Brazil is not a global environmental power – 05/31/2023 – Rodrigo Tavares

On his various international trips, Lula has highlighted that Brazil is a “great power” in the environmental and climate area. Several other presidents have done the same. Even Bolsonaro extolled Brazilian resources in this area in his Davos speech in 2019. Diplomatic bravado has been recurrent.

But is Brazil really an environmental power?

Since the 1950s, the various theories of international relations have dissected the concept of “global power” from all possible angles. The differences between “superpowers”, “great powers” and “regional powers” or the portrayal of the world as “unipolar”, “bipolar” or “multipolar” have been explored quantitatively and qualitatively until the eyelids are heavy. Although there is a lack of broad consensus on this matter, there is agreement on some points.

The first is that the great powers enjoy congenital elements that guarantee them a certain natural primacy, such as a vast territory or population strength. In the environmental area, Brazil certainly stands out, as the country of the cerrado, the savannah with the greatest arboreal biodiversity in the world, and the Amazon, the largest tropical forest on the planet. It also has the largest freshwater reservoir available. But these are passive elements. If they were enough to grant a country the status of power, Canada or Denmark (with Greenland), with their vast territories, would be in the forefront.

The second element is material and corresponds to a country’s ability and experience to exert its influence on a global scale. They are not inherited traits, but created. International relations theorists such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer or Nuno Monteiro point out that, to be a global power, a country needs military strength, economic capacity, political stability, technological and educational strength or cultural power, among other tangible and intangibles.

They are the ones who give great powers relational advantages that allow them to exert influence and change the behavior of other countries at a global level. If we apply this vision to the environmental area, Brazilian strength is no longer so evident.

It has an energy matrix of 43% clean and renewable energy. It has the largest program in the world for the production of fuel extracted from biomass. It has numerous civil society organizations active in the environmental area and a significant number of specialized technical staff that produce organized reflections on the subject, such as the Strategy Brazil 2045, from the Climate Observatory. Environmental legislation is one of the densest in the world. But it falters in green reindustrialization and transition to a low-carbon economy, a colossal effort that has yet to garner unequivocal political support. Since democratization, political leaders with a true environmental vocation can be counted on the fingers of a few hands. José Antônio Lutzenberger, Rubens Ricupero, José Goldemberg, Izabella Teixeira, Marina Silva. Who else?

Brazil is also far behind in taking advantage of carbon markets and is not a reference in climate technology. There is practically no Brazilian presence among the 350 venture capital funds dedicated to this area. In the country, 47% of the population does not have access to the sewerage network and their wastewater is released without treatment in the street or in rivers. The catastrophes in Mariana and Brumadinho caused environmental damage and damage to the country’s international image. The recycling rate is only 4%, far below countries with the same income level. Brazil ranks only 81st in the Yale University Environmental Performance Index, behind Latin American countries such as Chile, Ecuador or Venezuela, which do not declare themselves ecological champions.

To be a global environmental power, Brazil would also need to have the capacity or interest in solving or mitigating the most serious environmental problems. The exercise of accountability, to be exercised at a global level, is another fundamental criterion for being considered a great power. Certainly, Brazil has organized international events (ECO-92, Rio+20 and COP30, in 2025) and left its fingerprints on international agreements, but it has not consistently exercised its eventual leadership in solving problems climate and environmental.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was only possible because in November 2014 the US and China signed a bilateral agreement. The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was imposed by the US. The European Union, due to its regulatory, commercial and financial robustness, has managed to influence corporate sustainability practices in several countries around the world, including Brazil.

What is Brazil’s influence in global discussions on energy poverty, electronics recycling, atmospheric pollution or plastics production? Brazil has 7,400 km of coastline, but what is its global contribution to the issue of ocean acidification? What is Brazil’s opinion on a possible reform of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to protect climate refugees? And what role has it played in resolving environmental problems at a regional or global level? Why didn’t you help Peru (Callao), Ecuador (MV Jessica) or Venezuela (El Palito) overcome environmental disasters caused by oil spills?

A global power also has to be recognized by its peers as such. Unfortunately, there are no norms or institutional arrangements that confer the status of great power in the environmental area. There is no UN Security Council or G7 applied to climate leadership. The recognition of power is therefore more arbitrary and interpretive. Even so, it is difficult to find material examples in which Brazil has been accepted as a global environmental power. Certainly there is recognition of its congenital elements; the country of the Amazon naturally has a captive place in any global discussion. But what about beyond that?

The environment is the greatest competitive differential that Brazil could have. Just need to enjoy it. If the country were already an environmental power, this would already have been reflected in the increase in income and quality of life for Brazilians.

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