by Giovanna Rosario*
Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
Because of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s electoral victory on 30 October, it was decreed that Brazilian domestic policy should, after having gone off course, be taken again in the opposite direction. This means as the president-elect said in his victory speech, a project for Brazil opposite to that of Jair Bolsonaro’s government.
After all, a left-wing candidate supported by the so-called “broad democratic front” defeated a far-right incumbent president who flirted several times with the possibility of not accepting the election results, thus joining Trump’s far-right path. Jair Bolsonaro did not congratulate Lula on his victory. Such an act would be an explicit recognition of the election result, which could demobilize his most radical supporters, who called for a coup d’état on unfounded accusations of electoral fraud.
However, the admission of defeat by the opponent has become something of a contingency in times of the rise of the extreme right. Of fundamental importance was that the recognition by civil society, the political elite, and the international community came immediately, as was the invitation of the president-elect to the COP 27 conference in Sharm El Sheikh.
Lula’s presence at the conference was marked by important bilateral meetings and a statement in which he made clear that the domestic change in his country would also be reflected in his foreign policy. The climate agenda, which was left out during four years of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, will take a central role in the new government.
The climate agenda under the Bolsonaro government
In the face of a foreign policy geared entirely to a domestic and ideological audience, the climate agenda, which is essentially a multilateral agenda given the impossibility of a unilateral or bilateral fight against climate change, has been sidelined, if not opposed.
According to the first foreign minister of Bolsonaro’s government, Ernesto Araújo, the “ideology of climate change” was nothing more than a left-wing creation to strengthen the power of international organizations over nation-states. The climate agenda was so unimportant and so strongly opposed that COP 25 in Brazil, which was to take place in 2019, the first year of Bolsonaro’s term, was canceled.
Brazilian foreign policy has never been subject to consensus among the groups that formed the Bolsonaro government. In an article published in 2019, researchers Guilherme Casarões and Daniel Flames divide the groups with potential influence on foreign policy into three groups. First are the economic liberals led by Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. In second place is the military. And finally, the self-proclaimed opponents of globalization, officially represented by then Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, among others. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo was also responsible for shaping a foreign policy agenda that was entirely ideological and automatically aligned with former US President Donald Trump.
One does not have to delve deeply into the matter to realize that the Bolonarists’ foreign policy was largely dominated by anti-globalists. The idea was that the West had been taken over by dark globalist forces determined to undermine values based on God, family, and nation. In this sense, the “ideology of climate change”, according to the opponents of globalization, should be rejected. After all, it would not only be an opportunity for international organizations and other countries to interfere with Brazilian sovereignty, but also an obstacle to economic progress.
In this way, foreign policy under the Bolsonaro government consisted of a significant “deviation” from the position that the country had sought to define after re-democratization. Especially given the abandonment of the multilateral discussion forums and the termination of the claim to be at the forefront of the environmental agenda.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, Brazil’s maybe greatest commitment to combating climate change was to reduce deforestation. Between 2005 and 2012, the country managed to reduce the rate by 70%, thanks to measures to protect the Amazon during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and the first two governments of Lula (2003-2010). The country formally made this commitment in the 2015 Paris Agreement when it declared to end illegal deforestation by 2030. Although the country ratified the agreement, Bolsonaro threatened to withdraw from it after his election, as he intended to repeat what Donald Trump had done in the United States.
The idea of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement was not unintentional. Bolsonaro campaigned for the abolition of Brazilian environmental agencies, such as the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (Ibama), which, according to the president, would be responsible for an “environmental penal industry”. The Bolsonaro government’s former environment minister Ricardo Salles will go down in history as the only minister in the department so far to have been investigated for environmental offenses for allegedly facilitating the smuggling of environmental products, particularly Brazilian timber.
In this context of dismantling environmental policies, the Bolsonaro government has not only failed to fulfill the commitment to reduce deforestation made in the Paris Agreement but has increased the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 73% in the first three years in office. Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro has never been to a COP conference and every year has postponed disclosing data on Brazilian deforestation until after the event. After all, while Brazil was considered a role model in the fight against climate change in the early years of the 21st century, the country became a bogeyman under Bolsonaro’s government, while the president became one of the biggest targets for criticism from environmentalists and countries committed to the agenda.
Lula at COP 27 and the chance Brazil almost lost
In light of Lula’s election victory on 30 October, the president-elect was invited to COP 27 by the host of the event, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Lula’s participation was a way to contain challenges to the election result, as few facts have greater legitimizing power than participation in a large and important international event like a COP. In addition, a new and energetic Brazilian position on the climate agenda was expected.
Lula did not disappoint the public. In his speech, he advocated for the country to once again take a protagonist role in international climate discussions and for the environmental issue to once again be given a top place on the government agenda.
Brazil is not a nuclear or military power and will not be in the future. Nor is it an inevitable player in economic discussions. However, it could be argued that there are two agendas that, even if they have not yet reached the status of high politics, are likely to conquer this status very soon. These agendas are Climate Security and Food Security. Brazil could become an inevitable player in this issue.
Brazil is the leader in net food exports. In 2021, the country was the world’s largest exporter of soybeans, the third largest exporter of corn and beans, and the leader in beef exports. But despite these achievements, Bolsonaro will leave the next government with the legacy of 33 million Brazilians who do not have enough to eat. The Amazon, the largest tropical forest in the world, is 60% in Brazil, but under Bolsonaro’s government deforestation has skyrocketed.
In his speech, Lula made clear that he knows the possibilities of the country and its contradictions. The president-elect announced: “The fight against climate change will have the highest priority in the structuring of my government”. He also stated that “we have 30 million hectares of degraded land. We have the technical knowledge to make it arable. We don’t have to cut down a single meter of forest to continue to be one of the biggest food producers in the world.”
Brazil almost missed the opportunity to lead the discussions in which it is a key player. These opportunities do not often come to developing countries. And it is not possible to have climate discussions and at the same time have record levels of deforestation or have discussions on food security when millions of people are starving. For a successful foreign policy, the domestic policy must also reflect this leadership. Lula’s presence at the COP was merely an important signal. A privileged international position awaits Brazil without Bolsonaro. But to achieve it, the country must embark on an arduous process of rebuilding its domestic politics and its image in the world.
Giovanna Rosário is a master’s student at IRI-USP and member of the EL22 project of Imakay Research Hub and NUPRI-USP.
Giovanna Rosário (2023) "Lula at COP 27: Prospects for Brazil’s foreign climate policy". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. ISSN 2701-4924nameVol. 4 Num. 1. available at: https://bras-center.com/lula-at-cop-27-prospects-for-brazils-foreign-climate-policy/, accessed on: June 5, 2023.