the world needs Brazil on board. That's why statesmen like U.S. climate envoy John Kerry applauded the country when Brazil's environment minister announced on Monday at COP26 an ambition to end illegal deforestation two years ahead of that schedule, by 2028.

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"Looking forward to working together!", Kerry wrote on Twitter.

But scientists, nonprofits and indigenous groups are skeptical.

"In the past three years, deforestation has only gone up," said Luciana Gatti, a scientist at Brazil's space research agency INPE who studies the Amazon's role in global climate change.

"Without a radical overhaul of enforcement and the system of environmental fines it will be very difficult to achieve that goal," she added.

Gatti also warned that even if Brazil were able to meet its new target, it may be too late for some parts of the Amazon where large-scale deforestation appears to be already causing mass dieback.

Although Brazil's posture at this year's United Nations climate change summit marks a shift from Bolsonaro's previously antagonistic tone on environmental issues, it still falls far short of regaining the country's previous position as a climate leader.

Brazil hosted the 1992 meeting that established the basis for all global climate negotiations and gained further credibility in the early 2010s by dramatically reducing deforestation and setting an example to the world.

Bolsonaro did not travel to Glasgow like most of the other leaders who signed up to the global deal.

The presidency did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism of Brazil's targets.

For sure, Brazil does have a far more robust presence at this year's summit with government and corporate lobby groups mounting a booth covered in leaves with giant interactive screens. Officials from the foreign, energy and environment ministries have given regular public speeches.

But the booth's agenda signals little change in Brazil's position. As guests sipped coffee on Wednesday, officials mostly touted biofuels policy - a measure strongly supported by agribusiness but which experts say must be transitioned away from to achieve carbon neutrality.

For former-Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira the lack of detail in Brazil's deforestation proposal makes it unrealistic.

"They're just numbers, there's no strategy at all," she said.

RADICAL CHANGE NEEDED

Brazil is not the only nation where campaigners are hoping for a radical change. Russia, the world's fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, holds around a fifth of the planet's forests, but has been hit been by huge wildfires in recent years. read more

Russia says around half of the annual carbon absorption capacity of its forests - some 600 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent - is lost to fires and logging. read more

Mikhail Kreindlin, an environmentalist with Greenpeace Russia, said it was important for Russia to invest more in forest firefighting, preventing fires as well as fire monitoring capacity.

"In Russia, the most important thing is to reduce the territory of wildfires significantly. Because the trend in the last few years is a constant increase in the area of the wildfires," Kreindlin said.

Last year in Brazil, a forested area the size of Lebanon was cleared from the Amazon and although there may be a slight relative fall in 2021, deforestation remains at a level not seen since 2008.

Land grabbers and ranchers feel emboldened under Bolsonaro's leadership, encouraged by his vocal support for industry and his criticism of environmental regulations and indigenous territories that protect vast swathes of the Amazon against destruction.

Telma Taurepang, a member of the Taurepang indigenous tribe and coordinator of the Union of Indigenous Women of the Brazilian Amazon, said she had little faith that Brazil's announcements or the wider global agreement would end deforestation or reduce emissions.

"It is a lie by governments because they say they will reduce emissions, all while they are giving money to increase soy production and agribusiness, feeding mining, and not listening to native peoples," she said in Glasgow while attending COP26.

For Carlos Nobre, one of the leading climatologists studying the Amazon, it is hard to trust Bolsonaro.

"There's no way to believe that the president has changed his historic policy position," he said.

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Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer in Sao Paulo, Jake Spring in Glasgow, Tom Balmforth and Angelina Kazakova in Moscow; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Aurora Ellis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Global Climate & Environment Correspondent, based in Brazil. Interests include science, forests, geoengineering, cryosphere, climate policy/diplomacy, accountability and investigative reporting. His work on environmental destruction under Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro received awards from Covering Climate Now and the Society of Environmental Journalists. Previously based in China, he is fluent in Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese.