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Can Lula reverse Brazil’s climate destruction? 

Lula's election as Brazil's president brought hope for the future of climate action in the country. Yet the transition from Bolsonaro's government promises to be anything but smooth.

26 Dec 2022

Over the past few months, the world has celebrated the victory of Lula da Silva over Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections. For many, it is a victory that represents a new wind of hope in the global fight against the climate crisis. This anticipation was clear during Lula’s brief presence at COP27. In Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, the 300-capacity  auditorium was far too small to hold a crowd eager to hear the speech where he promised to put climate change at the centre of his agenda. 

But the journey ahead is long and arduous. “Time hasn’t stopped and the climate emergency scenario has deteriorated. Worldwide, it is now much worse than when Bolsonaro’s government started,” says Wesley Matheus, chief data advisor for the secretary of social development of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. “It is hard to think of a timeframe for restoration because we’re still in the process of understanding how great [the devastation was].”

Bolsonaro’s measures not only debilitated environmental agencies, but also effectively greenlighted the actions of criminal networks – especially in the Amazon forest, as outlined in a Human Rights Watch report. In the first three years of Bolsonaro’s  government, the average deforestation was 75% higher than in the previous decade (2009-2018), while the invasions and illegal exploitation of Indigenous lands tripled.

“Bolsonaro’s destruction will leave a hangover”

As Lula’s cabinet is inaugurated on 1 January 2023, Bolsonaro’s destruction will leave a hangover. This is evident in the bills currently being fast-tracked in Congress. If approved, they are set to hinder Indigenous lands’ demarcation (boundary marking) and allow mining activities inside them. 

“The generalised optimism we are seeing is a reaction to the end of four years under a government that had a deliberate project of destruction,” says Stela Herschmann, climate policy expert at the Brazilian Climate Observatory. She explains that, under Bolsonaro, there was an understanding that environmental commitments like the promise to end deforestation in the Amazon by 2028, would never be fulfilled. They were not compatible with the government’s agenda. 

“Under Lula, there is the expectation that things will be different,” Herschmann says. “Not only based on the experience of his previous terms in government – which saw a historic 83% drop in the deforestation of the Amazon – but because the president elected has clearly signalled that the climate agenda will be the main pillar of his government.”

“We expect that Lula will start sending important political signals in the first hours after taking office”

In the Brazilian political regime, the president, as head of the executive, has a great deal of power and independence to act infralegally, without going through Congress. For Bolsonaro, that meant an opportunity to abuse power. A study conducted by Talanoa, a Brazilian think-tank dedicated to climate policy, monitored the first 40 months of the current government and found at least 855 mandates that contributed to the process of dismantling climate and socio-environmental policies. The study recommends that as many as 401 are immediately revoked. Lula has the power to do this with just the wave of a pen.

“We expect that Lula will start sending important political signals in the first hours after taking office,” says Natalie Unterstell, president and co-founder of Talanoa. “He may revoke some of Bolsonaro’s anti-environment mandates and sign the demarcation of Indigenous lands – documents that are literally waiting inside of a drawer.”

For both Unterstell and Herschmann, the first 100 days of any new government are the most crucial, as they set the tone and establish priorities for the years to come. A report produced by the Climate Observatory, showing how Brazil could become carbon neutral by 2045, lists the environmental priorities for Lula’s first 100 days in office. 

“I would highlight three items from this list,” says Herschmann. “Firstly, the revision of our nationally determined contribution (NDC), which is currently an obstacle in fighting climate change. Secondly, the quick and energetic implementation of a new multidimensional policy to deal with climate, like the one we had between 2003 and 2020. And finally, an issue with strong humanitarian and environmental ramifications, the removal of miners acting illegally in indigenous lands, like the estimated 30,000 in the Yanomami reserve.”

Herschmann explains that while it is clear that 100 days are not enough to solve all the problems from Bolsonaro’s government, starting the processes early in Lula’s presidency may lead to faster results. Most importantly, it will send a message to the criminal groups that have thus far been acting on the certainty of impunity. 

For Unterstell, dealing with these criminal groups will take careful planning, as any mistake can lead to conflict and even death. “Even if we start facing these groups early next year, it will take the whole four years of Lula’s term to stabilise the situation – and maybe even longer to make sure that no new invasions will occur,” she says. Unterstell adds that what is true for dealing with violence in the Amazon is also true for all other climate policies to come: “First, we’ll need an emergency response; then, we’ll need structural change to prevent backslides.” 

But with 247 pro-Bolsonaro parliamentarians elected, reaching the point of structural changes will be improbable to say the least. More than the number of allies, what most concerns Herschmann is that the candidates elected are even more extremist than in the past. “But advancing the environmental agenda is always a challenge. [Climate activists] have never been close to a majority in Congress” she adds.

“With 247 pro-Bolsonaro parliamentarians elected, reaching the point of structural changes will be improbable to say the least”

“The sustainability agenda involves a paradigm change that alters who are the elites in power,” says Wesley Matheus. “It proposes to diminish the power of those same elites who have been exploiting the land under the same logic since colonial times. And this is a challenge that cannot be ignored.” 

With the need for reigniting an economy that has suffered drastically with the Covid-19 pandemic, Wesley doesn’t believe the climate agenda will advance enough over the next four years. “It is not easy to start investing in new green initiatives when the economy is low – so we tend to go back to the old ways.”

And money will definitely be an issue for the next president. Unterstell believes negotiations with Congress about the budget – both for 2023 and for the next four years – will be Lula’s biggest challenge. But she sees hope. One of the decrees she expects to be signed in the first hours of the government is the revival of the Amazon Fund, a multilateral mechanism to help safeguard the rainforest, which has been closed since 2019

“The international community is excited,” she concludes. “At the same time that there is pressure for results, there is also an open door for Brazil to ask for help.”