Brazil Economy Must ‘Live Off’ More Than Commodities, Silva Says

The country is an agricultural behemoth, but the environment minister warns the farming sector cannot keep growing if it requires destroying valuable forests.

(Bloomberg) — Brazil Environment Minister Marina Silva knows her country is an agricultural powerhouse, but she worries about the risks the influential sector’s growth poses to the Amazon rainforest.

Farming has traditionally served as a key driver of deforestation in Brazil, due to activities like clearing forest for cattle pasture to feed the nation’s massive beef industry. It’s estimated that around 20% of Amazon forest cover has vanished in the last 50 years because of deforestation and landscape degradation. 

For the world this is a big loss. The planet’s largest rainforest is a significant sink for carbon-dioxide pollution, the main driver of global warming. But deforestation, the biggest contributor to Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, accelerated sharply under former leader Jair Bolsonaro.

Silva’s boss, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, vowed to reverse the trend when he took office this January, and deforestation fell by about 66% in August, compared with the same month a year ago.

Read More: Brazil to Cap CO2 Emissions in Lula’s Green Transition Plan

Silva recently shared her thoughts with Bloomberg Green about Brazil’s role in global climate negotiations and the challenges of repairing damage already done to the rainforest. Comments have been edited for space and clarity. 

On the impact rich nations can have on climate policy:

We [the G20] have 80% of GDP and 80% of emissions. Imagine an 80% reduction in emissions and an 80% reduction in inequalities. The world’s problems would be practically solved. 

The urgency of the climate fight:

We have always had the technical and scientific capacity. What we have lacked is the political, ethical and social capacity to use that technical ability to prevent us from reaching this point. We are already living under the risk of overwhelming heat waves, overwhelming fires, overwhelming floods, overwhelming droughts, overwhelming changes in marine currents. If we had acted with a sense of urgency in the face of the diagnosed emergency, none of this would have happened.

Brazil’s role at the next UN climate talks in Dubai:

Brazil is very strongly guiding the world beyond the mitigation and adaptation agenda [to] having an ecological transformation agenda. [We’re] already thinking about how to change intensive agriculture to low-carbon agriculture, for example. The model as it is does not cope with the immense challenges we have for this planetary population of 8 billion people who will need to make major economic, social and cultural transformations.

Read More: Lula Unveils Record Crop Financing Plan in Nod to Agribusiness

There are things that we have to let go, such as the idea that Brazil is an agricultural power because it has many areas [for agriculture] and that the forest can be turned into an arable land. This idea has to be abandoned. Zero deforestation implies economic activity only in areas that can legally be used. We cannot continue to live off the commodity boom alone — this idea has to be discontinued as well.

The challenges for Brazil hosting UN climate talks in 2025:

It was a great challenge to do Rio 92 [ the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992] here in Brazil. [Back then there was] less knowledge, less commitment and much more resistance than we have today to the issues of climate change, loss of biodiversity and desertification. [And yet] with all the advances we’ve made, it’s a similar challenge, 30 years later, because now we know that everything we’ve done is still insufficient and that there’s no more time.

The efforts to repair the rainforest after the Bolsonaro years:

It is more difficult to fix, to repair something that was destroyed or severely damaged than it is to raise a new dynamic, even if this is more complex. On the other hand, we had the know-how from the previous experience of President Lula’s governments. [Lula was previously president from 2003 to 2010.] So that was a comparative advantage for this reconstruction.

–With assistance from Beatriz Reis and Bruna Lessa.

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