The disputed making of Brazil’s climate policy

For some years, Brazil experienced a significant drop in deforestation. In international climate talks, the government could boast of reduced emissions of greenhouse gasses. When a coalition of actors attempted to turn the energy sector in an equally climate friendly direction, the obstacles proved much more difficult to overcome.

Image may contain: Event, Job, Meeting, Organism, Collaboration.

The Braziian Senate's commission on climate change. Photo credit: Senado Fedral / flickr

China, India, South Africa and Brazil constitute a formal cooperative group, BASIC, in international climate negotiations. With their increasing share of global emissions of greenhouse gasses, it is important to understand the drivers behind the BASIC countries’ positions at the negotiation table.

“In the study of international climate policy one has to look at what is happening in each country. The BASIC countries are large countries, with many levels of administration, and there are different groups and different views within the governments. Understanding how complex it is at the national level can provide a more realistic picture of what can be achieved in the international processes," says Solveig Aamodt, political scientist and researcher at CICERO Center for International Climate Research, in Oslo.

Solveig Aamodt

In June 2018, Aamodt defended her dissertation for PhD in political science, titled “Understanding the BASICs: Policy actors, coalitions, and cooperation in the BASIC countries’ climate policy processes”. Her focus was mostly on Brazil, but her work was part of, and financed by, a broader project, CICEP, which covers several key countries in the climate negotiations in an attempt to “identify and design realistic international policy options and strategies that can effectively drive the transition towards a low-carbon energy future”. A recently published report from the evaluation of social sciences in Norway described this research as “excellent” and as contributing to secure the Paris Climate Agreement.


Advocacy coalitions

In her work on Brazil’s climate policy, Aamodt investigates the influence of advocacy coalitions, comparing their impact on policy in the forest sector and the energy sector. She finds that a climate advocacy coalition, consisting of environmental activists, researchers, politicians and bureaucrats, were instrumental in achieving a significant reduction in deforestation at the beginning of the century.

After Lula won the presidential election in 2002, there was more focus on climate policy. The government began to realize that Brazil had to do something, especially with deforestation. There was a joint pressure nationally and internationally, says Aamodt.

She points out that the appointment of Marina Silva as Minister of the Environment opened the doors for many climate advocates to get closer to the policy-making processes. "She brought many researchers and representatives from environmental organizations into the Ministry of the Environment. This recruitment was important because the information from the ministries is regarded as especially relevant and credible by the Congress.”

Photo credit: CIFOR/flickr

The changes in the forest policy did not come without resistance, in particular from the powerful agriculture lobby. Much of the deforestation in Brazil has been driven by exports of agricultural products such as soybeans and beef. Aamodt finds that there was a constellation of factors that worked together to make the climate advocacy coalition succeed. “Firstly, they had good research-based knowledge and could present credible causal links between deforestation and climate change. There were many actors involved, and the Ministry of the Environment could present the results to Congress. There was also a fairly strong international pressure against deforestation, and it got a lot of attention, especially around 2005. At the same time, Brazil was experiencing economic growth. As deforestation was reduced while the economy grew, the agriculture lobby lost an important argument. They had claimed that more restrictions on forestry would be detrimental to the economy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in turn, realized that they could take advantage of reduced deforestation in the climate negotiations. And the president was eager to make a good figure internationally.”


Institutionalized thinking

In her dissertation, Aamodt combines the well-established Advocacy Coalition Framework with insights from comparative politics, contributing to the emerging field of comparative environmental politics

For political science, I think it is useful to combine theories from different branches of the discipline. It is mostly people from international politics who have worked with climate policy and environmental policy. Very few in the comparative politics tradition have done research on these topics, she says.

Aamodt tells that most of what she knew from climate policy studies was based on international politics theory from the USA. “You learn that there are state actors, businesses and NGOs, and about groups and interests that oppose each other. In Brazil, I found that there are significant variations within these groups, and mobility between them. You can go from working for the national oil company, and then start working on climate policy in the Ministry of Science and Technology. Doing that, you will bring with you a certain worldview. People who have worked in NGOs can work for the government, and they can work both places simultaneously. And you can be a business leader and at the same time a cabinet minister.”

However, she finds that the climate advocacy coalition was much less consolidated within the governmental apparatus, than what she terms the energy advocacy coalition was. “In the energy sector, the actors moved between a limited number of private and public institutions. Thus, the way of thinking became very institutionalized”, she says, and remarks that there are some very powerful institutions in the energy sector, like the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the oil company Petrobras, and several contracting companies with enormous amounts of money in hydroelectric power and road construction.

«They all think in terms of building the nation and the society at large, with big projects: 'We are going to provide energy to 200 million people, we must have massive facilities, we must think big.' The energy advocacy coalition argues that energy security is crucial, and that free competition is important in order to obtain the cheapest source. In addition, in their reasoning there is no need to pursue other alternatives because Brazil already has a lot of renewable energy through hydroelectric power.”


Research battle

The climate advocacy coalition managed to overcome powerful adversaries and reduce deforestation, but when it came to the energy policy, their arguments did not have the same impact. Not only were they confronted by a consolidated coalition of powerful actors, but also the conditions that favoured a climate friendly turn of the forest policy, were not present in the energy sector.

Photo credit: Börkur Sigurbjörnsson / flickr

“Take research, for instance. While the connection between deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions is very clear, it is more complex for energy. There is a big controversy about hydropower, which per definition is a renewable source, but some researchers in Brazil claim it causes considerable deforestation and large emissions. It is a battle that has been going on between Brazilian scientists for years. And the actors who have worked in the energy sector for a long time have managed to create the impression that this is really very complex. So, NGOs and others who come from the outside with their opinions are met with a 'no, no, you do not understand how complex this is'.”

In addition, Aamodt points out, there is no international pressure, no international focus on the energy sector in Brazil:

China and India face a pressure to reduce the burning of coal because it is their principal source of emissions. Brazil experienced a pressure on deforestation, but there was no pressure to reduce the energy consumption. And there was no funding from international donors for NGOs to work on energy.


Exotic forests

 Finally, the economic growth turned out as an argument against, not in favour, of changes in the energy sector. By 2007, Brazil had acquired technology to make the country self-sufficient in oil. "It was a bit like the arguments goes Norway. 'The oil will create the welfare state, it is important for the economy.' Oil revenues were planned to fund many of the social programs under Lula. Thus, it became very difficult to present alternative solutions. While forests are something most Brazilians, living in cities along the coast, relate to as exotic, energy is something they use every day. The car is important for their freedom. To increase the fuel price, or the price of electricity, is politically very touchy.”

Solveig Aamodt is continuing in her position at CICERO, but the focus now is mainly on Norway. Funding for research on Brazil is hard to obtain.  The CICEP project ends in 2019 and the future of Norwegian research on international climate politics and large greenhouse gas emitting countries is uncertain, but her experience is that there is a need for the knowledge they have produced. “We have provided a lot of input to the Norwegian delegation in international climate negotiations. I have also perceived quite a lot of interest from business actors regarding what is happening in Brazil, India and China," she says, before making an argument for the role of political scientists in a field dominated by natural scientists: “In the major journals for international politics and comparative politics, there is almost nothing to be found on climate or environmental policy. By now we know the problems well, and political science as a discipline should be able to make a greater contribution to solving them.”


By Erik Berge
Published Apr. 5, 2019 12:00 PM - Last modified July 5, 2019 1:50 PM