Brazil is the ninth largest oil producer in the world as well as the second largest biofuels and hydropower producer in the world. Moreover, Brazil measures eighth in the world for wind power installed capacity. Some policies specific to Bolsonaro’s government include further investment in fossil fuels and the privatization of many sectors except for energy as he believes it should still be state managed. In response to the environmental impacts of energy production, Bolsonaro has disregarded environmental protections; often choosing profit over protection. Moreover, Bolsonaro plans to lower taxes on fossil fuels intending to prevent higher prices on the consumer; something he is able to do since energy production is state managed. These actions display a disregard for the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. For instance, his administration advocates for faster licensing processes in opening the Amazon for construction of power plants, nuclear plants, and hydroelectric plants.
Bolsonaro: The Smoke in the Lungs of the World
Bolsonaro’s stance on the environment is largely influenced by the desires of the businesses and industries in Brazil. In fact, his campaign in 2018 ran on a promise to prioritize economic and business growth. His treatment of the Amazon, the Cerrado, and other environmental areas of Brazil have suffered as a result. In 2019, Amazonian forest fires caught international attention. The Amazon rainforest; referred to as ‘The Lungs of the World,’ is an extremely important carbon store for the planet as it is integral to countering global warming. While the Amazon does commonly experience wildfires during the dry season, in 2019, the months of July and August witnessed an unprecedented amount of fires, increasing by 84% compared to the previous year. This was a result of Bolsonaro’s administration lowering the cost of fines for environmental damage and issuing them much less than in the previous ten years. Depicted in the graph is the volume of environmental fines issued each year since 2009.
It is observable that, while there is a downward slope in the number of fines issued each year, in 2019, fines were only issued between January and August and at a much lower quantity compared to the previous decade. International pressure to quell the fires and deal with the environmental damage is what ultimately pushed Bolsonaro’s administration to issue as many fines as they did. They also responded to the fires by enlisting the military to help put them out and placing a 60-day ban on burning and clearing forested areas. That said, there has not yet been clarification if there is a policy that Bolsonaro’s administration used to issue the fines or a specifically stated reason as to why they did not issue as many as years past. Nevertheless, those who started the forest fires were not only incentivized by the lack of financial consequences, but they were also encouraged by Bolsonaro and his rhetoric that simultaneously supports businesses and hurts the environment.
Ultimately, the fires are not the main issue but rather a symptom. The Amazon fires were mostly started by farmers and loggers clearing land for crops or grazing. This ongoing deforestation is what makes these fires so dangerous to global environmental health. The forest fire problem was not extinguished when the flames were put out in the Amazon, the issue was simply moved to the Cerrado. The Cerrado Grasslands; the massive savannah separating the Amazon from the coastal highlands, is also experiencing large scale deforestation. In addition, the Cerrado is another enormous carbon store that is vital to the global climate. It produced more CO2 than the entire UK in one year. Similar to the Amazon, the number of fires in the Cerrado has increased by 78% between August and September of 2019. While Bolsonaro has stated he has ‘zero tolerance’ for deforestation and the starting of fires, he has yet to pass any comprehensive legislation addressing the issue. This is most likely due to the business prospects of the beef, agriculture, and mining sectors being enormous in the Amazon and Cerrado; a clear explanation to Bolsonaro’s motivation to open these regions up to businesses for expansion.
Environmental Crises to Political Consequences
European leaders threatened to pull out of trade deals they had made before the Amazon fires began in order to incentivize Bolsonaro to take definitive action. This prompted Bolsonaro to issue his aforementioned response to the fires. That said, the EU was not the only party to comment on his delayed response as Bolsonaro also faced criticism from celebrities and popular activists such as Leonardo Dicaprio and Greta.
Trump and Bolsonaro both stated they would be signing a $100 million biodiversity conservation fund, an action that was unsurprisingly met with scepticism from conservationists. No actual details have been offered regarding this agreement but it highlights both nations’ attempts at going against the status-quo regarding the environment. Furthermore, Brazil is not expected to meet its Paris Agreement goal of cutting CO2 emissions by 37% by 2025. This shortcoming is largely credited to the derailment of conservation efforts by Bolsonaro’s administration. If that was not enough for Bolsonaro, the option remains to follow Trump’s footsteps and pull Brazil out of the Paris Agreement. Fortunately, Bolsonaro has not (yet) followed suit in this regard due to domestic pressure from businesses to prevent further souring relations with European investors.