There will be no other way: after Donald Trump’s defeat in the United States election, either Jair Bolsonaro’s administration is revising its environmental policies or at risk of losing key deals for the country, in addition to making substantial investments in economic recovery the pandemic, according to social environmental scientist Natalie Unterstell.
She holds a degree in Administration from Fundação Getulio Vargas and a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University in the USA. Today she is one of the most important references in Latin America on climate change.
She was the only Brazilian woman to serve as a global ambassador for the Homeward Bound, a program for women’s participation in science and politics, in which she participated in an expedition to Antarctica on a women-only ship.
In an interview with Folha, Natalie says that the election of Joe Biden to the White House should be a “blessing” for international environmental policy, especially for the Brazilian one.
She believes that the new president will use all forms of pressure such as economic and cooperation agreements to force the Brazilian government to deal with issues such as protecting forests, emitting polluting gases and preventing burns.
“Americans’ tolerance of environmentally friendly pens will now change dramatically with the Biden administration.”
Donald Trump’s administration is marked by the deregulation of environmental standards in the United States. What are the main files that you would highlight? There were nearly 200 cannons of deregulation, many of them in the transport sector: it lowered energy efficiency standards in vehicles, tried to prevent states from introducing stricter regulations to control pollution, and halted the development of cleaner modes of transport.
Another emblematic move was the repeal of the Obama-era clean energy plan, which was designed to encourage the transition from coal to renewable sources. There were also many license releases for the exploration of new oils and gases and the construction of the infrastructure for fossil fuels.
This generated a strong response. California and Colorado sued the federal administration, creating uncertainty and instability and having an economic impact. It also did not ratify any measures to include HFCs (fluorocarbons), which deplete the ozone layer.
A milestone in changes in American environmental policy was the announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Although Biden has promised to resume the deal through takeover, there is a gap of more than two months until then. What does this time mean in practice? The American media has said that the Trump administration’s political agents are already working with this scenario and are therefore trying to ensure that deregulations and other measures can survive for a while. So it is possible that we can now see in the light of the lights a time when they are really trying to keep the “cattle going by” as we have heard here in Brazil.
Regarding the Biden government’s environmental policy, what would you rate as major changes in your plan? Him and Kamala Harris [vice-presidente] prepared a very comprehensive and detailed climate protection plan with a number of priorities and promises. One is to resume the Paris Agreement and hold an event of Heads of State or Government for the first hundred days to involve the main emitting countries in the transition to low carbon products. It signals a resumption of American leadership on this issue and also in agreements dealing with gases that affect the ozone layer.
There is also a new domestic agenda, like the $ 2 trillion green investment plan. It is a lot of money. You’re talking about actually having the New Green Deal [pacto ecológico] implemented, which has been discussed for some time. This stimulus is a very powerful signal for the rest of the world. They also promise to meet the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and pollution by 2035. This is a stark contrast to Trump.
Do you also see problems with Biden’s plan? How does it resonate around the world? I don’t see any problems. He offers a very solid proposal and tries to generate a reference for other countries. There are signs regarding China and Brazil as well. He says they want to work with China and that the country must pledge not only to reduce its own emissions but also to ensure that it does not export emissions to other countries.
In Brazil, they want to curb emissions from deforestation. The victory of Biden and Kamala will be a blessing for both international and Brazilian climate policy. I hope they can help us postpone and even reverse the collapse of the Amazon.
Biden promised in the first presidential debate that he would help raise $ 20 billion to fight the devastation of the Amazon, but said there would be retaliation if the Bolsonaro government continued to allow the forest to be destroyed. How should the pressure from the new American president be on Brazil? First, the money he wants to save is not a free resource. Brazil itself proposed a model back there, that of the Amazon fund, in which the investment is paid for for performance. The United States will only pay when we can see deforestation reduction in action.
On the other hand, there is very strong pressure on trade and investment. Biden mentions adopting free trade standards due to climate risks and deforestation. We are already seeing this pattern in the Mercosur trade agreement with the European Union, and Brazil is keen to sign a bilateral trade agreement with the United States.
This is a very important source of pressure. Brazil also wants to become a member of the OECD [Organização para a Cooperação e o Desenvolvimento Econômico] and 70% of the compatibility agenda relates to environmental policy. Trump helped Brazil get considered and it is very likely that Biden will stick with the deal but use this as a source of pressure. There is also foreign investment that is in line with the Paris Agreement.
Are private investors who change American environmental policy also being pressured more to direct their money? I agree. Controlling deforestation, our biggest environmental problem, is a passport to entering into trade deals, joining the OECD and preserving investment.
Bolsonaro criticized Biden’s promise that it was meddling in Brazil, and this is something that resonates with his supporters. Do you see this criticism as real? Brazil needs maximum pragmatism and fewer conspiracies of ideological fiction before the Biden government. The weight of the United States cannot be ignored. On the other hand, any pressure on new environmental standards does not call into question our sovereignty. It’s not about whether Brazil will exercise sovereignty because no country wants to be an accomplice in the collapse of the Amazon rainforest.
Just as Brazil has tools to put pressure on other countries, Biden has tools and will use them to put pressure on us. It will require any commercial or collaborative agreement to receive verifiable and real policy changes on Amazon. The instruments are there, we know what they are.
We were on the cover of The Economist magazine last year about the possibility of a forest collapse. We have already lost 20% of the Amazon, and scientists are sure that the forest will reach a point of no return when we reach 25% deforestation. The whole world knows that. It’s not about Brazil’s sovereignty over the forest, but about whether we continue to have a forest that we can name.
Bolsonaro repeats again and again that Brazil is the country that protects the world’s environment the most. Do you think this speech can change? Biden’s win made Brazil rethink and possibly Bolsonaro adopted a milder tone on that type of speech. Either he goes to the confrontation, which would be terrible for Brazil, or he adapts. I really hope that he not only takes into account in his speech, but also makes practical and important decisions, especially regarding the Amazon.
Could this more pragmatic stance on the environment mean the resignation of Minister Ricardo Salles from the government? A change in the ministry would be a sign of willingness to correct the course in environmental policy.
What other points in Brazil’s environmental policy could affect relations with the United States? The environmental problems apply to all of Brazil. We recently had the decision to liberalize mangrove protection, an attempt to change the application of the Atlantic Forest Act, and the worst rate in the history of the Pantanal fire outbreaks. All of this contributes to Brazil’s bad reputation and international discredit. Americans’ tolerance of environmentally friendly pens will now change dramatically with the Biden administration.
As you mentioned earlier, other major countries have already changed their environmental policies. Are there any risks that Brazil will remain isolated in this area if it continues this style of government? No doubt. Brazil has already taken the pariah position, and with this loss of reference that Trump was for the Bolsonaro administration, Brazil remains alone. The other countries agree on these agreements and also align their obligations. If Biden truly has a climate neutral goal by 2050, he will join such commitments with Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union. Brazil has no such obligation. We are really isolated and for that we have concrete losses.
Natalie Unterstell, 36
She is a socio-environmental scientist and one of the most important references in Latin America on climate change. She holds a degree in Administration from Fundação Getulio Vargas and a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University (USA). She was the only Brazilian woman to act as a global ambassador for the Homeward Bound, a program for the participation of women in science and politics. She was also a candidate for Federal MP for Pode in 2018.