chop chop

Brazil has the world’s weirdest carbon footprint

November 8, 2013
November 8, 2013

Unlike just about every other developing country’s carbon print, Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions are falling—fast. That’s according to an independent study (link in Portuguese) carried out by over 30 non-government organizations focused on climate change, including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.

Brazil’s emissions for 2012 dropped 5% from a year earlier, and registered as the country’s lowest in 20 years, according to Observatorio do Clima, the network of NGOs that carried out the study. The latest decline caps a steady decline since the country’s emissions hit a near peak in 2004. The Union of Concerned Scientists said in 2011 that Brazil cut down on deforestation of the Amazon so much so that the drop-off in its heat-trapping emissions over the last five years surpassed that of any other country in the world.

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Brazil’s drop is remarkable given how concerned environmentalists are about a global increase in greenhouse gas emissions as developing economies industrialize. According to a study by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, the total cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by emerging countries, including China and Brazil, since 1850 should surpass those of developed countries this decade. China, which accounted for 29% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2012, saw emissions increase 3% (pdf, p.4) last year from the year before.

Brazil is a unique case among industrializing countries, given that most of its emissions don’t result from energy use. Instead, the bulk of Brazil’s emissions come from what’s referred to as land-use change and forestry. In Brazil, that largely amounts to deforestation of the Amazon.

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Brazil is the world’s largest emitter of land-use change-related gases. Deforestation of the Amazon, which accelerated dramatically in 1995, is believed to have emitted some 200 million metric tonnes (220 million tons) into the atmosphere per year. Over 20% of the over 1.5 million square miles of rainforest are estimated to have been cleared to date. Much of the land has been used to graze cattle and grow soybean, Brazil’s two largest exports.

So, Brazil has drastically cut its carbon footprint over the past couple decades but not because it’s cutting back on energy production or industrial output, but because the country’s rate of deforestation has fallen considerably since 1995. Brazil has launched state and federal-level campaigns to protect swathes of land, punish loggers, farmers and miners who illegally seize land, and encourage the country’s soybean and beef industries to be more productive. The move came on the heels of growing international ire over Brazil’s destruction of the Amazon.

The bad news is that Brazil’s energy, industry and agriculture sectors’ emissions have been rising steadily in recent decades. Brazil’s energy sector emits more than twice what it did back in the early 1990s; gasoline emissions have jumped 64% in the past four years alone. And emissions from agriculture and industrial processes are up, too—38% and 55%, respectively, since 1992. Even with its dramatic carbon reductions, Brazil is still the world’s seventh largest emitting country.

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Curbing Brazil’s deforestation-led carbon contributions has had major impact, but there are signs that the country is getting lax, allowing Amazonian razing to pick up again. This isn’t just bad for the environment; it’s ultimately bad for business in Brazil, since chopping down more trees hurts the country’s global reputation and prevents its agribusiness sector from selling sustainably sourced goods.

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