Ken Silverstein Senior Contributor
The world is mourning Pelé’s passing — a Brazilian soccer star who grew up dirt poor and would become a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN’s Earth Summit. Pelé scored 757 goals during his career, winning three World Cup trophies and inspiring countless Brazilians. Now Brazil has a new working-class hero and the pride of the country’s indigenous population: Lula da Silva, who assumed the nation’s presidency on Jan. 1.
Lula narrowly defeated Joir Bolsonaro, who let the loggers and farmers run roughshod over the country’s vast rainforests and the home to the Indians. That destruction has been deadly to wildlife and natural habitat. But it has led to more heat-trapping emissions, pushing the global environment to its tipping point where flooding and droughts can become commonplace. Lula has vowed to reverse this trend. Can he?
“The production of soybeans creates tension between forest and agriculture, negatively impacting indigenous people and producing more greenhouse gases. The market imperfection means the indigenous population does not receive proper compensation for saving the trees and storing carbon, says Emilio Sempris, former minister of the environment for Panama from 2017 to 2019, in an interview.
He adds that Brazil’s agricultural lands are the size of Panama. But farmers cut down the trees that vacuum CO2 from the atmosphere. While logging and farming produce short-term profits, they erode biodiversity and disrupt the lives of local peoples.
“Carbon is a proxy for the entire ecosystem, says Sempris. “Soybeans have more economic value in the short run but over the long haul, it impacts Brazil and the local environment. Lula has an opportunity to make things right by implementing a nationwide financial scheme to assist the indigenous communities.”
Brazil’s national space agency says that under Bolsonaro, deforestation of the Amazon increased by 60%. That helped lead to a 12.2% increase in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, which is the highest in two decades, adds Brazil’s Climate Observatory. Precisely, deforestation in the Amazon accounted for 77% of those CO2 emissions: The demolition of the Brazilian forest caused 1.19 billion gross tons of CO2 last year, which is more than Japan.
“If governments respond by turbocharging clean energy investments and planting, not cutting, trees, global emissions could rapidly fall,” says Pierre Friedlingstein, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. For every ton of CO2 emitted, half stays in the atmosphere while forests or oceans store the other half.
Can carbon credits save the day?
The primary concern is that deforestation, higher temperatures, and droughts limit the rainforests’ ability to absorb carbon. This is why it is imperative to incentivize the landholders and indigenous peoples to maintain the trees. Indeed, they must be worth more than the opportunity costs — the economic value of farming or logging.
Before Bolsanaro came to power on Jan. 1, 2019, Brazil was slowing deforestation. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) recognized it under the REDD+ program where governments set targets to slow deforestation. The UNFCC assesses their results and approves emissions reductions. But Bolsanaro opted out of the rigorous process, allowing farmers and developers to slash and burn the forests — a quicker payback but costlier long term.
Enter Lula, who will reinvigorate Brazil’s REDD+ program and give the country a fighting chance against deforestation. He is also inspiring the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia, which have expansive rainforests. The three countries contribute 58% of global land-use change emissions, says Professor Friedlingstein.
However, the challenge remains: the price of the carbon credits and the resulting compensation must be greater than the alternatives. William Nordhaus, an economics professor at Yale University, writes that the social cost of carbon to society was $31 in 2015, but that will increase to $52 in 2030.
Rainforests absorb 7.6 billion metric tons annually. Sovereign credits generated by the REDD+ financing mechanism will scale that number higher. Because federal governments issue “sovereign credits” under the Paris agreement, it will drive up the price and raise more monies for forest preservation and infrastructure improvements. Ambev brewing, Vale SA metals, and Petróleo Brasileiro could be in the market for Brazil’s carbon credits.
“Only a global mechanism, like REDD+, recognized by the UNFCCC can save the Amazon — and only when companies and governments start to buy the emissions reductions that Brazil will create from slowing deforestation again with the new president. So, if you want to save the Amazon Rainforests, buy REDD+ sovereign carbon credits,” says Kevin Conrad, executive director of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations.
If the current emissions levels persist, there’s little hope of achieving
carbon neutrality and avoiding a climate breakdown: record warming, massive floods, and melting glaciers. Rainforests are nature’s solution to climate change and are more affordable than the technologies on the drawing board. But the trees must remain standing. Brazil’s Lula promises to lead his country, reminiscent of Pelé — a global role model who gave hope to the hopeless.